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Mezze, Anissa Helou, selection of titbits or appetizers


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Mezze, Anissa Helou, selection of titbits or appetizers
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Our neighbours at the next table were rowdy, pin-stripe-suited city boys. And while we slowly and fastidiously picked at our mezze, they greedily tucked into theirs, dipping their fingers in the food and noisily sucking them clean after each mouthful.

The contrast was quite amusing. The boys may have been trendy enough to know about Lebanese mezze, but obviously, they were not yet versed in the art of eating it Arab-style. Well, perhaps it will only be a matter of time.

Mezze, a selection of titbits or appetizers that Turks, Greeks or Lebanese nibble on while drinking, are fast becoming the latest dining trend. People's increasing penchant for informal, unstructured meals have made mezze - and tapas, even if quite different - the order of the day.
A mezze spread, be it Turkish, Greek or Lebanese, can be a simple selection of nuts, olives and crudités, or an elaborate and astonishing array of dips, salads, vegetable dishes, savory pastries, spicy sausages, and so on, almost ad infinitum.

Simple or elaborate, a mezze is to be savored at a very leisurely pace, preferably accompanied by Lebanese arak, Turkish raki or Greek ouzo (different names for the same aniseed flavored drink). Mezze can also be enjoyed with wine or beer and, of course, by Muslims who abstain from alcohol, with soft drinks.

According to Ayla Algar, author of Classical Turkish Cooking, the idea for mezze started in ancient Persia. The word, from the Persian maza, means to taste, relish, and in those far off days a mezze consisted of a small selection of tart fruit such as pomegranates and quinces, served with wine to relieve its immature, bitter taste. Later it was expanded to include nuts.

Today, however, there is no longer a tradition of mezze as such in Persia. The country being staunchly Islamic, no longer allows drinking in public, nor indeed in private. Instead, the mezze has been adopted in neighbouring Turkey, Lebanon, Greece and the Balkans.

In Greece, mezethes (their name for mezze) are usually eaten in between meals, often in specialist places called mezethopoleion. On the other hand, in Lebanon or Turkey (where mezze are known as mezeler), mezze are generally eaten as starters.

It would take too long for a home cook to prepare an elaborate mezze; she/he will do it only occasionally for wedding parties or large family reunions. Instead, families or friends go out to restaurants to enjoy mezze.

I still have wonderful childhood memories of family Sunday lunches in Zahleh, a riverside town north east of Beirut famed for its mezze restaurants.

The ritual of choosing and ordering our mezze started as soon as we sat down. "What do you have that is good today?" my father would ask the waiter. His question did not refer to any of the mainstays such as hommus, baba ghannouge (a grilled aubergine dip) or tabbouleh, to name a few, but rather to what was in season, or to any number of delicacies that needed to be extremely fresh such as raw lamb's liver, lambs' testicles (yes, testicles or beyd ghanam in Arabic), tiny birds (asafeer, one of my all time favourites, even if seriously non pc), and so on.

My father nodded whenever the waiter named a dish we wanted, and by the time the waiter had finished, our order would stretch to 20 dishes, or more.

The mezze was served in stages. The dips, salads and cold vegetable dishes first, then gradually the hot dishes and savoury pastries. The colours and textures on the table were gorgeous.

The smooth, pale ivory of the dips was nicely set off by the crisp, golden browns of the savoury pasteries, while the herb salads and vegetable dishes added brilliant notes of greens and reds.

We ate straight from the serving dishes, scooping our food with torn pieces of pita bread. But even at our young age, we knew we had better keep our fingers clean!

Whenever we got bored, we left our parents to their conversation and went to play by the water. My parents didn't mind. It was accepted practice for people to come and go from a mezze table. Nor did they worry about us children coming to any harm. The waiters kept a watchful eye on us - in Lebanon, as in other Mediterranean countries like Italy, children are kings (or queens) and everyone feels protective towards them.

When we'd had enough of playing and started feeling peckish again, we'd return to find new dishes added to the spread. The pleasure of the meal seemed to last forever. And there was no nonsense about the restaurant wanting the table back by a certain hour. We had ours for the whole afternoon.

Many mezze dishes, such as stuffed vine leaves or hommus, are common to Greece, Turkey and Lebanon, although the way they are made and the taste is quite different. Take hommus for instance, probably the best-known of all mezze dishes. In Lebanon, the dip is made with chickpeas, tahini, lemon juice and garlic while the Turkish or Greek versions also use olive oil, cumin and red pepper.

Another example is Turkish kissir, a burghul salad dressed with pomegranate syrup. Kissir could be considered the equivalent of tabbouleh - and it may be at the root of the misinterpretation of tabboule in the west. The Turkish salad uses a lot of burghul, a little tomato and only a smattering of parsley, whereas the Lebanese tabboule is basically a parsely and tomato salad with very little burghul.

Taramosalalta, however, is specific to Greece, although we, and elsewhere in the Mediterranean, have batrakh (or bottarga as it is known in Italy), grey mullet's roe, sliced very thin and served with slivered garlic and olive oil.

Mezze has now found its way onto the menus of many western restaurants, but, sadly, as with many food traditions that are exported, it is much misunderstood. For instance, most Moroccan restaurants have a selection of mezze on their menu, and yet there is no mezze tradition in Morocco. In fact, the structure of a Moroccan meal is very different from that of a Lebanese Turkish or Greek meal. The dishes are served one after the other, except for a selection of salads that remain on the table throughout the meal for diners to pick at and refresh their palate in between courses.

Even sadder, mezze and tapas seem now to have become interchangeable terms even though their origins and tastes are very different. People sit at a mezze table and laze for hours drinking and nibbling the different dishes whilst tapas are usually enjoyed standing at a bar or eaten as snacks in between meals.

I wonder whether those city boys would have eaten their tapas as messily and greedily as they ate their mezze, or, indeed, whether they would have known the difference.

Anissa Helou
Food writer, journalist and broadcaster. Her books include Lebanese Cuisine (short-listed for the Andre Simon Awards) and Modern Mezze (winner of best UK Mediterranean at the Gourmand World Cookbooks Awards).

Extract from the book 'A Complete insiders Guide to Lebanon
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