Nothing about the Egyptian fava bean dip advocates its case to the naïve diner. It is brown, sloppy and spelled the same way as the most unappetizing English adjective one could associate with food: Foul.
A guest to whom I once introduced foul blamed it on the French. No one else would write ‘foul’ and pronounce it as ‘fool.’ Not to say that ‘fool’ is any better. Some writers sidestep both unpalatable words and attempt the more neutral ‘ful,’ which cannot be correct if you pronounce it as one might either in ‘fulcrum’ or in ‘Fulbright.’
But whether it’s foul, fool or ful, I have had an uncontrollable craving for this classic peasant dish of Egypt since the close of 2017. I can pinpoint the exact moment when it started: On December 12, at the Egyptian restaurant Al Ammor on Rigga, over a bowl of mushy, garlicky fava beans swirled with tahini, chopped tomatoes and raw crunchy onions. It was a classic rendition of Foul Iskenderani, or Alexandrian Foul, meant to be scooped up with a stack of pita pillows - warm, comforting and dismally brown.
‘Foul is going to be quite the photographer’s dream,’ I typed out with a sarcastic smirk in an email to the editor, ‘brown all through and through. I’d love to see whether the photographer can work his/her magic to capture it as is, without styling the shot with all the pickles and greens on the side.’
That was my challenge not just to the team, but to all of us as consumers. In a world where food photographs have become so stylized and sensationalized, every crumb, sprig of micro green and twine thread deliberately dropped into the frame as organized chaos, are we still capable of appreciating food in its real unembellished state?
I hope so, because some of the world’s best comfort foods are often dull shades of brown that would never trend on an Instagram timeline.
Social media aside, it is reassuring to see the fat-bellied, lopsided pot of foul squatting on hotel breakfast counters in the country, its slender neck extending out as an invitation to ladle out the slushy contents within. Small seasoning bowls of cumin, pepper, onions and tomatoes are often placed by its hip, the optional garnishes along with a wide smile of olive oil. A small label proudly announces the name of the dish: Foul medammes.
Most tourists have no idea what to make of this.
If only someone were there to explain that ‘foul’ in Arabic simply translates to fava beans. That ‘medammes’ sounds akin to ‘demassa,’ the pot in which the beans would be abandoned overnight to cook over ashes or dying coals at the nearest public bathhouse. That the popular theory is that medammes actually refers to ‘dimms’, the Arabic word in Egyptian dialect for the smoldering ashes heating the pot.
That everyone in Egypt would agree that foul medammes is one of the most nutritious and high-protein dishes and has served as the poor man’s breakfast through centuries in Egypt. That its muted earthiness can be elevated with garlic, cumin, tahini, olive oil or melted ghee, possibly a squeeze of lemon, and on my table, a heavy-handed amount of salt. That what might be just a brown sludge to the unknowing is often the nostalgic connection that many Egyptian emigrants forge between their tables and home.
But with no more context than a label, half of which reads ‘foul,’ tourists often retreat from the unfamiliar brown gruel and settle for the more familiar omelette and cheese counter instead.
The best places to appreciate foul are not in hotels anyway, but small, quick-service, fuss-free restaurants dishing out Dh10 plates of foul that can be your entire lunch, possibly with leftovers for breakfast the next morning. Earlier this month, I spent hours combing through the souks of Sharjah in the hunt for an antique, usable samovar.
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Defeated, hungry and with everything but a samovar in my shopping bags, I sought refuge at Muna cafeteria facing Majaz Park. I pulled up a stool on the communal counter facing the window, staring out towards the park and Khalid Lake, the sounds of boiled fava beans and chickpeas being pounded for ‘qudsieh’ in the kitchen. The blended bean, garlic and tahini slurry that emerged was just what I needed to restore calm, with a bitingly hot and bitter chilli paste stirred in and heaps of sharp pickles and herbs on the side.
A lick of crushed chilli paste known as ‘shatta’ works wonders on an otherwise bland bowl of foul. My neighborhood bakery, Al Khaleej Al Latheethah on Murraggabat, seals a half-moon fatayer over a paste of rich cheesy labneh, earthy foul and hot shatta. Most Middle Easterners would reject the authenticity of this atypical combination, but when you taste the piping hot gooey filling, you’d appreciate why some rules are best broken.