Favoring Fava Beans

Fava beans (Vicia faba), also known as broad beans, faba beans, field beans, bell beans, horse beans, tic beans, pigeon beans, English beans, or Windsor beans, are a species in the Fabaceae family, along with common beans (green snap beanspinto beansheirloom beansblack turtle beans, kidney beans, and navy beans), edible-pod and mature peassoybeansblack-eyed peas, jicama, adzuki beanslentilslima beanspeanutschickpeas, carob, and licorice. The family also includes broom, gorse, and kudzu.

Humans have eaten fava beans for thousands of years. They were probably domesticated around 9,000 BC on the border of present-day Syria and Turkey. In traditional temperate and cold-climate agricultural societies, food stores were in danger of running low by spring, and famine threatened. Fava beans, harvested in spring, were credited with staving off famines.

Cultivation of fava beans quickly spread to the rest of the Mediterranean and Europe. By 3,000 BC, cultivation of favas had spread to China. Archaeological findings at  Bronze Age (3200 BC – 600 BC) Iron Age (1200 BC – 400 AD) settlements in various parts of Europe show that fava beans have been an important staple food for millennia.

Ancient Egyptians, although they grew favas, regarded them as unclean. According to Herodotus ( c. 484–425 BC), their priests weren’t allowed to even look at them, let alone eat the beans. Egyptians thought that the souls of the dead were enclosed in fava beans and that they resembled the gates of hell.

The notion of beans containing the souls of the dead continued with the Greeks. The fava bean flower has black spots on its petals, which is very strange for a plant, because the color black is almost non-existent in nature. Some believe that it was for this reason that the fava bean was considered “food for the dead” in ancient times. Black was the color symbolizing death and the souls of the deceased in ancient Greece. The association may have also have had something to do with the fact that beans cause “wind” (flatulence) and that the Greek word anemos means both “wind” and “soul.”  Whatever the reason, fava beans, and beans in general, were (and still are) common funeral food in several cultures.

Romans also thought the beans could house souls of the dead. During the Lemuria or Lemuralia, on the nights of May 9, 11, and 13, the pater familias had to get up at midnight, and walk around the house barefoot, throwing nine black beans whilst speaking the words “Haec ego mitto. His redimo meque meosque fabis.” (“These I throw. With these beans I redeem me and mine.”) The spirits would settle in the beans, which disappeared mysteriously. The custom is said to be as old as the foundation of the city of Rome: Romulus tried to appease the spirit of Remus, the brother he had murdered, on the legendary date of 21 April 753 BC.

Pythagoras (c. 580 BC – c. 500 BC), was a Greek philosopher and mathematician whose thinking influenced Plato and Aristotle. Legend has it that Pythagoras detested fava beans. He hated them so much that rather than escape through a bean field, he opted to be captured and killed by his enemies. Aristotle, on the other hand, praised the virtues of fava beans. The Greeks even used fava beans for voting on laws: white beans for yes, black beans for no.

Pythagoras may have been one of the rare individuals who lack a very particular enzyme, Glucose-6-phosphate dehydrogenase (G6PD), and for whom fava beans are very dangerous, causing serious anemia that can lead to death. Eating raw or cooked fava beans, and even inhaling pollen from a plant, can be toxic to those who suffer from G6PD deficiency, also called favism. A very small number of individuals, primarily of Mediterranean origin (but some Africans, Arabs and Asians) inherit this deficiency that, when combined with other genetic factors (not yet isolated), causes severe hemolytic anemia in the presence of fava beans. This genetic disorder is an anomaly of the gene on the X-chromosome that controls the production of G6PD in cells. G6PD is an enzyme that helps cells convert carbohydrates into a form they can use, and in the process, another enzyme is produced called reduced glutathione, which is a very powerful antioxidant. Because people with G6PD deficiency don’t have enough G6PD, they don’t produce enough reduced glutathione to protect their cells from oxidative stress. In most cells, this isn’t critical, as they have other means of protection. But for red blood cells (RBCs), it is a deadly matter. When RBCs are exposed to oxidative stress, the cell membrane either bursts or is damaged because there is no, or not enough reduced glutathione to protect them. All individuals with favism show G6PD deficiency. However, not all individuals with G6PD deficiency show favism. For example, in a small study of 757 Saudi men, more than 42% showed a variant of G6PD deficiency, but none displayed symptoms of favism. (Because it is a recessive sex-linked trait, most people who suffer from favism are males who inherit the affected X chromosome from their non-symptomatic mothers.) As with sickle-cell anemia, it is now understood that a milder form of the disease probably provides some immunity against malaria, once endemic to the Mediterranean. Fortunately, the overwhelming majority of us can enjoy these wonderful beans.

