When I was a child aged 11 or so and was gradually getting used to fasting during Ramadan, I remember that my father used to wake me up before dawn, after having religiously, so to speak, prepared what he, a nutrition-conscious physician, considered to be the perfect Sohour meal for Ramadan.
The word Sohour in Arabic is derived from the noun sahar, or the period preceding dawn during the third part of the night. Tradition ordains that the ideal time to have the pre-dawn meal of Sohour in Ramadan is during this last third of the night, preferable close to dawn.
As a result, we would wake up around three-quarters of an hour before dawn. On the table would be a plate of fuul (stewed fava beans) drizzled with olive oil and sprinkled with a pinch of cumin, accompanied, for each person, with two boiled eggs and greens, mainly cucumbers and arugula, as well as a container of yoghurt.
It seemed to me at the time to be a rather hefty repast to be eating so early in the day, or rather, so late in the night, and for which one had to wake up from a deep sleep to eat before resuming sleeping until the normal time for waking up.
But I used to eat it anyway, so much did I love my father and believe in his utter wisdom.
My interest in nutrition grew over the years, and along with it came the realisation that this traditional Egyptian Sohour centred around a plate of fuul and its accompaniments and for which we used to wake up before dawn combines the best choice of nutritional elements that can help a person go for some 12 hours or may be more without food or drink.
Grown in Egypt since Pharaonic times, fava beans or fuul have always featured in the diet of Egyptians and today Egypt remains the world’s largest consumer of fuul, at one point importing some 50 per cent of local demand.
When prepared at home the fava beans are soaked in water overnight and then stewed over the most minimal of fires on the stove in a special metal urn called a qidra. The stewing period can continue for up to six hours and more, in fact the more the better.
Yellow lentils are added during the stewing process to give a blended consistency to the fuul and bring out its rich and earthy flavour. A tomato may also be added and perhaps a garlic clove or two.
Fuul is rich in plant protein and provides an important array of minerals such as iron, manganese, copper, phosphorus, potassium and magnesium. When eaten at Sohour during Ramadan, it can effectively stave off hunger during the day, since its rich fibre content makes it an optimal low-glycemic food for people who fast. It takes a long time to digest, meaning that it takes a long time to release sugar into the bloodstream, thus preventing the dips in energy that can accompany sudden spikes in blood-sugar levels.
The condiments traditionally added to a plate of fuul such as cumin, olive oil and lemon juice provide it with an added antioxidant boost. Time and again, I have observed how the combinations in many traditionally prepared foods seem to have drawn upon the intuitive wisdom and health-consciousness of generations dating back thousands of years.
But for all its important nutritional benefits, fuul remains an incomplete source of protein, and the ideal Sohour sees it accompanied with two eggs, yoghurt and greens, making it a power-house of protein and providing satiation and stamina for mental as well as physical tasks throughout the day.
Fuul has also traditionally featured at the Ramadan Iftar table itself and not only for the Sohour meal. For Iftar, first would come creamy chicken broth prepared with vermicelli and a glass of qamaredddin, a delicious Ramadan drink made out of dried apricot sheets and famously imported from Syria.
Then would come the plate of fuul stewed with tomatoes and onions, the signature plate for Ramadan Iftars and a prerequisite at the Iftar table regardless of how many other meat or vegetable dishes were present.
A song going back to the 1960s by the Lebanese singer Sabah continues to be aired every Ramadan on TV. It features the veteran comedian Fouad Al-Mohandess as Sabah’s demanding husband who remains perennially dissatisfied with the endless and elaborate dishes she has prepared and put on the Iftar table.
After directing a tirade at her and berating her for not putting enough food on the table, the husband leaves everything to one side and obsessively sits down to devour the plate of fuul, leaving all else untouched.
Humorous and caricature-like as this portrayal might be, it brings back to my memory actual reality, because this is exactly what used to happen with my father. As soon as he sat down at the Iftar table, he would finish off the plate of fuul while eating very little from the other dishes.
This begs the question of whether this frenzied appetite for fuul was driven by a reverence for cultural tradition, or whether there actually is something in a plate of fuul that makes it optimal for breaking the fast.
Times have changed, however, even during Ramadan, and along with them people’s eating habits.
The increasing commercialisation of food coupled with Cairo residents’ habits of staying up until the dawn hours during Ramadan have often transformed Sohour from a meal eaten in the quiet hours of the night to a kind of “after-Iftar supper” held at 11pm or 12am and to which guests are often invited.
Sohours are now advertised by hotels, restaurants and “Ramadan tents,” and they may include grilled meat, pasta and pastries – an Iftar after the Iftar, so to speak.
But for me the traditional pre-dawn Sohour with its plate of fuul sprinkled with olive oil, cumin and lemon juice and accompanied by two boiled eggs and arugula remains king.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 15 April, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly