June 22, 2012
Today’s post is a short story I wrote titled “Love and Agami.” The recipe that accompanies it is for the Egyptian version of moussaka, or masa’a, which is vegan when served as street food but sometimes made with ground beef or béchamel at home. Enjoy!
One summer we ate moussaka in Agami. The summer before love’s slow march of defeat, we ate moussaka between pockets of chewy pita as we took in the backhoes and foreboding black flags lining the beach of this off-season Mediterranean town.
Plump bites of eggplant burst in our mouths and oily tomato sauce dribbled down our chins. We ate while we walked, unable to restrain ourselves until we reached our rented villa. The strong sun made our hash-addled heads feel light. Magenta bushes lined the empty dirt roads that led nowhere. Stray dogs fought for authority in the dusty recesses.
In the morning he made Irish coffee. He told me it was his specialty and I drank it greedily, like I’d never drink another Irish coffee. And I haven’t.
We walked to the private beach, me in my Calvin Klein one-piece, he in his fiery orange trunks. Men and women stared from the other side of the construction site that marred our view of the sea. We stared back. We took pictures and listened to my Arabic playlist of Omar Khairat and Nancy Ajram, one bud in each of our ears. He didn’t wear sunscreen. I did.
In the evening we made love on the musty mattress and afterward I crushed the blood-filled mosquitoes on the walls. He saw me as I was that night—a mighty huntress with red hands, unabashed yet vulnerable in my nudity.
As he admired my splattered triumphs, I too saw him as he was that night: the languid, hot-tempered lion I had fallen madly, manically in love with. My feelings had grown slowly, but irrevocably, unsustainably. I hadn’t told him yet.
I grabbed a towel and a bottle of duty-free Jack Daniels and we walked to the beach barefoot. The moonlight illuminated the path to the water. We looked for familiar constellations in the sky but didn’t find any so we kept walking along the edge of the sea. Shivering white crests swayed back and forth between the shore and an endless vat of glistening black oil.
We chain-smoked Viceroys with our feet buried in the sand and drank our cups of whiskey. We talked and we sat in empathetic silence. My breath mingled with the salty air and I thought that his did too. We had each other—we were each other, and the sea and the stars, and the cool breeze and the hazy euphoria lifting our heads to the sky. I felt like I’d never feel that way again. But I have.
I felt like I’d never love that way again. But I will.
And that’s how I’ll remember him, us. From the summer we ate moussaka in Agami and drank whiskey on the beach at night, two carefree beach bums idly scratching mosquito bites and relishing in our stoned epiphanies.
The sand was cold and rough between our toes. And the black waves crashed on the shore.
Agami, Egypt in 2007 (the word agami in Arabic literally translates to “foreigner”)
To prepare the eggplant: Peel half the skin off the eggplant in lengthwise strips so that it looks pin-striped. Or, if you don’t like eggplant skin, peel all of it. Cut the eggplant into 1” rounds.
Heat 2 Tbsp of oil in a wide cast iron or frying pan over high heat. Wait until the oil is very hot, and then add half of the eggplant slices in one layer. (You can test the heat by flicking a drop of water in the pan—if it sizzles and pops immediately, the oil is hot.)
Fry the eggplant until golden brown and then flip it to brown on the other side. The oil will mostly likely be completely absorbed when you are finished. Transfer the eggplant slices to a platter and heat another 2 Tbsp of oil in the pan. Fry the remaining eggplant slices. When the eggplant is cool enough to handle, cut the slices into quarters.
In a Dutch oven or large pot, heat the remaining 2 Tbsp of oil over medium heat. Add the pepper, onion, and garlic slices. Sauté until the onions soften, about 15 minutes. Stir in the spices and tomato paste. Cook, stirring, for another minute. Add the water, tomatoes, salt, and pepper. Bring to a boil and add the eggplant. Bring to a boil again and then turn the heat down to a gentle simmer. Simmer the eggplant in the sauce until it’s very soft, about 30 minutes.
Garnish with parsley or cilantro and serve with warm pita.
Chickpea variation—Add ½ a cup of cooked or canned chickpeas (rinsed) when you add the eggplant to the sauce.
Ground beef variation—Brown ½ lb of ground beef in the Dutch oven before adding the veggies. Cook the veggies with the beef and then drain the fat out if it looks greasy before adding the spices and tomato paste.
*Note: You can use either red or green bell pepper for this recipe. Both work well but add a different flavor to the dish. I like green bell pepper for this.
**Note: I like to use freshly toasted and ground spices for this dish. It’s not a whole lot of extra work; just heat the pan you plan to cook the eggplant in over high heat (without oil) and add an equal amount of cumin and coriander seeds. Toast for about a minute until fragrant. Transfer the seeds to a mortar and pestle or spice grinder to grind. Use 2 teaspoons of this mixture for the moussaka.