One morning I woke up earlier than was healthy. Somebody had recommended a special restaurant for breakfast – an Aleppian institution, no less – in Jdeideh.
Down a dusty lane some people had gathered outside a signless cafeteria. It was Al-Fawwal, and the man behind the counter was Abu Abdo. He was making ful medammes, which wasn’t a great surprise since this is all he’s ever made….every day, from 3am to just gone noon, for the best part of 50 years.
Abu Abdo’s ful medammes consists of large fava beans, slowly simmered in copper urns until soft and mushy, served with red chilli paste, garlic and a choice of either lemon juice or tahini. That’s it, no alternatives. You either like lemon or tahini or you don’t like Abu Abdo’s ful.
Watching him work is to see a man truly in his element, like Steve McQueen behind the wheel of a Shelby Mustang, or Stéphane Grappelli gliding his bow across a beloved fiddle. Fluid, graceful, elegant. His body moves like mercury as he goes from tahini, to beans, to chilli paste to olive oil. Splashing them into bowls or plastic bags in a flowing, liquid ballet of functional movement. You worry that if he stops he’ll seize up and crumble into a billion pieces. He’s as much a part of his restaurant as the dented worktops and the big blue gas canisters that fire up his ful. Take away Abu Abdo and the ochre walls would crack and the heavy wooden shutters would bang themselves closed in resistance.
I’d had ful before in Dubai. It was sometimes spelled ‘foul’, which I thought was a pretty apt description. To me it tasted like a Bronze Age sock that had been dug up from a peat bog and boiled in donkey vomit. It had the cheesy, acrid stench of a three-week old body part found under a serial killer’s porch. You could say I wasn’t a fan.
I ordered ful with tahini and sat down at one of a few marble-top tables. The ful was splashed up the sides of the bowl, a brownish, reddish, yellow and white swirl of unctuous liquids, with the occasional fava bean poking through the surface, slathered in the mixture like cormorants caught in an oil slick. There was a basket of flatbread, a bowl of tomato and green chillies, and a whole raw onion. A steaming copper urn stood nearby, ancient, streaked and stained with what looked like a century of slopped ful. I girded my gastronomic loins.
The ful was incredible. And I’m not just saying that. It was spectacular, creamy, comforting, spicy and wonderful. The cheesy stench was nowhere to be sniffed, and the rancorous bitter pungency a distant memory. This was ful medammes as it should be. A lovable dish that loves you back. I remember thinking it would make a great hangover cure.
‘Do you like my ful?’ asked Abu Abdo, somewhat rhetorically, after I’d soaked up every last drop with bread and got up to leave with a woozy look on my face. He was still spooning the mixture into bowls, and stopped momentarily when a young lad came behind the counter to give him a hug. Here was a man who was loved in his community for providing a simple daily service. For giving soul food to the people. For always being there.
Think about the town or city that you live in. Can you name a restaurant that’s always been there and always been the same? One that’s consistently served great food without fiddling with the formula, or jazzing the place up with poncy menus or a sophisticated lounge concept? As soon as most chefs get a whiff of success, they’ve turned their little gem into a chain, and it’s roaring off over the horizon to conquer new towns and cities like Attila the Hun on crystal meth. The chef gets his own TV show and he’s off too, tearing around Tuscany on a Vespa, patronising the locals.
Abu Abdo’s is one of the last true bespoke dining experiences – you know exactly what you’re going to get, you know who’s going to cook it, and you know you can’t quite get it like that anywhere else. It’s been in the community for 150 years, handed down from father to son with a responsibility to keep on doing what they’ve always done. It doesn’t have to be sexy or cool. It just has to be good. A constant in life that doesn’t have to compromise to please the shareholders. A rare treasure indeed.