Greece: Moussaka (yeah, you’re probably not saying that right)

Opa!! Despite the crunch of snow underfoot, we were feeling those Mediterranean vibes (and even traded in the Scandi uniform of all black errthang, for a more festive… navy blue)

as we greeted Maria, the evening’s guest, outside a nearby ICA. We were ready for her to teach us everything we could possibly know about Greece and its food, culture, and handsome oligarchs.

We headed to the fruits and vegetable section, where we piled our cart high with eggplants, ready to make some kickass moussaka! Moussaka? Our educational journey began with a lesson in pronunciation, as we quickly learned that we (along with maybe 99% of the non-Greek population) had been butchering the pronunciation of this famous Greek dish since day one. Instead of putting emphasis on the first ‘a’ (as in, moussAka), it’s all about finishing strong on the ‘ka’! All together now? Time to make some “MoussaKA”! Much better. After picking up ingredients for the perfect Greek salad (with olives imported straight from Maria’s olive trees in Kalamata), we stopped by Systembolaget for some Greek retsina (despite Maria’s disapproving sighs… we found out that retsina is pretty much like the Greek version of cheap corner store alcohol). After that, it was time to head home and make a Greek feast fit for the gods!

“Our zucchinis back home are really small and cute! They don’t grow that big, it’s not normal.”

Recipe for Moussaka and authentic Greek Salad

While moussaka is known as a staple in any Greek household, it’s definitely not an everyday sort of dish… mostly because it will set you back at least two hours. Yes, we definitely had a blast knocking back 15% wine while listening to Greek summer hits as we prepared this classic dish- but after several close calls with very hot oil, we also understood why it was a dish saved for special occasions (say, meeting the in-laws for the first time), and that many people either prepared it a day in advance, or simply bought it prepared from the local market. That said, nothing compared to the pride (and raging hunger after waiting two hours) we felt when taking it fresh and piping hot, from the oven.

And of course it goes without saying, that the Greek salad with fresh Kalamata olives made us momentarily forget that we were in a frozen Stockholm and not a cozy Greek café overlooking the sea.

Listen to: This Greek summer playlist. For guaranteed upbeat summer vibes, with surprisingly depressing lyrics about heartbreak and despair (as we learned with some translation assistance from Maria).

Pair with: A nice Greek red wine, or, if you feel like living on the wild side, some Retsina (somewhat of an acquired taste). Of course, there’s always ouzo, although according to our Greek correspondent, this is best saved for summer dinners by the seaside.

 

Greek salad 

Serves about 3-4 people

  • 3 large tomatoes
  • 1 cucumber
  • 1 package of Feta Cheese
  • Olives (freshly imported from Kalamata for a fully authentic experience)
  • Olive oil
  • Oregano (optional)

Eat with country-style bread

  1. Chop the tomatoes into medium sized chunks
  2. Peel cucumber and chop into chunks (fun fact of the evening: the closer you get to the greek countryside, the bigger the chunks get in a Greek salad).
  3. Mix in a bowl, and add olives
  4. Top the salad with the feta cheese (see picture) and drizzle olive oil on top (you can also add the oregano at this point)
  5. Serve with bread to dip in the olive oil (cuz carbs are everything)

Moussaka

Serves 6 people (or three very hungry ones)

Time: around 2 hours (1 h 30 min prep)

PS! If you’re a vegetarian you can use ground walnuts instead of meat.

  • Olive oil (a few table spoons)
  • 3 eggplants
  • 1 kg potatoes (around 11 medium sized)
  • 1 red onion
  • 500 g minced meat (beef or mixed beef and pork)
  • One jar of tomato sauce (we got one flavoured with herbs)
  • 50 ml water
  • 1 tsp allspice
  • 2 cinnamon sticks
  • 6 cloves
  • 5 dl bechamel sauce (prepared or freshly made, see recipe for bechamel here)
  • Salt (for various parts of the cooking process)
  1. Turn the oven to 220º C
  2. Chop the onion into small pieces and brown in olive oil in a large pan.
  3. Add the beef to the pan and flatten so that it covers the pan’s surface. Cook on medium heat until the beef is lightly browned.
  4. Add in the jar of tomato sauce and water to the pan, together with the allspice, cinnamon sticks, and cloves
  5. Let the meat sauce simmer for about 45 minutes
  6. Peel the potatoes and slice length-wise (about half a centimeter thick)
  7. Place the potatoes on a baking tray (covered with a baking sheet), spreading them out evenly over the tray.
  8. Roast the potatoes in the oven for about 20 minutes (you might have to do two rounds of this, depending on how much potato you want).
  9. Take the eggplants and slice length-wise into slices about half a centimeter thick. 
  10. Heat olive oil in a new pan and fry the eggplants until brown. Set aside.
  11. You are now ready to make moussaka! In a baking dish (about 20×30 cm), add the layers (lasagna-style), turning the oven down to about 180-200 degrees C.
  12. Start with one layer potato, then eggplant. Add another layer of potato and then eggplant again. Layer these layers with meat sauce. Top the meat sauce with one more layer of potatoes and then a layer of eggplant (then say layer to yourself one more time).
  13. Pour the bechamel sauce on top, and spread to cover evenly.
  14. Let it bake in the oven for about 40 minutes, until the bechamel has turned a nice golden brown and you’re so hungry that you’re on the verge of just ordering pizza instead. 
  15. Let cool for a few minutes, then cut into squares for serving.

