Everything you need to know about moussaka, the classic Greek dish

It may be an icon of Greek cuisine, but this hearty layered dish hails from beyond the country’s borders — and its present form is a relatively recent innovation.

This article was produced by National Geographic Traveller (UK).

You’ll find moussaka, with its chunky layers of deeply savoury, sweetly spiced meat, silky aubergines and creamy bechamel sauce, on the menu at every whitewashed tourist taverna. No surprise, then, that it’s perceived by many visitors as Greece’s national dish. Some in the Greek diaspora, however, seem less convinced, with chef Peter Conistis telling listeners to the Ouzo Talk podcast that, “You might hate me but… it started as a Turkish dish”. 

In reality, moussaka’s true origins may lie even further afield. In Kitab al-Tabikh, a 13th-century manuscript referred to in English as A Baghdad Cookery Book, there’s a recipe for ‘maghmuma’, or ‘muqatta’a’, consisting of alternating strata of aubergine and onions, spiced meat and fat, soaked in a vinegar-spiked gravy. And according to Charles Perry, an expert on medieval Arabic cuisine, the word ‘moussaka’ comes from the Arabic ‘musaqqâ’ (‘moistened’). It’s an etymology that aptly sums up the attraction of a dish sauced with olive oil, tomatoes and meat juices, all topped with a generous slick of bechamel — and that’s just the modern Greek iteration. In fact, versions of moussaka can be found throughout the Middle Eastern, North African and Balkan worlds under an array of different names.

Food and travel writer Ghillie Başan writes that ‘the word [musakka in Turkish] simply denotes a dish of fried vegetables with minced meat’, which is what, it’s generally agreed, would have passed for moussaka in Greece, too, until Nicholas Tselementes arrived on the scene. Born on the island of Sifnos in 1878, Tselementes grew up in Athens and seems to have trained in classical French techniques in Vienna at the turn of the 20th century before returning to Greece, where he began publishing a cookery magazine in 1910. A book of recipes and household advice followed and proved such a success that his name quickly became synonymous with Greek cuisine; even today, almost a century after Odigos Mageirikis (‘Cookery Guide’) first appeared on the market, ‘tselemente’ remains a generic Greek term for a cookbook.

The Greek food writer and journalist Aglaia Kremezi, who’s written extensively on Tselementes, notes that, despite taking the credit for publishing the first comprehensive Greek recipe book, the chef doesn’t appear to have been particularly keen on traditional cooking, describing it as ‘greasy, over-spiced and unappealing’ — deficiencies he blamed on the ‘influence and contamination’ of the Ottoman occupation, which lasted from the mid-15th century until 1821. Olive oil, garlic, herbs and lemon were anathema to his taste buds, according to Kremezi, who concludes that Tselementes ‘favoured sweet and very mild foods, and this partly explains his adoration for bechamel sauce’, which is made, of course, with butter and milk rather than oil.

Prior to the publication of Odigos Mageirikis, Kremezi claims, ‘there was no moussaka as we know it today. Just layers of fried aubergine, topped with meat and tomato sauce with, maybe, some cheese at the top’. This was the version her own grandmother used to cook. The dish we now recognise as moussaka seems to have come into being in the pages of Tselementes’s book. He devoted an entire chapter to the subject, providing six different recipes, mostly involving swapping the aubergines for other vegetables and almost all involving his signature blanket of white sauce.

It’s this topping that now sets a Greek moussaka apart from its many cousins around the region — as Conistis concedes on Ouzo Talk: “In history, it starts off as a Turkish dish, but it’s definitely Greek, with a lot of thanks to the French for the bechamel”. In other words, a dish that those of us outside the region think of as quintessentially Greek is, historically speaking, far more complex— indeed, the food writer Nikos Stavroulakis calls Tselementes’s obsession with French ingredients and techniques ‘the biggest tragedy in Greek cuisine’. 

Just as the vegan chickpea and aubergine stew that passes as a moussaka, or maghmour, in Lebanon is very different from Albanian musaka — involving yoghurt-topped pork and potato — there’s also huge variation between recipes and no single ‘right’ way to make moussaka, even within Greece. The basics of the dish tend to stay the same: layers of aubergine and minced meat are finished with a creamy topping. The finer details, however are fiercely contested. Athens-born Rena Salaman informs readers of her classic collection, Greek Food, that lamb is more ‘authentic’ than beef, while Greek celebrity chef Akis Petretzikis recommends the latter. Food writer Georgina Hayden’s Greek Cypriot family recipe uses a mixture of beef and pork, and the late Evdokia Antginas, a home cook and cookbook author from the Peloponnese, favoured a mixture of veal, pork and lamb. 

The choice of vegetables used is equally up for debate. Potatoes, according to Salaman, are an addition from the Greek region of Macedonia, while Athens-born-and-bred food writer Carolina Doriti includes them in the recipe in her recent book Salt of the Earth. They ‘create a more stable foundation and help the dish keep its shape better’ she writes, adding, ‘they also add flavour and starchiness, which is always comforting’. The courgettes, meanwhile, are her mum’s addition, but in the Cycladic islands, she reports, artichokes often feature instead. 

The Orthodox fasting calendar means meat-free versions aren’t uncommon either — Tselementes had a vegan recipe using minced aubergines, tomatoes and breadcrumbs. Traditionally fried in copious amounts of olive oil, the vegetable element these days is just as likely to be either baked or cooked on a griddle to make the dish lighter. The bechamel sauce, meanwhile, might be replaced with yoghurt or whipped feta or enriched with egg yolks. 

