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.
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  • Maggie SY
    Maggie SY
  • bdobrina
  • Zivko Cerovic
    Zivko Cerovic
  • Smaug
  • inpatskitchen
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.


Maggie S. February 18, 2021
Hi. As Bulgarian I disagree with the statement that a shopska salad contains olives.Traditional shopska salad is made with roasted, peeled and chopped peppers. Olives are an ingredient of a Greek salad.
bdobrina June 4, 2020
Dear Carlos C. thank you for making such a nice point with this humble traditional for Bulgaria dish - Mussaka. I really enjoyed the reading about the Bulgarian Mussaka and would like to contribute to the collection of recipes with my own: My Bulgarian Mussaka :)
1kg potatoes, peeled and diced (I prefer to work with varieties that are easy to boil, soft, with high content of starch, yellow),
1 large yellow onion, chopped
4 garlic cloves, chopped
4 tbsp. vegetable oil (sunflower)
200g tomatoes canned, chopped
500g minced meat (beef, pork)
¼ tsp ground black pepper
¼ tsp ground cumin
¼ tsp ground wild oregano
1 tsp sweet paprika
½ tsp salt
For the topping:
400ml plain yogurt
¼ tsp baking soda
¼ tsp ground nutmeg
2 eggs
2 tbsp. all-purpose flour
1) In a large pan at medium heat sauté the onion and the garlic with the oil till soften.
2) Add the minced meat and stir until is cooked to reduce the cohesion.
3) Add salt, paprika, oregano, cumin, black pepper and fry for a while until the spices are well absorbed. At the end add the tomatoes. Stir for a minute and set the mixture aside.
4) Chopped the potatoes in small cubes. Put them in a rectangular baking dish and combine them with the meat mixture.
5) Add hot water until the mixture is covered.
6) Bake in preheated oven at 180°C until the water is almost evaporated or until you can still see bubbles.
7) Meanwhile, in a bowl, combine the yogurt and baking soda. Add the eggs, the flour, the nutmeg, a pinch of salt and black pepper and beat until you have a nice homogenous mixture.
8) Pure this mixture over the meat and the potatoes when ready. Switch off the heat and turn on the oven fan. Leave it until the topping is golden.
9) Leave it to cool for a few minutes. Cut it in big squares and serve either with Bulgarian yogurt or Tsarska turshia, and a glass of red wine.
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.
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.
Cody C. April 1, 2020
My Bulgarian wife very strongly and loudly disagrees with this statement. At length. In at least two languages. There is, apparently, a very uniquely Bulgarian form of this dish (mostly to do with omitting eggplant and using the Bulgarian yogurt on top), and, as with most things, they'll fight you about it, if you want.
bdobrina June 4, 2020
Thank you for that answer. As a Bulgarian and the chef in my kitchen I appreciate all variation of one dish coming from different homes, places, countries and often I called these variation with their specific names. Simply, there is no such think like only one recipe. As many places you do have as many are the recipes and it's fair to be called with their names.
Zivko C. June 4, 2020
Turkish people doing the same. How now is "Bulgarian"?It all reminds me of a funny story about "Greek yogurt". Well, that yogurt was invented by the Chinese 5000 years ago. Or "Greek feta" This cheese was made in the Balkans and livestock areas of the Middle East for at least about 4000 years. Just to mention that I am a culinary historian
Iskra N. June 6, 2020
Jivko, this is definitely Bulgarian moussaka. No doubt! Because Bulgarians make it and eat it on regular basis 😂. This is what makes it Bulgarian. At least for me 😊.
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.
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!
Carlos C. January 6, 2020
My pleasure. And thank you so much