It is arguably, the most famous but also the most maligned of all Greek dishes. Unfortunately most visitors to Greece do not experience home-cooked moussaká, instead eating it at touristy tavérnes. There it seems to have two incarnations – either as a congealing, solid, stripy slab or as a slop, served in individual ceramic pots. Neither of these versions bear any relationship with the ‘real deal ‘ moussaká.
In Britain, it is yet another ‘also ran’ in the hopelessly disappointing competition of the ready-meal options in most supermarkets. Whatever moussaka is, it is not a bland, pasta-free version of lasagne. Moussaka is true magic; tricky to make but total satisfaction in consumption; the combination of tastes and textures, best described by the food writer, Epikouros, as a ‘gastronomic funfair’. There is total satisfaction in the combination of soft, silky aubergine, ragú sauce and creamy béchamel, that totally delights the taste buds and epitomises the essence of Greece on one single plate.
Having said all that, the evolution of moussaká is a little obscure, its name having roots in the Middle East but with no certain starting point. Some say that the name derives from the Arabic word musaqqa’ah, meaning ‘chilled’; there is another Arab dish called musakhan, which seems like a valid ancestor, except that it is made with chicken and not an aubergine to be seen. In mediaeval Arabic cookbooks there are references to dishes of chopped meat and aubergines, cooked with spices, but they are called maghmuma and al muqqatta. The Palestinian speciality, maqluba, a gorgeous dish, like a glorious spiced, aubergine and meat ‘cake’, that seems to be in this family too. The closest cousin, however, appears to be the recipe recorded in the 1860s by Turabi Effendi in his ‘Turkish Cookery Book’; he describes mussaka, a dish of cubed vegetables and ground meat. But it is not until 1910 and the writings of Nikolaos Tselementés, that we have moussaká in its recognisable form of sliced aubergine, minced meat and, for the first time, the addition of béchamel sauce.
Tselementés, a native of Sifnos, was the first Greek celebrity chef. After learning his culinary skills in Athens, he pursued his training in Vienna. He had an illustrious career in Greece, as chef at various embassies and in America; he also started to write about food and, eventually, produced the first popular Greek cookbook in 1920.
With his training and experience of French and European cuisines, Tselementés brought many of these elements to Greek cooking. It is now generally accepted that he also wanted to rid Greek tables of Ottoman peasant food, favouring butter rather than oil, reducing spices, eliminating some eastern ingredients and also complicating techniques. Tselementés is credited with single-handedly introducing béchamel into Greek cooking. However, not everyone views his influence as positive; the writer Nikos Stavroulakis has said that Tselementés’ desire to import these foreign elements was ‘the biggest tragedy in Greek cuisine’. Today though, no one could imagine talking about Greek food without mentioning moussaká; this most mongrel of recipes has been elevated to the status of the national dish.
It is, without doubt, a fiddly thing to make – the best advice I ever had was to make it over a couple of days. I tend to make the béchamel and the meat sauce first, then the next day, fry the aubergines and assemble it all. And now I am going to bust another ‘Greek Food Myth’ – the ragú sauce is made with beef, not lamb ! I know that there will be people raising there eyebrows in shock but I have researched this extensively and feel I can make this statement with some confidence! Despite nearly all non-Greek recipes specifying lamb mince, I found only one Greek version using it. Personally, I have never heard of anyone using lamb mince to make moussaká and have certainly never eaten it. Hugh Fearnly Whittingstall seems to think moussaká is a Greek version of shepherd’s pie. His idea of using minced, left-over roast lamb (along with any remaining gravy !!) in what, I think, was once known as a ‘rechauffé’ dish, is an absolute aberration. It will fill most Greek cooks with horror and have Tselementes turning in his grave ! Hugh – hands off the moussaká !
So here are the basic rules. The minced beef is cooked in a tomato sauce, flavoured with a little cinnamon and chopped parsley. The béchamel should be thick and creamy, enriched with beaten eggs , a little grated kefalotyri or parmesan and a touch of ground cinnamon. The calorie-conscious may prefer to bake the slices of aubergine, but frying them is essential if you are keeping it authentic. I like to put a layer of sliced potatoes at the bottom of the pan – it helps to absorb some of the cooking juices and gives a firm base for serving. Some people like to ring the changes by adding some sliced courgettes but that’s as far as I would go – no mushrooms, peppers or any other vegetables. And despite what else you may think, the correct dish to cook it in is a metal roasting tin.
