We continue our Greek odyssey with one of the dishes that is often considered as the national dish of Greece, or at least one of them: moussaka.
What is rather ironic, is that this iconic hearty main dish composed of layers of eggplants, saucy ground meat and topped with Béchamel sauce, was only introduced in the twentieth century, much like now world famous dishes such as pad thai or Vietnamese pho. Also, the origins of the dish itself and its main ingredients do not really point to Greece!
Starting with eggplant! There are numerous Arabic and North African names for eggplant, but there is none tracing back to ancient Greek or Roman names. The vegetable was actually introduced throughout the Mediterranean region by the Arabs in the early Middle Ages.
Moussaka really originated in the Balkans and the Middle East although the most famous version is now undeniably the Greek version. It is a regional dish prepared and enjoyed in Turkey, Bosnia, Bulgaria, Macedonia, Serbia and Romania.
Food historians say the dish could come from the Arabian dish maghmuma or musakhkhan, a very similar dish that appeared in a thirteenth century Arabic cookbook called Kitab al-Tabikh (The Book of Dishes).
There are also similarities with musakhan (Arabic: مسخّن), a Palestinian dish composed of roasted chicken baked with onions, sumac, allspice, saffron, and fried pine nuts that is served over taboon bread. This dish is also known as muhammar (Arabic: محمر) in some countries. The term musakhan literally means “something that is heated.”
The Lebanese version of moussaka, called moussaka’a or maghmour, is essentially a vegetarian dish composed of eggplant, chickpeas, potatoes, tomato sauce and spices (cumin, garlic, black pepper) that is served hot and accompanied by couscous. The Arabic root of the word moussaka’a (saqqa’a) can also be translated to “chilled” or “cool”.
The Bulgarian version of moussaka uses potatoes instead of eggplants and ground pork in place of lamb or beef.
The Greeks, like the Bulgarians and Romanians, prepare moussaka as a layered baked dish. Some top it with a traditional Béchamel sauce, while others make an olive oil or yogurt based Béchamel sauce. Whole eggs or egg yolks can be added to the sauce to firm it up for a richer end result. Greek cheese kefalotyri is sometimes melted into the sauce and even sprinkled on top.
Tselementes was a Greek chef who had worked in such places as the St. Moritz Hotel in New York and the Sacher Hotel in Vienna. Yes, the same Sacher hotel I visited with the family back in May and that I talked about when I made Sachertorte.
In 1920, Tselementes published a compilation of all kinds of recipes (French, Italian, American) together with Greek recipes that he considered important in his very influential book Cooking and Patisserie Guide. The book also included chapters on how to serve and present food or how to dress maids.
That book had an enormous impact on the rising Athenian middle and upper classes, and to this day “Tselementes” is synonymous with cookbook for most Greeks. His beliefs about what is right and what is wrong influenced not just home cooking but also professional cooks, as he was the principal teacher to all the important schools of cooking. He revised many Greek recipes, trying to adapt them to classic French cuisine. He was a strong believer that European cooking had its origins tracing back ancient Greece. He thought that Greek cuisine had become too easternized under Ottoman rule, and he was determined to correct this.
There is a whole chapter on moussakas in Tselementes’ book. This chapter includes six different recipes, basically substituting zucchini, artichokes, or potatoes for the eggplants.
Tselementes did not like greasy and spicy food. He also hated garlic and cucumber. I am so curious to find out what his recipe was for tsatziki without those two key ingredients! He wanted to reclaim “greekiness” of Greek cuisine. That is how he introduced Béchamel sauce to recipes like moussaka or pastitsio.
Moussaka is not a dish that you prepare in less than 30 minutes. I am not a fan of shortcuts that compromise with the authenticity or taste of the original recipe, so if you are a busy mom or a Rachael Ray fan, this recipe may not be for you. Moussaka is definitely a festive dish and not an everyday meal. It is part of what Greeks call “urban Greek cuisine”.
Moussaka is traditionally made with lamb or a mixture of lamb and beef, although more modern versions use only beef. I personally opted for the beef version. Like most traditional dishes, there is not just one recipe for moussaka. There is even a Lenten version that is vegetarian. One ingredient which you should find in an authentic and traditional moussaka is obviously eggplant, although other versions include potato, zucchini or even artichoke. I opted for a hearty winter version with both eggplant and potato.
