Mysteries of Moussaka, Revealed
“In China, robots are making moussaka,” Stavros told me. “They freeze it and send it all over the world. Even some islands in Greece are serving such things. But this—” He broke into a smile and gestured to the dish he and his wife, Katerina, had labored over for the last three hours. “This is made with love.”
It was also made with fresh vegetables from the farmer’s market and lavish quantities of olive oil, ground beef, butter, white flour, and whole milk. The moussaka at the Giannoula family restaurant is all-out, no-ingredients-barred, hedonistic indulgence, the kind of old-fashioned comfort food people ate before corporations, calories, and chemicals invaded the kitchen. Don’t even think of substituting low-fat milk or lean turkey meat in this recipe. “You could,” Stavros told me doubtfully, when I asked. “But it would not be the same.”
As is so often the case, it was Rich’s sniffer — his legendary nose for good eats — that had led us to Taverna Giannoula.
“I have a place in mind for lunch,” he remarked out of the blue last Thursday.
“Where?” I demanded suspiciously. We’d just finished a long, uphill hike to Ano Poli, the sleepy old section of Thessaloniki, Greece.
After hours of rambling past the faded buildings and sparkling vistas, I was hot, tired, and determined to keep heading in a downhill direction, preferably towards a cold beverage.
“It's right around the corner.”
“I love it already.”
Arriving at Taverna Giannoula, I observed with pleasure the simple wooden tables, the cheerful red checkered cloths, and the small, immaculate kitchen. It was nearly 2:00 pm, still on the early side for lunch by local standards, and we soon learned that everyone in the place was a member of the family: Stavros the owner, his wife Katerina who served as chief cook, his brother Nikos who helped out, his mother-in-law who sat by the window sipping her soup and keeping a discrete eye on us, and his two young sons, who were playing a computer game in the back corner with friends, uttering occasional shrieks of muffled laughter.
I collapsed into a chair at one of the three sidewalk tables, and Rich wandered inside to poke around. Stavros instantly invited him into the kitchen, where Rich peered into pots and eventually chose kolokithakia gemista, zucchini stuffed with pork and drizzled with avoglemono, the classic Greek egg-lemon sauce. Perusing the menu, I settled on smoky grilled eggplant topped with crumbled feta cheese. The meal was heavenly, and when I felt fully "reanimated" (as the Spanish put it), I went inside to pay my compliments to the cooks. When I mentioned we were on a Mediterranean Comfort Food Tour, Stavros and Katerina promptly invited me to come back on Monday to lean how to make proper Greek moussaka.
On my second visit, the kitchen looked even smaller. It had begun life as a room about ten feet square, but now, fitted out for cooking and storage, the available floorspace was half that. Stavros, whose parents bought the restaurant when he was three years old, is an old hand at working in its cramped quarters, and as the moussaka got underway, he and Katerina wove back and forth across the room, handing off tasks with the practiced ease of professional jugglers. Even having to dodge around me as I zoomed in over their shoulders for closeups didn’t throw them off their stride.
Stavros spoke English, so it was he who explained each step, but it was clear that Katerina was the head chef and that she took great pride and delight in her work. The moussaka recipe was her own creation, and as she pivoted from stovetop to sink to fryer, leaping up on her little stool to see check the eggplant sizzling on the high burner, dashing over to layer potatoes in the pan, she soon dispelled my foolish assumption that making moussaka was roughly akin to whipping up a batch of lasagna. This was serious cookery, performed by a serious chef. After an hour or so, she asked Stavros to make her a cup of coffee, and with a chuckle he showed me that he was serving it to her in a cup that read, “Mrs. Always Right.”
[See the full moussaka recipe here.]
If you make up a batch of Katerina’s moussaka — say for a family gathering or foodie pals — try to resist the urge to cut into it the instant it comes out of the oven, as the top layer, a creamy béchamel sauce, needs to cool and set. Now, I know what you’re thinking: béchamel sauce? That doesn’t sound very Greek, does it? That's because it's French, and you can thank Nikolaos Tselementes, the Jamie Oliver of 1920s Greece, for the upgrade. Born on Sifros Island in the Aegean Sea, trained in Austria, employed by embassies and top restaurants in Europe and America, he became one of the most influential Greek cookbook writers of his own or any other era. And when he got to the moussaka recipe, he abandoned the original topping — usually a custard, sometimes nothing at all — in favor of a thick, creamy layer of béchamel oozing with continental flair. His moussaka recipe became an instant hit and has inspired chefs around the world for nearly 100 years.
Between the filming, baking, and post-oven cool-down, Rich and I spent hours at Taverna Giannoula, enjoying the ebb and flow of family life. Uncle Nikos picked the kids up from school and brought them to the restaurant for lunch. Another uncle stopped by to eat. The butcher on the corner brought Katerina a spectacular piece of beef, which Rich and I were called in to admire. Katerina’s mother observed everything with a twinkling eye, and seemed delighted to view the video footage, the two of us cozily communicating, via hand signals and facial expressions, our common admiration for her daughter's wizardry in the kitchen.
It made me wonder, not for the first time, what it would have been like to grow up in such close family circumstances. In my childhood, lunchtime meant Dad at the office, Mom feeding the baby with one hand and downing her own sandwich with the other, and us older kids eating off trays in Catholic school cafeterias.
As an adult, having worked in corporations, art studios, and my home office, I couldn’t imagine trying to navigate my day — every day! — under the eyes of three generations of my relatives and in-laws. Would it have made me nuts? Or perhaps added an element of love to the labor? A bit of both? I’ll never know.
As I took my first, glorious forkful of Katerina’s moussaka, rich with vegetables, beef, and warm, creamy béchamel sauce, I thought about Chinese robots shipping their flash-frozen food products all over the world. It made me deeply grateful that at least in this little corner of Greece, the old ways are still honored. Food is grown on nearby farms, sold in the shop on the corner, prepared in a kitchen surrounded by people who love one another, and served with kindness and ice cold local beer. It doesn’t get better than this, I thought. The world seems to be getting faster all the time now, which makes it extra comforting to know that there is still slow food on the menu somewhere, if we just take time to look for it.
In case you're just joining us, here's the scoop on Our Mediterranean Comfort Food Tour
Rich and I decided to set off on an open-ended, unstructured journey to sample some of the world's best comfort foods as a way to gain insight into the local culture. We started April 20 in Crete and plan to travel until September-ish. You'll find highlights, recipes, and videos in the stories below.
Our Mediterranean Comfort Food Tour
Heraklion, Crete: It's All About the Kindness of Strangers
Holy Snail Day
The Best Worst Town in Greece
The Marvels of Lesbos Island
Greece's Island of Longevity
Breaking Bread with Strangers in Athens
Greek Coffee: Freddos, Frappés & Fortunetelling
How did we get started?
First We Moved to Seville
Then Came the Railway Travel Through Eastern Europe
Where are we now?
After two weeks resting up in Thessaloniki, Greece, we did manage to get those elusive bus tickets we wanted and have just arrived in Skopje, North Macedonia. The next few weeks we'll be roaming around various Balkan countries, and the timing of these blog posts may become a bit more erratic. Just saying.
Winner of the 2023 Firebird Book Award for Travel
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As my regular readers know, I never get free or discounted goods or services for mentioning anything on this blog (or anywhere else). I only write about things that interest me and that I believe might prove useful for you all to know about. Whew! I wanted to clear that up before we went any further. Thanks for listening.
TO I'm an American travel writer based in Seville, Spain.
Wanderlust has taken me to more than 60 countries. Every week I provide travel tips and adventure stories to inspire your journeys and let you have more fun — and better food — on the road
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