Picture this. You're at a bar in Sicily
where you order bitters, champagne or one of those other drinks they serve
with "munchies" like olives, peanuts or potato crisps. One of the enticing
snacks looks a little like reddish barbecued potato chips, only thicker
and a bit smaller. Salty and spicy, they have a robust flavour but at first you can't
quite figure out what they are. Then it dawns on you. You're eating toasted
fava beans (broad beans) flavoured with paprika.
It's a Sicilian thing. Like other typically Sicilian crops, fava beans
(scientifically known as vicia faba) were introduced on the island
in the remote past, perhaps by the Phoenicians,
Greeks or Romans, if not much earlier. Nobody really
knows for certain. It is thought that, like lentils and chickpeas, they
became part of eastern Mediterranean cuisine during the neolithic agricultural
era, certainly by 6,000 BC (BCE).
Fava beans are apparently native to south-western Asia, from India to
the Arabian peninsula and Asia Minor, and cultivation spread along Africa's
Mediterranean coast - and then to Sicily - in the distant past. Fresh, chopped
fava beans are one of the main ingredients of falafels. Favas are
part of many Asian and African cuisines. In Egypt the spread known as ful-medames,
consisting of mashed, boiled favas, olive oil, garlic and lemon juice has
been very popular for centuries.
In Sicily the fava, harvested beginning in the middle of March, is used,
along with fresh green wild artichokes and peas,
to make fritella. Another popular dish is
the soup known as macco or maccu, which can be made either
with fresh (green) fava in springtime or from dried (tannish colour) beans
in autumn and winter. Macco contains little more than crushed fava beans
and olive oil seasoned with a touch of onion, salt and pepper.
In fact, the natural flavour of the beans is so strong that recipes calling
for fava rarely contain too many competing ingredients. While fresh fava
beans can be eaten raw, cooking brings out their distinctive flavour.
Creative recipes abound. Try mixing partially mashed, boiled fava into
a fritatta (omelette) made with Italian grated cheese. Boiled fava
added to garlic sautéed in a good olive oil makes a great pasta condiment
or a spread on crackers or bread.
Fava beans are full of natural fiber and they're a good source of many vitamins and minerals. This includes
L-dopa, and in recent years fava beans have been recommended for those suffering
from Parkinson's Disease.
The beans are high in tyramine. The food allergy associated with fava
beans, appropriately called favism, occurs with some frequency in
Mediterranean populations affected by anaemic disorders (which evolved as
a genetic response to malaria). Haemolytic anemia can result in those having
this life-threatening allergy, and in some cases a reaction develops even
if they merely inhale pollen from fava blossoms. More precisely, favism
results from glucose-6-phosphate dehydrogenase (G6PD) deficiency, an X-linked
recessive hereditary enzyme deficiency somewhat more frequent in children
and men than in women. The condition is very rare and, in most cases, usually
present without symptoms.
When boiling fresh fava, drain the water (which may turn dark) after
four or five minutes, rinse the beans and then continue boiling in fresh
water for five minutes more (or until they're tender or the skins loosen).
For some recipes - such as spreads and pasta sauces - you may wish to remove
the skins after boiling. Fresh is best, and fava are cultivated throughout the Americas and much of
the world, though harvest seasons vary. In some markets they're sold in cans or jars or even dried.
In any recipe requiring olive oil, always use the best extra-virgin olive oil
you can find.
About the Author: Roberta Gangi has written
numerous articles and one book dealing with Italian cultural and culinary
history, and a number of food and wine articles for Best of Sicily Magazine.