Nile by Mouth: Nassef’s version of Egypt’s national dish
Nile by Mouth: Nassef’s version of Egypt’s national dish Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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Fatma Nassef has spread out a small feast for me and her family on a large round table in the middle of the dining room at Cairo Café and Restaurant in Alexandria. But as our meal progresses, our dining party inexplicably expands. A strange man sits down to my right; another pulls up a chair on the opposite side of the table. The men—both uninvited, but obviously regulars—start tearing off pieces of pita bread and dipping them into hummus or stuffing them with meats and cheeses, or, most often, just scooping them into the featured attraction of our meal, individual bowls of Nassef’s freshly made ful medames.It’s as if the fava-bean stew has lured these guys off the streets.

Ful medames—or just ful (pronounced “fool”)—is a kind of meatless chili, one that Egyptians eat virtually every day. They eat it for breakfast, they eat it for lunch, they even eat it at 1 a.m. It’s Egypt’s original energy bar. Restaurants back in Cairo or Alexandria do nothing but sell ful and falafel. If you visit a friend’s house, you can expect to eat beans and more beans. If a family invites you “for breakfast or something,” says Nassef’s daughter, Eman Lotfy Metwally, dragging out each word for emphasis, “the ful…must…be…there.”

When or how ful became so central to Egyptian life is a matter of dispute. Claudia Roden, in The New Book of Middle Eastern Food, writes, “Ful medames is pre-Ottoman and pre-Islamic. It is probably as old as the Pharaohs. According to an Arab saying: ‘Beans have satisfied even the Pharaohs.’ Egyptians gleefully tell you that the little brown beans have been found in pharaonic tombs and have been made to germinate.” But in her book Nectar and Ambrosia, Tamra Andrews counters that, “[L]ong before Pythagoras, other peoples also had banned beans, and such food taboos were largely based on magico-religious beliefs. Bean taboos were common in Egypt, particularly among the priests.”

Exhaustive research, or at least advanced Googling, appears to favor the latter account. Like Andrews, Colin Spencer in Vegetarianism: A History points an accusing finger at Greek philosopher and mathematician Pythagoras, who may have been the first celebrity to demonize a foodstuff, the Ionian Robert Atkins. Pythagoras feared favas so much that, according to legend, he allowed his pursuing enemies to kill him rather than chase him through a bean field. Spencer recounts the literature on Pythagoras’ lethal phobia:

“There are a number of possible explanations for the Pythagorean abstention from bean-eating. It might be partly traced back to the Egyptian priests.…The authors of Food: The Gift of Osiris remark that the priests merely wished to avoid the impurity of their emanations. A priest’s dignity could suffer if he were to fart in the midst of a holy ritual.”

Somehow, though, a fear of cutting the cheese doesn’t quite cut the mustard for me. The most likely explanation for old Egypt’s ban on the broad bean is something far more practical: favism. To this day, for a small group of people—typically boys with a particular enzyme deficiency—the inability to digest favas can actually lead to hemolytic anemia and death. Pythagoras, in other words, was sort of a one-man FDA, one that actually erred on the side of caution.

Neither Nassef nor her daughter had ever heard any of this history. To them, eating beans is practically a religious imperative. They tell me about a passage in the Koran in which Moses, frankly a little chagrined, asks the Lord for new comestibles since his followers have grown weary of heavenly manna. They apparently want such “earthly crops as beans, cucumbers, garlic, lentils, and onions.” The Lord, for once, doesn’t smite everyone for their insolence. He instead tells them to “Go down to Egypt, where you can find what you asked for.”

But Nassef’s husband, Lotfy Metwally, a far more political man, cautions us not to read too much into that Koranic tale. The Lord’s directive, after all, was issued to Moses and his flock, not to Muslims. He believes that Egyptians, a people not known for their meat-eating, started gobbling down favas out of necessity. The beans are rich in protein, zinc, and folic acid, and they don’t require great wealth to buy them. “The majority of Egyptians can afford this dish,” he says, “but they can’t afford other dishes.”

Then again, maybe ful’s roots are not Muslim at all, or even Jewish. The Coptic Christians settled in Egypt long before the Muslims and had to figure out a way to feed themselves during all their vegan fasting periods. Maybe they’re the ones who finally drove the nails through that old Egyptian superstition. The etymology of the dish’s name, unfortunately, doesn’t shed much light; depending on who you believe, the name ful medames has its roots in Arabic, Coptic, or Hebrew languages.

However ful ascended to its lofty perch in Egypt, the dish hasn’t been content to stay there. It has spread throughout the Middle East and parts of Africa. The recipes vary from country to country—and even within a country’s own borders. Egypt, Nassef notes, has at least 15 different versions of ful, all of which require cooking the beans in a pear-shaped earthenware pot for up to 15 hours.

At her restaurant, Nassef doesn’t have that kind of time to fuss over her ful. She uses canned fava beans imported from United Arab Emirates. She says they don’t taste like the ones back home—they’re a little too mineral-y—but they’re close enough. I certainly have no problem with the canned favas as I wolf down one pita-scoop of ful after another, each one fragrant with garlic and a rich sauce thickened with tomato paste. Nassef considers this recipe sort of the Ferrari of ful.

But as much as I like Nassef’s version, I have to admit that I prefer the one at El Khartoum on Florida Avenue NW. The Adams Morgan joint does Sudanese ful, and it’s a sloppy, delicious collision of ingredients—fava beans, onions, tomatoes, cumin, butter, tahini, curly parsley, feta, sliced hard-boiled egg, lemon juice, and even crushed up falafel balls for texture. I ask chef Ahmed Bushara how ful medames came to Sudan, but as I’m devouring his dish, I don’t really give a damn about the answer. I just want to be like the folks in Egypt, who enjoy ful, no questions asked.

Cairo Café & Restaurant, 6244 Little River Turnpike, Alexandria, (703) 750-3551

El Khartoum, 1782 Florida Ave. NW, (202) 986-5031

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