Ramadan’s mainstay meal

Aziza Sami , Monday 18 Mar 2024

Fuul medammes is the dish of choice for Egyptians during Ramadan ­— and beyond.

Fuul medammes
photo: Engy Eleslamboly


In an unforgettable scene from a 1960s Egyptian film starring the iconic comedian Fouad Al-Mohandes, he eagerly awaits Iftar, the main meal during which the fast is broken during the holy month of Ramadan.

But he is grumpy and forever complaining to his wife, who has gone to great pains to prepare a wide assortment of dishes, that the food will not be “enough”.

“Stuffed duck, meat stewed in the oven, and two types of vegetables – only?” he exclaims, asking “and where is the grilled meat, the fatta (a dish of meat, rice, and bread) and the bouri (mullet) fish that I had bought to be cooked?”

Yet, when Iftar is served, he leaves everything aside and turns to the simple plate of fuul medammes, stewed fava beans, that is also present on the table as a traditional Ramadan staple. He wipes it all off with a piece of bread. Now full, he leaves the table leaving all else virtually untouched, much to his wife’s chagrin.

This scene of comedic chauvinism might have been a parody, but it is not far-removed from reality. I remember how during Ramadan, my father, although not in the spirit of willful caprice portrayed by Al-Mohandes, would prefer fuul to almost any other dish during iftar.

A medical doctor, he would always tell me how fuul holds many benefits, and that its high fiber content and low glycemic load make it ideal for breaking any fast, without causing sudden surges in blood sugar levels or crashes in energy. 

He would also prepare Sohour, the pre-dawn meal that is eaten before the fast begins until sunset the next day. Fuul medammes was always the main dish prepared for this meal, accompanied by bread, two eggs, and one yoghurt for each person.

A popular Egyptian expression calls fuul medammes the ‘nail’ of the body - meaning that it is an indispensable resource for maintaining stamina and energy for long periods of time.

Fuul medammes crosses the boundaries of economic disparity and is an indispensable food in practically every Egyptian household during Ramadan, as well as all year round. It is also a prominent dish that is eaten during the Holy Great Fast of Christian Coptic Egyptians, and which incidentally is starting at around the same time as Ramadan, the holy month of fasting for Muslims.

During the Coptic fast, fuul medammes is a prime vegetarian-based protein which can be eaten during the fast in which they abstain from eating animal proteins. It also constitutes a main ingredient for age-old Egyptian dishes such as bisara, a mixture of herbs and fava beans, and, a relative newcomer, taameya, which is made of small fried patties of herbs and fuul, and which was introduced into Egypt from the Levant. Egyptian taameya is made with fuul and not with hummus, like its original counterpart in Lebanon and Syria.

In the streets of Cairo, as in practically every province, city and village in Egypt, the colourful little vendor carts selling fuul set up shop very early in the morning.  They cater to passers-by going to work.

A common early morning sight is that of customers standing in front of the fuul cart and eating from stainless steel plates or small pita-like sandwiches. 

The fuul is kept stewing hot in its big urns that are placed on top of the carts, and often served with bread, green onions or eggs, accompanied by small packs of pickles.

Testimony to the unfailing demand for fuul medammes and its popularity is that fortunes have been made by many vendors who started small, selling fuul, possibly on carts or in small shops, and then expanded to create mega-chains which have spread all over the country.

Fuul medammes is a slow cooking food which takes several hours to stew and ripen. At home, it can be prepared by putting it in a small qidra or pot specially made for the purpose. The qidra is placed on a very low flame, with a tomato and some yellow lentils added to it to enhance its flavour and consistency.

There are many theories as to why it has been called medammes - from that which attributes the term, to the old Egyptian or Coptic word ‘tems’ which alludes to burying a vessel of food in embers, by which it will cook slowly - to the Arabic root word ‘dams’, which also means hidden or buried. 

The most colourful theory of all is that the word medammes is derived from the name of a Greek man, Demos, who lived in Egypt perhaps during the Graeco- Roman period. Demos owned a public bath where the water pipes were kept hot by burning waste underneath them. He made double use of the heat by also burying large urns of fava beans in the slowly burning waste and cooking them to result in fuul medammes.

I tend to be minimalistic when it comes to food, preferring one dish that would include many benefits and also be filling and in this, fuul medammes perfectly fits the bill.  Its heart-healthy benefits are enhanced when traditional condiments such as cumin are added to it, the compounds of the spice further adding to the nutritive benefits of the bean which is in turn a powerhouse of vitamin B and iron.

Across all of Egypt fuul is offered in many forms, from fuul Iskandarani, which pertains to the coastal city of Alexandria and is served with tehina and coriander, to the fuul Domiati of Damietta, also another coastal city, and which is prepared with herbs and with hot spices.

During Ramadan, fuul medammes is typically served with stewed tomatoes and onions. It is ever-present, at Sohour and Iftar, at the simplest of tables and the most elaborate banquets, prepared in versatile and innovative ways. Hence it is fuul with minced meat and with fried eggs, and fuul baked with cheeses and beschamels in the oven. I prefer it in its most rudimentary form: sprinkled with salt and pepper with a drizzle of lemon and olive oil.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 14 March, 2024 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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