An Ode to Aubergine

I mean eggplant.

I grew up a picky eater.  My two most frequent requests when I was little were Kraft macaroni and cheese, and Jolly Green Giant creamed spinach (yes, those specific brands).  I eventually grew out of it; I don’t recall exactly when I realized that eggplant is not horrible, but it’s now one of my favorites.  I was a little late to the game when it came to shawarma and falafel, but became equally enamored.

Then my culinary worlds collided.

One winter day in Paris, a few years ago now, I was strolling through the Marais with my father, looking for a particular falafel restaurant he had found on a prior visit.  It turned out we were looking for L’As du Fallafel (they advertise that they’re the favorite of Lenny Kravitz), but we jet-laggedly stumbled upon Chez Hanna instead.  I can’t say I recall the particular meal that day, but Chez Hanna became a regular stomping ground of mine when I moved to Paris a few months later.

I soon discovered one of the main joys (if not the main joy) of ordering falafel or shawarma on the rue des Rosiers: Ordering from the to-go window, and finding a spot to sit or lean and watch the world go by.  (It’s cheaper to do it this way than to sit inside anyway – but there is still a charm in eating inside, especially when one’s feet are sore from strolling in the Marais all morning anyway.)

People-watching in the Marais is an ultimate spectator sport, and the Marais, despite its trend of becoming tres bobo (gentrified and hipsterific), is the spot to watch the intersection of Parisian (and expat) hipsters and tourists unfold before you.  (I usually chose the stoop opposite from Chez Hanna’s to-go window.  That way, if I needed the restroom, the proprietors would recognize me from a moment ago.  Turns out, I ended up going there frequently enough that I hardly ever had an issue just walking in to use les toilettes.  I made particular friends with the extraordinarily stereotypical Parisian guy with the blonde ponytail.)

The fellas at Chez Hanna will load up a falafel pita with hummus, at least 4 small-fist-sized crispy falafel balls, harissa, cabbage, diced carrots, thinly sliced red onions, cucumbers…and two thick-cut pieces of fried eggplant on top.  I did not realize, until Chez Hanna became my favorite, how delicious fried chickpeas and fried eggplant are together.  I remember my excitement when, one evening, I went over to Chez Hanna with a friend who is not an eggplant fan – while the nice man’s back was turned, my friend quickly dumped his two eggplant slices onto my pita.  The poor window man (not Mr. Ponytail) thought he had forgotten to give my friend any aubergine – but he immediately discovered our ruse, and tossed another slice of eggplant onto MY pita (no extra charge).  It was a glorious occasion.  Man, I miss that place.

Fast forward several months after the end of my sejour in Paris, I found myself back in D.C.  I secured a job in Dupont Circle, where there is no shortage of lunch spots.  I eventually found, about a block from my office, a falafel and shawarma joint called Yafa Grille.  Once again – I can’t exactly remember the first meal I had there, but I noticed that, among the toppings to choose for the meal, they have – of course – fried eggplant (in smaller, bite-sized pieces, though).

My regular order at Yafa has become the pita falafel.  I usually choose as my toppings hummus, mixed veggies (bell pepper, carrot, and celery), cabbage, onions, shata (spicy red sauce), spicy cilantro sauce, creamy garlic sauce, and… “as much eggplant as you’re allowed to put on there.”  (There are other menu options too, of course.)

As with Chez Hanna, I have made friends with two of the fellas at Yafa – well enough that they know my order, and we often chat about the weather, their kids, and our shared affection for Rehoboth Beach.  The guys at Yafa are “friendlier” than Mr. Ponytail at Chez Hanna – they ooze cheerfulness and welcoming (not dissimilarly to the Cameron brothers, actually).  They know my “usual” – and warn me when the price has gone up by $1 (but the pitas are still a slightly cheaper option than a lot of the other lunch spots around).

There is not as much atmospheric people-watching to be found on this particular stretch of 19th Street NW – it is going away from the fun part of Dupont Circle, on a block rife with office buildings (and plenty of other lunch options – sit-down and to go options – to cater to the office buildings).  The trick might be similar, though – grab a pita to go, stroll back over to Dupont Circle itself (a neighborhood, like the Marais, that is not immune to being tres bobo), find a bench in the shade, and watch the hipsters, suits, and tourists file through.

I pointed Yafa out to another friend once, a friend who’d also lived in Paris once-upon-a-time (about 15 years before I did).  His immediate question was, “Do they put eggplant on it, like they do in Paris?”

Of course they do, my friend.  And it is spectacular.

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