Alchemy From a Can

And moussaka's poor confused inventor

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Photo: jules/Flickr

A Greek Dish With a Misguided Creator

By Sam Harrison

How did one of Greece’s most recognizable dishes end up covered in bechamel sauce? 

Moussaka is a culinary highlight of Grecian food. With layers of fried eggplant, potatoes, and ground meat topped with a thick dousing of creamy bechamel sauce (butter, flour, and milk), it’s a rich recipe that has a little bit of everything. 

According to the Oxford Companion to Food, the word moussaka comes from musaqqà, or “moistened” in Arabic. Different dishes of the same name exist across the Balkans and the Middle East: the Turkish and Arab versions are stews with meat, eggplant, and tomatoes. The Bulgarian and Yugoslav interpretations emphasize eggs, and Romanian musaca can include potatoes, celery, or cauliflower. The Greek casserole topped with bechamel is the most famous, at least in the United States. 

But moussaka is a fairly new addition to Greek cuisine: it was created in the early 20th century by Greece’s first celebrity chef, Nikolaos Tselementes. Tslementes wanted to transform traditional Greek food and bring it closer to French cooking — which is why the moussaka he invented included bechamel, a staple of French gastronomy. 

Born in 1878, Tselementes trained as a chef in Vienna and worked in embassy kitchens in Athens. In 1910, he published “Odigos Mageirikis” (Guide to Cooking), a 500-page book that included an entire chapter of moussakas, substituting different vegetables for the eggplants.

“Odigos Mageirikis” was the first complete cookbook in modern Greek and became a huge success, quickly making Tselementes a household name, according to Greek food writer Aglaia Kremezi. “From the 1920s to the ‘60s, when women got married they got the Tselementes book,” she says. “It was like a bible.” Even today, his name is still used as a synonym for cookbook. 

But Tselementes’ tastes were at odds with what Greeks had been cooking: he found olive oil greasy and hated garlic and cucumbers. Before “Odigos Mageirikis,” traditional Greek cuisine was more “rustic,” says Kremezi. “It's ingredient-based cooking, which is now very much revered,” she says. “But in the old days [that] was supposed to be for peasants.” 

According to Kremezi, Tselements wrongly believed that Greek cooking was once more similar to French cooking, and that Ottoman rule had “corrupted” it by adding olive oil and spices. The recipes in his book attempted to correct this. His ideas appealed to the urban Greek middle and upper-middle class, and his recipes became staples of Greek kitchens and restaurants for decades. “People who were cooking traditional foods believed their recipes were not worthy of the new generation of modern Greece,” she says. It wasn’t until traditional Greek restaurants became fashionable abroad that restaurants in Greece began cooking more traditional dishes again. 

Today, Tselementes’ influence has waned. “People speak about Tselementes, but nobody reads his recipes,” Kremezi says. The exception is moussaka and its thick, creamy coating of bechamel sauce. 🇬🇷

Further Reading:

Cooks & Other People: Proceedings of the Oxford Symposium on Food, Chapter on Tselementes by Aglaia Kremezi

Photo: Sarah Stierch/Flickr

Chickpea Magic

By Lizzy Briskin

Aquafaba: It might sound like a fairytale city or an amphibious superhero, but in fact, you probably have some in your pantry at this very moment. Aquafaba is the more affectionate term for the liquid in a can of chickpeas. You know, that opaque, squelchy bean water that takes its viscous time finding its way down the drain? 

When it comes to looks, aquafaba might not be the most appetizing item in your kitchen. But that’s no reason to sentence it to the Insinkerator every time you have a hummus hankering. And if you’re back to (or never stopped) pandemic pantry stockpiling, you may find yourself cracking open more than the occasional can of garbanzos. Next time you do, consider saving the juice and seeing why many call aquafaba “liquid gold.” 

The first brave (and possibly desperate) soul that we know of to put his chickpea liquid to use was a vegan software engineer with a serious meringue craving. In one proud March 2015 Facebook post to the group What Fat Vegans Eat, Goose Wholt is credited with bringing egg-free, light-on-the-inside-crisp-on-the-outside meringue kisses to egg-starved vegans around the world. His secret ingredient? Whipped chickpea brine. 

Commercial operations and home cooks had long been searching for the perfect egg white replacer that could both incorporate air and hold its shape like the real thing, foamy, stark-white peaks and all. Wholt’s post immediately launched a thriving aquafaba community of vegans and egg-eaters alike, including the 100,000-member Aquafaba (Vegan Meringue - Hits and Misses!) group that he now moderates (and where he’s promised to delete any non-aquafaba-related posts).

A brief scroll through this aquafaba lover’s community page reveals the now countless ways creative cooks are turning legume water into mouth-watering delights. From snow-white fluff to kugel to feathery plant-based chocolate mousse, amateur chefs from around the world are coming up with new aquafaba recipes every day. Now we just need Wholt and his colleagues to figure out how to bring us aquafaba without the beans.🥫

More Food Reading:

  • I cannot wait to get my hands on this, and a copy of The Gay Detective, too!

  • I love food lobby groups just for their names. The Association for Dressings & Sauces! Isn’t that fun? Anyway it has asked the government to stop regulating the ingredients in French dressing.

  • Yes, food companies should be honest in their labeling, but also, a person who has the resources to bring a lawsuit also has the resources to read an ingredients list.

  • No surprise here, but to confirm, the way Google ranks recipe search results has nothing to do with how good they are.

This newsletter is edited by Katherine Spiers, host of the podcast Smart Mouth.

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