Interview time

After feasting like Greek gods, we poured ourselves an after dinner glass of Retsina, and heard more about Maria’s experiences since moving to Stockholm, and how we could stand to learn a thing or two about Southern European vegetables.

Kryddhyllan: What is your favourite food from home?

Maria: Hmm, that’s a tricky one. I think it’s safe to say that what I miss the most is what I like the most, and that would be Greek cheese. And I’m not only talking feta, which you can get here in abundance and it almost tastes the same, it’s the other cheeses that we have, like kefalotiri and kasseri. You can’t get these here and it’s really a shame because we eat it almost daily, we serve it with all kinds of food, you can grate it and it over pasta, you can eat it with bread just for a snack. Even a dietician that I went to once recommended that I have a little piece of kasseri or kefalotiri with two pieces of bread that you can’t find here either.

Kryddhyllan: Sounds delicious… love cheese. The second question is why but you kind of…nailed it.

Maria: Thank you!

Kryddhyllan: What brought you to Sweden?

Maria: I want to say love, but that’s only partly the answer. It was also the financial crisis in Greece. It didn’t really impact my life on a great scale but when it impacts the lives of most people in the country you live in, it’s hard not to be influenced by it as well, regardless of what kind of life you lead. That, paired with having aspirations for a career, making the most of your potential, kind of living life more? You can’t really do that from the security of your family nest. At least not after a certain age, even for a Greek person, and that’s saying something. Because you’d find people that are 30 and are really willing to stay at home with their parents, and they do do that, more often than not. And Greek mothers are really happy to oblige with good cooking forever *laughs. But I didn’t want to go that route.

Kryddhyllan: You chose a more ambitious path.

Maria: Yes.

Kryddhyllan: Since moving to Sweden, what is your new favorite dish?

Maria: I like the meatballs with potato puree and lingonberries. Because it’s very Swedish, especially if it’s from älg (moose), or some other animal that we don’t usually eat back home. So that’s also interesting, and it’s also a bit like home because we also eat a lot of meatballs, and mashed potatoes!

Kryddhyllan: Never actually had älg meatballs…

Maria: Oh, I’ve had them on several occasions. Especially when people from back home visit me, I take them to have älg meatballs. Traditional Swedish cuisine, and that’s usually meatballs and potatoes… IKEA style.

Kryddhyllan: But fancy.

Maria: Although the IKEA ones aren’t so bad either.

Kryddhyllan: True, although they’re maybe made from horsemeat.

Maria: Oh no.

Kryddhyllan: Still delicious. Ignorance is bliss.

Maria: The veggies in Sweden though are definitely not a favourite. Not just because they cost an arm and a leg, but because it’s not even worth it. This makes me so angry, because back home there are these markets, and after being in Stockholm I go home and I’m so upset, because these people are selling their home grown veggies for next to nothing, and you know it’s so good for you and you pay so much money anywhere else. And it’s just- they don’t even know that it costs so much anywhere else. And I can’t get enough of it while I’m there, I’m like force-feeding myself.

Kryddhyllan: And it tastes that much better than here?

Maria: Yeah, it’s a crying shame, because people have a lot of money here, and they still don’t get access to the good stuff.

Kryddhyllan: (While eating) We definitely suffer. It’s a hard life. Flavourless vegetables… But we do have cabbage!

Maria: Maybe you also think that they taste better because you’ve hand picked them off the tree. Or they’re fresh from the garden. Although I do like blueberries, and we don’t have those back home, and potatoes taste very nice in Sweden.

Kryddhyllan: We do know potatoes! Anything that grows under the soil, that doesn’t need excessive sunlight; we’re great at doing that. Good carrots too! All the sexy foods. Cabbage. We don’t specialize in food you can really eat raw. So next question, what did you know about Swedish food before coming here?

