Weeknight Cooking

Moussaka, but Make It Bulgarian

Besides scrapping the eggplant, Bulgarian moussaka combines ground meat with potatoes and a spiced tomato sauce before baking in the oven.

January  3, 2020
Photo by James Ransom. Food Stylist: Anna Billingskog. Prop Stylist: Brooke Deonarine.

While many are most familiar with Greek-style moussaka (consisting of layers of eggplant, potatoes, and minced meat topped with a white sauce), this dish has variations all throughout the Eastern Mediterranean. The origin of the word moussaka actually comes from the Arabic musaqqa’a (مسقعة), which roughly means “to moisten,” referring to the fact that many versions of this dish consist of slices of eggplant that soak up a zesty tomato sauce.

Some food historians suggest that the origin of this dish is found in the Ottoman Empire, and a version of moussaka is served in Turkey to this day. This theory makes the most sense considering that the spread of moussaka throughout the Mediterranean coincides with the reach of the Ottoman Empire at its peak. Currently, you can find versions of this dish in the Levant (the area around Lebanon), Egypt, Romania, Greece, and the Balkans, and each former Ottoman territory has its own way of preparing it.

Preparation of the Bulgarian version in particular is appealing for many reasons. I don’t like cooking slices of eggplant, and the thick béchamel that crowns Greek moussaka can be, at least for me, too rich. Besides scrapping the eggplant, Bulgarian moussaka combines raw ground beef or pork with diced potatoes and a spiced tomato sauce, and the mixture is baked almost like a meatloaf or shepherd's pie. The mystery herb one of my Bulgarian friends once described to me is actually summer savory, which you can replace with oregano to taste. The topping is simple to whip up and requires no time at the stove: Simply whisk together yogurt, eggs, and a little bit of binder (in this case, flour) and pour it on top of the meat mixture.

In my research, I found that many recipes call for mushroom-flavored bouillon cube, which is commonly used in Eastern European cooking. Instead, I call for finely minced mushrooms to provide that umami flavor. The end result is a hearty (yet not-too-heavy) one-dish meal you can whip up on a weeknight. This dish can also be assembled a day in advance before baking, which makes everything even more manageable. The side Shopska salad is optional, though highly recommended.

To Go With

Have you ever had Bulgarian moussaka? Let us know in the comments below.
Order now

A New Way to Dinner, co-authored by Food52's founders Amanda Hesser and Merrill Stubbs, is an indispensable playbook for stress-free meal-planning (hint: cook foundational dishes on the weekend and mix and match ‘em through the week).

Order now

Join the Conversation

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Zivko Cerovic
    Zivko Cerovic
  • Smaug
  • inpatskitchen
  • Carlos C. Olaechea
    Carlos C. Olaechea
I was born in Peru to a Limeño father and a Texan mother. We moved to Miami when I was five, and I grew up in the "Kendall-suyo" neighborhood—often called the 5th province of the Inca Empire because of its large Peruvian population. I've been writing about food since I was 11 years old, and in 2016 I received a master's degree in Gastronomy from Boston University. A travel columnist at Food52, I'm currently based in Hollywood, Florida—another vibrant Peruvian community—where I am a writer, culinary tour guide, and consultant.


Zivko C. January 3, 2020
Not sach things called "Bulgarian mussaka".That's common dish in Macedonia,Serbia,Bosnia,Montenegro,Croatia,Romania,Albania,Turkey,Greece.That's known as Potato mussaka different from Egplant mussaka.
Author Comment
Carlos C. January 6, 2020
Unfortunately, the editor cut out the part of the story when I describe how a Bulgarian friend told me about Bulgarian moussaka. And several other Bulgarians corroborated it. There are also many recipes out there for Bulgarian moussaka. It would be odd that moussaka would move from present-day Turkey to all those countries you mentioned while completely bypassing Bulgaria.

But then again, there are people who say there is no such thing as Cuban pizza, and I insist that American potatoes aren't really potatoes.
Smaug January 3, 2020
This was OK- if I were to make it again, I think I'd up the tomato factor quite a bit. I subbed thyme for the savory- I think it's a better sub than oregano; perhaps a mixture of the two would work. I found the flavor of the egg in the topping surprisingly discordant.
Smaug January 4, 2020
A little poking around the internet gave a number of recipes for this dish; there's quite a bit of variation in them, particularly the spices (paprika seems to be pretty universal). Most of them did call for more tomato, and some included red pepper, an idea that I like, as well as celery and carrot. They also tended to a higher ratio of potato to meat. Basically it's a simple preparation; I think I'll do some more experimenting for a dish more in line with my tastes.
Author Comment
Carlos C. January 6, 2020
Wonderful, Smaug! When you come up with a recipe, please pitch Food52 your new and improved recipe. We are always looking to better ourselves.
Smaug January 7, 2020
Well- I wouldn't call it a recipe, and certainly not Bulgarian Moussaka, but I did use this as a basis for a meat pie (without topping) that worked well. The main difference was that I felt the original lacked sweet elements (though I used Yukon Gold potatoes)- I added small amounts of carrot and celery, about 2/3 cup of tomato puree ( which I bought by accident- I otherwise would have preferred fresh tomatoes- which I still have, in California- or whole canned). I also precooked the meat with some red wine- this reduced the cohesion of the final product, but it gave me an opportunity to reduce the tomato and I liked the taste. Also added a good bit of rosemary. For the record, I used a kind of layered bread for a crust; a fairly ordinary soft bread dough rolled thin, spread with olive oil and folded twice, then rerolled. Cooked it in a metal pie tin with perforated bottom.
Smaug January 7, 2020
Also added several chopped roulette peppers, a small sweet type, but any sweet pepper would have worked.
Smaug January 7, 2020
And I used about a 3/2 ratio of potato to meat- I really need to either start writing these things down or have my memory fixed.
inpatskitchen January 3, 2020
Thanks for including my salad in your article. I just LOVE Bulgarian moussaka and this one looks wonderful!
Author Comment
Carlos C. January 6, 2020
My pleasure. And thank you so much