Hugged in the arms of the endless beige desert, we were cruising down the belly of the bubbling blue Nile.
It was a journey of both miles and of time to one of the centers of ancient civilization. It was a trip to a time of creativity, mental adventure, historic achievement; a time when architecture was the visual reflection of mental courage. Veal the texture of well-worn running shoes was the last thing on our minds. But suddenly, there it was on our plates.
There are a great many reasons to take a Nile cruise. Dinner is not always one of them. But with the temples at Luxor beckoning, with the Sphinx, Abu Simbel and the Pyramids at Giza waiting, with the King Tut collection open and tourist-free, dinner should have been the last thing on my mind.
Four days, the length of many Nile cruises, is too short a time for a healthy American to starve. Still, the thought crossed my mind.
Another continental-style dinner was served. Another dinner was not memorable.
But on the third night a miracle occurred during the hors d'oeuvres course. It looked like paste but it tasted like heaven. We scooped it up with pita bread and it was hot with garlic and smoky with roasted eggplant. It was the surprise appearance of the famous eggplant spread called baba ghannouj .
It wasn't as if we had discovered King Tut's tomb. It was more like after years of wandering we had reached an oasis in the desert. But instead of water or Lawrence of Arabia, who would have been a good second choice, there was baba ghannouj . The trip was finally a total success.
When freed to travel into the familiar waters of Middle Eastern cooking, the food on a Nile cruise becomes as enticing as Mel Gibson himself.
Roast lamb seasoned with olive oil and garlic is sliced thin and served with lemon-scented rice. Pan-fried fish, fresh from the Nile, is doused with sauteed onions, bell peppers and tomatoes. Marinated and grilled lamb kebabs, dates of all persuasions, abundant fruit and a sort of elbow macaroni casserole made with ground lamb reflect the influence of Greek, Arabic and Turkish flavors on Egyptian cooking. Kufte , a spiced ground meat wrapped around a skewer and roasted, is served, as are fried garbanzo beans mashed with spices and served with baba ghannouj on the side.
True, roaming the desert in search of keys to the character and spark of ancient Egyptian minds was stimulating.
The 3,300-year-old Great Temple at Abu Simbel, for example, was well worth a look. The fact that modern engineers pared it from the rock in which it was carved and moved it 200 feet higher to make way for a lake created by the Aswan High Dam, is certainly impressive.
But somehow, the mind kept drifting to the beauties of baba ghannouj .
Sometimes baba ghannouj shows up as an appetizer on a Nile cruise buffet, along with tomatoes, a white cheese similar to feta, marinated olives and pita bread. Sometimes it shows up as a sauce for sandwiches or salads. Sometimes it appears with roasted meat or chicken grilled on skewers.
Sometimes it is removed from my refrigerator at midnight, when no one is looking.
While there are as many recipes for it as there are kitchens and cooks, baba ghannouj generally is a mixture of tahini (sesame seed butter) and roasted, mashed eggplant. It is eaten in homes in Egypt, as well as in restaurants.
Serve it with coffee or tea doused with abundant sugar the Egyptian way. As an appetizer, it also is good served with pita bread and beer or fruit juice.
After devouring it almost daily in Egypt, I thought I would never be able to eat baba ghannouj again. I was wrong.
1 (1-pound) eggplant
2 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
3/4 cup lemon juice
6 tablespoons tahini
1/2 cup minced parsley
Freshly ground pepper
Trim off stem end of eggplant, pierce all over with fork and roast at 500 degrees or until eggplant is tender and skin is wrinkled. Let cool about 1 hour, then scoop out pulp.
Mash pulp with lemon juice, tahini and parsley. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Refrigerate for at least 1 hour. Serve with sliced pita bread. Makes 6 to 8 appetizer servings.