So here we have it: the best way to start the day in Egypt if you have hard work ahead of you in the garden (or any other kind of physical work): ful medames, ta’ameyya (deep fried patties made with ful beans), olives, salad and some hot, fresh baladi bread (wholemeal flat bread).
Some people say ful medames is Egypt’s national dish – one enjoyed by the Pharaohs. I rather doubt this: beans were certainly among the rations handed out to workmen toiling to build the great monuments of ancient Egypt, but I am not aware of any evidence of beans in royal burials.
Lentils (Lens culinaris), on the other hand, were a cut above beans: a basket of them was placed in King Tutankhamen’s tomb. And I rather think Egypt’s national dish might truly be koshari: another highly nutritious meal made of rice, lentils and pasta shapes, served with a tomato sauce with or without chillis, and crisply fried onion slices.
Nowadays, broad beans (Vicia faba) appear in the Egyptian diet in two main forms. As ful heratti, which are fresh broad beans in their pods, usually eaten raw as a snack. And as the more widely known ful medames.
You will often see workmen and office workers crowding round stalls in the street while on their way to work in the morning, eagerly devouring dishes of the bean puree along with pickles and spring onions. Makes you wonder what the atmosphere in the office must be like a bit later on!
We have grown ful heratti and what a dream of a crop the young beans are when fresh off the plant and just podded. Below are the young plants back in autumn 2014:
Not too much to show in terms of the crop, however, as the plants suffered from the predictable aphid, tendency to fall over sideways, and other ailments. But the beans were out of this world, when we got them!
There’s another reason to cherish this particular plant, and that’s the interesting point that not only is a snack of raw beans incredibly nutritious, it may also protect you from Parkinson’s disease and even raise your mood. So you get off to a flying start if you’ve nibbled on the veg on your way to work, or when starting work in the garden.
Broad beans contain tons of protein, plenty of fibre – and a whole array of chemicals, vitamins and minerals. The chemical present in Vicia faba and implicated in Parkinson’s is Levo-dopa, a precursor of substances in the brain that are associated with smooth body movements. Among the vitamins are a healthy range of Bs; and among the minerals are magnesium and zinc that are both connected with elevated mood.
L-dopa is, more accurately, present particularly in the stalks, leaves and pods, but rather less in the beans themselves. As for the dried pulses used to make ful medames, they don’t contain much at all.
So the traditional Egyptian uses of broad beans are remarkably health-giving. It is noteworthy that, though not unknown in the country, Parkinson’s is not as commonly seen as in western countries.
As for the breakfast, I truly believe it is something of a wonder-fest, far removed from the fat-laden “full English” type; you might say it is worth its weight in gold. Added to this is the way ful medames is prepared, flavoured with cumin, lemon juice and olive oil. If you eat it with salad veg such as tomatoes and cucumbers, then it must surely rank as a complete meal.
And to get round the beans v. lentils issue, you can slow-cook your (previously soaked) beans with red lentils, as some Egyptian do, thus adding variety and boosting your breakfast’s status. Not just a load of old beans, you could say!