Even the most chauvinist of Greek authors concede that this casserole of eggplant (Solanum melongena L.) and ground meat came to them (as did so much else) with the Ottoman occupation. Evidence on the ground supports this: Moussaka without the white-sauce topping prevalent in Greece is eaten throughout the Middle East, and called “moussaka.” And it is hard to see how such a dish would have spread from Greece to the rest of the Turkish empire and then become simplified. In any case, “moussaka” is not a Greek word. The Turks brought “moussaka” to Athens from Egypt, where it is colloquial for “chilled.” Perhaps it was originally eaten cold. There is no fixed recipe. The full-dress Greek version can be respectably produced with lamb or beef or even veal, but lamb would seem to be the inevitable choice for a Middle Eastern dish. When did Greeks add tomatoes? Almost certainly after they had learned to make moussaka. Purists can simply eliminate the tomato, just as they can opt (as I have) for a yogurt-based white sauce. Then there is the matter of how to parcook the eggplant slices: fry or grill? Claudia Roden says grilled slices are lighter, but are they more delicious? She says yes; I disagree, but the huge amount of oil that eggplant absorbs in frying makes me line up with Ms. Roden.
That moussaka, so deeply rooted in the Islamic Middle East, should be known as Greek in the Christian West, is a small sign of the way Greece and the Balkans have served as a point of entry for a multifarious family of cuisines that merged during the Ottoman centuries but which are fundamentally either Turkish or fused with Turkish food. This is the culinary side of an ironic fairy tale in which the culturally unoriginal Greeks of the post-Byzantine period have come to enjoy an unearned prestige in Europe, because of an ancient Greek civilization whose language they can no longer read and a cuisine they picked up from their Turkish masters.