Fava Beans:  The Good, the Bad & the Ugly

Mark R. Vogel


Pythagoras (c. 580 BC–c. 500 BC), was a Greek philosopher and mathematician whose thinking influenced Plato and Aristotle.  He is eternally familiar to mathematicians for his Pythagorean Theorem, which states that in any given right triangle, the square of the hypotenuse (the side opposite the right angle), is equal to the squares of the other two sides, i.e., a2 + b2 = c2.  Although credited to Pythagoras, it is possible the theorem was developed by his disciples.  The problem is Pythagoras left no written account of his works.  What we know of him is based on his followers’ disquisitions (and in all likelihood interpretations), of his teachings.  Even the exact circumstances of his death are open to speculation.  One interesting piece of folklore about his demise involves the fava bean.  Conflicts had arisen amongst various factions at the time, and Pythagoras had his detractors.  According to the legend, Pythagoras detested fava beans.  He hated them so much that, rather than escape through a bean field, he opted to be captured and disposed of by his enemies. 

If Pythagoras’s revulsion of fava beans has any merit, he may have been one of the rare individuals allergic to them.  Some people from the Ancient Near East (roughly the modern day Middle East), where favas probably originated, have a hereditary vulnerability to them.  Certain substances found in favas can cause susceptible individuals to develop anemia.   Technically this genetic disorder is known as Glucose-6-phosphate dehydrogenase deficiency, or more simply “favism.”  Fortunately, the overwhelimg majority of us can enjoy these wonderful beans, with no fears of blood disease or pursuing assailants.

Fava beans, also called faba, broad, horse, tic, bell, or field beans, have been consumed by man for thousands of years.  The people of the Ancient Near East began to cultivate them during their Bronze age (3300–1200 BC).  From there they spread ubiquitously, and can be found in the dietary portfolios of Europe, (where they became a staple), Ancient Egypt, China, India, Africa and even Latin America.  The US, true to its culinary-challenged nature, never really got on the bandwagon, and thus they remain somewhat obscure in our country.

Favas were also the original bean in the traditional 12th night cake.  Some branches of Christianity celebrate the “Twelve Days of Christmas.”  The 12th night marks the coming of the epiphany (the revelation of Jesus’s divinity to man), and conlcudes the Twelve Days of Christmas.  The fava’s inclusion in the 12th night cake bestowed it with an auspicious reputation, and hence they became a symbol of good luck.

And then, at the other extreme is Hanibal Lechter, the canabilistic serial killer of Silence of the Lambs, who chillingly announced his enjoyment of favas, Chianti, and his victim’s liver.  Apparently, favas can be savory or unsavory.

Favas look like big lima beans and come in large pods.  They are complicated to peel.  The pods must first be split open to release the beans.  This is the easy part.  Next, each individual bean must be peeled.  Unlike any other bean, each one is encased in its own jacket.  This outer hull is fibrous and basically inedible.  To remove it, a slit can be made in on end of the bean with a small knife or even a fingernail.  Then it can be peeled away.  Some chefs drop them in boiling water for one minute.  Then the outer layer can be more easily removed, simply by squeezing each bean between one’s fingers and popping them out.  It is because of their labor intensiveness that favas are uncommon in most restaurants.  When they are offered, expect the portion to be limited and/or the price to be high.  Interestingly, their rarity on American menus has imparted them with an air of cachet.  This is reinforced by the fact that restaurants that do feature them are usually upscale establishments.  Ironically though, their scarcity-based-prestige is ultimately rooted in simple laziness, or labor costs.

Fresh favas are available in the spring, but you’ll have to do some searching to find them.  Not all supermarkets carry them, and you may need to peruse farmers markets.  Look for large, plump pods, and squeeze them to ensure there are no vacancies.  Favas are also sold canned and dried, but there is no comparison with the fresh.

Like almost all beans, favas can be eaten on their own or mixed into any number of other concoctions.  Personally, I find them to be too special, and more importantly too delicious, to be diluted into a more complex recipe like a stew, casserole or soup.  Favas are best appreciated as the star of the show.  Simply sauté them in butter and add salt, pepper, and the herbs of your choice.  The classic herbal pairing is savory.  Savory is a potent herb that tastes like a marriage of thyme and mint.  You can also include some heavy cream as a finishing touch.

Another popular recipe is a fava bean puree.  It is hypothesized that purees of favas originated in Europe, when the beans were sometimes pressed through a sieve to release their outer skin.  To make a fava bean puree, start with three pounds of beans (prior to removing their pods and outer hulls).  Add the beans, one or two garlic cloves, the herbs of your choice, salt, pepper, and a tablespoon or two of lemon juice to a food processor.  Give the ingredients an initial whiz, and then with the food processor running, add a gentle stream of extra virgin olive oil until it emulsifies, and you reach your desired consistency.  Serve it on crostini, crackers, or crudités.