History Bites: Moussaka

History Bites: Moussaka

I’ve always had a pretty big fascination with Greece. There’s always been this mysterious draw I feel towards its culture and history. One thing I love about Greek culture is their strong connection to their food. My wife is equally obsessed with Greece, which played a big part in what started our relationship. She briefly worked as an archaeologist on the Greek isle of Crete, and studied the Minoan (an early Greek seafaring people) civilization extensively. It’s part of that mutual shared love that keeps us going back there to travel. 

As I was doing my research for this week’s History Bite I was reminded of how important of a role food plays in Greek cultural identity. It’s interesting, growing up in Canada I was really fortunate to have parents that loved food and really embraced different cultures, especially through eating. My dad is a small business owner, and for just about as long as I can remember he steered us away from chain restaurants. He loves mom and pop shops, and especially trying new foods. It’s a philosophy that has steered the course of my culinary career, but it’s also left me with a huge question about Canadian cultural identity in food. 

Chef Joseph Shawana (IMAGE: YVONNE ​TSUI) History Bites MoussakaChef Joseph Shawana (IMAGE: YVONNE ​TSUI)

Cultural identity of food is so specific and regional in the rest of the world, you could practically use it to outline countries, provinces, cities, and even neighbourhoods. Now, this isn’t a political blog, and I’m not (as Dan Carlin says) a historian. But part of the problem is that as North Americans, we’re a nation of immigrants. This is beautiful because it sets the framework for a rich multicultural landscape full of experiences that are now uniquely Canadian. But it’s also a tragedy because when the Europeans reached the shores of Canada, they essentially bulldozed over what was the original Canadian culture, stamping it out and pushing it away to isolated pockets of land. I mean, the last residential school didn’t close until 1996. In the culinary world, only now are the amazing histories and traditions that have been so long oppressed reaching the mainstream.

“Ok, so what does this have to do with moussaka? Seems like you’re on a bit of a tangent here Michael.”

Granted, I am on a bit of a tangent. But that’s because we as Canadians don’t have a strong cultural identity. Seriously, this is the list of what comes up when you Google Canadian food:

Canadian Cooking Google Search History Moussaka

How many of you eat this on a day to day basis? If I ate poutine, smoked meat, beavertails, and donair on the regular I would probably die an early and incredibly delicious death. Apart from Madame Benoit, there isn’t a big household name of daily Canadian cookery. Even then, I’d argue that Madame Benoit is more French Candian cooking than Canadian cooking as a whole. French Canadian food is its own unique little flavour nugget that I can’t wait to dive into. (and don’t worry, we’ll get there—we have some really delicious food planned for December). 

The list of food above isn’t even ubiquitous across the country. Greek food’s list on the other hand is full of dishes that differ regionally, but are still very common across the country (or even across countries, as food influence spread over millennia). So when we look at Greek food, this is what we get:

Greek Cooking Google Search - History Moussaka

So, moussaka—where does it fit in?

Moussaka’s origins are very old, and can be found in the Middle East. The first recorded recipe of moussaka (or at least the dish it was based on) comes from a 13th century Arabic scribe known by the name of al-Baghdadi. Known in the western world by the name A Baghdad Cookery Book, this 13th century manuscript (the original of which is still held in the Hagia Sophia). Historians believe that the dish was brought to Greece at the same time as the eggplant. There are many variants of moussaka from Turkey, the Levant, the Balkans, and many other countries of Southeast Europe.

A bhagdad Cookbook Manuscript History BItes Moussaka
Modern Greek moussaka was codified by one man, Nikolaos Tselementes. He completely shaped the landscape of modern Greek cuisine. I’m going to put this in caps because THAT IS A HUGE FRIGGIN DEAL. He was born on the Isle of Sifnos (approximately 80 nautical miles from Athens), was originally a clerk but then worked as a cook in his uncle's restaurant. He then trained in Vienna for a year before heading back to Sifnos. In 1910, he started publishing a cooking magazine with advice, nutritional info, and most importantly, recipes. From there, he went on to work in some of the best and most expensive restaurants in the world.

Sifnos History Bites Moussaka

In 1932, he came back to Greece, opened up a small cooking school, and published a book of his recipes. What’s fascinating is he didn’t just hit Greek food over the head with a classical French hammer (a pretty common occurrence back then, since modern cooking is rooted in the French method—we’ll talk about this and Escoffier at some point in the future). Instead, Nikolaos spent time with groups of old women to learn about various regional foods. What he did was take Greek recipes, tweak them, publish them, and make them uniquely Greek. He gave moussaka its trademark bechamel top. More importantly, he made all his recipes readily available. 

Nikolaos Tselementes

Nikolaos Tselementes is quite a polarizing character. Some people believe he defined Greek food and unified it, but some also harbour feelings that he made the cuisine less Greek. In my research, I found an article from Saveur.com that takes a look at this, and is definitely worth the read.

Whichever lens you look through, he fundamentally shaped and defined the Greek culinary landscape. The literal name for a cookbook in Greek is βιβλιο μαγειρικης (vivlio mageirikis), or cooking book. But if you ever use that in conversation people will give you a strange look, because what they actually call a cookbook is a Τσελεμεντέ, a Tselemente. I can’t think of a higher honour than having your last name being synonymous with “cookbook.”

Nikolaos Tselementes - solo - history bites moussaka

Nikolaos Tselementes is a single figure an entire culture can point to and say “That, that is Greek food.” I don’t think that we have that in Canada. We have lots of great chefs, but not one overarching figure that we can point to (Madame Benoit being a possible exception). When I look at the cultural identity of food in Canada, I’m not doing this in a negative way. I would also love it if someone could prove me wrong, because it would mean a whole lot of reading and thinking in my future. 

Though it’s in a tough spot right now, I personally can’t wait to see what the future of the culinary industry holds in Canada. Incredible indegenous chefs are gaining popularity and sharing their culinary voice with the world. And we constantly open our borders to people who bring with them stories, traditions, and recipes. To me that’s the biggest part of being Canadian: learning and drawing inspiration from those around us. Professional and home cooks alike now have such a large pantry to pull from, there’s no limit to what is next on the horizon.

While we may lack a strong unified culinary tradition, we have something else. We have so many communities and cultures that are always growing and sharing. It’s this rich tapestry on which we eat and commune that has given Canadian chefs something incredible: freedom to create. 

Until next time,
Stay Hungry,
-Mike

P.S. A huge shout out to one of our regulars Maude, who introduced me to her original copy of Madame Benoit's legendary cookbook a few years ago. My understanding of Canadian cookery and my own culinary arc has been forever changed.

Thank you.

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