Chefs around the world have played with the form in numerous other ways, too, creating recipes for ‘moussaka’ made with everything from lobster (New York’s Konstantinos Troumouhis) to butter chicken (Australian chef George Calombaris). Koukoumavlos, in Santorini, reimagined the dish as a souffle; Dubai’s Eat Greek Kouzina chain served it in a burger; The Zillers, in Athens, added it as a pizza topping; and London’s Kalimera once deconstructed it entirely. The fact that none of these variants are still on offer at the establishments concerned might suggest that, actually, some things are better left alone — although, for the adventurous, a scallop and taramasalata moussaka remains on the menu at Sydney’s Alpha.

Both Salaman and Doriti decry what the latter describes as the ‘heavy, oily’ versions of moussaka, found in more tourist-orientated restaurants in Greece. Doriti writes that she hardly ever orders it when eating out, saying, ‘Like many other Greeks I know, moussaka is a dish I mostly enjoy cooking and eating at home’. Moreover, making it for oneself gives the cook licence to tweak it to their own tastes, whether that means leaving out the meat or adding copious amounts of olive oil and garlic in defiance of Tselementes’s fussy palate. 

However you like your moussaka, though, Greek cookery teacher Elisavet Sotiriadou advises exercising patience once it’s cooked, explaining the dish needs time to set to allow the flavours to “bloom”. She recalls being at restaurants in Greece where chefs have refused to serve the moussaka as it needed time to rest. True as this may be, resisting the temptation to dive straight in might prove a challenge.

Carolina Doriti’s moussaka

Greek moussaka is always layered and baked in the oven. A base of sliced potatoes helps keep the shape better and works as a great flavour combination, too. To make the dish lighter, you can roast the vegetables instead of frying them, as described here. I use an oval-shaped dish approximately 30cm x 35cm x 7cm.

Serves: 8-10
Takes: 1hr 30 mins 


For the meat sauce

2 tbsp olive oil
650g minced beef (ideally chuck and blade/shoulder)
1 large onion, chopped
2 garlic cloves, chopped
2 bay leaves
1 cinnamon stick
170ml dry red wine
600g tomatoes, peeled and pureed in a blender or canned chopped tomatoes (with the juices)
1 tsp tomato puree 
½ tsp dried oregano
1½ tbsp chopped parsley
pinch of sugar (optional)

For the vegetables

2-3 medium aubergines, cut lengthways into 1cm slices
light olive oil, for frying
3 potatoes, peeled and cut lengthways into 1cm slices
3 large courgettes, cut lengthways into 1cm slices

For the bechamel

1.5 litres whole milk
150g butter
150g plain flour
pinch of freshly grated nutmeg
200g kefalotyri or pecorino cheese, grated


  1. To make the meat sauce, heat the olive oil in a large, wide frying pan. Brown the minced beef, breaking it up as you stir, for 5-7 mins. Add the onion, garlic, bay leaves and cinnamon stick and season with salt and pepper. Stir for a couple of minutes until it looks mostly dry, then pour in the wine and stir again. Add the tomatoes and tomato puree and turn the heat down to low; if it doesn’t look juicy enough, add a bit of water to the mixture. 

  2. Let the sauce gently simmer, stirring occasionally until most of the liquid is absorbed, for 30-40 mins.  

  3. Meanwhile, soak the aubergine slices in a bowl of lukewarm salted water for 15-30 mins, then pat them dry and set aside. 

  4. Add the oregano and parsley to the meat sauce. Adjust the seasoning and add the sugar to taste, if desired, then give it another stir. Remove the cinnamon stick and bay leaves and discard. Take the frying pan off the heat and set aside. 

  5. Set another large frying pan over a medium-high heat. Pour in enough of the light olive oil to cover the base, then pan-fry all the vegetables in batches, turning them until softened and golden on both sides (they don’t need to be completely cooked, as they’ll cook further in the oven). Place on a tray lined with kitchen paper and season both sides with salt and pepper. 

  6. Heat the milk for the bechamel in a saucepan. Place another large saucepan over a medium heat and gently melt the butter. Add the flour to the butter and mix constantly with a whisk to form a pale roux. Gradually add the warm milk, whisking constantly, until you’ve used all the milk and the sauce thickens (you want it to be medium-thick, not too runny and definitely not too stiff). Stir in the nutmeg and remove from the heat. Season with salt and pepper to taste. 

  7. Spoon 5-6 tbsp of the bechamel sauce into the meat sauce and mix. Mix 3 tbsp of the grated cheese into the rest of the bechamel. 

  8. Heat oven to 200C, fan 180C, gas 6. Arrange the potato slices in a large, deep baking dish. Layer the courgettes on top and sprinkle with 2 tbsp of the grated cheese. Pour over the meat sauce and spread out using the back of a spoon. Layer the aubergines on top, pour over some of the bechamel and sprinkle with a little more of the grated cheese. Pour over the remaining bechamel and spread it out evenly. Sprinkle with the remaining cheese and bake on a low shelf in the oven for 40-50 mins, or until golden on top. Remove from the oven and leave to cool and settle for at least 20-30 mins before serving.

Taken from Salt of the Earth, by Carolina Doriti (£27, Quadrille). Food stylist: Amy Stephenson. Prop stylist: Vivi Garcia.

Published in Issue 21 (autumn 2023) of Food by National Geographic Traveller (UK)

To subscribe to National Geographic Traveller (UK) magazine click here. (Available in select countries only).

Read This Next

Why Aberystwyth is one of the UK's hottest gourmet destinations
A foodie guide to Barcelona
Everything you need to know about bibimbap

Go Further

Subscriber Exclusive Content

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet