We had moussaka for dinner last night. It was everything this most famous of Greek dishes should be. Savoury, flavourful and clearly prepared by a warm-hearted cook. Referred to by some as “Greek lasagna,” moussaka is a layered dish of sliced potatoes and eggplant, a tomato and meat sauce in between, and a thick topping of stiff béchamel sauce. Baked sto fourno – in the oven – until the top is golden brown, the whole thing bubbles, its smell is divine and the taste satisfies my tummy and much more. Last night’s certainly did.
Study the menu in any Greek restaurant or taverna anywhere and you are almost guaranteed that moussaka will appear. Last night’s version came via take-out from my husband’s and my favourite restaurant here in Canada, the one we always turn to when Greece is a long plane flight away and we can’t wait any more. And even in 2020 when takeout must do, this place still eases so much of that ache. Its owner, Maria, has roots in Volos, a seaside city between Thessaloniki and Athens, and she’s created a place where that legendary Greek open-heartedness and hospitality fill the air, where your status as a stranger ends the first time you walk through the door, and where among the delights in its kitchen, there is always moussaka. Of course.
So … if you’re someone who is interested in culinary history, you might think that the recipe for moussaka is an old, long-standing traditional one in a country that measures time in millennia, a dish that is Greek to its core. But in fact it’s neither. The moussaka we eat today was invented a mere hundred or so years ago and its inspiration and conception occurred in the fine restaurants and grand hotels of France. Few people know that. But even fewer know that a humble village on the island of Sifnos is the true place where its story began.
Every year in September since 2007, Sifnos, an island long renowned for its good cooks, has hosted a festival that celebrates the foods of the Greek islands. Representatives from all of the neighbouring Cyclades islands and from other corners of Greece gather together for a weekend of music and dance, cooking demonstrations, and cultural events, plus free tastings for all of each island’s unique local foods. Kalasouna, onion and cheese pie from Folegandros, for example. Or Santorini tomato fritters, tomatokeftedes. Eat up. There’s more to taste at the next booth and people anxious to have you sample what they offer.
The festival’s full title is the Nikolaos Tselementes Cycladic Food Festival, named in honour of one of Sifnos’s most famous sons. Tselementes was born in 1878 in the village of Exambela and went on to become an ambitious chef, his career blossoming in Athens and taking him to fine kitchens in Paris, Vienna and New York where he learned of techniques unknown to Greek cooks. Béchamel, for one, that uses milk and butter from cows, an animal that was still absent from Sifnos at the time. A creative cook too, his genius was to combine these techniques with Mediterranean ingredients in a quest to update Greek cuisine, resulting in recipes for moussaka and pastitsio, a similar pasta-based dish, and more. He was a literate man too and in 1932, he published Odigos Mageirikis, the first ever Greek cookbook. So popular did it become that eventually it was reprinted 15 times. To this day, it is still found in most of the country’s kitchens and when Greeks refer to a cookbook, any cookbook, tselemente is the word they’ll use. But despite rubbing shoulders with the upper crust, Tselementes never forgot his native island and during the desperate times the Second World War brought there, he returned home and cooked meals for children, literally saving many from starvation. Little wonder that Sifnians hold this man in such high esteem.
So the next time – whether in Sifnos where I happily ate the version that appears in this photograph, elsewhere in Greece, at Maria’s, or anywhere else in this world – that you sit down to a plate of moussaka, take a moment before you dig in. Breathe in the aroma. Then eat slowly. The pleasures will last longer that way. Kali orexi, as the people of Sifnos would say. Know that with each bite, every layer of flavour will bring you a part of what makes their island so special to so many. Their dedication to good taste. The determination to feed you well. Their zest for life. Epic kindness and generosity. It’s a fine mix indeed.
More from my blog: Cycladic Food Festival
Chick Pea Balls, with a video from the festival
Recipe for moussaka from George Tselementes, grandson of Nikolaos.
Sharon Blomfield is the author of The Sifnos Chronicles: tales from a greek isle and Sifnos Chronicles 2: more greek island tales. These books are available at To Bibliopoleio, The Book Shop in Apollonia, Sifnos, at Tithorea, a Greek food shop in Rockwood, Ontario, Canada and on Amazon.