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Recipes and Tastes of Greece

Mousaka, the national dish 

of the Aegean sea

by Mirsini Lambraki

Sunday morning, summer, I find myself in my bed and here comes besetting the usual question mixed with a sweet concern:  "What are we going to eat today?» 

Then my mum’s beloved specialty storms the bedroom.  It livens and emerges fresh and familiar from the depths of my childhood.  A soft layer of potatoes, on top of it laid down, nonchalantly, thick slices of freshly fried eggplants in a tight embrace with sizzled lamb or beef minced meat and all these under a light, crispy, velvety veil of béchamel sauce.

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moussaka

Cosmopolitan, common talk among friends, in some cases a bit “abused”, moussaka, for years now, has found itself in the first place of the Pantheon of so called "national dishes” of Greece and Turkey along with souvlaki (skewer), tzatziki and Greek salad.

However, as is the case with all things, the essence of dishes appears to content neither the uniformity of national dishes, nor the determined biases, since it has been proved in our everyday life that cooking is a live and vibrant part of every country that develops not only in savour but also culturally as well.

First of all to the big disappointment of Greeks and Turks, the word "moussaka" is of Arabic origin!!  The roots of the word “moussaka” which both nations claim, come from the Persian word "magouma'", a dish with layers of eggplants, onions and minced lamb meat.  The word "moussaka'" in Arabic means "soaked" because this dish has to be eaten juicy, served with all the rich juices of its vegetables, meat and olive oil.    

In Lebanon, people name “moussaka” a pot dish, which is served with layers of eggplants, a sauce of fresh tomatoes and raisins. 

Many of us though ignore that our neighbours, the Turks, keep cooking moussaka in its Arabic and not in its European version, that is to say with plenty of eggplants or zucchini, minced meat and chickpeas.  Eggplants or zucchini are not cut into slices but in small square pieces in the size of the head of a "bird" and they are cooked in a pot and not in the oven. As far as potatoes is concerned there is no way that they would be used since this vegetable of the "New World” has never managed to totally infiltrate the Middle East dishes.

The French educated chef, born in Sifnos, Nikos Tselementes was the one who added on the “top”of the dish the white sauce called béchamel. Thus, the  “development" of Middle East moussaka in the beginning of the century, took a European version where all is covered with a sometimes thick or sometimes washy "sauce" depending on the mood of the chef.

The moussaka version which was not made with the classic béchamel sauce and its last layer was of rubbed rusk or hardtack or even beaten eggs and cheese was named in the Greek cooking guides of 1930-1950-1960 as  "moussaka imitation".

TURKISH MOUSSAKA

 Ingredients

1 kg long eggplants

300 gr. minced meat either lamb or beef

1 middle size onion thinly chopped 

3 tablespoons fresh butter or corn oil

1 small bunch of parsley thinly chopped 

1 -1/2 cup boiled chickpeas

1 glass of water (for the baking)

2 large tomatoes pulped or 1 full tablespoon of tomato paste, olive oil or corn oil for frying the eggplants

1 teaspoon of cumin

1 teaspoon of cinnamon

1 teaspoon of allspice 

Salt

METHOD

Peel eggplants in stripes, slice them and allow them to rest, before frying, in cold salted water for one hour. 

Sizzle onion lightly in a saucepan, add minced meat and sizzle till it absorbs its juices. While you add the tomato paste you still stir the meat.  Add chickpeas and parsley. 

Fry eggplants in plenty of olive oil and when they are golden brown remove from heat and place them on a kitchen toilet paper in order to drain excess of olive oil.  Arrange the eggplant slices in a cooking pot, put on top the meat with the chick peas, sprinkle with spices and cook for 10-15 minutes, until eggplants are plump, juicy and soft. 

Allow moussaka to cool for 10 minutes and then invert onto a platter. Served cool or even cold.   

GREEK MOUSSAKA

 

INGREDIENTS (8-10 servings)

4 large eggplants

1 kg of lamb minced meat finely chopped

1 small onion thinly chopped

2 cloves gillyflower 

1 tablespoon of black raisins (optional)

1 clove cinnamon

½ tablespoon grated orange peel 

2 tablespoons of olive oil

1 ½ cup olive oil for frying

1 teaspoon salt 

 

mousakas

For the topping  (option A) 

2 tablespoons butter 

3  – 4 tablespoons flour

2 cups fresh milk

2 egg yolks

2 tablespoons grated cheese

½ teaspoon ground nutmeg  

 

For the topping (option B)

½ kg  non sour yoghurt

3 well beaten eggs

1 tablespoon flour

Salt 

Pepper

Nutmeg (optional) 

METHOD

Cut the eggplants into slices and put them in salted water for 1 hour approximately.  Remove eggplants from water and squeeze them so they drain the excess water. 

Heat olive oil in a deep frying pan with heavy bottom and fry the eggplants until soften without getting brown. Arrange them on a kitchen towel paper to absorb the excess olive oil. 

In a clean frying pan heat olive oil and sizzle the onion until it golden browns without getting burned.  Add minced meat, stir constantly, add all spices, grated orange peel and raisins- provided that you use them- along with a bit of salt.  Cook 4  – 5 minutes until all fluids are absorbed. 

Arrange eggplant slices on a medium size baking dish, sprinkle minced meat and continue with another layer of eggplants. 

Prepare béchamel sauce as follows: In a small saucepan melt butter, remove from the heat and add flour, stirring constantly with a wooden ladle till the mixture thickens.  When the mush cools, add the beaten egg yolks. Add cold milk and place the saucepan in the heat, in low temperature, stirring constantly till it becomes a thick and homogeneous sauce. Sprinkle cheese and add a touch of salt and nutmeg and spoon the sauce over all. 

Bake for 25-30 minutes in a preheated 180 degrees oven until the sauce golden browns. Served warm. 


 

Mirsini Lambraki was born in Heraklion, Crete in July 1965.She studied Political Sciences and Public Administration at the Law School of Athens. She published a first selection of poems in 1990, under the title “Tritones”, and a second selection, “Oneireutis”, in 1992.

 

In 1993, following a family tradition of three generations, Myrsini Lambraki consecrated herself exclusively to the art of cooking. Her interest in diet has led her to research traditional Greek and Cretan food in al their aspects, turning her into an expert advisor in the art of using, serving and promoting traditional products.

She writes a gastronomic column in one of the country’s most important newspapers “Kathimerini” and has published articles on traditional cooking in Greek, American and European Union + Switzerland, Iceland, Norway, Cyprusan magazines. She teaches Traditional Cretan - Greek Cooking in educational programs

She is a member of SLOW FOOD Administration Board, an international organization that promotes traditional cooking, and a member of ARCHESTRATOS, an association promoting the preservation and dissemination of Greek Cooking.

In 1997 she published her first gastronomic research on the edible greens in Crete and Greece “EDIBLE GREENS” which has become a national best-seller (five editions to date), and in 1998 a gastronomic treatise on cod-fish, “SALTED COD” (second edition).

In 1999, Lambraki published her book on the olive tree and its produce “OLIVE OIL: the Elixir of life” with a detailed description of the history of this tree and the use of olive oil in Greece from Antiquity to the present.

 


 

Learn more on the Mediterranean diet

 

 

 

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