The Jewish Palate: Eat like an Egyptian

A column about Jewish history and food: The proud Jews of the Second Exodus have brought their culinary traditions out of Egypt.

egypt (do not publish again) (photo credit: avi katz)
egypt (do not publish again)
(photo credit: avi katz)
Jewish Communities have existed in the land of Egypt for thousands of years despite the three prohibitions against returning to Egypt mentioned in the Torah.  Egypt has been both a place of “enslavement” and a place of refuge for the Jewish People. All Jews know the story of the Exodus, but perhaps not everyone knows that Egypt has also been a tolerant safe haven during times of persecution.  Wave after wave of Jews settled in Egypt after fleeing or being expelled from other lands.  The most notable influx of refugees brought the great Maimonides to Egypt.  He and his family were fleeing from the ruthless Almohad Caliphate which conquered portions of Southern Spain and North Africa. Egypt became an important center of Jewish thought, and many Talmudic Schools were established there.
In more recent times, Egypt has also been a place of refuge for Jews fleeing the various pogroms in Europe. The result of all of this immigration was a very large and diverse Jewish Community. Arab Rabbanite, Sephardic, Karaite, and Ashkenazi Communities flourished in Egypt, mostly in the cities of Cairo and Alexandria.  By 1922, the Jewish population of Egypt was estimated to be 80,000 people.
And then things changed.  During the 1930’s, with the Arab-Jewish fighting in British Occupied Eretz Yisrael and the rise of Nazi Germany, relations between Jewish and Egyptian Society became strained.  By the 1940’s, the situation worsened and pogroms took place from 1942 onwards. The founding of the State of Israel in 1948 marked a period of all out war against the Jewish Community. Bombings in Jewish areas claimed 70 lives and injured hundreds more.  Riots claimed many more Jewish lives. Jewish property and businesses were confiscated by the Egyptian Government, and Jewish males between the ages of 17 and 60 were forcibly expelled. The Jewish population of Egypt began to dwindle as people fled from their homeland to find refuge in the new State of Israel, Brazil, France, the United States, and Argentina.  As of 2004, the Jewish population of Egypt was estimated to be 100 people. The last Jewish wedding in Egypt took place in 1984.  To this day, there is strong anti-Jewish sentiment in Egypt, especially in the media.  The glory days of the Rambam are no more, and only two synagogues exist in the entire country.
The proud Jews of the Second Exodus have brought their culinary traditions out of Egypt. Their cuisine, like the cuisine of Egypt as a whole, is quite humble and delicious. Grains and legumes figure very prominently in their cooking.  Falafel, an Israeli favorite, is Egyptian in origin.  Fragrant stews and pulses form the backbone of the cuisine, but there is no shortage of fish, lamb, and poultry dishes.  Desserts are ever present and seductively sweet.
Lately I have been eating breakfast the way the Egyptians do. I have Ful Mudammas. It is a simple preparation of small, dried fava beans, red lentils, onion, and tomato. This may not sound very interesting, but trust me, it is. The basic Ful is just a healthy, fiber-rich catalyst. The real magic is in the multitude of condiments that can be served with the Ful. I start my mornings with hot sauce, olive oil, and tahina. Sometimes I go for the fried egg option with kashk and sumac. Even a simple drizzle of salted butter raises the Ful to new levels of good!
Ful not only gets your tongue dancing, it is healthy, and will stick with you for most of the day. It is like throwing a big log on your metabolic fire. No quick burn and crash here, this stuff keeps you going strong.
Ful also makes a great Shabbat dish.  Think of it as Egyptian Cholent/Hamin. By simply adding whole eggs in their shell, you achieve a traditional Egyptian Jewish Shabbat meal.
Preparing Ful requires some planning. The beans must be soaked for 24 hours. The dish itself needs to cook for at least 12 hours, but it is better after 18 hours. The good news is that you can make it in a slow cooker overnight. Then it is ready by breakfast time. Once made, the Ful can be stored in the refrigerator for up to a week, and reheated in the microwave as needed. The longer it sits, the better it gets!
Here is the recipe that I use. It is very traditional, but with a few personal touches. This recipe will make quite a large batch, so feel free to cut it in half if you need to.
Ful Muddamas
3 pounds small dried fava beans*, soaked overnight in the refrigerator
1 cup red lentils, rinsed
1 onion, chopped
2 tomatoes, chopped
2 1/2 quarts vegetable stock or water
1 tablespoon hot sauce (your favorite, optional)
1 tablespoon kosher salt (optional, traditionally Ful is not salted until served)
Whole eggs in the shell (optional, for Shabbat)
1.    Place all ingredients into a slow cooker. Cook on High for 2 hours.
2.    Turn temperature down to low and cook for 10 to 16 hours.
3.    Serve in a bowl with your favorite condiments and plenty of whole grain flat-breads.
If you do not have a slow cooker, start Ful on top of stove in a heavy pot. Bring to a boil, cover, and place in a 200 degree oven for 12 to 18 hours.
Here are some of the traditional garnishes for Ful Mudammas, but feel free to try your own:
hot sauce, olive oil, tahina, hummus, tomato sauce, kashk, butter, garlic sauce, fried egg, hard-cooked egg, chick peas, green onions, and sumac.
* Small fava beans can be found in most Arab or Persian stores, or on-line.
In a pinch, you can substitute regular, brown lentils. This of course is not traditional, and probably will ruffle some purist feathers.