Is fabulous faba fatal?

Aylin Öney Tan

Is fabulous faba fatal

Vicia Faba! It is just the right time for fava beans, also known as broad beans. They’re called bakla in Turkish and are a favorite springtime vegetable. The appearance of fresh fava pods in the market is an indicator of spring, it is the first seasonal vegetable to appear, usually even before artichokes. In Turkish cuisine, fava beans are cooked when very young, in its entirety, the whole pod, before the beans inside are developed. Braised in olive oil, “zeytinyağlı bakla” is the ultimate spring dish especially in the haute cuisine of Istanbul. Tender fava beans have two must-have companions: fresh dill and yogurt. Fresh dill is the choice of herb with many spring veggies, artichokes and peas are never without a sprinkling of chopped dill, but unlike other vegetables, the love affair between fava beans and dill is so strong that they are inseparable, so much so that you won’t buy fava beans if there is no dill available. The latter is another love affair. In Turkish cuisine, certain olive oil braised vegetables are eaten with a few tablespoons of yogurt on the side, but there are unwritten rules pertaining to this pairing. Yogurt with artichokes, peas, beans etc., is always a never-combination, but yogurt is almost essential with eggplant and courgettes, and in the case of fresh fava beans, it is a must-have combination. This reminds me of my years as a student back in 1970’s and 80’s at Middle East Technical University, not that we used to have broad beans in the campus canteen so often, but we had the gendarmerie intruding on campus quite often, as every now and then we had student manifestations. As soon as the gendarmerie stepped in, the news spread through the campus at the speed of lightning: “Yoğurtlu bakla” is on campus! That was the code, literally translated as “Fava beans with yogurt is on campus!” With their khaki-colored uniforms, just the exact color of cooked fava pods, and their shiny white helmets, resembling a blanket of yogurt topping, moving around in corps as if like a floating dish of yogurt topped fava beans, they truly deserved that nickname. Of course, despite their cute name, such an intrusion sometimes proved to be fatal. We still mourn for our friends we lost in the clashes of those days of turmoil.


When making a correlation between fava beans and fatality, there actually is a connection. Broad beans have a long history in our kitchen, especially in the coastal regions. It also played an important role in ancient Greek and Roman cuisine, but somehow it incurred the wrath of the famous thinker Pythagoras. He forbade fava beans to his students and advised them not to go near fava bean fields. Broad beans have a very old history across the Mediterranean basin, it seems that there has always been a love-hate relationship in the case of the fabulous Vicia Faba.

In the ancient Egyptian civilization, fava bean remains were found in the tombs of the 12th Dynasty (2400-2200 BC). It is known that fava beans were a staple food for the slaves who built the pyramids. For this reason, it was even seen as the food of the lower class, the Egyptian elite despised fava beans, even refusing to look at fava beans, let alone eat them. Despite such a history, in today’s Egypt, the meal that everyone from all walks of life eats every morning is “ful medames,” a dish made from dried fava beans cooked overnight in jugs called damassa. Fresh fava beans are eaten raw in Egypt as a snack, much like we eat fresh chickpeas out of their shells. The same tradition exists in Italy where fresh broad beans are placed on the table in huge bowls, everyone picks them themselves shelling out the tender beans, and enjoy it with chunks of pecorino cheese.


There is actually an important reason why fava beans are viewed with such suspicion in the Mediterranean basin. Even if Mediterranean cuisines are fond of the taste of fava beans, there is a danger in eating them. The fava hatred of Pythagoras might be based on the possibility that he suffered from “favism,” rather than disliking fava beans. Favism, also known as “hemolytic anemia,” is an inherited disease and is only seen in people of Mediterranean and African origin. Mostly affecting men, it can result in the death of the person, who eats or just inhales the pollen of fava beans, destroying the red blood cells. This is obviously why Pythagoras kept his disciples away from the fava bean fields. Recent studies show that the possibly fatal beans can be a cure in other cases. If you are able to eat fava beans, they may even be beneficial for you, it is said to be good for diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, and even regresses bowel cancer. In short, if fava beans don’t kill you, they can make you live long!


Dish of the Week:


Pınar Taşdemir of Araka, the first female chef to win a Michelin star in Türkiye, named her tiny restaurant Araka in Yeniköy, Istanbul revealing her fondness for fresh tender tastes, Araka means fresh peas in Turkish. Her kitchen is strong in seasonal flavors, uniquely combining contrasting textures and tastes. Her style is one of a kind, distinctively reflecting her own preferred flavors, naturally as she is a totally independent chef with no investors behind her. Pınar Taşdemir says that she really loves these transitional days from winter to spring and likes to combine winter vegetables with the novel fresh tastes of the season. A recent such winter-spring transition dish was olive oil braised fennel bulb and Jerusalem artichoke with fresh fava beans nestled on a puree of dried fava beans. Thinly sliced pear and pickled tender green almonds added the contrasting sweet and sour notes, while all the flavors were happily married with a Georgian tkemali sauce she makes every springtime with unripe green plums.

Recipe of the Week:

Just as I was writing this piece, chef Rudolf Van Nunnen, the foremost expat chef in Türkiye who made this country his home, shared a picture of a fava bean bed from his garden. So lucky of him to grow his own, as the fresh leaves of fava make a perfect salad. Of course, he knows that, and he replied to me saying that those leaves bursting with freshness will definitely go into a salad.

This reminded me of a Cypriot salad recipe made with fresh spring garlic, but unfortunately this recipe does not make use of the leaves. Pick about two big handfuls of fresh broad bean pods and cut into diagonal bite-sized pieces. Put them in boiling, lightly salted water with a few lemon slices and blanch them for 20-25 minutes. Chop 2-3 stalks of fresh garlic very finely. For the dressing, mix ½ cup vinegar, 2/3 cup olive oil, half teaspoon each of salt and sugar. Add the garlic and mix again, better if you do this by shaking it in a jar so that the flavor of garlic is totally released. Drain the boiled broad beans, arrange on a plate, and while still piping hot, pour the sauce over. Top with roughly chopped fennel or dill sprigs. Serve lukewarm or at room temperature.

faba beans, vegetable dish,

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