Who doesn’t love the combination of meat, aubergine and tomato?
While the Greek variety may be more famous, moussaka supposedly originated in Turkey. During Ottoman times, the dish spread far and wide and developed into fairly distinct varieties across the Middle East, Greece and the Balkans. In my view, both the Turkish and the Arab varieties are far superior to the Greek. What’s more, they’re both easier to make.
The common denominator for all moussaka is aubergine and tomato sauce. Sure, some local versions substitute potato or some other vegetable for the aubergine, but mostly it’s all about the aubergine and tomato. Most versions contain meat, but not all. The Arab version, for example, is with chickpeas, and is served both hot and cold.
In Turkey, moussaka is a stew made of roughly equal parts minced meat, aubergine and tomato – a holy triunity which never fails to succeed.
There are probably as many ways to prepare the Turkish version of moussaka as there are (home) cooks in Turkey. The classic variety is made with a sauce based primarily on tomato paste, plenty of oil and a little water. This works well in Turkey, where both tomato paste and oil of high quality can be easily acquired. My version, however, uses less oil and a mixture of tomato paste and chopped tomato, for a fresher taste and a recipe more suitable to the ingredients available outside Turkey (where tinned chopped tomatoes tend to be good but tomato paste not so much).
For this recipe I’ve also added Turkish chili paste (acı biber salçası) and Turkish chili flakes (pul biber). The spiciness of these two condiments can vary considerably, so use with care. For a non-spicy stew, omit the chili paste altogether and only add as much pul biber as you’re comfortable with. Most commercially sold pul biber is fairly mild, but if you (like me) are lucky enough to get good-quality produce from south-Eastern Turkey, they can get very spicy. If you can’t get hold of either both may be omitted altogether, though you’ll lose a lot of the flavour that makes the stew characteristically Turkish.
Turks will typically also add a handful of chopped Turkish peppers – long, bright green peppers with thin walls. Personally, I find the dish better without. If you want to stay authentic, add a handful of chopped pepper of your choice along the onion.
Serve with rice or bulgur and a salad alongside. Turkish moussaka can be made in advance, though stir very carefully in order not to mash the aubergine. Better still, prepare all the way up until the point where the aubergines are added, store separately and finish the dish just before serving. Serves 2-3 with side dishes alongside.
Turkish moussaka (Patlıcan musakka)
4+3 tbsp olive oil
- 400 g (c. 2 medium-sized) aubergine, peeled in strips resembling a zebra pattern and cut into 2-3 cm cubes
- 1 onion, peeled and roughly chopped
- 400 g minced beef or lamb (or a mixture)
- 2 tbsp tomato paste
- 1 tbsp Turkish chili paste (aci biber salcasi) (may be omitted)
- 1-2 tbsp Turkish chili flakes (pul biber)
- 1×400 g tin chopped tomatoes, or 400-500 g sun-ripened tomatoes in season, chopped
- small handfull of chopped flat-leaf parsley
- salt and pepper
- Preheat the oven to 230 C (445 F).
- Mix the aubergine cubes with c. 4 tbsp olive oil and some seasoning. Roast in the oven until the aubergine cubes are soft, typically 20-25 minutes or more, depending on the size of the cubes. Don’t be tempted to open the oven door until 20 minutes have passed – the aubergine creates its own steam which ensures it remains juicy and tender and doesn’t dry out. This will be released when opening the oven door.
- Fry the onion with a pinch of salt in 3 tbsp olive oil in a thick based pot over a medium heat, stirring regularly, until soft but not browned, 8-10 minutes.
- Turn up the heat and add the mince. Stir regularly to break up the mince, but not all the time, to allow the meat to brown.
- When the meat is nearly cooked through, add the tomato paste, chili paste (if using) and pul biber. If you want a mild dish, skip the chili paste and use only 1 tbsp mild pul biber. Vary the amounts of chili paste and chili flakes to taste. Fry for a couple of minutes, stirring constantly, until everything is well mixed and smells wonderful.
- Add the chopped tomatoes and 200 ml water. Mix well and bring to the boil. Lower the heat and leave to simmer for 10-15 minutes.
- Carefully mix in the baked aubergine cubes and flat-leaf parsley. Season to taste and add more pul biber if necessary. Continue to simmer until nearly all of the water has evaporated, 5-15 minutes. (I had to take my pictures before this last step, so feel free to continue cooking until your sauce is much thicker than mine.) Stir as little as possible to avoid mushing the aubergines. Serve hot.