How Ful Medames Made Me Forget All About Hummus

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[Photographs: Max Falkowitz]

The zeitgeisty chokehold hummus has on the American public has always bugged me. Not because hummus isn't good. But because it's unfairly eclipsed so much other good stuff from the Middle East.

Take the North African and Levantine classic of stewed fava beans, ful medames. You've heard of it, right? Or perhaps you haven't? Yeah, because companies like Sabra and their millions of marketing dollars have led you to believe that hummus and you are an OTP, damn the rest of the Middle East's mindboggling culinary diversity.

So let's talk about ful (pronounced "fool") for a minute, because you might find you like it even more than hummus. Where the chickpea is a wan wallflower, the fava—and I'm talking the brown, dried or canned variety here—is proudly, robustly funky.* Hummus is one texture: creamy. Ful, with its mashed-up beans and rich broth, is more fun and varied, and it takes ingredients like cumin, garlic, and tahini to bolder places than hummus ever could.

* I don't mean "funky" like "fermented," but, well, to me brown favas taste like farts...if farts tasted good.

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You'll find ful all over, from Ethiopia, where it's served with hot green peppers, to Yemen, where it's a soupy, almost-puréed concoction with tomatoes. Syrians in Aleppo love their ful, which they often top liberally with their famous sanguine chilies.

But my favorite ful comes from Egypt, where it's power breakfast on the streets of Cairo. There, ful vendors stew dried favas day and night until the beans are fall-apart soft, then they add tahini, crushed garlic, cumin seeds, and lemon. Creamy, a little spicy, and more than a little pungent, all the ful needs is some fresh pita for swabbing.

This was what my Egyptian friend Alex ate almost daily when living in Cairo, and every once in a while he'd grace my kitchen table with a batch of his own. It's from Alex that I learned the importance of mashing your garlic in a mortar and pestle and how to balance its pungency with just the right amount of cumin and lemon. Just as with pesto or guacamole, smashing helps to make the most of its raw, brash flavor.

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Alex also taught me that the world won't end if you use canned favas instead of dried. Actually, the ful might be better for it.

I'm normally a dried beans-only kind of guy, but I make an exception for favas. For one, cooking dried favas is a royal pain. They're harder to find than the canned version and take a long, long time to cook (like chickpea long). Also, while most canned bean liquid tastes pretty insipid, the broth in canned favas is a great addition to ful—it carries plenty of the beans' innate funky flavor, and when boiled down a little with tahini, it makes for the perfect ful consistency.

Canned favas also cut your cook time from hours to minutes. That's important. This is breakfast, after all.

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So here is a recipe for that Cairo-style ful in all its creamy, comforting glory. All it needs is some pita, but if you're in leisurely brunch mode, take the time to make some tomato-cucumber salad (or radish-cucumber in tomato-unfriendly weather like now), get out some cheese, and fry up some falafel. That's a full Egyptian breakfast to be proud of.

But there's another ful I want to share before we go back to pretending that hummus is the only bean mush in the Middle East. It's the recklessly indulgent kind that Alex's father, Tarek, makes when there's no one around to tell him no. Alex's ful is relatively restrained; Tarek's is too much in the best possible way.

Tarek doesn't use much of the canned bean liquid to make his ful; he prefers to drown his beans in olive oil, then add, in his son's words, "too much garlic, too much lemon, and too much cumin." That over-abundance of olive oil—use a decent one you don't mind using too much of, like the peppery stuff in bulk glass jugs from Lebanon—makes for a ridiculously intense-tasting ful, bolstering the favas' natural grassiness and adding incredible richness to the broth.

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Or you could always drown your beans in olive oil.

As long as we're gilding the lily, I like this kind of ful pretty spicy, so in addition to extra cumin I throw in a small handful of chili flakes. (Harissa or shatta would work nicely here, too.) Just don't skimp on the lemon to cut through all the fat and heat.

Of course this is just the beginning. You can always add hardboiled eggs to your ful, or chopped tomatoes.

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Recklessly indulgent ful.

You could even, horror of horrors, serve it over hummus.