Wednesday, November 23, 2011

A Favorite of the Pharaohs

As I write this, I’m preparing to drive 15 hours to Tennessee to a huge family gathering where, on Thanksgiving Day, we’ll mark the occasion by dining on both traditional American and Indian meals. But my mind right now is on my latest manuscript, set in Cairo, and the big spread of comfort foods Egyptians enjoy there every year. 

Not at Thanksgiving, mind you, but on a smaller scale, every evening during Ramadan with the iftar fast-breaking meal just after sunset, and especially on the final evening of Ramadan, with the traditional feast of the Eid ul-Fitr. Muslims the world over celebrate the end of Ramadan with the Eid dinner in celebratory fashion, surrounded by family and friends.


Each country has its own special dish (dishes, really) that you can count on to be served at either the iftar or especially on Eid. In Algeria, it’s harira, a lamb and chick pea stew simmered in tomatos and herbs, or lahm lhalou, a dish of lamb stewed in prunes. In Turkey, it might be kobete, a savory pie filled with chicken and buttery rice. In Iran, it could be aash, a hearty herb, bean, and rice-based soup. In South Asia, it might be rogan josh, a thick, dark Kashmiri stew often made with lamb or mutton; chicken jalfrezi, a colorful saute of onions and bell peppers; and maybe pakoras, an appetizer of deep-fried savory fritters. All over Southeast Asia, ketupat, a type of rice-filled dumplings, are enjoyed. In Saudi Arabia, it’s mofatah al-dajaj, an elaborate braised lamb dish garnished with sauteed sliced onions, almonds, and raisins.


In Egypt, as in most countries, Eid is marked by giving out sweets and taking small holidays, maybe to the beach or to visit family. Egyptians feast, party really, for three days. Families either buy and distribute kadk, a type of Middle Eastern sugar cookie, or make them together as a holiday tradition. 


The Egyptians usually break their fast by eating dates or a drink of qamar-eddeen, an apricot juice filled with bits of nut and fruit. The first dish is usually a lentil soup, and all over the table, you’ll find tiny bowls and plates of small savory treats, such as baba ganoush, pureed roasted eggplant with tahini and garlic, bowls of olives, and so on.


One small dish that is commonly seen on an Egyptian table during iftar, Eid, or even as a common breakfast item is ful medames, a thick, savory dish of slow-cooked fava beans seasoned with lemon, garlic, olive oil, and a few spices. It’s a simple comfort food that even the pharaohs once enjoyed.

Bon appetit, or as the Egyptians would say, bil hana wish shifa'!


Ful Medames (recipe borrowed from

  • 2 cups small Egyptian fava beans (ful medames), soaked overnight (and left unpeeled)
  • Salt
  • 1/3 cup chopped flat-leaf parsley
  • Extra virgin olive oil
  • 3 lemons, quartered
  • Salt and pepper
  • 4–6 cloves garlic, crushed
  • Chili pepper flakes
  • Cumin


As the cooking time varies depending on the quality and age of the beans, it is good to cook them in advance and to reheat them when you are ready to serve. Cook the drained beans in a fresh portion of unsalted water in a large saucepan with the lid on until tender, adding water to keep them covered, and salt when the beans have softened. They take 2-2 1/2 hours of gentle simmering. When the beans are soft, let the liquid reduce. It is usual to take out a ladle or two of the beans and to mash them with some of the cooking liquid, then stir this back into the beans. This is to thicken the sauce.

Serve the beans in soup bowls sprinkled with chopped parsley and accompanied by lavash or pita bread.
Pass round the dressing ingredients for everyone to help themselves: a bottle of extra-virgin olive oil, the quartered lemons, salt and pepper, a little saucer with the crushed garlic, one with chili-pepper flakes, and one with ground cumin.

The beans are eaten gently crushed with the fork, so that they absorb the dressing.

• A traditional way of thickening the sauce is to throw a handful of red lentils (1/4 cup) into the water at the start of the cooking.
• In Iraq, large brown beans are used instead of the small Egyptian ones, in a dish called badkila, which is also sold for breakfast in the street.

Optional Garnishes
• Peel hard-boiled eggs—1 per person—to cut up in the bowl with the beans.
• Top the beans with a chopped cucumber-and-tomato salad and thinly sliced mild onions or scallions. Otherwise, pass round a good bunch of scallions and quartered tomatoes and cucumbers cut into sticks.
• Serve with tahina cream sauce or salad, with pickles and sliced onions soaked in vinegar for 30 minutes.
• Another way of serving ful medames is smothered in a garlicky tomato sauce.
• In Syria and Lebanon, they eat ful medames with yogurt or feta cheese, olives, and small cucumbers. 

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