Monday, November 29, 2010


October 15 in LUXOR, EGYPT...The Nile flows placidly past Luxor's gigantic river-side temple, and the white wings of feluccas dart from shore to shore. To the west, the rugged Theban hills guarding the Valley of the Kings glow in the fading sun; there, it's over a hundred in the shade, except there isn't any shade.  And the place has been Disneyfied, with walkways and tidy stone walls, all in blinding beige stone that absorbs the relentless heat. Bring lots of water, a bandana, and your umbrella if you want to survive; frankly, a hat is pretty useless, the umbrella a lifesaver.
Afternoon call to prayer suddenly booms out of scores of speakers, an embroidery of virile sound that echoes and re-echoes. The call is joined by the bells of the Catholic church next door. Shaded by canvas screens, I am lolling on a couch on my hotel's rooftop terrace, sipping fruit juice and trying to be serious about anything but enjoying the view of so much history smack before my eyes. The hotel cat is snoring at my side and I'm tempted to join him.
But I am hungry. I'm thinking about felafel. Egyptian food gets a bad rap, generally, but there's a couple of dishes that are central to my survival as long as I'm here, and both of them are excellent. Felafel is first, of course: deep fried golf-ball sized pieces of thick chickpea batter, stuffed in a 5" round piece of thin Egyptian bread, slathered with tahini sauce, topped with tomato and cucumber salad and stewed eggplant. Mark Bittman provides a great felafel recipe in his book The World's Best Recipes.
But the eggplant is what makes the felafel a million times better. I asked the hard-working guys at "my" felafel stand, just opposite Luxor Temple, for the recipe.  I'm considered a regular, and they charge me what the locals are charged. Generously, they walked me through the eggplant process. A bowl of this in your fridge guarantees many happy noshes, and only improves with a few days waiting.

1 cup tomato sauce (not Italian)
1 large onion, coarsely chopped
3 garlic cloves, finely chopped
3 tbsp olive or canola oil
1/2 tsp cumin or to taste
1 large eggplant, unpeeled; equivalent weight in Japanese is okay
Chopped parsley, lots of it, to garnish

Slice eggplant into fingers, salt and leave to drain while you saute the onion and garlic in oil until transparent. Add onion/garlic and cumin to tomato sauce. Let simmer while you fry eggplant - preferably deep-fry - until crisp. Add to tomato sauce; mix; simmer for 20 - 30 minutes or until thickened. Salt and pepper to taste. Stuff into pita or directly into your mouth. Sadly, Egyptian pita is rarely available; if you find a source, treasure it. To give this a more Turkish twist, add a couple of glops of pomegranate molasses.

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