In the late 1980s, when I first started to research the origins of various popular Greek dishes, I was convinced that the current version of bechamel-topped moussaka was invented during the golden years of the Ottoman Empire, probably in the spectacular kitchens of the Topkapi Palace, in Istanbul. But further investigation revealed that before the early 20th century there was no moussaka as we know it today.
It is not surprising that the most popular Greek dishes throughout the world are not the chickpea or bean soup, the yellow split peas, or the stewed mixed seasonal vegetables and greens that most Greeks ate regularly up until the late 1960s. Moussaka is probably the first dish that comes to mind if somebody non-Greek is asked to name a single Greek food item, yet the word “moussaka” is hardly Greek. Probably of Arabic origin, in Turkey it describes a casserole of baked sliced eggplants and meat, and in Lebanon and other Middle Eastern countries it is a cold dish of fried eggplants dressed with a rich tomato sauce. “The Arabic word musaqqa means ‘moistened,’ referring to the tomato juices,” explains Charles Perry in the Oxford Companion to Food. Greeks often eat a similar meatless dish, calling it pseudo-moussaka.
It is popular in the summer, cooked especially during the numerous Lenten days, when good Christians abstain from foods derived from animals such as meat, eggs, and dairy. In her famous Book of Mediterranean Food, published in 1950, Elizabeth David includes a moussaka topped with a thin crust of yogurt mixed with egg yolks. Five years later, in her Summer Cooking, David writes that “there are a good many version of this dish (moussaka), which is known in Romania, Yugoslavia, Greece and all over the Near East.” David’s summer version has no topping at all. Her casserole of eggplants, minced mutton, and tomato slices is doused in a garlicky tomato sauce with plenty of herbs. According to research moussaka became part of the urban Greek kitchen in the early days of the 20th Century, after Nicholas Tselementes’s cookbook, known as the Greek “cooking bible,” came out.
In the 1920s, Tselementes, a Greek chef who had served in such places as the St. Moritz Hotel in New York and the Sacher in Vienna published his compilation of all kinds of recipes (French, Italian, American) together with the Greek ones he considered important. There were also chapters on how to serve and present food, how to dress maids, etc. That book made an enormous impact on the rising Athenian middle and upper classes, and to this day “Tselementes” for Greeks is synonymous with “cookbook”. 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 – in my opinion, destroyed – many Greek recipes, trying to conform them to classic French cuisine. He believed that European cooking had its origins directly in ancient Greece.
Under Turkish rule, Greek cooking had become more eastern, he thought, and this he was determined to correct. Strange as it might seem, the history of modern Greece, its relation with its eastern neighbours, its strong nationalistic pride, and the country’s quest for a brave, new, European-oriented future all played a significant role in the gradual development of urban cooking. Tselementes writes that the traditional foods need to regain the “Greekness” they lost during the long Turkish occupation; they should “be revised by learned cooks who will rid those dishes from the contamination they suffered.”
The exclusion of spices and even herbs from the spicy and fragrant traditional foods resulted in the almost insipid dishes many Greek restaurants still serve. Tselementes went as far as to omit thyme and bay leaves from Escoffier’s recipe for sauce Espagnole, in his Greek translation. He also despised garlic, which he very seldom uses in his recipes. There is a whole chapter entitled “Moussaka” in Tselementes’ book. It includes six recipes, basically substituting zucchini, artichokes, or potatoes for the eggplants. He even has one very interesting variation with alternate layers of zucchini and tomato slices, both dredged in flour and fried. Tomatoes were just starting to be part of the Greek cuisine in the 1920s, and in early recipes they were not yet used in sauces.
The version of moussaka I make is loosely based on my mother’s recipe, to which I have added a layer of fried peppers. It is more like a gratin, as it was probably like this in the old days. I serve large, sloppy spoonfuls, far off from the perfectly cut moussaka squares one gets in restaurants. My light olive oil bechamel is pleasantly tangy, as I substitute yogurt for part of the milk. First published in The Atlantic.