Names for this casserole abound across languages, such as “musakka", “mussaqa’a”, “mousakas”, “moussaka” and others still. No matter how it’s now written or pronounced, it is common in both Turkey and Greece. Here’s the interesting history and origin of this delectable eggplant dish.
What is Moussaka?
Moussaka is a casserole with meat and eggplant playing the main roles. Usually the eggplant is fried and is cooked in a tomato sauce. Aside from the traditional eggplant version, there are a slew of other versions with different vegetables, such as potatoes. The meat is most often ground beef, but cubed beef is used as well.Jump to Recipe
The origins of musakka, as we know it today in Turkey begin in the Ottoman palace kitchen, which was introduced to the main ingredient of eggplant by Arabs. The oldest ancestor of the dish is mentioned in the medieval Arabic cookbook “A Baghdad Cookery Book” in the 13th century (1). The dish gained popularity over the centuries, so much so that is mentioned in a poem by Ottoman poet İbrahim Tirsi in the early 18th century several times (2).
The dish under its modern name was given in “Cooks’ Refuge” by Mehmet Kamil in 1844, which was then translated and featured in Turabi Efendi’s “Turkish Cookery Book” in 1862, finding its way into the English-speaking world through the latter (2).
After the reign of the Ottoman Empire ended the Greeks wanted to get rid of the Turkish influence and “invented” the Greek version of this dish by adding a thick layer of white sauce or known as bechamel sauce on top – literally adding a “western” touch on top of the dish. (3). The addition of a thick sauce on top, however, was indeed not new. A cookbook from the 13th century mentions a dish called “buraniyya” with the name “al-jami’a”, which includes the beginnings of topping the dish with a thick sauce, reminiscent of today’s Greek moussaka (2).
The word moussaka entered the English language in 1862 as “muzakka” from the Arabic مسقعة (musaqqa’a) which can be translated as that which is fed liquid. Some sources claim it means cool (3) while another says that is stems from the Arabic verb “saqa’a”, meaning to spread flat (2).
Musakka - layered eggplants with meat never tasted so good
- 3 long eggplants
- 1-2 onions
- 3-4 tomatoes
- 300 gr ground beef
- 1 bundle of parsley
- Salt, pepper, olive oil to taste
- Sunflower oil for frying
- 1 tbsp tomato paste
- 120 ml water
- Remove the stems from the eggplants and peel them in stripes. Cut the eggplants into 2 cm slices and sprinkle them with salt. Let them rest for 5-10 minutes and dry them off with paper towels. Fry the slices in sunflower oil until they gain color. Let the excess oil drip off.
- Chop the onions and sauté them in a separate pan. Once they have softened, add the meat and seasoning. Peel and chop the tomatoes, chop them and add that to the mix once the meat has cooked. Continue cooking for a bit. Turn the heat off and add the chopped parsley.
- Take half of the fried eggplants and lay them into a baking dish. Add half of the meat mixture as the second layer and cover it with the other half of the eggplants. At the very end, add the rest of the meat mixture on top.
- Dilute the tomato paste with water and pour it over the top. Cover the baking dish with aluminum foil and bake for 15-20 minutes at 180 degrees Celsius.
Bibliography(1) Muhammad bin al-Hasan bin Muhammad bin al-Karîm, “A Baghdad Cookery Book”, tr, Charles Perry, 2005.
(2) Nawal Nasrallah, “In the Beginning there Was No Musakka,” in “Food, Culture & Society”, 13:4, 595-606, 2010.
(3) Aglaia Kremenzi and Anissa Helou, “What’s in the Name of a Dish? The Words Mean what the People of the Mediterranean Want them to Mean…”, in “Food and Language: Proceedings of the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cooking 2009”, ed. Richard Hosking, 2009.