Fūl: Egypt's Breakfast Staple
Updated: Sep 15, 2022
I miss it so much.
What is fūl? You see it freaking everywhere in Egypt, and when I say everywhere, I mean everywhere. Principally a breakfast food, you'll find street vendors throughout Egypt's cities dishing out plates of hearty, cheap fūl for everyday working class folk. It's cheap, filling, and ubiquitous.
Fūl, or fūl medames, is cooked-down fava beans with salt and olive oil. That's literally it. But don't be fooled by the paucity of ingredients; this dish is fantastic, unsurprisingly so given the abundance of condiments available to make each plate unique and truly your own. Traditionally served in shallow metal bowls, you can pick from hard-boiled egg, tomato and cucumber salad with dill, pickled vegetables, chilis, seasoned salt, and falafel as additions to your meal.
I flew into Cairo late, and by the time I made it out of the airport and to my hotel, it was well past midnight. I crashed and awoke the next morning to honking car horns and street vendors shouting to one another in Arabic. My AirBnB was in downtown Cairo, and there was an old-school, turn-of-the century lift that took down from my fourth-floor apartment. As I exited the building that morning, I had one thing on my mind: fūl. I had read about it, watched videos about it, and now it was my turn to try this authentic, filling Egyptian breakfast food.
I started exploring. No map, no GPS, nothing. Just the choked and clogged streets of Cairo guiding my walk. As I crossed a major intersection into a different neighborhood, I saw a gentlemen standing beside a large metal table, elbow-deep in a huge, aluminum jug: Fūl. And his stand was packed with locals.
I walked up, put my backpack down, and simply pointed to the bowl in front of the guy next to me. Everyone stands at the table when eating fūl. As it's generally served on the street, at least in Cairo, there are no places to sit. Cairo is labyrinth, a congested, dust-filled cobweb of meandering streets, alleys, and intersections. It is nearly impossible for me to describe in writing how this all works, but in some amazing way, it does. Twenty-million inhabitants packed into a city originally meant for mere thousands. So, as you can imagine, there isn't much extra space for stools at a street vendor.
The nice man reached deep into his jug, mixed it around, and pulled out a heap of fūl, tossing it onto a metal bowl, and quickly drizzling the top with oil and clarified butter. After adding some pickled vegetables and a hard-boiled egg, I dug in. All throughout Cairo, and Egypt for that matter, you can find Aish Baladi, or Egyptian Flat Bread, baked on the streets. It is literally everywhere. Similar to pita bread, but made with whole wheat flour and much lighter and airier, it costs about 5 Egyptian Pounds (~ $0.33) per piece. When you eat fūl, you eat it with an heaping pile of aish baladi. Serving as both fork and filler, it accompanies an already amazing dish, adding texture and helping to keep you full for most of the day. Keep in mind, for many Egyptians, this is the only meal they will eat before dinner, and that flatbread serves a big role in keeping people full for cheap.
You'll find it fairly easily as well, as it is traditionally cooked in huge metal jugs on the street, and the clanging of metal spoons scooping fūl is a familiar tone during Cairo's morning rush. Took me all of 10 minutes.
Now, this dish is actually really freaking good. It's amazing in its simplicity, cost, and abundance. But you know what the best part of eating fūl is? The context. Standing out on the streets of Cairo, cars and people rushing by going about their morning routine, street noise echoing up along the buildings, locals standing next to you conversing in Arabic (not a clue what they're saying); it's utterly enthralling. I've said this before, and I'll say it again here: Eating is a visceral experience. It is more than just the food, the taste, the presentation. It encompasses all of your senses, and often times you are not aware of this, but in Cairo you are very much aware of all five senses. The streets, the people, and the noise will not let you forget that.
Normally I would try to tell you exactly where to go for this amazing dish, especially where there are no tourists... but it's not completely applicable in this case, as fūl is everywhere, easily located, and if you go to Egypt now, there likely will be no tourists. Hooray!