Why It Works
- Soaking the split fava beans in cold water overnight before cooking softens the beans and reduces the cooking time.
- Cooking the split fava beans in vegetable broth and seasoning the bissara with shallot-infused oil lends the dip a unique depth of flavor.
- Starting the shallots in warm-to-touch oil and frying low-and-slow ensures that each ring is crisp and golden brown without risk of burning.
Egyptian Bissara is a creamy dip of split fava beans blended with fresh cilantro, parsley, mint, and dill. Topped with heaps of crispy fried shallots and served with toasted pita, bissara is widely prepared in Egypt, where it is also known as bosara or besara depending on the region you’re in. The dip is eaten by Copts—Egypt’s indigenous and Christian ethnic minority who represent 10% of the population—when they observe Lent or their nativity fast.
Copts fast for over 250 days a year, during which they abstain from dairy and meat. They commit to a plant-based diet and rely on beans and legumes as their primary source of protein. This tradition gave rise to the creation of many hearty legume recipes—there’s a whole world of traditional vegan and vegetarian Egyptian recipes that are hardly known outside Egypt
Eager to learn more about the history of bissara, I spoke with Mennat-Allah El Dory, an Egyptologist who specializes in archaeobotany (the study of ancient plants). El Dory suggests that the word bissara likely originated from the Coptic word (peese-owor), which means cooked and mashed beans. However, while the Copts can trace their ancestry back to ancient Egypt, there is no evidence that bissara existed in the ancient Egyptian diet. (Worth noting: A similar dish with the same name and ingredients exists in Morocco, though it is served as a soup.)
Though Bissara requires some planning—as you have to soak the beans overnight—the dip is as easy as it gets. You simply have to place all the ingredients—the fava beans, onion, garlic, spices, fresh herbs, and vegetable broth—into a large pot and wait for the magic to happen. As the beans simmer and soften, they’ll begin to pick up the deep flavor of the broth.
When the beans are cooked and have had a chance to cool slightly, it’s time to transform the contents of the pot into a creamy dip by blitzing everything together in a food processor. Like hummus, bissara should be thick and smooth. To give bissara an extra pop of fresh green color, you can add some fresh cilantro to beans before puréeing in the food processor.
The Perfect Fried Shallots
A big part of bissara’s allure is the tower of crisp, golden shallots piled high on top of the bissara—so it’s important to get them right. One key step is to add the shallots to the oil before it’s too hot. This helps cook them evenly and prevents the kind of scorching that can happen when thinly sliced vegetables get added to a hot pot of oil. As soon as they’re light golden brown, it’s time to take them out. They’ll continue to darken and crisp up once strained, and won’t end up over-fried and bitter, which is the risk of leaving them in the oil too long.
When I make bissara, I like to fry the shallots that are used to garnish the dip before doing anything else, then reserve the shallot-infused oil for cooking the dip. Typically, bissara is prepared with vegetable oil and not one infused with shallots, but this small additional step adds even more flavor.