Maria: Nothing.

Kryddhyllan: Like not even that we eat polar bears? Just kidding, no we don’t.

Maria: Never heard of it.

Kryddhyllan: That’s why the polar bears are actually dying out, and why we don’t have polar bears here; we ate them all.

Maria: *laughs nervously. When I told people I’d be moving to Sweden, they said like “oh this is a chance to visit this country we would never have visited otherwise”.

Kryddhyllan: What’s the best and worst thing about Swedish food?

Maria: The worst is how much it costs to get it. I mean hamburgers are cheap-

Kryddhyllan: You’re the second person to start with the worst thing about Swedish food *laughs

Maria: Haha, but what if you wanted to get a zucchini? I love zucchini and eggplant, and it’s just like, a burger is cheaper than half a zucchini. And this is for a big piece of zucchini, our zucchinis back home are really small and cute! They don’t grow that big, it’s not normal.

Kryddhyllan: Yeah, it’s not size that matters!

Maria: Hmm, best thing though….There’s a lot of salmon!

Kryddhyllan: We do have salmon!

Maria: And sushi. There’s no sushi in Greece. We have small fish in Greece, and they’re very small and flavourful and lovely that you can fry, but we don’t have those big fish that you can put in the oven with onions and tomatoes.

Kryddhyllan: Love fish. Would it be weird to make a moussaka with salmon?

Maria: Yes… But you can make a veggie one, where you replace the minced meat with walnuts. So it’s a vegan one, if you don’t wanna do the meat.

Kryddhyllan: Good thing none of us are vegan. That sounds difficult. Also, to embark on a blog that has food from all over the world, you can’t really be vegan… Like Argentina, forget about it. There is no vegan food. It would be like “here have this apple”.

Maria: True *laughs

Kryddhyllan: If you had to pick one food to eat for the rest of your life, what would it be?

Maria: Hmm… I eat so much minced meat, that I feel like given the odds I could probably live off burgers, like the patties that my grandmother used to make. Or I dunno… cheese.

Kryddhyllan: So minced meat or cheese? You have to pick.

Maria: I couldn’t live without cheese, I could live without meat patties. So cheese.

Kryddhyllan: Next question is, if you were only allowed to use one spice or condiment for the rest of your life, what would it be? What’s your “spice of life”?

Maria: Well salt is a really good basic.

Kryddhyllan: Salt is essential.

Maria: Nothing tastes good without it.

Kryddhyllan: Definitely not Swedish vegetables, that’s for sure. Next up- what’s the best meal you’ve ever had?

Maria: Well this meal was pretty good. I think we nailed the moussaka.

Kryddhyllan: Really?!

Maria: Oh yeah, it was really good.

Kryddhyllan: All the eligible bachelors of Greece will be calling us up! But for real, the best meal you ever had?

Maria: Well, as the years go by you get nostalgic about places and people, so it’s not really the best meal you’ve ever had, it’s really the best circumstances. So when your grandparents pass away, you think about all the amazing food you had, like at a long table, with endless cousins and aunts and uncles and strangers who walk by. Well, strangers to me but not the family. And the grandmothers would put this heap of pasta, with some mizithra cheese at the bottom, and then she’d spread the meat over, and she’d ask “who’s plate is this?” and you’d say “it’s my dad’s” so she’d put a lot of meat, and then “it’s my brothers” so she’d put a smaller portion on the plate, and she’d spread the food that way. So the process of, the ritual that was eating like a family, made it better than any other dish. And I have tried a lot of food. It’s more the memory. It’s more the company.

Kryddhyllan: That’s beautiful and very true… Okay, last question- what is your favourite restaurant at the moment?

Maria: There’s this little restaurant in Greece, special tribute must be paid, because it’s almost always empty, even though the food is so ridiculously good. It’s right by the sea. It’s called Thelassaki, which means little ocean. It’s in Kalamata. It’s a 15 minute drive from the city centre, near this bay that has become really popular because the water is a different color there. And there’s sand- like it’s a rocky beach and then once you’re thigh high in the water, it’s sandy! So you can play volleyball, and once you’ve had your fun, you can go up these stairs of solid rock, and there’s a taverna. And they have tables overlooking the bay, and they serve all kinds of goodness. Nice people too. I don’t know why they don’t have a lot of traffic.

Kryddhyllan: Not yet. We’re gonna put them on the map, no worries.

Maria: It’s good prices too, it’s just a good spot in general.

Kryddhyllan: We’re going. We’re gonna book our trip, special Kalamata edition. Thank you Maria!

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