It was love at first bite – and the main reason I kept ordering in from the local Lebanese. Moussaka in the Levantine style has little to do with the Greek version, but is equally delicious. Learn how to make this simple yet luxurious meze dish at home!
Before I moved to Istanbul, I lived a very different life in London. Suited, tubing into work every morning and working until late (actually, the latter never changed).
Although I tried to eat as much homemade and natural food as possible, take-out several times a week was inevitable. Particularly in my last year, when I was living on my own while my partner was in Istanbul to get the house in order.
On the regular list was a Lebanese. Obviously.
But while I was obviously keen on their hummus shawarma and stuffed vine leaves, there was only one dish i always ordered. Mousakaat bel zeit. Lebanese moussaka.
What is the difference between the different types of moussaka?
I had no idea why the name of the dish had moussaka in it. As far as I was concerned, this was nothing like moussaka at all.
Sure, there was aubergine and, sure, there was tomato sauce. But that’s where the similarities ended.
As I arrived in Istanbul, this was one of the first dishes I was keen to recreate and research. Turns out the Greek variety isn’t the only moussaka in town. It’s not even the original!
Moussaka is a family of similar dishes popular throughout the Middle East, the Eastern Mediterranean and the Balkans. Most versions are based on aubergine, some on potato. A tomato sauce is often involved, as is meat (though not always).
The word moussaka itself derives from Arabic musaqqa’a, suggesting a likely Levantine origin.
In the birthplace of agriculture and many a culinary delight, moussaka is a meze dish of cooked aubergine, tomato sauce and, often, chickpeas. It can be eaten warm, but is more often enjoyed at room temperature alongside a few other small dishes. It’s also known under different names, like maghmour or mousaka batinjan.
A little up north, in neighbouring Turkey, the chickpeas are swapped for lamb and make a simple stew. It’s one of my go-to dishes for easy but amazingly tasty weeknight dinner. In the Balkans, it’s a similar but baked dish where potatoes typically substitute aubergine, while the meat is typically pork or beef.
And the Greek one? It’s the most removed from the original moussaka of them all. It was created as late as the 1920s by a French-trained Greek chef, and is as such a French-Greek fusion dish. A mouthwateringly delicious one at that, if I may add.
Still, the importance of tomato sauce suggests the dish isn’t actually that much older elsewhere. Tomatoes were only introduced to the Middle East in the first half of the 19th century, by a British consul with a penchant for horticulture.
How to make Lebanese moussaka
In many ways, then, Lebanese moussaka is a vegetarian aubergine stew. That description is, however, nowhere near doing it justice.
Silky and rich aubergine, a fresh and delicious tomato sauce and a lovely bite from chickpeas…once you start it’s difficult to stop!
In its original form, the aubergine (eggplant if you’re American) would have been fried in copious amounts of delicious local olive oil. This is what makes the aubergines so silky smooth and rich, and is a common method in Middle Eastern aubergine recipes. If your olive oil is good, that flavour is hard to beat.
Today, however, many choose to roast the aubergines instead. This is easier and less messy. For those mindful of calories (even good olive ones), it also gives you complete control over how much oil the aubergines soak in. I wouldn’t go so far as to say they’re equally delicious, but they’re close enough for me to usually head down this route.
That doesn’t mean I’m skimpy on the olive oil, though! Whether frying or roasting, copious amounts of good-quality olive oil are crucial to getting the rich flavour and silky texture of this vegan Lebanese recipe. I use a mild extra virgin olive oil from the Turkish Ayvalık region.
What sets the Lebanese moussaka apart from similar dishes such as Turkish aubergine salad, is the use of spices. Gentle but warming spices commonly associated with the Middle East.
I find allspice and cinnamon to be the ultimate combination here, though you could go for a Lebanese 7-spice mix if you’re so inclined.
In the West, tinned chickpeas are ubiquitous. Traditional cooks in the Middle East won’t go anywhere near them. While some brands are decent, cooking your own chickpeas from dried isn’t difficult and, once you’ve done it a few times, gets you exactly the texture you need for the dish at hand.
I prefer fairly soft and large chickpeas for this. But I leave it to you whether you cook your own or use tinned or jarred.
How to serve Lebanese moussaka
In this case, serve it at room temperature with a generous helping of crusty fresh bread or soft flatbreads alongside.
However, it also works great in the way you usually enjoy stew: Served warm, with a side of rice and salad.
Lebanese moussaka is great for making ahead. It keeps for several days in the fridge, and can be served warm or at room temperature.
The recipe yields a large batch, enough for dinner as a main course for 4 or meze for 8-12 people.
- 1 kg aubergine (eggplant)
- 130 ml olive oil (I use a mild extra virgin)
- 1 onion, finely chopped
- 5 garlic cloves, finely chopped
- 2 tsp ground allspicxe
- 1 tsp ground cinnamon
- 800 g tomatoes, skinned and chopped (fresh or tinned)
- 2 tsp sugar
- 1 Tsbp lemon juice
- 500 g cooked chickpeas (from 200 g dry chickpeas or 2x400 g tins)
- finely chopped flat-leaf parsley, to garnish
- salt and pepper
- Preheat the oven to 230 C (445 F) fan. Line two baking sheets with baking parchment.
- Peel off stripes of the skin of the aubergine so it resembles a zebra pattern, then chop into 1 ½ cm (½ in) cubes. Mix with 100 ml of the olive oil and some salt. Transfer to the two baking sheets and roast until nearly fully (but not quite fully) softened, around 15 minutes. I place the two baking sheets in the middle and high in the oven. Keep an eye on them and swap their places if one cooks faster than the other (ovens vary a lot on this). Set aside.
- Heat a thick-bottomed pot over medium/ low heat. Fry the onion in the remaining 2 Tbsp (30 ml) olive oil until softened, but not coloured, stirring regularly. This usually takes 8-10 minutes. Add the garlic, allspice, cinnamon and a little salt and pepper. Fry for 30 seconds, stirring constantly, then add the tomatoes, sugar and 100 ml water. Mix well, bring to the boil and leave to simmer, covered, for 10-15 minutes to allow the flavours to settle.
- Add the lemon juice, roasted aubergine and cooked chickpeas. Continue to cook, covered, until the aubergine is completely soft, another 10-20 minutes. Taste for seasoning, adding more salt, pepper, sugar or lemon juice to taste.
- Serve warm or at room temperature, garnished with a generous sprinkling of finely chopped flat-leaf parsley.