Falling in love is a little like a political uprising. It means allowing change to enter your life, seeing possibility where none existed before. In both cases, it's about hope. As Valentine's Day, the celebration of love approaches, so does the anniversary of a pivotal moment for Egypt, when a peaceful revolution strove to end a 30-year regime. It's a different Valentine's Day, calling for a different means of edible arousal. Today calls for ful.
Ful, or fava beans, is the national dish of Egypt. Granted, when it comes to food that lubes the libido, a bowl of beans lacks the Valentine's Day panache chocolate has. And someone should come up with a better name than ful, which sounds offputting and is sometimes spelled, lamentably, f-o-u-l.
Spell it any way you like, but ful is not upmarket. It's "everyman's breakfast, the shopkeeper's lunch and the poor man's dinner," as the Arabic saying goes. And it's worth noting Egypt's national dish is not lamb, but a legume. Ful truly is eaten at every time of the day, and at a time when Egypt is experiencing food shortages, skyrocketing food prices and many people's salaries are on hold, it can feed the masses and fuel an uprising. A bowl of ful offers a lot of protein and fiber for just a few piastres.
Sometimes ful is stewed and mashed and pretty much left alone, enjoyed as a dip or salad. Sometimes it's cooked with tomatoes, lemon, garlic, a few quick-cooking red lentils for color and thickening, and cumin, the wonderful warming spices of Egypt,in which case it's more of a stew. The end result, called ful mudammas, is not chili. It is less spicy, more soulful and entirely elemental.
You can top it with any number of garnishes, from tahini to fried eggs, or just with a drizzle of olive oil and sprinkle of salt, but it is not to tarted up. You'd be missing the point. This is the people's food. Another Arabic saying -- "Beans have satisfied even pharoahs."
If there is anything unsatisfying about favas, it is this -- the beans have a tough outer carapace that needs to be peeled before eating. To make matters worse, some people have an extreme allergic reaction to fava skins, called favism.
Available in Middle Eastern markets and many natural food stores, dried favas come in small, medium and large, but the Egyptians wisely use only the small tender ones for making ful. The bigger the bean, the tougher the skin and the greater the peeling effort. Small favas, which the Egyptians call ful hammam, or bath beans, are not only quicker to cook, they're easier to peel.
Whatever size favas you use, the best bet is to parboil the beans, peel them, then finish cooking until beans are tender. I am sorry to tell this can take as long as 12 hours. The final cooking, however, takes only minutes.
Ful is also sold in cans, if you want to spare yourself some time and labor. That said, peeling a pound of favas with your beloved is a worthy endeavor. While your hands are busy, your lips are free. You can kiss, converse, enjoy each other the way we so seldom seem to have time for.
Think, too, about the very act of peeling. In terms of a fava bean, peeling is about reaching the point of tenderness. Peeling the clothes off your valentine is all that, and wonderfully erotic, besides. In terms of a nation on the cusp of change, peeling means a casting off of an old regime. In all cases, it is a revelation of self.
I've yet to see the box of chocolates that can do all that. Happy Valentine's Day.
Serve with toasted pita and enjoy any time of the day or night.
3 cups small fava beans, cooked until tender and drained (cooked from 1/2 pound dry beans or use 2 15-ounce cans ful, rinsed and drained)
4 cloves garlic, chopped
1/2 cup dried red lentils
1-1/2 cups vegetable broth, water or reserved liquid from cooked favas
2 teaspoon cumin
2 tomatoes, chopped (or 1 15-ounce can chopped tomatoes, drained)
juice of 1 lemon
1/2 cup chopped parsley
olive oil and sea salt for finishing
plus optional garnishes, including:
fried or hard-boiled eggs
additional chopped parsley and tomatoes
Pour cooked ful into a medium saucepan and heat over medium-high heat. Add chopped garlic, red lentils, broth or reserved liquid, cumin and chopped tomatoes.
Reduce heat to medium and stir occasionally, until everything starts to come together and the red lentils become tender, about 12 minutes.
Stir and smoosh until you get the consistency you like. Some people like it totally creamy, others more on the beany side. Squeeze in lemon juice and stir in parsley.
Add a drizzle of olive oil, but to eat like an Egyptian, allow each person to salt his own ful.
Recipe doubles easily. Serve warm or at room temperature.
Covered and refrigerated, it keeps up to a week and reheats nicely.
A version of this post was originally published on February 14, 2011, the day of Egypt's first free elections.