When a tourist thinks of Greek cuisine, despite its vast richness, there are usually certain stereotypical dishes that come to mind: Greek salad, souvlaki, creamy tzatziki and, perhaps above all, moussaka, a hearty baked dish with layers of eggplant and meat sauce, all topped with a creamy, cheesy béchamel sauce.
To be honest, I often feel ashamed of the moussaka that most tourist restaurants around Greece serve to visitors. It’s heavy, oily and usually nothing like the real deal. I hardly ever order moussaka at a restaurant unless I have total trust in the place. Like many other Greeks I know, moussaka is a dish I mostly enjoy cooking and eating at home.
There have long been disputes over the origins of moussaka, with various camps arguing that the recipe came from the Byzantines, the Ottomans, the Persians, the Palestinians or the Arabs. Its name has undisputedly Arabic roots. It derives from the word musaqqa’a, which literally translates as “that which soaks up liquid.” Nevertheless, according to the Oxford Dictionary of Food, the term was first used in Ottoman Turkey. Many food historians argue that the recipe was initially inspired by the Persian maguma, a dish with lamb and eggplants, while others point to the Palestinian/Arab musakhan (also known as muhammar), chicken baked with onions and pine nuts and served over flatbread, as its predecessor.
Regardless of its origins, the recipe was spread across the Middle East, Greece and the rest of the Balkans through the Ottomans, for whom the eggplant was a common and widely used ingredient.
Despite its many variations, for some reason the Greek moussaka has prevailed abroad, becoming particularly popular over the years. What we know as the classic Greek moussaka was created in the 1920s by the famous Greek chef of the time, Nikolaos Tselementes, who came up with the idea of topping it with béchamel sauce. It’s a key addition that separates Greek (including Greek-Cypriot) moussaka from the versions encountered in most other countries. The dish begins with a bottom layer of sliced eggplants, which are first lightly pan fried, over which goes a spiced tomato-based meat sauce, which is finally topped with the béchamel and grated cheese.
Many (myself included) also use pan-fried potato slices for the base, which create a more stable foundation and help the dish keep its shape better – they also add flavor and starchiness, which is always comforting. I also add a third vegetable – zucchini – to the base. It’s how my mom always made it because she wasn’t a huge fan of eggplant. I’ve kept it up because even though I like eggplant, the zucchini adds an extra layer of flavor and color to the dish.
If you want to make the dish lighter, you can skip the pan frying and layer all the vegetable slices on baking trays lined with parchment paper, drizzle with olive oil, salt and pepper, and bake or broil them instead. The meat most often used is ground beef, but it can also be made with lamb.
I often make a yogurt topping instead of the béchamel, but this time I decided to go classic, which means pan-fried vegetables, a meat sauce made with ground beef and a béchamel sauce on top. However, I can’t resist adding layers of potatoes and zucchini, which I love.
But if after making this dish you want to experiment, there are many other variations of moussaka across Greece, like one made with the artichokes commonly found on the Cycladic islands like Tinos. Different variations call for other vegetables, including sweet potatoes, cauliflower and sweet red peppers. For a vegan version, the meat is often replaced with chopped mushrooms or even lentils.
For the meat sauce
750 gr ground beef (shoulder)
1 large onion, chopped
2 garlic cloves, chopped
600 gr chopped tomatoes or fresh tomatoes processed in a blender
1 tsp tomato paste
2 bay leaves
½ tsp dried oregano
1 cinnamon stick
1 ½ tbsp chopped parsley
2-3 tbsp olive oil
⅓ cup dry red wine
Freshly ground black pepper
For the vegetable layers
3-4 potatoes peeled and cut lengthwise into 1 cm slices
3 medium-size eggplants cut lengthwise into 1 cm slices
3 large zucchinis cut into 1 cm slices lengthwise
Olive oil or sunflower oil for frying
Freshly ground black pepper
For the béchamel sauce
1.5 liter full fat milk
150 gr butter
150 gr all-purpose flour
⅛ tsp freshly ground nutmeg
Freshly ground pepper
250 gr grated kefalotyri (or parmesan/pecorino)
Heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil in a large, wide skillet. Add the minced beef, breaking it up as you stir, for about 5-7 minutes, until almost cooked. Add the onion, garlic, bay leaf and cinnamon stick, and season with salt and pepper. Stir for a couple of minutes until it looks mostly dry and then pour in the wine and stir again. Add in the tomatoes and tomato paste and turn the heat down to medium-low. Let it simmer, stirring occasionally until most of the liquid is absorbed (about an hour). Add the oregano and parsley, adjust seasoning if necessary, and give it another stir. Remove the cinnamon stick and bay leaves and set aside.
In the meantime, start preparing the vegetables. To reduce the bitterness of eggplants and their tendency to absorb lots of oil, soak the sliced eggplants for 15-30 minutes in lukewarm salted water and then pat them dry. Season the potatoes and zucchinis with salt and pepper to taste but make sure you pat them dry first (alternatively you may season them after frying them). Place a skillet on medium-high heat. Pour in enough oil to cover the base of your skillet. Fry the vegetable turning them from both sides until golden (they don’t need to be cooked thoroughly, however). Place them on a tray lined with kitchen paper to absorb/drain the excess oil.
For the béchamel sauce, heat the milk in a saucepan on low heat (be careful not to boil the milk). Place another large saucepan on medium heat and gently melt the butter. Add in the flour and mix constantly with a whisk to form a pale roux. Gradually add the warm milk while whisking constantly until you have used all the milk and the mix thickens (you want it to be medium thick, not too runny and definitely not too stiff). Once ready, stir in the nutmeg, remove from heat and mix in the cheese. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Spoon 3-4 tablespoons of the béchamel into the meat sauce and mix with spoon. Mix in 3-4 tablespoons of grated cheese into the remaining béchamel.
In a baking dish (I use an oval 27×37 cm dish that’s 7 cm deep), start layering the potatoes. On top layer the zucchini and sprinkle with 2-3 tablespoons of grated cheese. Pour the minced beef sauce on top of the vegetables and spread out evenly using the back of a spoon. Layer the eggplants on top, pour the béchamel over the eggplants and spread it out evenly. Sprinkle with the rest of the cheese and bake in a preheated oven at 180 degrees C for about 50 minutes or until a golden crust forms on top. When ready, remove from oven and let it cool for about 15-20 minutes before cutting it into squares. Enjoy!
To convert metric measurements to US and British kitchen units, click here.
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