Romans considered the fava bean sacred, because the unskinned bean has a slit that looks like female labia. But when you remove the skin, the bean appears to have a little penis with two testicles. The word “fava” is also used in some dialects, especially in Toscana, as slang for “penis.”

In Roman times, the fava bean was considered food for the poor.  They were also used during the festival of Saturnalia, an ancient Roman festival in honor of the deity Saturn held on December 17 of the Julian calendar and later expanded with festivities through December 23. The holiday was celebrated with a sacrifice at the Temple of Saturn in the Roman Forum and a public banquet, followed by private gift-giving, continual partying, and a carnival atmosphere that overturned Roman social norms: gambling was permitted, and masters provided table service for their slaves. A cake was served with a fava bean hidden inside to determine which slave would be the “king of the day.”

When Christianity overtook the holiday of Saturnalia, the early Christians kept the tradition of hiding a fava bean in a cake, but moved the tradition from December to January 6, Twelfth Night or Epiphany, which celebrated the arrival of the three kings in Bethlehem. The cake, which was served during Carnival season, which lasts from January 6 through Mardi Gras in several Catholic cultures (including Mexico, France, Portugal, Spain and in the US, chiefly Louisiana) traditionally had a dried fava bean inserted inside the baked cake. Whoever discovered the bean was the “king.” (Dried favas have since been replaced with other trinkets, like plastic baby dolls.) Some groups of friends may have “king cake parties” every week through the Carnival season. In Portugal, whoever gets the King cake trinket is expected to buy the next cake for these get-togethers. It has become customary in the Southern culture that whoever finds the trinket must provide the next king cake or host the next Mardi Gras party. The fava’s inclusion in the King Cake bestowed it with a reputation as a symbol of good luck.

The Roman cookbook De re coquinaria (“On the Subject of Cooking”) – Apicius, from the 4th–5th century AD , has two recipes for broad beans or peas à la Vitellius. Aulus Vitellius (15-69 AD) was emperor of Rome for just three months, the third emperor within a year during a civil war. His successor Vespiasianus ended the war and reigned until his death in 79 AD. Vitellius has been described by contemporary historians like Suetonius and Tacitus as a gluttonous, perverse brute. He does seem to have liked his food, enough to have at least three recipes named after him, two of them for fava beans. The recipes for fava beans can be found in the Fifth Book of De re coquinaria (Ospreon Liber Quintus), which contains dishes with legumes. The first recipe for pisam Vitellianam siue fabam is a purée of peas or broad beans, seasoned with pepper, lovage, ginger, wine, and vinegar. The other recipe, which is reproduced below, is prepared with whole peas or broad beans. The first recipe may have been meant for dried legumes in winter, the second with fresh legumes in summer.

The original recipe from De re coquinaria – Apicius (recipe 5.3.9):

Pisam siue fabam Vitellianam : pisam siue fabam coquis. cum despumauerit mittis porrum coriandrum et flores maluarum. dum coquitur, teres piper ligusticum origanum feniculi semen, suffundis liquamen et uinum, <mittis> in caccabum, adicies oleum. cum ferbuerit, agitas. oleum uiridem insuper mittis et inferes.

Translation:

Vitellian peas or beans: cook the peas or beans; when you have skimmed them, put in leek and coriander and mallow flowers. While it is cooking, pound pepper, lovage, oregano, fennel seed; pour on liquamen and wine, put in the pan, add oil. When it is simmering, stir it, pour green oil on top and serve.

In 609 or 610 AD the last day of the Lemuria (13 May) was christianized by pope Boniface IV, to make it the feast of All Saints. A century later, in 739, All Saints was shifted to coincide with the celtic Samhain at 1 November by pope Gergory III.

The ancient Italian given name, Fabio, refers to a fava bean farmer. (Fabio Lanzoni, born March 15, 1959, widely known simply as Fabio, is an Italian model who appeared on the covers of hundreds of romance novels throughout the 1980s and 1990s.) By the 10th-11th centuries in Italy, people began adopting surnames. Many people adopted their father’s name as a surname. The given name Fabio the surname Fabi (Italian rocker Niccolò Fabi, born May 16, 1968, is a descendant).

The French in the Middle Ages particularly relished favas, sautéing them with onions and saffron.

Remember that any historical mention of “beans” in the Old World prior to 1492 always referred to favas, because the common bean (in the Phaseolus genus) is native to the Americas and was unknown in the Old World prior to Columbus’s first voyage.

Favas are an excellent source of folate, fibermanganese, and protein and are also an important staple food across the globe, although in the United States, they remain somewhat obscure.

