The diet of the Middle East and the Mediterranean is one of the healthiest in the world. The Mediterranean tradition of hospitality is brought to life in the Middle East through the vivid flavors of mezze. Mezze is an appetizer or a spread of appetizers. This can be an elaborate spread of forty or fifty hors d’oeuvres, little bits of tasty treats to whet the appetite. The origin of the word mezze is unclear. It may be derived from the Persian “maza” meaning “taste, relish,” or from the Arabic “mazmiz” which means to nibble at food.
The mezze tradition extends from Turkey into the Balkans, including Greece, and spreads to Middle East countries. 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, another plate of feta cheese or yogurt cheese, a dish of olives, some dips like baba ghanoush, hummus, salads and a pitcher of iced water. On the other hand there could also be hummus, fattoush, grilled eggplant and zucchini, sambousek, tabbouleh and kibbeh, made from freshly ground lamb and/or beef that can be prepared baked or fried. Olives and pickles are almost always included in a mezze spread.
The term ‘Middle East’ includes Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Israel, along with the nations of Afghanistan, Kuwait, Yemen, Armenia, Oman, UAE and others. From the other side we have countries of the Maghreb which include Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Libya. The area is vast and encompasses all the varied foods of southern Europe, northern Africa and the Middle Eastern countries that surround the Mediterranean. The cooking that developed from country to country bears similarities as well as differences, but most of the cooking had its origins in what we may call ‘tent cooking.’This cuisine depends on its abundance of fruits, grains, legumes, vegetables, nuts, olive oil, roasted flavors and spices to provide great variety and healthy life. The Middle East has formed the cradle of Islamic civilization since the 8th century, and its cuisine reflects the different cultures that have influenced this civilization. There is no difference between Jewish cuisine and Israeli cuisine. But Israel was settled by people from countries all over Europe and the Middle East, and there is difference between Ashkenazic and Sephardic cuisine. Ashkenazic relates to Jewish people (immigrants) from east and west Europe, while Sephardic relates to Jewish people from middle east countries. The Sephardic food is full of aromatic spices and herbs, is spicier and livelier in general than Ashkenazic cooking which is sweeter.
Just as mezze, A festive Italian meal also begins with a variety of appetizers, which are known as antipasti — literally, before the meal. These antipasti vary considerably from place to place in Italy, but they will often include a selection of pickles and other firm vegetables, which are known as an antipasto misto, which can include Pickled Artichokes, Stewed Mushrooms, Sun-dried Tomatoes, Pickled Onions, and Giardiniera, a vegetable medley.
Frequently eaten Turkish mezes include; olives, mature kaşar kashar cheese, white cheese (feta), various mixed pickles turşu, cacık (tzatziki), fried köfte (meatballs), fasulye pilaki (bean cooked with garlic, tomatoe paste, carrot and olive oil), dolma (vine leaves, cabbage leaves, peppers, courgettes, pumpkin or eggplant stuffed with rice and/or meat, all kinds of börek (very thin phyllo dough staffed with cheese, meat or vegetables), humus (a word coming from Arabic and prepared from sesame, chickpea, garlic, olive oil, lemon juice), eggplant salad, acılı ezme (hot spicy freshly mashed tomatoes with onion and green herbes), çiğ köfte (hot raw meatballs with bulgur). Gözleme is a food typical in rural areas, made of lavash bread or phyllo dough folded around a variety of fillings — spinach, cheese, meat, potatoes — and cooked on a large griddle. In the coastal towns of Turkey, seafood mezes accompany fish dishes; Kalamar, Ahtapot (octopus salad), deniz börülcesi or midye dolma (mussels stuffed with rice).
Greek Salad: The so-called Greek Salad is known in Greece as Village/Country Salad (Horiatiki).
Tzatziki: A dip prepared with cucumber, yoghurt and garlic puree
Taramosalata: Fish roe mixed with boiled potatoes or moistened breadcrumbs.
Horta: Wild or cultivated greens, steamed or blanched and made into salad, simply dressed with lemon juice and olive oil. They can either be eaten as a light meal with potatoes
Dolmades: Grapevine leaves stuffed either with rice or vegetables. Meat can also be included.
Spanakopita: spinach wrapped in filo pastry.
Tyropita: cheese (usually feta) wrapped in filo pastry.
