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.
6/13/2019 05:33:20 pm
OMG, it looks so good and your description makes me almost able to taste it! Looks like you and Uncle Rich are having an amazing time.
6/14/2019 05:38:46 pm
We are having an amazing time, Andrea! Rich is in his glory helping me taste-test comfort food wherever we go. This moussaka was one of the most scrumptious dishes we've tried so far.
6/13/2019 06:03:00 pm
Jean and I are licking our chops! Your culinary rambles delight us no end and as soon as Jean heals we shall seek out a good Greek moussaka in San Francisco! Love, Paul and Jean
6/14/2019 05:39:52 pm
Paul, I think you should pick up some moussaka to go and take it home to Jean. I suspect it would be a big help with her recovery!
6/13/2019 06:14:42 pm
Is there any salt or other in that Bechamel? it looks like the roux plus milk...but you are sooo licking that there MUST be some (secret?) seasoning? mhhh!
6/14/2019 05:44:46 pm
Yes, there is, Regina, and I accidentally left it off the ingredient list on the recipe. So thanks for calling it to my attention! Stavros and Katerina salted everything "to taste" and although I couldn't pin down exact amounts, I have noted it on the recipe.
We were fortunate to travel to Greece in April of this year and go to a small family restaurant that served moussaka that must have been made from a very similar recipe to this one, including the Bechamel. Divine, heavenly, and deeply satisfying! Thank you for your lovely post. It makes my mouth water!
6/14/2019 05:46:34 pm
So happy to hear you had a similar moussaka experience in Greece, Karen. Yes, there is nothing quite as satisfying as that creamy rich taste! And I'm so glad you enjoyed the post. As you can imagine, Rich and I thoroughly enjoyed doing the research for it!
6/13/2019 07:29:38 pm
Rich? eggplant? really?
6/13/2019 07:48:54 pm
Dorothy: As everything is fried/ deepfried in loads of oil, potatoes and eggplants, and the package (looks like our european size of 250g) butter with the one liter of (full) milk with the Bechamel sauce, this Moussaka is quite LOADED! not for everyday- maybe...;)
6/14/2019 05:51:26 pm
Regina, you're so right that this moussaka is not for everyday. It's best kept as a special indulgence when we need a treat that's deeply satisfying.
6/14/2019 05:48:05 pm
Dorothy, to my surprise, Rich has relaxed his opposition to eggplant, and has actually started to enjoy it during this trip through Greece. But don't worry, he is holding very, very firm on beets and succotash.
6/13/2019 10:19:12 pm
Oh, that looks soooo good! I don't do much frying, but would be tempted to try this. I know you loved it and it looks like the perfect comfort food.
6/14/2019 05:55:47 pm
Phyllis, like you, I'm not usually a fan of deep fat frying, but if you are going to do it, this is a good place to start! And thanks for your kind words; Rich and I are so happy everything worked out with those bus tickets. We are in Skopje now and just love it. It's a very unusual city, with a mix of brutalist architecture and a massive recent project to add classic old-style buildings to the landscape. The food is wonderful! Hope you get here one of these days.
6/13/2019 10:37:05 pm
That looks incredible. I make mine with ground lamb but i can see how local beef would be wonderful. It is a labor of love. What a wonderful trip you are having!
6/14/2019 05:57:23 pm
I've had moussaka with lamb as well, Catherine. I think either is fine. It is a labor of love, and it was such fun, and quite an honor, to have the chance to watch Stavros and Katerina work up a batch. A wonderful trip indeed!
6/15/2019 05:30:11 pm
That cafeteria photo reminds me of our school “lunch room”. Unfortunately I can conjure up the smell of the cafeteria just by looking at the photo...was not a fan as a child!
6/16/2019 07:51:34 am
Like you, Faye, I just look at that photo and can smell the watery vegetable soup and taste the jell-o. Awful stuff!! I don't know exactly what Katerina and Stavros feed their kids every day, but I am sure it's real food made with real ingredients, and that has to be a better experience and better nutrition. I grew up in the era when synthetic corporate foods first burst on the scene, and we all thought it was so "labor saving" and "modern." Now we know it's just junk!
6/21/2019 08:32:38 pm
I love gooey white sauces. Reds are usually too sweet. I thought Moussaka was made with lamb but of course you can use beef. I am glad to see that as last time I looked for ground lamb, I couldn't find it. However, Karen I have found Goat; ground, leg steak, rib chop and rack chop at our farmer's market in Bodega Bay.
6/23/2019 04:42:58 pm
So Bodega Bay's farmers' market carries goat!?! That's great news. Have you tried any goat recipes yet, Kitty? Seems like an opportunity for something fun, different, and very healthy, as it's such lean meat. Enjoy, and let me know how it turns out!
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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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