Eggplants grow almost everywhere in Egypt, and Egypt is the fourth largest producer worldwide.
We have no solid evidence for eggplant in ancient Egypt but trade with India and the far east in spices must have started during the Pharaonic era through the Red Sea from the 18th century BC onwards and may have resulted in the introduction of eggplants from India. The vegetable (solanum melongena) is known as a domesticated plant related to the wild nightshade species (solanum incanum) which grows wild in south and east Asia and where the first cultivation took place.
However, the spice routes flourished and brought many food items with the expansion of Islam through Asia and Africa to Egypt, which was at the center of almost all the routes as a link between east and west.
The oldest Arabic cookbook Ketab al-Tabikh (The Book of Cooking) by Ibrahim Ben Mahdy featuring 9th century recipes from Baghdad includes a recipe for eggplant patties. This recipe contains green peppercorns, cinnamon, red wine vinegar, olive oil, sumac, coriander, bread crumbs and garlic.
Eggplants are rich in chlorogenic acid, an important anti-oxidant, also thought to slow the release of glucose into the blood after meals.
Cheesy meat moussaka
- Cut the eggplants lengthwise into relatively thin slices (so you can roll them later) and spread on a flat surface, sprinkle with salt and set aside to start making the filling.
- Chop the onion and mince the garlic. Put a pot on the fire to heat, add the olive oil, then the onions, sprinkle with a little sea salt and sauté until soft and translucent. Add the minced garlic for a minute or less, then the minced meat. Stir until meat is brown.
- Add the chopped tomato and tomato paste. You can add some water if you feel it’s a bit dry. Let it boil, then lower the heat to simmer. The trick with cooking the filling is to trust that the longer the meat stews in the sauce the tastier it gets. At this point, you can start to add the herbs you prefer — I use a Greek salad herb mix, but sometimes thyme, or Italian seasoning.
- Now for the sundried tomatoes: you can use as many as you like, I usually go for up to 12. Chop them into thick pieces and add to the mixture. You can use a couple of spoons of the oil/brine mixture to add flavor to your filling. Add a pinch of cinnamon, and maybe a pinch of nutmeg, and if like me you like your food hot, add chili powder.
- Toast the pine nuts in a heated pan on the fire and keep tossing until they are slightly brown. Add to the meat sauce.
- Cover and let the meat stew on low heat. After around half an hour, it is cooked, but I like to leave it for more than an hour, or even two, for all the flavors to integrate. Just make sure it doesn’t dry — keep an eye on it, and add a little water if necessary.
- In the meantime, the eggplant should have sweated out its bitter fluid. Rinse with water and pat dry with kitchen towel.
- Turn on the oven to 200C and let heat while you prepare the eggplant. Prepare baking trays with some olive oil. Spread the eggplant on the trays and brush olive oil over them and put in the oven for 15 minutes or until the eggplant has been cooked (not too dry and not too soggy). Put aside to cool a bit so as to be able to handle with your hands.
- Now the fun part: With a spoon or your hands (just make sure you wash your hands carefully before), put some minced meat on the tip of an eggplant slice, roll and put in a deep oven dish (a Pyrex). Repeat, placing the rolls beside one another and when you’re done, add the remaining sauce over the eggplant rolls. Sprinkle with the cheese on top and add some seasoning and nutmeg.
- Put in the oven again until the cheese has melted.
Sally Sami is a home cook with a passion for exploring how to cook locally used ingredients in unconventional ways for Egyptians. Her recipes have a healthy twist, particularly in her use of oils and grains. Sally runs Mingle Catering.
- On a flat clean surface, pour your flour, making a well in the center and crack the two eggs. Using a fork, whisk the eggs as you would an omelet and slowly incorporate more and more flour into the egg mix. Once it begins to thicken use your hands to bring it all together.
- Making sure your surface is always lightly dusted with flour, the tricky part is now to keep kneading it for about five minutes or until it is at a silky consistency (with no lumps and consistently smooth). This requires some serious arm strength be warned! Once you have this playdough-like dough, roll it into a ball, wrap it in cling-film and let it rest for about 20 minutes at room temperature.
- Preheat oven at about 200C or at medium-high. Cut half a large eggplant into about 3 cm slices, brush lightly with some olive oil and bake for about 20-30 minutes or until golden brown and soft.
- While the eggplant is getting gold and lovely, take your pasta dough out of the cling film in golf ball-sized sections. Making sure your surface is lightly dusted with flour, with a rolling pin or any sturdy glass bottle, roll out your dough so it is almost paper thin and you can see your hand through it.
- In a bowl, mash the eggplant with a fork allowing it to cool down before adding a small pinch of salt and almost all of the grated Parmesan, leaving a little aside to top it off at the end.
- Your flat pasta dough then needs to be cut into squares — this must be done relatively quickly so it does not dry out. I usually go for about 4 cm.
- In half teaspoon portions, add the now cooled mixture of Parmesan and eggplant in the center of a pasta square and add a second square on top, pinching the edges together while making sure there is no air between the layers and the filling. Any remaining pasta dough can be wrapped in cling film and stored in the fridge for up to two days.
- Add the ravioli to salted boiling water. When they float to the top, you’ll know they are ready.
- Heat the olive oil in a pan on medium heat and add the sprig of rosemary and two chopped cloves of garlic. Once it sizzles and the garlic starts to turn golden, take it off the heat.
- Gently add the ravioli to the pan, making sure to coat all the ravioli before serving it on a plate, with that leftover Parmesan on top!
Zeina Aly is interested in food culture and acquiring techniques tied both to heritage and innovation. Her kitchen is too small to motivate her to cook for herself properly so is often in search of hungry people to feed. Zeina has a special love for Asian food.
This is the brown rice version of an Indian recipe. All the spices can be found in Egypt at a spice market, and the result is wholesome and satisfying.
- Cut eggplant into cubes and deep fry in hot oil. Drain and put aside.
- Heat oil in pot, add the chopped onion, garam masala or the whole spices, ginger and green chili and stir fry for a few minutes until onion is soft.
- Add bay leaves, chili powder, salt, rice and stir for another five minutes.
- Add water and cook for 20 minutes until water is absorbed and rice is almost cooked.
- Add eggplant, stir with a fork, lower heat and cover for another 10 minutes.
- Do not open until ready to serve.
- To serve, empty into a plate and garnish with chopped coriander leaves.
Hala Barakat is a trained botanist. Her interest in cooking combines her passion for vegetarian food with her knowledge of food heritage in Egypt but also in relation to other countries and regions. Hala established Rohana Green, a small-scale vegetarian catering and baking project, to serve her yoga students and friends.
Information on history of eggplant contributed by Hala Barakat.