What Are The Origins Of The Beloved Moussaka?

Moussaka at Taverna Lyhnari; Skiathos
Moussaka at Taverna Lyhnari; Skiathos | © Kullez/Flickr
Ethel Dilouambaka

A staple of Greek cuisine, you could argue that there’s nothing better than a real homemade moussaka. But is this dish originally from Greece, or has the Greek diaspora proliferated the association?
Moussaka is a baked meat and eggplant casserole covered with a thick layer of béchamel sauce that turns crispy and golden. There are various versions of it, some which employ the use of other vegetables, such as zucchini or potatoes. Nowadays, moussaka is probably the best known of all Greek foods, next to gyros and souvlaki; however, it is also present in the Balkans and Turkey, but their version is not layered and includes minced beef. The million-dollar question is, where did it originate?

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No one knows what the exact origins of moussaka are, although it is widely believed that the Arabs introduced the dish when they brought the eggplant into the area. Research points to a medieval Arabic cookbook, A Baghdad Cookery Book, in which a food historian found a recipe of the ancestor of moussaka, related to the musakhkhan, a variant from the Levant. Here is an excerpt of the recipe, as found in an article on the same subject, written by Clifford A. Wright:
MAGHMUMA

‘Cut fat meat small. Slice the tail thin and chop up small. Take onions and eggplant, peel, half-boil, and also cut up small: these may, however, be peeled and cut up into the meat- pot, and not be boiled separately. Make a layer of the tail at the bottom of the pan, then put on top of it a layer of meat: drop in fine-ground seasonings, dry coriander, cumin, caraway, pepper, cinnamon, ginger, and salt. On top of the meat put a layer of eggplant and onion: repeat, until only about four or five fingers’ space remain in the pot. Sprinkle over each layer the ground seasonings as required. Mix best vinegar with a little water and a trifle of saffron, and add to the pan so as to lie to a depth of two or three fingers on top of the meat and other ingredients. Leave to settle over the fire: then remove.’
In more recent years, though, Turabi Efendi published the Turkish Cookery Book in 1862, where the first recipe of moussaka can be found.

In 1920, under Ottoman occupation, Nikos Tselementes, a Constantinople-born and France-educated Greek chef from Sifnos who is known for the modernization of Greek cuisine, decided to ‘cleanse’ Greek cuisine from any Turkish influence. With moussaka, he added French béchamel sauce in an attempt to Europeanize the dish.

So the moussaka we know today is a modernized, European version of a dish of Arabic origin, introduced to Greece via Turkey. Who knew? Think about that the next time you have a bite of this flavorful meal.

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