Was it the Greeks? The Turks perhaps? Or the Bedouins of the Middle East who first introduced to a taste-starved world the concept of dining mezze-styles? A way of sharing food without any ceremony or service, a mezze table can be the entire dinner. And ridiculously delicious. Thought of this way, mezze can be compared to the Scandinavian smörgåsbord, to which it is more philosophically related, rather than hors d’oeuvre, antipasti, tapas, or appetizers.
Almost anything that is small and tasty qualifies as a mezze dish. A basic mezze table can be as simple as a basket of warm pita, a plate of fresh herbs, bowls of feta cheese, labneh (or Greek-style strained yoghurt), a variety of olives, some taramosalata and hummus, and of course bountiful salad.
Living in the heart of the Middle East, this foodie’s daily staple consists of tabouli, baba ghanoush – a smoky dip of roasted, peeled, and mashed eggplant, blended with tahini, garlic, salt, white vinegar and lemon juice; And of course everybody’s favourite meat dish: shish taouk: cubes of chicken skewered and grilled, then lashed with marinades that are based upon yogurt or tomato puree.
To give a mezze table the status of a mezze feast, simply increase the number and variety of dishes, including a few heartier choices like small kebabs, some seafood, falafel – those spicy balls of crushed chickpea – and foul moudamas (fava beans to the rest of us) warmed to perfection with olive oil, garlic and lemon on the side.
Now the flavourings you will encounter when dining mezze-styles is something else. Lets begin with zatar, which is popular from Greece to Israel. It is a mixture of spices and herbs such as dried powdered hyssop, sesame seeds and salt. Wildly aromatic, zatar can be used in all sorts of creative culinary ways such as mixed with olive oil and smeared on warm pita (to make a home-made pizza-style sensation), blended into yoghurt for dipping, or sprinkled throughout a chickpea salad.
Next: sumac. A fruity, astringent taste is what you will encounter when you eat dishes infused with sumac. The wild bushes from which this herb is derived grow throughout the Mediterranean and parts of the Middle East. The bush produces red berries which are picked, dried, ground and reduced to purple powder. Mixed with water sumac can be used in the same way as lemon juice: drizzled on salads.
And finally…finally…O its a terrible business, but where would the civilized world be without a good bottle of grape juice? A meal can become complete and accomplished just by the addition of culture and enlightenment in the form of vino.
Cheers to your health! Buon Appetito! And finally Sa7tayn! to our mezze-munching friends of the Levant!!