It’s now the 15th day of unrest in Egypt. The world watches as democracy unfolds. It is hardly the time to think about food but, for me, it brings to mind one of my favorite writers — the Egyptian, Nobel-prize winning author, Naguib Mahfouz. I have read most of his books (those translated into English) and several, more than once. I vow to read them again. Jackie Onassis had been his American editor — which adds a certain level of grace to the experience. What would Mr. Mahfouz have observed these last two weeks? Would he be one of the poets in the square? The go-to man in the corner cafe? The voice of reason? Or are his words a reason that the “collective voice” is being heard? His life chronicled life in Egypt as it once was, and may never be again. Years ago, in one of my cookbooks, I dedicated an entire menu to “Breakfast in Cairo.” It went like this:
“” In the early morning hours, the streets of the cities in the Nile Valley are filled with people lined up in front of vendors selling tempting ful mudammas from earthenware pots.” — From the Land of figs and Olives, 1995 (Habeeb Salloum and James Peters)
From the President to the man in the smoky cafe, everyone in Egypt eats ful in the morning. These little brown favas, hot and steamy, have fed this nation since antiquity. Once upon a time, I had a remarkably genteel Egyptian roommate (from Monofia, where Anwar Sadat was born) and many Egyptian friends. We ate ful every morning. Sometimes we soaked and cooked these nourishing legumes overnight, or we would use them from cans purchased from a local Middle Eastern shop. We made our own labaneh (thickened yogurt) suspended in olive oil, then mixed with crispy cucumbers. Salty feta and sweet carrot jam (a recipe from my roommate’s mother), lusty ful with lemon, and olives and charred pita held briefly over an open flame were a frequent morning meal. Sometimes we would sip hot mint tea, strongly perfumed and sweet. Other times we would drink thick black coffee scented with cardamom. Often we would discuss the lyrical works of Mahfouz, the great Egyptian writer who found parables and metaphors in chronicles of everyday life and, in 1988, won the Nobel Prize for Literature. He, too, ate ful every morning.
–adapted from Recipes 1-2-3 Menu Cookbook, winner of the 1999 James Beard Award
Ful Mudammas with Lemon
Cans of ful mudammas can be found in Middle Eastern food stores. Ful can be cooked with onion or garlic and garnished with cilantro or served with hard-boiled eggs.
2 20-ounce cans ful mudammas
3 tablespoons olive oil, plus more for drizzling
3 tablespoons freshly-squeezed lemon juice
2 small lemons
Drain beans in a colander. Wash thoroughly. Place in a medium saucepan with cool water to just cover. Add 1/2 teaspoon salt. Bring to a boil the immediately lower heat. Simmer 20 minutes. Drain beans, saving several tablespoons cooking liquid. Place beans in a warm bowl and mash one-quarter of them lightly. Add reserved cooking liquid, olive oil, lemon, salt and pepper to taste. Serve hot with a cruet of olive oil and lemons, cut in half. Serves 4