Living as a student in Cairo, I quickly learned what my cheapest meal options were: kushari, fuul, and best of all, ta’amiya – known elsewhere as falafel. For the equivalent of 5¢, one of these delicious little sandwiches was mine: pita bread (‘aysh baladi) stuffed with fried balls of spiced fava beans, lettuce, cucumber, tomato and carrot all topped off with yogurt sauce. Three or four of these was all I needed for lunch most days, with all my nutritional bases covered: bread, vegetables, beans, dairy. Of course, eating uncooked vegetables for lunch daily, a practice which we were repeatedly advised against, might have been behind my chronic intestinal problems throughout my stay in Egypt, as might have been my switch to an almost all-bean diet. But for a 15¢ lunch, I was willing to put up with a little hardship.
After leaving Egypt (and allowing a suitable period of separation), I began to crave ta’amiya again, but since I have never lived anywhere with a significant Egyptian expat community it was impossible to find. Sure, I could find falafel, but it never tasted quite right – no doubt the result of blending fava beans with chickpeas, or omitting the favas altogether. With no restaurants around to satisfy my needs, the only option left to me was to make my own.
Luckily, I had the foresight to buy a cookbook in Egypt, which featured a good ta’amiya recipe. The basis of ta’amiya is fava beans, but a different variety of favas than those used for fuul. In fuul, it is crucial to get the round, brown favas that are about the size of pinto beans. For ta’amiya, you want the bigger variety that is a bit more commonly available. Ideally, you’ll be able to find the variety known as ‘fuul madshush’, which are already shelled and therefore white in color. Unfortunately, I’ve never actually been able to find such beans, so after an overnight soak I dig my hand into the pot and start shelling beans. You can make it a game: see how many beans you can shell in an hour, then try to double that amount.
With soaked, shelled beans ready to serve as the body of the ta’amiya, it is time to add in the flavorings. The dominant flavor in ta’amiya is dill. This was a bit surprising to me since I think of Middle Eastern food as being more about parsley and cilantro. I use a lot of fresh dill, and for good measure throw in a little parsley and cilantro. Next, a good dose of various allia: 10 cloves of garlic, an onion, and green onions or leeks. Finally spices: cumin, cayenne, salt and black pepper.
All of the ingredients are roughly chopped and tossed together. Great. But that won’t fry – you need a paste! If you were an Egyptian housewife of modest means you’d be reaching for your biggest mortar and pestle, but if you were a twenty-something lazy neo-orientalist you’d bust out the food processor. Because the beans need to be ground pretty fine for the patties to stay together in the hot oil, I grind them in several batches. After all is ground, I knead the mixture with my hands to make sure everything is distributed evenly. The mixture should hold together and have a pleasing green hue from all the herbs.
When you’re satisfied that the beans are as ground as they are going to be, it’s time to shape patties. The size of the patties in Egypt was rather small, maybe a couple of tablespoons, but to save time I make mine bigger, a rough handful. For frying, I use peanut oil heated to 375°. Reaching the right temperature is crucial – if the oil is too cold the ta’amiyas will break apart and you’ll be left with a big mess of oily crumbs. I learned this the hard way at least a couple of times.
The patties don’t need to fry long, just a few minutes until they are golden brown. I usually rotate mine a few times during the frying because it makes me feel like I know what I’m doing.
So you’ve got some ta’amiya. But as with fuul, at least half the fun of this dish lies in the toppings. Fresh pita goes without saying. Yogurt is also needed, preferably some kind of yogurt sauce with garlic and tahini. For vegetables, the classic combination is lettuce, cucumber and tomato. With the summer Farmers’ Market being my main source of produce, though, I have been going more seasonal: lettuce, radishes and spring onions tossed with sumac. I also had some rutabagas pickled with beets sitting in the fridge just for such an occasion.
I hardly need to explain what happens next. Put the ta’amiya in a pita (for authentic Egyptian style crush the patty a little), add topping of your choice, and enjoy. It probably cost more than 5¢ to make, but if you factor in the cost of a plane ticket to Cairo, you’re really coming out ahead.