How Making My Mother's Moussaka Helped Me Learn it’s OK to Take Shortcuts
On the days that my mom was making moussaka (or misaka’a as it’s called in Egypt), eggplant slices would be all over the kitchen, in any spot that the sun was shining through. She’d peel them, slice and salt them, then lay them in single layers in a tray, take me to school, and head to work. When I came home, little drops of water would have formed on top of the eggplant slices and that meant they were ready to be dried and fried. Even though I didn’t like eggplant as a child, I was fascinated by this process. My mom explained that eggplant was as absorbent as a sponge, and if she didn’t dehydrate them a little through the salt drawing out the water, they’d soak up too much oil in the frying process. After she fried the eggplant, she put them aside to cook the mince in some garlic, onion, and cinnamon, making the aromatic tomato sauce that she would then spoon in between layers of eggplant, that would bake in the oven for a while. The moussaka would be ready by dinner time and even after all the effort my mom put in to make the eggplant just right, I’d pick around it, trying to find the eggplant-free saucy mince bits that I’d eat with rice.
When I headed to college in another country, moussaka became a dish I dearly missed. I started the process, like most immigrant kids, of calling home to find out how to make various dishes that I missed and I built up a decent repertoire of Egyptian dishes. But I never even bothered asking how to make moussaka because of how daunting a task it seemed. In the meantime though, I’d come across other eggplant-centered Middle Eastern dishes that made me fall in love with eggplant.
Middle Eastern cuisine has so many great ways to eat eggplant, it really showcases the beauty and versatility of this often polarizing vegetable. I already knew the Levantine dish, baba ghanoush, but when a Syrian friend introduced me to mouttabal, a silky and smoky creamy mixture, it became a weekly staple I’d make as a sandwich topping or chip dip. I also tried out my father's pickled/marinated eggplant recipe which I found was the easiest way to use eggplant. I’d roast it and then pour a tangy vinaigrette over it and it would keep in the fridge for weeks as a tasty snack to have with falafel or any sort of wrap. It’s even great on steak or as I like to have it, with a kale, beetroot, and feta salad. When an Iraqi Instagram friend told me I could use these as a shortcut to making makdous — an Iraqi eggplant pickle, stuffed with things like walnuts and red pepper — I was so excited at all the evolutions of eggplants, the shortcuts, the endless possibilities.
One thing all of these recipes had in common when I made them was roasting. All they needed was a little drizzle of oil. I liked how roasted eggplant tasted and I liked how easy the process was. I also loved the flavor of the skin. I was finally ready to give moussaka a go, but do it this way. No peeling, no salting and laying them out in the sun, no frying. I simply sliced and roasted them, giving them a little extra time in the oven to get as caramelized as I’d grown to like them. In the meantime, I made the sauce just as my mom made it. When both components were ready, I layered them out in a dish and popped it back in the oven. The result was exactly what I’d hoped. It tasted just like my mom’s moussaka but a little bit sweeter because of roasting them skin on. And while some Egyptian aunties might frown at my methods, I had triumphed in my own way. Now, my mom does the same (although I can’t convince her to keep the skin on).
When I think of my mother’s cooking now, memories of the stories she’d tell me about her own mother’s incredible cooking come to mind. My grandmother’s labor of love was truly amazing, given how much more difficult and more physical grocery shopping, food preparation, and cooking used to be. I’ve realized it’s an expected cycle as our lives have evolved over time, but also that there’s beauty in the exchange of stories across generations, which I’m excited to share with my own children or nieces and nephews eventually. And maybe one day, if I have the time and energy, I’ll try my mother’s method of laying eggplant out in the sun.
For me, I still find making moussaka to be a process compared to other quicker weeknight dinners, but it’s one I find more approachable now. And most importantly, it’s an expression of my identity. Especially for people in the diaspora, cooking “authentically” from one’s heritage can be a huge pressure to prove your identity. Ironically, at the same time, cooks in Egypt (like all countries) are tweaking, innovating, and evolving recipes all the time. But I’ve found confidence in making this dish and that’s helped me find my voice as an Egyptian food blogger of my own right. For me, this recipe has become a celebratory dish that my family and friends have come to know me for. Sometimes I even get requests for it, especially by vegan and vegetarian friends because it’s still so delicious without the mince. It’s the perfect dinner party potluck dish or one to take on a trip since it gets even better the next day or two. It’s become a way I show love to people, and if I’ve ever made it for you, it’s because I love you.