Friday, 20 June 2008

Moussaka (Μουσσακά)

Moussaka is so closely connected to Greece in such a way that most people don't realise it exists in the same format in other countries around Greece, most often countries associated with past links to the Ottoman Empire. Recently my students at MAICh had a party in which they presented traditional Egyptian dishes, one of which was eggplant and potato slices baked with mince, with the Egyptian version being more heavily spiced than the Greek variety).

Although I enjoy making a moussaka every now and then, it's another Greek traditional dish that my children eat with difficulty, and I suspect many modern Greek youngsters will have the same opinion. However tasty it is for an adult, it looks too 'brown' and tastes too rich for a child. My I-hate-vegetables son wants me to pick off all the aubergines, whereas my daughter doesn't want the mince. I end up eating their leftovers, without really being able to savour the work of art that I created in the kitchen. In my opinion, moussaka is a 'too-much' food.

It's said that the way to a man's heart is through his stomach, and I can tell you that my husband is a great fan of moussaka. This is about the only reason I make it; who's going to finish off the tin I cook? But a wife who wants to keep her husband has to be cruel to be kind: so much oil, so much frying, so much of too much - it can only lead to cholesterol-raising arterial blockage and coronary heart disease. I tell him not to ask so often for moussaka, even though research suggests that followers of the Mediterranean diet in Southern European countries suffer the least from diet-related heart problems. Tsk, tsk.

A friend of mine told me about his hilarious adventures when he first came out to Paleohora, having decided to rent out rooms to tourists and run a restaurant in the village, as it was back then in the mid-1970s - his was one of the first eateries in the undeveloped coastal rural town that Paleohora once was.

"I was well versed in the Greek cuisine, having worked elsewhere in the restaurant trade for many years. Coming to Paleohora, I realised that what the mild-mannered English and German tourists wanted when they came to Paleohora in the summer was to savour what they thought of as the authentic Greek lifestyle: the slow-paced ignorant locals, the alluring sun and sea, along with authentic Greek peasant cuisine (if those two words can go together). So my wife and I decided to serve only traditional food in the restaurant.

"I found a wine merchant who supplied me with the best marouva (a local variety of wine) you could find in the area, a more expensive variety than others available on the market at the time. The tourists would order it, but they wouldn't drink it, and I'd be chucking away gallons of it sitting undrunk in their glasses. I realised that they were used to classifying wines into reds and whites, something totally foreign in the Cretan wine sector. As soon as I bought in second grade varieties, which could only be distinguished by their colour, the tourists started ordering a second carafe. 'Very good local wine,' they'd say to me, and I'd just answer back, 'Yes, I made it myself from my own grapevines,' and of course they believed me!

"Then there was the salad oil. We used only local olive oil in all our food, and Paleohora olives make some of the best grade of olive oil in the whole country, not just Crete. But Northern Europeans aren't used to mopping up sauces and oil from their plate with freshly baked bread - they were used to sliced bread anyway - so the oil would just remain in the salad bowl, uneaten, wasted. I stopped buying the best grade, and found a cheaper alternative. It too went to waste in any food that required olive oil as a dressing. So I stopped dressing the salads, and just left a small bottle on the table. I watched the tourists pouring a couple of drops of oil over their salad, and I realised that they simply weren't used to using oil any kind - as much as we are. Olive oil only started to be sold relatively recently in their supermarkets; they used to buy it as an exotic highly priced item from pharmacies in their own country.

"We cooked all the traditional Greek foods: pastitsio with spicy mince and creamy sauce, yemista doused in tomato and olive oil, boureki with staka butter, moussaka with fried potato and aubergine slices. In the beginning, I couldn't understand why most people left most of their meal on their plate. Were the servings too large? Was there something wrong with the food? I realised after a couple of seasons that those tourists had been seeing pictures of Greek food in books, and they knew what to expect, but what they didn't know was that it would be so heavy on their stomach. I dry-cooked the mince in the pastitsio; they licked their plate. I stopped dousing olive oil over the yemista and just cooked them in water; they loved them. I stopped adding staka to the boureki: 'yum yum', they kept telling me. I didn't bother frying the aubergine and potato slices in the moussaka; 'mmm, delicious,' they exclaimed, and I'd tell them that the recipe was a very old one from my mother-in-law. That's the kind of bullshit they wanted to hear because it made their holiday take on an exotic appeal. They had no idea what authentic Greek food was; when they were served it, their stomachs couldn't take it."


Having discovered 'authentic Greek peasantry', those tourists went back home and tried to get as close as their knowledge and taste allowed them to the authentic tastes of the Mediterranean kitchen in the backwaters of Norwich, Nottingham and Northampton. The BBC - the purveyor of independent objective news coverage - does a fantastic job of deconstructing moussaka (and other foreign cuisine), genetically modifying it - in the cultural sense - for the British palate:
Hear ye, hear ye: if you insist on calling something moussaka, at least make it look like moussaka; but have you ever wondered what the first moussaka in the world might have looked like?

Having had a look at things from the tourists' point of view, I don't understand all the fuss made about moussaka either. For a start, it's traditionally associated with summer when the beautiful purple globes are at the height of their production. Eggplant needs to be cooked in olive oil to bring out its maximum flavour; fried food in the summer is exactly the opposite of what you should be eating in hot weather. Slices of fried aubergine, slices of fried potato, a spicy tomato sauce mince, topped with a custardy bechamel sauce: all of which frazzle the cook, heat up the kitchen and clog your arteries. It's just the wrong food for this time of year.


So my advice to you is: don't cook moussaka in the summer. Save it for the winter: the laiki open-air market is full of greenhouse grown aubergine at that time. When you cook moussaka, don't fry the vegetables: you'll be all the more healthy for it. And if you have children, don't bother making moussaka at all: you'll have to eat it for days to get rid of it. If there's a moral in this story, it's something like 'don't cook moussaka'; it's not good for you. (But if you really must cook it, you can use this recipe, written by someone who makes moussaka in its season and freezes it. And when you do cook it, if it doesn't all get eaten in one sitting, it freezes well cooked in individual servings.)

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