Citizens! This afternoon, I was most privileged to enjoy what was the best moussaka of my life. It was at a Turkish restaurant in San Francisco – despite what you may have thought, Turks do indeed have moussaka as well as the Greeks!
The best-known version in Europe and the Americas is the Greek variant created in the 1920s by Nikolaos Tselementes. Many versions have a top layer made of milk-based sauce thickened with egg (custard) or flour (béchamel sauce). In Greece, the dish is layered and typically served hot. This is quite different from the versions that continue to be made in Turkey and the Middle East. In Turkey, mussaka consists of thinly sliced and fried eggplant served in a tomato-based meat sauce, warm or at room temperature. In the Arab countries, it is often eaten cold, but occasionally hot as well.
The English name for moussaka was borrowed from Greek mousakás (μουσακάς) and from other Balkan languages, all borrowed from Ottoman Turkish, which in turn borrwed it from Arabic musaqqa‘a (مسقعة), literally “that which is fed liquid”. The word is first attested in English in 1862, written mùzàkkà.
Most versions are based primarily on sautéed aubergine (eggplant) and tomato, usually with minced meat, mostly lamb. However, the Greek version includes layers of meat and eggplant topped with a Béchamel (“white”) sauce, and baked. It seems likely that the Greek moussaka has Arab origins and is related to the Levantine musakhkhan, with the word moussaka derived from this Arab word.
The modern Greek version was created by the French-trained Greek chef Nikolaos Tselementes in the 1920s. A classic recipe has three layers that are separately cooked before being combined for the final baking: a bottom layer of sliced eggplant sautéed in olive oil; a middle layer of ground lamb lightly cooked with chopped or puréed tomatoes, onion, garlic, and spices (cinnamon, allspice and black pepper); and a top layer of Béchamel sauce or savory custard.
The composed dish is then layered into a pan and baked until the top layer is browned. Moussaka is usually served warm, not piping hot; if cut hot out of the oven, moussaka squares tend to slide apart and consequently the dish needs some resting time to firm up before serving. Reheating, however, does not present the same problem.
The moussaka I enjoyed in San Francisco was not layered, as the Greek version is. Here, ground beef (not lamb) is mixed with tomato sauce and spices plus thinly-sliced eggplant. In this particular version, it did use a bechamel topping that had a cheesy goodness (Turkish moussaka does not normally use bechamel, but Greek always does) plus it uniquely used red peppers and most importantly mint in the meat filling. It also mixed zucchini with the eggplant, a touch I especially liked.
I of course immediately sought to replicate this – since it combines both Greek and Turkish elements I call my version “Cypriot” after the island of Cyprus where both nationalities reside. Also, I am specifying Cypriot Halloumi cheese and there is also a moussaka served on the island as well.
The English name for moussaka comes from modern Greek mousakás (μουσακάς), which derived from the Turkish musakka, which itself came from Arabic musaqqa‘ah (مسقعة), meaning “chilled”.
Citizens, (immodestly) I find my recipe to be totally delicious and I hope you will try this magnificent fusion of two mighty cuisines for yourself! A factoid for you as well – Cyprus has a special place in the heart of any secular Israeli, as they must be married outside of Israel for the marriage to be considered legal if htey aren’t orthodox Jews. Cyprus is the closest friendly country to Israel and thus most Israelis get married there!
Battle on – The GeneralissimoPrint
- For the Béchamel Sauce:
- 4 ¼ cups milk, boiling
- ½ cup butter
- 6 tbsp plain flour
- 2 eggs
- A heaping ¾ cup of grated Halloumi cheese
- pinch of salt
- For the Moussaka:
- 3 Japanese eggplants
- 2 Zucchini
- Vegetable oil for frying
- 1 onion
- 1 large clove garlic, minced
- 1 tbsp. olive oil
- 1 red roasted bell pepper (skin removed) or red Hungarian pepper
- 1 pound lean ground beef
- 1 large tomato
- 1 tbsp. tomato paste
- 1 tsp. salt
- ½ tsp. black pepper
- ½ tsp. allspice
- 3 large tomatoes
- 1 tbsp. tomato paste
- ½ tsp. salt
- ¼ tsp. black pepper
- ½ tsp. sugar
- ½ tsp. Greek oregano
- ½ cup tiny whole fresh mint leaves or chopped
- Additional grated Halloumi for sprinkling
- Begin by peeling your eggplants and zucchini. Using a vegetable peeler, begin at one end and remove a strip of peel from end to end. Leave a strip of peel about the same width, then peel another strip from end to end. Repeat this until your eggplant and zucchini are peeled in a striped pattern. Peel all the eggplants and zucchini this way.
- Slice the eggplants about ¼ inch thick. Put all the eggplant slices in a large bowl of salty water and let them soak for about 30 minutes. This removes the bitterness.
- Slice the zucchini also about ¼ inch thick.
- Now move on to the Béchamel sauce. Bring the milk to a boil then take off the heat and set aside. Melt the butter in a pan, scatter over the flour and stir to form a smooth roux. Gradually whisk in the boiling milk until smooth and completely incorporated. Heat until thickened (you want the consistency of pudding) then take off the heat and set aside for 2 minutes to cool.
- Beat the eggs in a bowl. When the sauce has cooled, add two ladlefuls into the eggs then whisk the egg mixture back into the sauce. Add the grated Halloumi cheese and stir to combine – keep warm on a low heat until ready to use.
- Dice the pepper and grate the tomato. Peel and chop the onion finely and fry it in 1 tablespoon of olive oil until tender. Add the pepper slices and garlic, continue frying until soft. Add the ground beef and fry until browned. Add the grated tomato, tomato paste and spices. Cover the pan and let the meat simmer for about 10 minutes. Remove from the heat.
- Grate the other three tomatoes and put them in a small saucepan. Add the tomato paste, salt, pepper, oregano and sugar and let the sauce simmer for about 10 minutes. Remove from the heat.
- Remove the eggplant slices from the water and blot them dry with paper towels. Fry them on both sides in vegetable oil until tender and golden brown on both sides. Drain them well on paper towels. Repeat with the zucchini.
- Combine the tomato sauce, eggplant, zucchini and meat and place in a shallow casserole as a mixture. Add the mint leaves, stir well.
- Pour the hot bechamel sauce over the meat layer, covering it completely (you may have more than you need). Sprinkle the extra grated cheese evenly over the top of the casserole.
- Bake the casserole in a 360° F/180° C oven until the top turns golden brown.
- Remove the casserole from the oven and let it rest for at least 10 minutes before cutting it into squares and serving with Turkish-style rice pilaf.
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