Egyptian mesaka’a, a cousin to the Greek dish moussaka, is one of those dishes that every household makes differently; the differences are slight but significant. It tends to come down to the seasoning in the sauce, whether or not to add garlic, and the best way to cook the eggplant. When I was growing up, my mom would lay out salted eggplant slices on a sheet pan in the kitchen for a couple of hours to draw out some of the water before frying. When I started cooking for myself, I wanted to find all the shortcuts possible to make the dish I loved, but ultimately found it complicated and time-consuming. (I’m definitely not going to go through the long process of dehydrating eggplant when I’m hungry for dinner!)
Instead of frying the eggplant, I roast it, taking it quite far, which renders the sliced eggplant caramelized, silky-tender, and sweet. Roasting also means there’s less spattering hot oil, and no time spent babysitting eggplant on the stove. I also adjusted the spice mixture to my liking. (Don’t tell my mom!) My tweaks are, after all, in line with the tradition of different households having different recipes.
This recipe makes mesaka’a an accessible dish for cooks of any skill level. While the eggplants roast, you can focus on the cinnamon-spiced tomato sauce (with or without the addition of meat). Mesaka’a is a simple-to-prepare meal that you can easily make completely vegan. I like to add some almonds for a bit of crunch, but that’s completely up to you. It's also one of those dishes that gets better the longer it sits in your fridge (up to 3 days)—in my mind, there’s no more perfect make-ahead recipe.
- Prep time 15 minutes
- Cook time 1 hour 20 minutes
- Serves 4 to 6
(about 4 large) globe eggplants, stems removed
extra-virgin olive oil, divided
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
yellow onion, roughly chopped
green or red bell peppers, seeded, stemmed, and roughly chopped
chili powder (optional)
garlic cloves, peeled and finely chopped
ground beef (optional)
(14-ounce) can chopped tomatoes
beef or chicken stock, or water if not using meat
toasted and chopped almonds (optional)
Cooked white rice or pita, for serving
- Heat the oven to 400°F.
- Slice the eggplant (no need to peel) crosswise into round disks of about 1/4 inch thick. Arrange in a single layer on a sheet pan and drizzle with 2 tablespoons of the olive oil. Season with salt. Bake for 30 to 35 minutes, until slightly shriveled and caramelized in the center.
- While the eggplant bakes, work on the sauce. Heat the remaining 2 tablespoons of olive oil in a deep skillet over medium-high heat. Sauté the onion and peppers until the vegetables are lightly browned and the onion is translucent.
- Stir in the tomato paste, cinnamon, paprika, cumin, and chili powder, if using. Let the mixture cook until the tomato paste darkens slightly in color, about 2 minutes.
- Add the garlic and the beef, if using. Continue cooking, breaking up the beef with the back of a spoon, for about a minute, just to get slightly browned but not fully cooked.
- Add the chopped tomatoes and stock or water. Bring the mixture to a boil, then reduce the heat to low and let the sauce simmer, stirring occasionally, for 15 minutes. Season with salt and pepper.
- To assemble the mesaka’a, arrange half the eggplant in the bottom of a 3-quart baking dish followed by half the sauce. Sprinkle over the handful of almonds, if using. Layer on the rest of the eggplant and the remaining sauce.
- Cover the dish with foil and bake for 35 minutes. Remove the foil, then continue baking for an additional 10 minutes. Serve with rice or pita.