Wednesday, 16 January 2008

Moussaka: A Meander.....


It's January.

Cold, dreary, grey.......... and if it isn't actually tipping down outside, then it's either just finished or is just about to start again. Definitely weather for keeping close to the fire, and contemplating important issues like the why and wherefore of Moussaka. The subject came up over dinner the other day - as is so often the case - when the Technical Department opined that Aubergine is post-Columbian and came from South America (it isn't and doesn't - in fact, it comes from India, and so is easily pre-Columbian.....) and that therefore Moussaka can only date from the fifteenth century, at the earliest.

The sort of statement that acts as a red rag to a research bull. And so.....

Most people think of Moussaka as a Greek dish, but like so many Mediterranean dishes, its precise origins are difficult to pin down. The word and the dish crop up in all the surrounding regions of the Balkans, Turkey and Arabia; there's even a version of it in the famous 13th century cookbook, The Royal Dishes of Baghdad. In Greece, if you leave the meat out and omit the béchamel topping, the dish becomes a Briami, or in Turkish Biryan, or the Indian Biryani, not to mention the Provencale Tian .........you get the picture.

In fact, the béchamel topping for Moussaka is only a 20th century addition, believed to be the idea of Nicholas Tselementes who, in 1910, wrote the 'definitive' cookbook on Greek food, Odigos Mageirikis - to be found still in every Greek grandmothers' kitchen. I use the inverted commas on purpose: Mr T had actually been trained in France and on his return to Greece, he set about 'frenchifying' Greek cooking by adding sauces and butter etc - to the delight of the wildly francophile Greek bourgeoisie. His - and now the definitive - Moussaka, is really only a variation on the standard French Gratin. Greek chefs these days are busy trying to remove the Tselementes influence and get back to their real (or imagined) roots, preparing food from the freshest ingredients, and with the minimum of sauce, and as simply as possible - the fact that this looks extremely similar to Italian food is a technicality that shouldn't detain us. My preferred recipe for Moussaka is an authentic 1960's, pre-tourist boom, version which doesn't have a béchamel topping...and without the meat would be a lot like Melanzane alla Parmigiana - which of course is from Naples.......

I love these cultural sleights of hand that litter kitchen history: greek food is actually italian (or turkish); Crême Brulée comes from Cambridge; Vichyssoise was devised in the kitchens of The Plaza Hotel in New York; french croissants (which the french do have the grace to include within the term viennoisérie) are in fact austrian.........

Never mind the history: properly made, it's all delicious!

Interestingly, most recipes for Moussaka invariably call for minced or chopped lamb, but in Greece everyone uses κιμά (kima) because it is cheap. Kima is what comes out of the butcher's mincer. It is not always precisely clear what actually goes into the the butcher's mincer, but it definitely isn't lamb and it definitely isn't chunks of lean meat of any sort; it is mostly beef offcuts - and I use the word 'offcuts' in the very broadest sense. These 'offcuts' lurk, out of sight, in the high-sided tray on top of the mincer which is invariably at the back of the shop. When one asks for 1kg of kima the butcher will ostentatiously select a piece of, say, skirt weighing less than half the amount ordered, cut it up and run it through the mincer while also shoveling bits of the invisible 'offcuts' into the chute with a large wooden pusher. Miraculously, when he weighs the result it will come to just over the kilo, so that nothing remains but to pay the lady at the door. Smiles are exchanged all round and one is on one's way. What one doesn't do - on pain of being served inferior meat for life - is to ask what else went in.


Kαλή όρεξη!

Tonight's Dinner:

Scallops, with Almonds and Parsley Sauce.

Flash Fried Beef, with Caramelised Mushrooms.

Pineapple roast with Rum.

4 comments:

Toffeeapple said...

What an interesting read, thank you. I haven't eaten Mousaka for years, I should make it again. Many years ago I confused the recipes for Lasagne and Mousaka and made Lousaka - it was still tasy.

Pomiane said...

I find the end result depends significantly on the quality of the meat which goes in at the start - tasteless meat will mean two and two make four, probably, whereas lamb or beef with some flavour will take it to a five; also, much better reheated and consumed a day, if not two, after it's made (as with so many 'stewed' dishes).

Toffeeapple said...

As with all things quality counts and I agree that many things taste better the next day. Even bog standard Bolognaise sauce. I'm hungry - potato and garlic soup as I feel a little unwell, I shall also put in some lemon rind and thyme.

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