And that’s it for a proper moussaká, simple ingredients that make the most glorious of dishes. Simple flavours that combine to produce a complex gastronomic experience.
All I have to say is, please, stop messing with the moussaká !
This is a dish that has several stages and it may be easier to do the meat sauce and béchamel elements a day ahead. On the second day cook the aubergines and potatoes and assemble it all.
Meat Sauce Ingredients
1kg beef mince
1 onion, finely chopped
1 tab olive oil
1 tab tomato purée
100ml white wine (optional)
1 tab chopped parsley
1 stick cinnamon
Salt and Pepper
Making the Meat Sauce
Heat the olive oil in a deep pan, then cook the chopped onions until soft.
Add the mince and stir, breaking it up, until it is browned.
Add the tomato purée and stir in, cooking it at the same time for a minute or two.
If you are using wine, addd it now. When the alcohol has evaporated add the water and stir well.
Next, add the seasoning, the cinnamon and the chopped parsley.
Reduce the heat to simmer and cook for about 40 mins.
Allow to cool. Obviously if you are doing this a day ahead of the final cooking, you will need to refrigerate it.
Béchamel Sauce Ingredients
1.5 litre milk
1 bay leaf
A few whole black peppercorns
100gm plain flour
Salt and ground pepper
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
150gm grated kefalotyri or parmesan
Making the Béchamel Sauce
In a large pan, heat the milk, along with any spices or seasoning . If you have the time, it is good to do this a little ahead and heat the milk with a bay leaf and some whole peppercorns. Allow it to steep a little; the added fragrance is worth the effort.
In another pan, one that is big enough to take the warm milk, melt the butter. Lower the heat and now add the flour, stirring constantly. Over a low heat, allow the flour to bubble a bit but do not stop stirring – it burns very easily.
Take the butter/flour combination off the heat and gradually, one ladleful at a time, add the warm milk, incorporating each spoonful before adding the next.
Once that is done, return the pan of milk/butter/flour mixture to the heat, stirring constantly until it thickens to the consistency of thick custard.
Remove from the heat and add the ground cinnamon and ground pepper. Add the grated cheese and stir well. Put the pan to one side to cool. This is your béchamel sauce.
5-6 medium sized aubergines
3 medium sized potatoes
Olive oil for frying (If your budget doesn’t stretch to masses of olive oil, using a good quality sunflower oil for frying is fine).
Preparing the Vegetables
Peel the potatoes and, leaving them whole, put them in a small pan and boil them for about 8-10 minutes, just until the surfaces become slightly floury. Rinse well and allow to cool.
Slice the aubergines as thinly as possible, using a sharp knife. You need enough to cover your eventual roasting pan three times
In a frying pan put enough oil to fry 5-7 slices of aubergine at a time. Don’t be tempted to fry too many at a time – it doesn’t save time, they just sweat ! Put the fried slices onto a large plate and carry on with the rest until they are all cooked.
Meanwhile, take the boiled potatoes and slice them, again, as thinly as possible with a sharp knife. They will be sticky, so spread them out on a plate or a board.
Assembling the Moussaka
2 eggs, well beaten
100gm grated kefalotyri or parmesan
Also, the meat sauce (previously prepared) the béchamel sauce (previously prepared) and the cooked vegetables.
In a bowl beat the eggs until they are frothy. Add them to the cooled, thick, milk mixture and beat well.
Set the oven to 170 degrees.
Take a large roasting tin and rub round the inside with a buttered (or oiled) paper.
Line the bottom of the roasting pan with the sliced potato. Next put a layer of fried aubergine. Sprinkle the layer with a little salt.
Over this spread approximately half of the meat ragú mix.
On top of this put about a quarter of the béchamel and gently spread it over the mince.
Now cover this with the remaining fried, sliced aubergines. Again sprinkle this layer with a little salt.
Top all this with the remaining béchamel. Spread it over evenly and sprinkle with the remaining grated cheese.
Put the roasting pan into the centre of the heated oven and bake for about 45-50 minutes, until golden on top and well cooked.
Serve with a salad and good bread and know that you are home.