Moussaka postal stamps. Found on a parcel the artist recieved from Greece during a residency in Belgium, 2020

18 March 2024

By artist-in-residence Anna Housiada

The central role food holds in my life goes beyond the daily need for nutrition and the forever torturous question, ‘What should I cook for today?’ The preparation and enjoyment of food is for me — and without doubt, my cultural upbringing in Greece has played a significant role here — a profoundly social affair and often emotionally charged. Long gatherings around the table with endless plates of meze, drinks, and conversations; cooking with my mum, grandmothers, aunties, and cousins; Sunday feasts with friends. For Greeks hospitality is unthinkable without offering food, folklore celebrations (panigyria), and potlucks (or refené dinners — from the Ottoman Turkish harifane, ‘to share’), have shaped who I am.

Leaving Athens five years ago to live in the UK and then in Belgium made room for a whole new chapter in research and creation; a rediscovering my sense of Greekness, pondering whether defining my relationship to it matters at all, and if so, why. Through small and larger doses of nostalgia, deeply embedded in Greek words, expressions, music, and food, I connected with generations of migration traces and lives in the diaspora that had already been imprinted on me through intergenerational collective memory.

While already working with food as an artistic medium, mainly stressing issues of community dynamics and collectivity, I began to view food from a different perspective: as an archive of history and anthropology, capable of portraying the stories of peoples, communities, and social transformations in their complexity. My research journey started in 2020 during my master’s course in Antwerp, where I sought to address the inconsistencies in the modern Greek national narrative, the exclusion of non-Christian and non-Greek-speaking populations from it, the politics of borders, and the culture of dichotomy between the West and the East.

The artist’s copy of ‘Cooking Guide’ by Nicolaos Tselementes, 1925 edition.

My medium to embark on this journey was a cooking guide, first published in 1910 by Nikolaos Tselementes, a French-educated Greek chef, whose name was to become a synonym of the word ‘cookbook’ in Greek. The book belonged to a new genre at that time in the global publishing world, aimed at the housewives of the burgeoning middle class, providing advice on managing their households and preparing sophisticated meals that reflected their class and status. Tselementes also aspired to a higher purpose: to purify Greek cuisine, removing oriental influences and adapting it to a European standard. By eliminating strong flavours, like garlic and spices, from everyday dishes, and incorporating ingredients such as butter, cream, and French sauces, his culinary advice resonated not only with other chefs and the nobility of the time, but also with working-class people who willingly transitioned from a cuisine associated with poverty, rural, and multi-ethnic origins to one that allowed them to embrace the 20th century as Westerners.

One of Tselementes’s revised recipes was for moussaka, a dish that gained such immense popularity in the flourishing tourism industry of the latter half of the 20th century, that can be found today gracing postal stamps as a national symbol. A common dish in the Balkans and Eastern Mediterranean, moussaka (its name most probably referring to musaqqa’a, meaning ‘cold dish’ in Arabic) consists of meat cooked with aubergines. Tselementes’s reinvention of the recipe added béchamel sauce on top, in an attempt to imbue the dish with a layer of French sophistication. My research derived from there, exploring the notion of ethnic self-worth and its dependency on the level of European approval, a phenomenon still at play today.

Documentation from ‘A Dish and a Story’, AAIR Antwerpen, 2020

To allow the research to grow beyond my own experience, I initiated a series of collective meals, inviting participants to bring a “dish and a story” that triggers a memory or reflection related to the sense of cultural identity. Offering moussaka alongside the story of Tselementes and encouraging the others to do the same, we discussed cultural loss in reference to ‘superior’ cuisines, the power of cultural hierarchies and internalised discrimination, the fiction of national narratives, and how what we eat and how we eat it reflects a deep understanding of our place in the world.

The interrelation between food and longing, belonging, and dwelling on one hand, and the history of forgetting on the other, has accompanied me through the last few years, tracing threads of identity and cultural preservation among diasporas. It brought me back to London this winter for my residency at Delfina Foundation: to dip my toes into the history of spices, the pursuit of taste, and the driving force behind great explorations, exploitations, conquests, genocides, and empires.

Research materials collected for and during Delfina residency, 2024

Every dish has a homeland, but spices are nomads. Like food identities, they have always been on the move, enabling cultural exchange and generating mythologies about distant lands, recipes, and remedies. Once signifying extreme wealth and demarcating the boundaries of maps and the West’s knowledge about the world, today they are found in every kitchen cupboard. Although Tselementes associated spices with lower instincts and cultures, a couple of centuries earlier in Europe, spices were symbols of privilege and sophistication; a luxurious commodity that only the upper class could appreciate, not merely because the poor couldn’t afford it but also because it was believed that they were biologically unable to enjoy it.

Today, food choices are a statement of personal style (my version of moussaka is vegetarian) rather than a rigid indicator of social class and status. International tastes are the common language in multiethnic metropolises and among well-traveled people. However, in every dinner party there are always a few empty seats around the table. Whose stories are not represented? And what kinds of practices keep the memory alive and record the histories that have been in the shadows?

A recipe for vegetarian moussaka

Moussaka, as part of ‘A Dish and a Story’, AAIR Antwerpen, 2020

4 large potatoes
4 aubergines
3 courgettes (optional)

For the vegetarian mince:
olive oil
1 large onion
1 carrot
1 celery stick (peeled)
1-2 garlic cloves
250g mushrooms
250g green lentils (boiled)
250g firm tofu
250g walnuts
1tsp concentrated tomato paste
400g tomato sauce
a pinch of sugar
1 bay leaf
a handful of fresh thyme and basil
salt and pepper

For the bechamel sauce:
100g butter
100g plain flour
750g whole milk (warm)
80g parmesan cheese (grated)
salt, black pepper
whole nutmeg (for grating)

  1. Cut the potatoes and aubergines horizontally into 5mm slices, drizzle with olive oil, rock salt, and fresh thyme and place them side by side on a tray. Grill them in the oven until golden brown. This is an alternative to frying that makes the dish a lot lighter.
  2. In olive oil, stir-fry the onion, carrot and celery until golden and soft. Add the rest of the mince ingredients, except the thyme and basil, and a bit of water. Cook for at least 20 mins and at the last 5 remove the bay leaf and add the fresh herbs chopped.
  3. For the bechamel sauce, melt the butter in a saucepan and then add the flour. Cook on medium heat until golden, stirring constantly. Lower the heat and gradually whisk in the warm milk until thickened and smooth. Add the parmesan, a little salt, pepper and grate a generous bit of nutmeg in.
  4. In a deep dish, layer the oven-fried potatoes and aubergines, covering each layer evenly with the mince. Once the layering ingredients are all in the dish, top with the bechamel sauce, smoothing out with a spatula.
  5. Cook for 45 minutes in a preheated oven until deep golden brown.
  6. Set aside for 10 minutes to cool before serving.

Anna Housiada was in-residence at Delfina Foundation during the winter 2024 residency season, supported by ARTWORKS and with additional support from Alex Haidas.