Fava beans can:

  1. Promote cardiovascular health. The folate in fava beans helps prevent homocysteine build-up in your blood, which decreases your risk of heart attack. F

    ava beans are also a rich source of both types of fiber, soluble and insoluble, but are particularly rich in soluble fiber, which may help improve your blood sugar and cholesterol levels. Soluble fiber is particularly effective at lowering low-density lipoprotein (LDL or “bad”) cholesterol levels. The copper

    in fava beans also plays a role in keeping your blood vessels healthy. Phosphorus, along with magnesium in fava beans, helps maintain a healthy heartbeat. Magnesium, along with potassium, helps regulate blood pressure. Catechins in fava beans protect against the development of atherosclerotic plaque buildups in your arteries.

  2. Fight free radicalsManganese in fava beans is a co-factor for the antioxidant enzyme, superoxide dismutase. Antioxidants neutralize free radicals, helping to prevent cell and tissue damage that could lead to heart disease, cancer, and other diseases.
  3. Support your immune and nervous systems. Like all legumes, fava beans are loaded with nutrients, including folate, copper, phosphorus, magnesiumiron, potassium, and thiamine. Together, these nutrients contribute to a better immune and nervous system. The folate in fava beans supports your immune system and allows your nerves to function properly. The copper and magnesium in fava beans also plays a role in keeping your immune system healthy. Phosphorus and potassium in fava beans help regulate nerve transmission. Iron helps generate T lymphocytes, white blood cells often referred to as T cells, which play an important role in immune function. Iron also helps generate hypochlorous acid, a beneficial reactive oxygen species that white blood cells use to kill pathogens. The thiamine in fava beans is important for a nervous system function and energy metabolism.
  4. Support blood health. Folate supports red blood cell production and helps prevent anemia. Iron is an essential component of hemoglobin, a protein responsible for oxygen transport in your bloodstream.  Copper helps produce red and white blood cells and triggers the release of iron to form hemoglobin.
  5. Support healthy skin. Folate supports cell production, especially in your skin.
  6. Make you happy. Iron is important for a stable mood. Fava beans are also a very good source of levodopa, also called l-dopa, a chemical that your body uses to produce dopamine, an important neurotransmitter involved in learning, mood control, motivation, and libido. It helps to boost your mood, decrease depression, and is used in the clinical treatment of Parkinson’s disease. However, l-dopa interferes with your body’s ability to metabolize vitamin B6. The high amounts of l-dopa in fava beans can result in a vitamin B6 deficiency, which may itself lead to depression because vitamin B6 aids in the production of serotonin and norepinephrine, two other neurotransmitters involved in promoting happiness. Enjoy your fava beans with a little brewer’s yeast, dulse, potatoes, pistachios, sunflower seeds, spinach, or bananas, all of which are high in vitamin B6, to avoid a vitamin B6 deficiency. Also, if you are already taking a monoamine oxidase inhibitor, or MAOI, for depression, avoid fava beans. Fava beans contain high amounts of tyramine. MAOIs block an enzyme that eliminates excess tyramine from your body. Therefore, your tyramine levels can become excessively high if you eat fava beans while undergoing treatment with MAOIs, leading to a rapid increase in blood pressure that could necessitate emergency treatment.
  7. Keep you full. One cup of fava beans contains less than 200 calories, making it a low-calorie option that is high in fiber and protein but low in fat.
  8. Maintain strong bones. Folate in fava beans helps prevent osteoporosis-related bone fractures. Manganese facilitates formation of bone. Copperphosphorus, and magnesium are important for maintaining strong, healthy bones. Potassium maintains the density and strength of bones by decreasing urinary calcium loss.

Nutrients in 100 Grams of Cooked Fava Beans

Nutrient

Amount

Daily Value

folate

104 µg

26%

fiber

5.4 g

22%

manganese

0.4 mg

21%

protein

7.6 g

15%

copper

0.3 mg

13%

phosphorus

125 mg

12%

magnesium

43 mg

11%

iron

1.5 mg

8%

potassium

268 mg

8%

zinc

1 mg

7%

carbohydrates

19.7 g

7%

thiamine

0.1 mg

6%

Calories

110

5.5%

riboflavin

0.1 mg

5%

vitamin B6

0.1 mg

4%

niacin

0.7 mg

4%

selenium

2.6 µg

4%

vitamin K

2.9 µg

4%

calcium

36 mg

4%

pantothenic acid

0.2 mg

2%

fat

0.4 g

1%

vitamin C

0.3 mg

0.5%

vitamin A

15 IU

0.3%

sodium

5 mg

0.2%

cholesterol

0 mg

0%

carotene-ß

9 µg

Because of their labor intensiveness, favas are uncommon in most restaurants. When they are offered, expect the portion to be limited and the price to be high.

