In Cairo, breakfast is likely to be a plate of beans mixed with a wonderful array of spices and flavors, and eaten with a piece of pita.
The dish is called foul mudammas, and it is something of a national obsession. Vendors have been selling it on the streets of Egypt for hundreds of years, maybe thousands.
It is so popular that, even though it is universally considered a breakfast item, it is eaten all day long. Just about every country in the northern Africa and the Middle East has its own way of serving foul mudammas (in Syria, for instance, it is topped with Aleppo peppers). But it was in Egypt that the dish was probably invented, and Egypt is where it remains most popular.
Naturally, I decided to start by soaking dried fava beans overnight, and then beginning the long and somewhat painful process of peeling the tough outer skins. Just for the sake of scientific comparison, I made another batch using a can of fava beans.
Ordinarily, I am of the firm opinion that cooking the natural, unprocessed way is always best. And the foul mudammas I made with the dried beans was excellent.
But I have to tell you, the ratio of effort to flavor makes the dried beans the less attractive way to go. This was especially true because the bag of dried large beans I bought was actually a mixture of both large and small beans, which means they took different amounts of time to cook. Some ended up overcooked while others were undercooked.
I had to throw out the undercooked beans.
The canned beans, on the other hand, were fast and easy to deal with — though you still have to cook them for about 10 minutes to get them just the right texture. And I still had to peel the beans, but it was much easier (and kinder to my fingertips) than peeling the dried beans after they had soaked for hours.
And the taste? When mixed with garlic, olive oil, cumin, red onion, lemon juice and more, they were sublime. To be perfectly honest, the canned beans tasted better than the dried ones.
But wait, as they used to say on cheesy commercials, there’s more!
Foul mudammas is traditionally eaten with pieces of pita used to scoop up the beans and convey them to your mouth. Pita is obviously available at the store.
Or you can make your own. And here is where the flavor-to-effort ratio kicks into high gear. Because store-bought pita is fine. It’s all right. But it doesn’t have half the flavor of homemade.
Pita seems like it would be tricky to make, but it isn’t. It is actually one of the easiest breads, even with that mystical pocket in the middle. The pocket is formed by steam created when the dough heats, but I don’t really understand how it works beyond that.
What I do know is that the secret to making the pocket is to roll the dough out thin, about 3/16 of an inch. That’s the width of a yardstick they used to hand out at hardware stores, back when there were hardware stores.
Pita isn’t just easy to make, it is also fast. It only requires 20 minutes to rise, and 6 minutes to knead. For that matter, it takes less than 8 minutes to bake.
And yet, the flavor is more lively than the store-bought discs. It’s more complex, too, and deeper.
Tear off a hunk of warm, fresh-made pita, wrap it around some foul mudammas, and you’ll feel like you’re at a food stall on the crowded streets of Cairo.
And do you know what? The guy who made it there probably didn’t soak the dried fava beans, either.
Makes: 4 servings
1 (14-ounce) can fava beans
2 tablespoons olive oil, divided
2 tablespoons chopped red onion
1 garlic clove, crushed
1/4 teaspoon cumin
1 tablespoon tahini
3/4 cup water
1/2 lemon, juiced
Salt and pepper
1 small tomato, diced
2 tablespoons flat-leaf parsley, roughly chopped
Pita, for serving
Drain and rinse beans. Remove skins by gently pinching the beans; the skins will slide right off. Discard skins.
Put 1 tablespoon of the oil in large skillet over medium-high heat. When it begins to shimmer, add onion. Sauté until softened, about 3 minutes. Add garlic and cook 30 seconds. Stir in beans, cumin, tahini, the remaining 1 tablespoon of oil and water. Cover and simmer until beans are heated through, about 7 minutes. If pan starts to get dry, add a little more water.
Add lemon juice and cook uncovered 1 minute. Taste and season liberally with salt and pepper. Remove crushed garlic clove, if possible. Serve topped with diced tomato and chopped parsley, with pita to scoop it all up.
Nutrition information per serving (not including pita): 162 calories; 9 g fat; 1 g saturated fat; no cholesterol; 7 g protein; 15 g carbohydrate; 1 g sugar; 4 g fiber; 1,037 mg sodium; 42 mg calcium
— Recipe by Daniel Neman
Makes: 8 servings
2 1/2 cups bread flour, approximately
2 teaspoons salt
1 tablespoon granulated sugar
2 1/4 teaspoons (1 package) active dry yeast (not fast-rising)
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 cup hot water, 120 to 130 degrees
Measure 1 cup of the flour into the bowl of a stand mixer or other large mixing bowl. Stir in the salt, sugar and yeast. Add the oil and hot water, and blend with a paddle attachment at low speed for 30 seconds before increasing to high for 3 minutes, or beat vigorously with a wooden spoon for 3 1/2 minutes. Stir in the rest of the flour, 1/2 cup at a time. The dough should be a shaggy mass that will clear the sides of the bowl. If the dough is moist, add a small amount of additional flour.
Turn the dough onto a lightly floured work surface and knead for 6 minutes, or use a dough hook in the mixer for 6 minutes. The dough should be soft and slightly sticky; if it is too sticky, add a little more flour as you knead.
Preheat oven to 500 degrees. Divide the dough into 8 pieces. Roll into balls, cover with a towel or waxed paper, and let rest for 20 minutes.
With the palm of your hand, flatten each ball into a disk. Finish with a rolling pin, flattening the dough into a disk about 6 inches in diameter and 3/16 inches thick. Their thinness is more important than making them perfectly round; irregularity adds charm. Place each piece on a 7-inch square piece of aluminum foil; this will help them puff.
Place 2 or 3 of the breads with the foil directly on the oven rack. Bake for 7 to 8 minutes, or until they are puffed. Repeat with the remaining disks.
Remove the breads from the oven and wrap in a large piece of foil. The tops will fall and there will be a pocket in the center. Serve warm, or let cool and freeze. Thaw before using. To reheat, stack several in a pile, wrap with foil and place in a 375-degree oven for 10 to 15 minutes.
Nutrition information per serving: 194 calories; 4 g fat; 1 g saturated fat; no cholesterol; 6 g protein; 33 g carbohydrate; 2 g sugar; 1 g fiber; 584 mg sodium; 8 mg calcium
— Adapted from “Bernard Clayton’s New Complete Book of Breads,” by Bernard Clayton