I had made moussaka quite a few times in the past, but one ingredient I had never used was red wine. Simmering ground meat in red wine really gives the moussaka filling a delicious earthy and rustic flavor. Trust me, I won’t miss this key ingredient in the future.
“I cook with wine, sometimes I even add it to the food”, W.C. Fields
If you are thinking about already breaking your new year resolutions, you might as well do it in style. Moussaka is not a recipe for the faint of heart. All the ingredients, including eggplants, potatoes and meat sauce, are fried or sautéed in olive oil separately, before being layered in a baking dish and topped with a very rich Béchamel sauce. Enough to make you feel guilty at every single bite… I personally didn’t feel guilty a bit and enjoyed every single indulging bite. If you are trying to stick to your new year resolutions though, you can make a healthier version of moussaka by lightly spraying the eggplants and potatoes with olive oil, and baking them instead of frying them.
As with most casserole dishes or stew, moussaka is even better the next day as all the flavors have time to meld. The moussaka was a hit at home. Good thing as I made enough to feed an army and we enjoyed it throughout the weekend!
Recipe of Moussaka
Ingredients (for 10 people)
- 1-1/2 lb ground beef or lamb
2 onions, diced
1-½ cup extra-virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons tomato paste
2 garlic cloves, crushed
½ cup red wine
½ bunch parsley, finely chopped
For the White Sauce (Béchamel Sauce)
- 4 cups milk
1 cup flour
½ cup butter
2 egg yolks
½ teaspoon ground nutmeg
Peel potatoes and cut them into ¼ inch slices.
Slice off stalk and bottom ends of eggplant. Cut them lengthwise into ¼ inch slices.
Place eggplant slices in a large bowl filled with salty water and leave to soak for 30 minutes, then remove eggplant from water and leave to dry well on paper towel.
Over medium heat, add ¼ cup of olive oil to a large frying pan and fry the sliced potato in batches. Make sure to turn them over to cook both sides. The potato slices should be fried until slightly soft, about 4-5 minutes on each side.
When the potato slices are cooked, remove from the hot oil and place them on paper towels.
In the same frying pan, add ¼ cup of olive oil and over a medium heat, start frying the eggplant slices in batches, adding olive oil regularly.
Remove each batch from the hot oil and place them on spread paper towels.
In the same pan, add ¼ cup oil and sauté the diced onion until translucent. Add ground meat to the onions in the frying pan and mix well to break up the meat.
Stir meat continuously over medium-high heat for 10 minutes.
Add red wine, garlic, parsley, salt and pepper to the pan and stir well to mix.
Dilute tomato paste in ½ cup of water and add to pan.
Bring to a boil and reduce the heat to medium-low. Simmer uncovered for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally, until liquid is entirely reduced.
Grease the sides and bottoms of a baking pan with olive oil.
Cover the bottom completely with a layer of potato slices by overlapping where necessary to ensure a complete covering. Cover with a layer of eggplant slices.
Spoon out a little more than half of the meat mixture and spread to cover the bottom layers evenly.
Cover meat layer with remaining potato slices, then cover completely with another layer of eggplant slices, overlapping as necessary to ensure complete coverage.
Spread remaining meat mixture out evenly to cover the eggplant layer. Using a spatula, press down gently on the layers to compact them.
Melt butter in a medium sized saucepan over a medium-low heat.
When butter is melted, thoroughly incorporate the flour in stages using a whisk and continuously stirring for about 5 minutes.
Once the flour is fully incorporated, gradually add the 4 cups of milk while stirring continuously. Turn up the heat slightly to bring the thick sauce to a boil and then remove the saucepan from the heat.
Add nutmeg, salt and pepper and mix sauce well.
Add egg yolks slowly to the sauce, making sure to combine well.
Pour a thick layer of white sauce into baking pan to completely cover the top meat sauce layer. Spread white sauce evenly to ensure a uniform surface.
Place baking pan into an oven preheated to 350 F and bake for 40 minutes or until the top is nicely browned.