Eating Jewish: Fava bean soup (Bessara)

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Fava Bean Soup (Bessara)
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Photo by Katherine Romanow.

I pride myself on constantly using and experimenting with a variety of ingredients when I cook. However, fava beans were one of those things that hadn’t made it into my culinary repertoire. I’ve had two cans of fava beans sitting in my cupboard for a while, at a loss for what to do with them. But now I've found the perfect use for them: this soup.

Fava beans have been a staple of Egyptian cuisine since the time of the Pharoahs, with remnants of them having even been found in ancient tombs. In turn, the Bible tells that during the Exodus, the Israelites longed for fava beans.

In Egypt, fava bean soup was a simple dish flavored with salt, pepper, lemon juice and flat leafed parsley. According to Claudia Roden, it was believed to be especially beneficial for those who were sick. The Moroccan community adopted the tradition of eating fava beans on Passover since this is what the Israelites ate when they lived in Egypt.

This recipe takes the simple base of the traditional Egyptian version and adds North African flavors, namely cumin and harissa, to create a wonderfully aromatic soup. I chose to use canned fava beans for this recipe because that’s what I had on hand but you could also use dried fava beans by soaking them overnight in six cups of water and increasing the cooking time of the soup to two hours. If you happen to find fresh fava beans, which are available for a short time in spring, don’t use them in this recipe since they have a very different flavor from their dried and canned counterparts.

The few ingredients come together to create a soup with an earthy flavor and a subtle spiciness from the harissa that underlies every spoonful. Blending the soup near the end of cooking creates a rich creamy texture that will make you forget there’s no dairy in this dish (as someone who is lactose intolerant this is my favorite way to get the texture of cream soups without the dairy). Serve it with some matzoh crumbled into the soup to provide some textural contrast to its smoothness.

This is a delicious and flavorful soup that will definitely be a welcome addition to your Passover table. If you don’t eat legumes and beans throughout Passover, I would definitely suggest you try making this soup once the holiday is over. You won’t be disappointed.

Fava Bean Soup
Adapted from Joan Nathan’s Quiches, Kugels, and Couscous

2 19-oz cans fava beans, drained and rinsed (about 4 cups)
1-2 tablespoons olive oil
2 large garlic cloves, peeled and chopped
1 ½ teaspoons ground cumin
1 ½ teaspoons harissa
Salt and pepper, to taste
Juice of ½ a lemon
1 tablespoon chopped fresh parsley

  1. Heat the olive oil in a soup pot; add the garlic, cumin and harissa. Sauté over medium heat until the garlic and spices are fragrant, about 1-2 minutes. Add the fava beans along with 6-7 cups of water, depending on how thick you want your soup. Season with salt and pepper.

  2. Bring the soup to a boil, lower the heat and let simmer for 20 to 30 minutes. Using a hand blender or by transferring the soup to a blender, blend until smooth. Add lemon juice and adjust seasoning if necessary by adding more salt or pepper. Serve garnished with the fresh parsley.

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