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What is Moussaka?

Mary McMahon
Updated Feb 29, 2024
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Moussaka is a type of casserole native to the Mediterranean. Although this dish is closely associated with Greece, where it may have originated, it is also widely eaten in Egypt, the Middle East, and the rest of the Balkans. It also comes in a range of styles and flavors, making it a very diverse and versatile dish. Some Mediterranean restaurants offer moussaka, especially if they specialize in Greek food, and it can also be purchased from some markets, or made at home.

There are three fundamental ingredients in moussaka: a vegetable, a meat mixture, and some sort of sauce. The ingredients are layered and then baked to make a moussaka, which may be eaten hot or cold, depending on regional tastes. For variation, some cooks add a white sauce and cheese to the top, making the moussaka much richer and more intense. Vegetarian cooks use a meat substitute in their moussaka, with seitan being particularly suitable, since it has a dense, chewy texture which pairs well with the other ingredients.

Classically, moussaka is made with eggplant slices, lamb, tomato sauce, and a white sauce. The eggplant slices are usually fried first, sometimes in breading, and the lamb is seasoned and cooked before being layered onto the eggplant slices with the tomato slice. This eggplant/lamb/tomato moussaka is the version people tend to think of when they hear the word “moussaka,” assuming they think of anything at all.

However, vegetables like potatoes, carrots, and zucchinis can be used instead of eggplant slices, while meats such as beef, pork, or even chicken may stand in for the lamb. The tomato sauce may be replaced with whole tomatoes, or a white sauce, and a variety of cheeses and sauces may be used to top the moussaka. This versatility makes moussaka easy to make at home, as cooks can use ingredients they like, rather than needing to adhere to a strict recipe. The important thing is to precook the ingredients so that they will cook all the way through when the moussaka is baked.

When moussaka is prepared well, it has a surprisingly light flavor with lots of layers of flavor and texture. Unfortunately, many moussakas are very greasy, thanks to cooks who do not drain the eggplant enough after frying, and to the use of heavy oils in the lamb mixture and sauce. It's important to go light on the oil when assembling a moussaka, as a little goes a long way.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a WiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By sweetPeas — On Aug 25, 2011

@Esther11 - I, too had moussaka for the first time when I was in Greece. I liked it a lot. Then I kind of forgot about the dish.

An article I read in a magazine inspired me to try making it myself. I found so many different varieties and recipes, I couldn't decide what to try first. Since then I've tried using eggplant,and zucchini as the main vegetable. And for meat everything from lamb, chicken, beef to sausage. I like the white sauce with cheese as a topping.

The one I make most often is the vegetarian style. I use zucchini, sliced tomatoes, chick peas, parsley, cooked onions, and tomato sauce. On top I put white cheese and bread crumbs. It's really good and very nutritious.

By Esther11 — On Aug 25, 2011

I love to eat moussaka, but I also love to say the word - it just rolls off your tongue and it's fun to emphasize the last syllable "ka".

Anyway, many years ago, I visited Greece and loved the food there - including the lamb, vegetables, yogurt, and desserts.

Everyone said that I really ought to try the moussaka. When I found out most moussaka had eggplant in it, I was skeptical. My mom used to fix fried eggplant with little spice. I didn't like it at all.

But then I thought - well, in Greece, I should do as the Greeks do - I was pleasantly surprised when I tried it. It was served piping hot, with a great mix of flavors. I loved it. The lamb was moist, tender and tasty, the eggplant was well cooked and flavorful. My favorite topping was a white sauce with cheese and bread crumbs sprinkled on top. Out of this world!

By ZsaZsa56 — On Aug 25, 2011

I once went to this Asian fusion restaurant that had an Asian inspired moussaka on the menu. A friend of mine ordered it and I tried a few bites. It was a fine example of all that can go wrong with fusion cuisine.

They used Chinese eggplant, blugolgi beef and a mixture of carrots, sprouts and celery for the vegetables. The sauce was a kind of teryiaki concoction. On paper this sounds edible but in practice it was a disaster.

The entire dish was horribly mushy, the flavors ran together until they were inedible, the whole thing was very greasy and the sauce was overpowering. Fusion cuisine makes this kind of mistake a lot. Just because it works in one culture doesn't mean you can transport it around the world and have it taste just as good.

By tigers88 — On Aug 24, 2011

Mousakka for me has always been the ultimate comfort food. This is kind of weird because I don;t come from a Greek family or even from a family of especially exotic eaters. But my mom had an incredible recipe for Greek Mousakka and she probably made it for dinner at least once every 3 weeks.

I always loved the smell that it gave to our house as it was cooking. It is kind of like lasagna but less garlicky. My mom would serve it with a Greek salad and this special kind of olive break. It really was an incredible meal and something I still ask her to make when I go home for a visit.

By nextcorrea — On Aug 23, 2011

I took a trip to Greece last year and while I was there I had the most incredible moussaka. It really puts the mousakka we find in American Greek restaurants to shame. It is kind of like the difference between a Taco bell taco and one you would find in a Mexican village.

I was also amazed at how many different kinds of mousakka I saw on menus. There was a huge variety between vegetables, meats and sauces. In some places it was beef and in other lamb. I even saw one place with a chicken mousakka. Some are creamy and other go for a tomatoes sauce. All of them looked incredible. I could have spent my whole trip eating nothing but mousakka but I would have come home with 10 extra pounds as a souvenir.

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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