Sunday, 11 August 2013


A friend recently posted a Facebook update, as she often does, about what she was cooking. It was moussaka and it included potatoes. I replied firmly that a moussaka cannot have potatoes in it. She replied with the BBC recipe from which she got it. I was not prepared to take the BBC as authoritative (on more or less any topic these days), so I held my ground and we had a bit of an exchange about it. Various other people weighed in, including one who made the point that recipes do develop over time. Which I knew to be true. And, to be honest, it has always been a slight surprise to me that what I regard as authentic moussaka has rice with it. Not chips, although they serve that now in most Greek resort centres. Ugh.

Anyway, I decided to research it, and rapidly discovered, to my surprise, that moussaka is a relatively modern invention. And an actual invention. I found several sources for this, but the best in my view is this feature in The Atlantic. It revolves around Nicholas Tselementes, a Greek chef of the early twentieth century, who had considerable international experience. He thought that Greek cooking had become too Turkish during the long period of Turkish occupation, and he set out to de-Ottomanise it. The moussaka that we know today was part of his response. He took out a lot of the spiciness, and incorporated a certain amount of French influence (though not garlic, which he apparently despised). His cookbook, published in the 1920s, contained recipes from many places, and those he considered to be the important Greek ones. He has a whole chapter on moussaka, and includes a number of variants, including moussaka cooked with courgettes or artichokes or..... potatoes (the horror, the horror).

So I sit corrected on the topic of potatoes in moussaka. And as was said in the Facebook conversation, cooking does develop, in this case quite deliberately. I know that: I'm English. Our national dish (apart from curry and pizza - enough said) is fish and chips. Chips from America; battered fish brought here by Jewish refugees in the eighteenth or nineteenth century. And the moussaka that we know today is a multicultural, though primarily European, melange. So I will accept that moussaka can be made with potatoes.

The next issue is the rice, which to me always felt a bit Middle Eastern, rather than Balkan. Again, I'm wrong in terms of cultivation and usage. Rice has been cultivated in Greece since at least classical times. Definitely pre-Ottoman.

Despite my discoveries I will stick to my idea of what a proper moussaka is, for primarily personal reasons. When I thought about it after discovering Tselementes, I realised that for me moussaka is not a recipe but an experience. In my secondary years and at university I studied classics. I learned Greek. I enjoyed Greek stuff. I enjoyed particularly the discovery of the Kebab Cellar in Cambridge (sadly no longer there). And I enjoyed going to Greece, allegedly to study the monuments. Moussaka for me is about being warm and carefree, and to get that feeling it can't have potatoes in it.

It has to have a Greek salad with it. (Greek salad is any veg you like, as long as it has olives and feta cheese in it.)

It also has to have retsina with it.

Baklava afterwards is OK, but I'm not too bothered about that - I'm usually too full and too drunk by then.

And for preference to be preceded by taramasalata and pitta bread. Not hummus. (Taramasalata seems to be Greek in origin by most accounts, but the tarama... bit derives from Turkish...)


Mark Weller said...

Well written and explained Rob, thank you.

Alex Wilcock said...

Absolutely fascinating, Rob!

Only knowing UK-bought moussakas, I always feel that if it doesn't have both potato and aubergine it's strange...

George Roussopoulos said...

Nice piece Rob. One minor quibble - it gives the impression moussaka was invented ca 1920ies - Wiki gives a deeper and older background.

And no to potatoes for me too, yes to your surrounding savours!