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F - 164 : What's all the Fuss about Mussaqqa'a?

One of the world’s most prominent food controversies is about who invented yoghurt. My blog F - 183 talked about it. An equally intense controversy, albeit a bit less known, concerns the origin of Mussaqqa’a. You may wonder about my spelling. It is Arab. And that is where the dish is from. Does not prevent Greek and Turkish folks from arguing that they invented it. YouTube is full of funny and amusing videos. None close to the truth though.

Asian Aubergines are purple - European More Black

As all of us hobby chefs know, Mussaqqa’a is a dish based on fried or sauteed aubergine slices, minced meat, sometimes combined with spicy peppers, tomato sauce, potatoes and – in Greece – with bechamel sauce. The dish is layered in a clay or glass form, then baked in the oven. It is eaten hot in the Balkans, Turkey and the Levant. The Arabs also eat it cold, specifically when prepared with chick peas.

Aubergines on Garlic and Red Peppers is a very popular Dish all over Asia

Since eggplants are the main ingredient to the dish, let’s talk about them for a second. Egg plants originate from today’s Myanmar from where they spread to China and India. The first written recipe for aubergines dates from around 500 BC and is found in Chinese texts. A good two hundred years later we find the vegetable also in Hindu texts. From India it spread via the maritime trade routes to Arab lands by 800 AD. Neither the ancient Greek nor the Romans mention eggplants in any text.

Knowing what good chefs Indians are (love Indian cuisine!) I believed for a long time that Indians must have invented Mussaqqa’a. There are so many potted dishes in the Indian cuisine - it seemed logic. But I could not find any evidence. Whilst there is written proof that Arabs had a dish called Maghmuma, an oven baked clay dish with aubergines, peppers and minced beef. Since Hindu culture forbids the consumption of beef – cows are holy – it may be that aubergines were just used as vegetables in the Indian cuisine.

The Word used for Eggplants or Aubergines reveals its Indian or Burmese Origin

From the Arab world, aubergines and Mussaqqa’a rapidly spread to Europe, probably via Sicily, Greece and Spain. By the 13th century, aubergines were well known in Southern Europe. Tomatoes reached Europe only with the discovery of the Americas in 1492. They spread from Spain to all Mediterranean countries, be they Muslim or Christian.

In Egypt, tomato sauce was fully integrated in the Mussaqqa’a recipe. Layers of eggplant, ground beef and tomato sauce alternate. The dish is then cooked in an oven, let sit for a day to ferment, then reheated and served.

Mussaqqa'a with Chicken Peas is a typical Dish of the Levant

The Ottoman Turks were very familiar with the Levantine and Egyptian style of Mussaqqa’a and brought it to Anatolia. It is from this acquaintance that they claim of having invented it.

In the Levant, people often add chick peas to the recipe and east their Mussaqqa’a when cold. In Macedonia, people also added potatoes. In Turkey, Mussaqqa’a is often prepared with green bell peppers and eaten with Pilav. The dish showed up in Turkish cooking books by the mid of the 19th century.

Turkish Mussaqqa'a does not look like the Dish we are familiar with but it is as tasty!

The Moussaka we all know is an invention of the 20th century by a Greek chef named Nikolaos Tselementes. Born in Sifnos, an island we are going to visit in week 4 this summer, he grew up in Athens, where he worked in his uncles restaurant. After a year in Vienna and working in various embassies in Athens, he became famous for his contributions to the Greek food magazine “Cooking Guide”. With his articles and recipes he brought western cuisine to Greece and combined it with the classical Greek tradition.

From 1920 to 1932 he worked in various prestigious restaurants in the United States. His famous book “Cooking and Patisserie Guide” was written during his American Years in 1930. It was printed in Greek and became the standard book for Greek cuisine. It is still reprinted today. It was also during these years that Nikolaos Tselementes came up with the recipe for Greek Moussaka. Some people say he created the dish in 1926 but I have no source to corroborate.

Nikolaos Tselementes (1878 - 1958) translated his famous cook book into English in 1950. It is impossible to find a copy. It is out of print for many years

As we know, Greek Moussaka is prepared with three layers of broiled aubergines, two layers of meat sauce made from minced beef, onions, quartered tomatoes and herbs, topped with French Bechamel Sauce (milk, butter, eggs and flour or chicken pea flour) and then baked in the oven until golden.

Greek Moussaka as we know it

Since aubergines belong to the Nightshade family, its seeds contain some nicotine alkaloid. But they decay during cooking. Apparently, the eggplant skin contains anti-carcinogenic substances and the flesh is high on fiber and phytonutrients which lower the cholesterol levels in our blood. There are thus plenty of reasons to eat eggplants.

That the Arab dish Mussaqqa’a is still able to trigger so many patriotic sentiments is kind of a compliment. Assume it is because it is so delicious that everybody likes to have the winner on his side. Am looking forward to Greek and Turkish Mussaqqa’a this summer! Love the fact that national competition has given us more choice.

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Mar 10, 2022

it's the asian eggplant and my favorite: moussaka!


Mar 10, 2022


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