No single dish says breakfast in the Middle East like ful medammes (also spelled mudammas or midammis), both in Egypt, its country of origin, and Lebanon and Syria, where it has been adopted, albeit with variations.
In Egypt, ful medammes is sold from brightly colored wood carts on street corners, tiny hole-in-the-wall spots, and in scraggly cafes with rickety tables and chairs. You can also find it in five-star hotels, but eating it in luxurious surroundings is not as fun. Those who want to eat it at home, more often than not, will go to their local fawwal (a ful medammes specialist) with their own saucepan or clay pot and buy it ready-made. Ful vendors also keep sturdy plastic bags to put the ful in for customers who don’t bring their own containers.
Whenever I’m in Cairo I skip the beautiful carts on account of their questionable hygiene and head to Al-Gahsh, a shabby cafe in Sayida Zaynab in old Cairo that’s famous for having the best ful in town. Not that Al-Gahsh is a model of cleanliness, but I try not to look too closely as their ful is exceptionally creamy and flavorful and totally worth the slight risk—as long as you steer clear of the salad they serve it with, which they keep cool by simply placing a block of ice on it.
If you order ful from a cart, you can ask for it to be stuffed inside Egyptian pita (thicker and smaller than the Lebanese pita) with a garnish of your choice: mint, onions, tomatoes, pickles, cumin, lime juice, olive oil, and/or tahini sauce. Or you can get it in a metal bowl and eat it at the cart’s counter, if it has one. In cafés on the other hand, you just sit down and ask for ful. The waiter will automatically bring it with most of the garnishes mentioned above, together with ta’miyah (falafel), a kind of set breakfast menu, and bread, of course.
The Lebanese version is different. The beans they use are the same small type as the ones in Egyptian ful, but they are not cooked to a mush. Some are smashed to make the sauce richer but most are left whole. The beans are topped with boiled chickpeas and seasoned simply with lemon juice, garlic, and olive oil. The garnish is just diced tomatoes and parsley with onion, mint, olives, and pickles served on the side with bread, of course.
While I love Egyptian and Lebanese ful, my favorite version is made by a lovely man named Hajj Abdo, whose restaurant in Aleppo, Syria, is sadly gone now following the destruction of his part of the city. He used large fava beans that stayed whole despite the long cooking time, and he served them with a little bit of their cooking liquid, lemon juice or tahini sauce (called tarator in Syria and Lebanon), olive oil, pepper paste, a side of onions and tomatoes, and bread, of course.
Abdo’s place, like many others, was mostly frequented by men, either travelers or traders from the nearby market who wanted breakfast before opening up shop. It wasn’t ideal for a single woman, but Abdo always made sure to give me a table away from the men, and he always gave me extra servings of everything. He also instructed his waiter to give me silverware, as I wasn’t so adept at using the bread as a scooper.
Ful Medammes (Hajj Abdo’s Tahini Version)
For the ful:
For the tarator:
Drain and rinse the soaked beans under cold water. Put in a large saucepan and add about 1 quart water. Place over medium heat. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to low and simmer for 2 ½ to 3 hours, until the beans are very tender and the cooking liquid has thickened.
Add salt to taste, but don’t add the salt until the very end, otherwise the skins will harden.
Make the tarator by mixing the tahini with the crushed garlic and lemon juice, then gradually add the water until the mixture is a little thinner than heavy cream.
To serve the ful: Pour a little tarator in a serving bowl. Add a serving of hot beans together with a little of their cooking liquid. Spoon a little diluted pepper paste all over the top, then drizzle with olive oil. Serve immediately with pita bread.
Recipe © Anissa Helou