What's in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet;
So aubergine doth, though it be eggplant call'd,
Retain that slimy perfection which it owes
Without that title. Moussaka, doff thy name,
And with that flesh which is all parts of thee
Feed all myself.
We have the extreme good fortune to live near several excellent Middle Eastern markets and restaurants, at which we do a fair amount of our shopping and eating. One of these restaurants serves a stewlike dish they call "moussaka," but which bears no resemblance to the Greek casserole of the same name beyond the common ingredients of eggplant and a tomato-based sauce. A visit to the Oxford English Dictionary yielded the following definition: "A Balkan and eastern Mediterranean baked dish of minced lamb or beef layered with vegetables (esp. aubergines, potatoes, courgettes, onions), usually with a topping of béchamel sauce," which is basically what I grew up eating (and have since veganized). However, a look at the etymology has: "Ottoman Turkish mūṣāqa, Turkish musakka, ultimately Arabic musaqqā, lit. ‘that which is fed liquid’ (see note), passive participle of saqqā to feed liquid to. In later use probably reborrowed variously via modern Greek μουσακάς and similar forms in Balkan languages: compare Romanian musaca, Bulgarian musaka, Serbian and Croatian musaka, Albanian musaka. Compare also French moussaka (1934 or earlier). The Arabic etymon suggests a procedure of repeatedly adding liquid during cooking; however, this is not mentioned for moussaka in Turkish cookery books, old or new. It perhaps refers simply to the addition of the sauce."
So the upshot seems that to be that "moussaka" generally refers to the Greek version, but that the word's linguistic roots seem to relate better to the stew-like Lebanese version on which today's recipe is based (albeit somewhat loosely). But at the end of the day, what's in a name? No matter what you choose to call it, the combination of eggplant, tomatoes, and warm, Mediterranean spices is extremely beguiling, and makes a very comforting winter meal ladled over rice, couscous, or (in its most recent appearance chez nous) over soft polenta.
~ 2 tbsp. olive oil
~ 1 large onion, diced
~ 1 large eggplant, cubed
~ 2 tbsp. minced garlic
~ 1 tsp. each: salt, marjoram, chili powder
~ 1/2 tsp. each: cinnamon, smoked paprika
~ Pinch each: cayenne, nutmeg
~ 1 14 oz. can diced tomatoes (about 2 cups)
~ 1 tbsp. each: tomato paste, pomegranate molasses
~ 1 14 oz. can chickpeas, drained and rinsed
~ 2 tsps. za'atar
~ 1/2 cup fresh parsley, chopped
~ Chopped, toasted pistachios or walnuts for garnish
~ In a large, deep skillet, sauté the onion in the olive oil over medium heat for about five minutes.
~ Add the cubed eggplant, stir to combine, and continue cooking for 5-7 minutes, until it is beginning to soften.
~ Add the garlic and seasonings and cook another minute before stirring in the tomato paste, the molasses, the canned tomatoes, and the chickpeas. Bring briefly to a boil, then cover the pan, reduce heat to low, and cook for about 45 minutes, stirring occasionally.
~ Add the za'atar and fresh parsley, mix thoroughly, and serve hot over couscous, rice, or soft polenta. Sprinkle a handful of toasted pistachios or walnuts over the top of each serving.