fine food - Moussaka
Written by Oryx
The layered and unlayered moussaka common across the Middle East and Mediterranean are both relatives of the revered Italian lasagne. Each is distinctly different yet pleasurable and worth seeking out on your travels. Craig Butcher highlights three of the best versions.
Levantine moussaka (emanating from the Arabic word for ‘chilled’) really is quite different. A cooked dish primarily made with the same two ingredients that largely define moussaka, aubergine and tomatoes, it is more akin to an Italian caponata (the same ingredients with a sweet and sour sauce) than a Greek or Turkish moussaka. Usually served chilled as a mezze side dish or at lunchtime as a casserole-style dish, in Lebanon it benefits from the addition of chickpeas to the two core ingredients and is typically served hot.
For a true Ionian experience, indulge in a Greek-style moussaka. Topped with a béchamel sauce, occasionally given extra lift by the addition of beaten egg whites, the Greek interpretation layers minced lamb or veal in premium versions with a hearty balance of sautéed aubergines, and the pervasive spice of cinnamon adds weight. Lamb mince is more ubiquitous, but opt for veal if you can. The layered version started appearing in the 1920s and traditionally has a bottom layer of aubergine, a central layer of ground mince, and a béchamel topping.
Turkish moussaka is, crucially, not layered and isn’t typically topped with the béchamel sauce common to Greek moussaka or Italian lasagne. As with the Greek interpretation, sautéed aubergines are the primary ingredient, combined in a medley of green peppers, tomatoes, and onions. The freestyle format can also include ground mince, and there are versions that include carrots and courgettes. Typically served with a herb and garlic yoghurt sauce known as cacik (or tzatziki), or with pilaf, a rice cooked in seasoned broth, expect to find this dish on menus across Turkey.
These three varieties are connected by their commonalities more than they are divided by their differences. All rely on sautéed aubergine as their key ingredient, carry a depth of flavour through a tomato sauce charged with cinnamon and nutmeg, and are found primarily in areas of the former Ottoman Empire.