Fava beans look like big lima beans and come in large pods. Fresh favas are available in the spring through early summer, but you’ll have to do some searching to find them. Not all supermarkets carry them and you may need to peruse local farmers’ markets. Most fava beans sold in markets range from four to 18 inches in length. Beans in the shorter pods are bright green; those in longer pods begin turning yellow.

Select pods that are evenly green with as little discoloration as possible. A cushioned lining gives the pods a slightly spongy feel. 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. The flavor of fresh fava beans is subtle, often with a bitter aftertaste. They have little in common with dried fava beans, which are available year-round.

After picking, fresh fava beans quickly lose flavor with each day that passes. Keep them in a paper bag in your refrigerator for no more than 3-4 days. Freshly picked beans can be frozen very successfully after briefly blanching them.

Young, whole (two- to three-inch) pods with tiny beans (the size of your pinky fingernail), if you can find them, can be eaten raw. To obtain the smallest beans it’s almost necessary to grow them yourself. Note that all beans, but especially red kidney beans, contain a toxic agent called Phytohaemagglutinin. Fava beans contain only 5 to 10% as much of this toxin as kidney beans, but still it is better to boil your beans for at least 10 minutes before eating them.

To prepare mature, fresh fava beans, cut off the tips of the pods with a sharp paring knife. Press along the seam to open the pod and expose the beans. Lift out the beans, then remove any small stems that remain attached. Each bean is covered with a pale green skin that can be left on smaller beans, but remove them from older, larger beans, which have thicker, tougher skins. To remove the skins, blanch the beans in boiling water for 30 seconds to one minute. Drain the beans and plunge them into ice water. Slit each skin with your fingernail; the bright green bean will pop out. Finish cooking by boiling, sautéeing, grilling, roasting, or steaming until tender (approximately 10 minutes). Fava beans may be added to soups or stews, seasoned and served as a vegetable,  or tossed with vinaigrette for a salad.

Like almost all beans, favas can be mixed into any number of recipes, but many aficionados believe that favas are best appreciated on their own. Simply sauté them and add salt, pepper, and the herbs of your choice. Fresh favas have a fresh, nutty taste that pairs well with bold flavors like mint, basil, onions, garlic, and chiles. The classic herbal pairing is savory, a potent herb that tastes like a marriage of thyme and mint. Favas are also excellent in dishes with other spring favorites like morels, scallions, peas, and asparagus.

Another popular recipe for favas is a fava bean puree. To make a fava bean puree, start with three pounds of beans, (prior to removing their pods and outer hulls). After removing the pods and hulls and cooking, 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. Emulsify until you reach your desired consistency. Serve it on crostini, crackers, or crudités.

Sautée blanched fresh favas with onion or garlic as a side; toss in with pasta; or make a springtime risotto with favas and asparagus.

Larger fresh fava beans are a staple in many culture’s cuisines – especially Mediterranean, Middle Eastern, and Chinese cooking. Favas are an important part of Sichuan Chinese cuisine, forming the base of a Sichuan chile bean paste called doubanjiang. Fresh favas can also be stir-fried.

Dried favas are used all over the world. Fava beans are the most common fast food in Egypt and surrounding areas, where they are commonly eaten for breakfast cooked with an onion and tomato sauce. Many countries have a dish similar to the famous Egyptian dish ful medames (stewed dried favas with parsley, lemon juice, onions, and garlic). Try Susan Voisin’s recipe here. In addition, Egyptian falafel is classically made with dried fava beans instead of chickpeas. In China, the Middle East and elsewhere, dried favas are fried and tossed with salt as a crunchy snack. Mexican cuisine also uses dried favas. Habas fritas (deep fried or roasted fava beans) are a delicious and addictive bar snack, popular in Spain.

Finally, favas’ connection to the dead is still represented in bean-shaped cookies called Fave dei Morti (Fava Beans of the Dead), usually baked for All Soul’s Day (November 2) in Italy. Children are told that the sweets are left in the night by dead relatives and loved ones, creating a great excitement and rush in the morning.


This blog uses the latest nutritional data available from the USDA (United States Department of Agriculture), and the FDA (United States Food and Drug Administration), as well as nutritional data provided by food growers and manufacturers about their products. We believe the information on this website to be accurate. However, we are not responsible for typographical or other errors. Nutrition information for recipes is calculated by Living Cookbook based on the ingredients in each recipe based on statistical averages. Nutrition may vary based on methods of preparation, origin and freshness of ingredients, and other factors.

This blog is not a substitute for the services of a trained health professional. Although we provide nutritional information, the information on this blog is for informational purposes only. No information offered by or through this blog shall be construed as or understood to be medical advice or care. None of the information on this blog should be used to diagnose or treat any health problem or disease. Consult with a health care provider before taking any product or using any information on this blog. Please discuss any concerns with your health care provider.

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