Many other things are wrapped in filo pastry, either in bite-size triangles or in large sheets: kotopita (chicken), spanakotyropita (spinach and cheese), hortopita (greens), kreatopita (meat pie, using ground meat), etc.
Boureki: Individually wrapped vegetable and meat fillings in filo pastry or dough.
Deep Fried vegetables (courgettes, aubergines, peppers) or mushrooms (“tiganita”).
Saganaki: Fried cheese (plain, but also including other ingredients such as shrimp).
Some dishes served in Greek restaurants (especially outside Greece) are not Greek at all, for example the famous Lebanese dip.
Hummus bi tahini
Labneh is a white Middle Eastern yogurt cheese made from sheep, cow, or occasionally goat milk. It has a consistency between that of yogurt and that of cheese, and has somewhat of a paste texture. They are shaped into quenelles and preserved in olive oil to keep them for longer. Labneh may also be flavored by spices like thyme and hot pepper.
Pastırma is a highly seasoned, air-dried cured beef in the cuisines of the former Ottoman countries. The name pastırma is Turkish and it evolved from its original form, “bastırma et”, meaning “pressed meat”. Though beef, preferably young, is the most common meat today, various meats are also used, including camel, lamb, goat, and water buffalo.
It is prepared by pressing the meat to squeeze out its water, then covering it with a cumin paste called çemen (lit. ‘fenugreek’) prepared with crushed cumin, fenugreek, garlic, and hot paprika, and air-drying it.
It can be served as a mezze in thin slices, usually uncooked, but sometimes lightly grilled. The spiced version is most common, and is often called Sivas pastırma.
Shanklish is a type of cow’s milk or sheep’s milk cheese made in Syria and Lebanon. It is typically formed into balls of approximately 6 cm diameter, which are often covered in Zaatar and Aleppo pepper and then aged and dried. The most common spice is thyme, thus giving the cheese its appearance somewhat resembling a dirty tennis ball. Shanklish is also sold in much smaller balls or unformed. The cheese ages very well in the freezer.
Shanklish varies greatly in its texture and flavour. Fresh cheeses have a soft texture and mild flavour; those dried and aged for a longer period become progressively harder and can acquire an extremely pungent odour and flavour. To make spicier cheeses, spices such as aniseed and chilli can be mixed in before the cheese is formed into balls. Spicy shanklish are often covered in chilli, especially in Syria, and thus appear red. Shanklish is generally eaten with finely-chopped tomato, onion, and olive oil; and often accompanied by araq. It is a common mezze dish. Shanklish is also mashed up with eggs or crushed in a pita with cucumbers, mint, and olive oil for breakfast.
Tabbouleh (Arabic: also tabouli, tabouleh) is a salad dish, often used as part of a mezze. Its primary ingredients are bulgur, finely chopped parsley, mint, tomato, scallion (spring onion), and other herbs with lemon juice and various seasonings, generally including black pepper and sometimes cinnamon and allspice. In Lebanon, where the dish originated, it is often eaten by scooping it up in romaine lettuce leaves.
Glossary of Mezze:
Babaghanouj: Prepared with baked and pureed eggplant, along with lemon juice, tahini paste and parsley.
Fool Nabet: Bean sprouts
Lobhiya Nashfa Barda: Prepared with boiled beans that have been crushed with garlic and lemon juice
Fassooliya beida barda: Boiled haricot bean salad with onion, tomato and parsley.
Beid Mahshy: Boiled eggs that have been stuffed with mashed yolks, yoghurt, onion, pickled cucumbers and olives.
Mana’eesh: Yeast dough filled with a mixture made with oregane, sumac, sesame seeds, oil and salt.
Sambousek: Turnovers filled with Mince beef and eggs
Sabhanikhiyat: Turnovers with spinach filling
Filfill roomy maqly: Red peppers that have been fried and mixed with fried garlic and vinegar
Filfill roomy bil gibna: Half red peppers filled with skimmed cheese and black olives.
Ratzelech: These are Jewish pancakes that are made with apples, potatoes and onion, bound together with flour and yolks and folded egg whites, shallow fried.
Chopped herrings: Salted herrings that have been chopped along with onions, apples, hard boiled eggs and bread that has been soaked in cider vinegar
Fried Liver: Liver that has been coated with flour, salt and pepper, fried and served with mint leaves.