Egyptian Ful Medames Inspired by the Novel 'The Last Watchman of Old Cairo'

Egyptian Ful Medames Inspired by the Novel 'The Last Watchman of Old Cairo'

Wednesday, 17 November, 2021

Food and drinks are some of the easiest ways — and the most fun— to vicariously experience another culture. When you add a great book to the mix, you've got the makings of a perfect evening. In Food+Fiction, we recommend a delicious read and a related recipe so you can try the taste of different destinations in your own kitchen.

This post is part of our Food+Fiction series.

rule

According to lore, ful medames — the traditional Egyptian meal of cumin-infused fava beans with pita bread, fresh herbs, and boiled eggs on the side — has been the winning way to start the day since the time of the pharaohs.

It’s sometimes foul mudammas or ful madammes or ful medames, but it’s almost always breakfast. Super popular in Cairo and Giza, but eaten throughout the country, ful medames is a savory, hearty dish to help you get your bearings on the day, preferably accompanied by a lovely cup of strong tea.

That’s just what Ali al-Raqb does in the enchanting novel The Last Watchman of Old Cairo. Ali is a poor Muslim without prospects when he’s hired to be the night watchman at the Ibn Ezra Synagogue. Soon he’s caught up in powerful forces beyond his control but also, happily, finds friends among Old Cairo’s Jewish community. Ali eats ful each day after wrapping up the night shift and before heading out on his regular walk through the neighborhood.

Ful medames is popular street food and restaurant fare, prepared and served in large, steaming metal jugs — a tradition that dates to the Middle Ages. Back in the day, the ful trade was centered around the Princess Baths, public baths near the 11th century Bab Zuweila gate, one of the 25 gates in the fortifying wall around the Old City of Cairo.

During the day, bath attendants kept fires burning to heat the water in the enormous pots known as qidras. At night, the red embers of the fires continued to give off heat, so the qidras were filled with fava beans. The cauldrons simmered all night, and in the morning, the ful medames were ready to be served at breakfast.

The recipe is a simple one: fava beans are seasoned with ground cumin, then drizzled with extra-virgin olive oil and a spritz of lemon juice. A few rounds of warm pita bread are served on the side, and the beans are dressed up with colorful toppings: minced herbs, diced tomatoes and cucumbers, sliced onion and hot peppers, wedges of hard-boiled egg, olives, and perhaps, a dollop of tahini sauce.

The beans only get better after resting in the fridge for a day or two, so you can simmer a batch on the weekend and eat at your leisure all week. Ful medames is Egyptian-style comfort food for breakfast, but it’s also an excellent last-minute dinner on a busy day.

a bowl of fava beans with pita bread on a table
Photo courtesy of John Wreford/Shutterstock.'

Egyptian Ful Medames

Serves 2-4. Total time 15 minutes.

Ingredients:

Fava Beans:

  • 1 (14.5-ounce) can fava beans
  • extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1/2 small onion, diced
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 teaspoon ground cumin
  • 1/2 cup water
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
  • 1 fresh lemon
  • fresh parsley or cilantro

Go-Alongs:

Directions:

Prep the beans. Drain and rinse the fava beans in cold water; set aside.

Cook the beans. In a large nonstick or cast-iron skillet, heat 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil over medium heat. Add the onion and cook, stirring occasionally, until it’s translucent and very soft, 7-10 minutes. Add the garlic and cumin, sauté for 20-30 seconds, until fragrant. Add the fava beans and water to the skillet and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to low and add the salt and pepper. Cover with a lid and simmer 10 minutes. Remove the lid and continue cooking until the liquid is reduced a bit.

Mash the beans. Pour the beans into a bowl and squeeze the juice of the lemon over the top. Lightly mash the beans with a fork to smash some of them up; it should be chunkier than hummus, but the texture is up to you.

To serve, drizzle the beans with another tablespoon or so of olive oil and garnish with minced herbs, then add your favorite go-alongs.

 

Ali enjoyed the contemplative solitude of his schedule, watching over the synagogue when the city was asleep and sleeping when the sun rose. Most days he awoke just after noon to the sound of children playing in the street. After washing, he prayed, prepared himself a pot of tea, and warmed a plate of ful or a bit of dinner from the night before. Then he fed the kittens and set out for his daily walk around Fustat. Cutting through the mostly Coptic neighborhood around the old Babylonian Fortress, he might buy a few vegetables at the produce market or some bread at the bakery… — Michael David Lukas</cite>

The Last Watchman of Old Cairo

by Michael David Lukas

This enchanting novel has everything you could want in a sun-dappled story about Egypt: A mysterious legacy. Dusty archives. Family secrets. Forbidden love. Unlikely and enduring friendships. The tale is woven of threads that represent three slices of the past: the 11th century, 1897, and now. The action kicks off when Joseph al-Raqb receives a package sent on behalf of his recently deceased father. His inheritance is a scrap of paper with indecipherable writing pressed between two panes of glass, accompanied by a letter from a Mr. Mosseri — he does not know a Mr. Mosseri — that reads, ‘Your father asked me to send you this. Please call if you ever find yourself in Cairo.’ {more}

This family saga (288 pages) was published in March of 2018 by Random House. The book takes you to Cairo, Egypt. Melissa read The Last Watchman of Old Cairo and loved it; it wouldn't be on our site if she didn't recommend it.

Bookshop.org is an online bookstore with a mission to financially support independent bookstores and give back to the book community.

The Last Watchman of Old Cairo: A Novel

 

Top image courtesy of AlexAnton/Shutterstock.

Want to keep up with our book-related adventures? Sign up for our newsletter!

keep reading

There's plenty to unearth when you get curious about Egypt: the pharaohs and their Great Pyramids, the majestic Nile river, secrets buried under the sands of time. In our show, we explore all of that and more.
Indulge in travel inspiration to explore Egypt, past and present: the colorful urban landscapes of Cairo and Alexandra, ancient ruins amid caramel-colored sand, glowing golden antiquities and gem-encrusted jewels.
Street food is the best food; we won't be convinced otherwise. With this recipe, you can bring koshari — a.k.a., amazing Egyptian street food, into your kitchen. Carby goodness, spicy tomato sauce, fried onions... YES.

sharing is caring!

Can you help us? If you like this article, share it your friends!

our mission

Strong Sense of Place is a website and podcast dedicated to literary travel and books we love. Reading good books increases empathy. Empathy is good for all of us and the amazing world we inhabit.

our patreon

If you like the work we do, you can help support us through our Patreon! That'll unlock additional content, too — like Mel's recipe for Banh Mi Bowls, and Dave's behind-the-scenes notes for the latest Two Truths and a Lie.

get our newsletter
We'll never share your email with anyone else. Promise.

This is a weekly email. If you'd like a quick alert whenever we update our blog, subscribe here.

no spoilers. ever.

We'll share enough detail to help you decide if a book is for you, but we'll never ruin plot twists or give away the ending.

super-cool reading fun
reading atlas

This 30-page Reading Atlas takes you around the world with dozens of excellent books and gorgeous travel photos. Get your free copy when you subscribe to our newsletter.

get our newsletter
We'll never share your email with anyone else. Promise.
follow us

Content on this site is © 2021 by Smudge Publishing, unless otherwise noted. Peace be with you, person who reads the small type.