Auntie Salwa’s Musaka (Moussaka)

My Aunt Salwa is the oldest of seven siblings and one of five girls. As the oldest, she frequently helped my grandparents prepare meals for the family, although her main responsibility was helping my grandmother sew beautiful clothes. Auntie Salwa loves to cook; it’s a passion and talent that she learned from my grandparents, who were both avid cooks. My grandfather, who we called Jidou, and my grandmother, who we called, Grama loved to feed their friends and families with their culinary handiwork. Growing up, we spent a lot of time with my grandparents, eating, laughing, and listening to their stories of life in Iraq. Seated around the table, we would eat and eat, as Grama gave us seconds and thirds of food, while Jidou sneakily put even more food to our plates when we weren’t looking. If we pleaded that we were too full to eat, Jidou would tickle us, proclaiming “Here is empty!” as he gently poked our stomachs.

The abundance of food is a tradition that Auntie Salwa has carried on well. Every visit to her house involves trying the latest meals she’s concocted. Even if you’ve already eaten, she insists that you have to try at least one bite of her latest creation. You eat those bites gladly, knowing that it will be amazing. She’s had practice perfecting her dishes, learning from her parents, but also from cooking on her own. A mother of four now-grown adults, my aunt has had years of experience cooking for a large family.

Auntie Salwa and Colin, her first grandchild
Auntie Salwa with her first grandchild

I decided to spend last Saturday afternoon cooking with my aunt to learn at least one her great recipes.  While she has many, many wonderful meals up her sleeve, we decided to make musaka, a layered dish of eggplants, tomatoes, meat, onions, and tomato sauce. We took our time chopping, sautéing, and seasoning as we talked about mostly food. I have to admit my aunt did most of the cooking, while I watched her expert hands at work.

This dish came out delicious. My aunt, cousins, and I all ate together, and we pretty much demolished the casserole of musaka. Hey, we all love food! This Chaldean recipe does not include potatoes, savory custard, or béchamel sauce. There are several variations of musaka, and this is just one of them.

Casserole of Musaka

 Prep Time: 40-50 minutes • Cook Time: 40 minutes • Serves: 6-8 people

*baharat is a blend of spices that common in Chaldean cooking. It can be substituted with All Spice.


2 to 2.5 pounds beef (chuck roast or round bone)

4 medium sized eggplants

1 green pepper

4 large tomatoes

4 medium onions

2 cloves garlic

1 teaspoon baharat or all spice

1 can tomato paste

1 tablespoon oil


6 oz tomato paste or 15 oz tomato sauce

1 teaspoon baharat or all spice

2 cloves garlic

Pinch of salt


  • Preheat the oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit.
  • Slice the eggplants into roughly 1/2 inch slices. Lightly oil a baking tray. Place the eggplant slices on the tray, making sure that none of them overlap (you’ll probably need 2 trays).
  • Spray the tops of the slices with cooking oil and sprinkle with black pepper. Put the trays in the oven, and cook the eggplants for about 10 minutes. Then, put the oven on broil for about 10 minutes. Remove from the oven when lightly browned.
  • Slice the green pepper into strips, and place on a baking tray. Spray with cooking oil, and broil for about 5 to minutes or until lightly browned.
  • Chop the onions. In a large pan, heat about a tablespoon of oil. Add the onions and cook until tender. Remove when cooked and set aside.
  • Chop the meat into small chunks. In the same pan that you used to cook the onions, add the meat and 2 cloves of chopped garlic. Sprinkle with baharat, salt and pepper. You don’t need to add water or oil to the meat, it will cook in its own juices. (The meat doesn’t need to be fully cooked, since it will cook more in the oven.)
  • Thinly slice the tomatoes and set aside.
  • In a large casserole dish, lay the tomato slices side by side. Layer the cooked eggplant slices on top. Layer the cooked onions and beef. Add another layer of sliced tomatoes, eggplants, onions, and beef.
  • In a saucepan, heat the tomato sauce or paste. Add the chopped garlic, baharat and pinch of salt. Stir. Let the paste brown for about five minutes on medium to high heat. Add 1.5 cups water, and bring the sauce to a boil. Remove from heat. Pour the tomato sauce over the layered vegetables in a casserole dish.
  • Reduce the oven heat to 325 degrees Fahrenheit. Bake the musaka for about 40 minutes. Serve with rice, bulgur or your favorite grain. Enjoy!

Musaka Closeup


Casserole of Musaka


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