Meals of meze

The unique appetizer is an ancient tradition; the Eastern Mediterranean assortment is often our favorite part of the meal.

Okra in spicy tomato sauce 521 (photo credit: Yakir Levy)
Okra in spicy tomato sauce 521
(photo credit: Yakir Levy)
When we dine at an Eastern Mediterranean restaurant, the appetizer selection, or meze, is often our favorite part of the meal.
Meze can be composed of simple ingredients that require no cooking, such as green olives, roasted pistachios, cubes of white cheese or slices of melon, and can include cooked dishes. Often meze is served with arak or other alcoholic drinks.
Serving meze is an ancient tradition, wrote Ghillie Basan in The Middle Eastern Kitchen, “enjoyed by the Greeks, Romans, ancient Persians, medieval Arabs and Ottomans.” Although meze is usually considered appetizer food, “there are no rules. There is no set time or place, just the unspoken understanding that the food should be served in small quantities to be shared and savored at a leisurely pace.”
Faith E. Gorsky, who lived in Damascus and learned to prepare Syrian food from her mother-in-law, considers meze the equivalent of Spanish tapas. “Usually food served this way is rustically eaten off the tray either with your hands, or with flatbread for scooping,” she wrote in An Edible Mosaic – Middle Eastern Fare with Extraordinary Flair. “This style of eating is common for smaller meals (i.e. breakfast and dinner), and is also used to serve appetizers before lunch (which is the largest meal of the day) or as a snack.”
Diane Kochilas, author of The Greek Vegetarian, refers to meze as “the little dishes that best fulfill the duty of the host – small offerings, small plates that can be presented on a moment’s notice.” They might be served as snacks or starters, or might constitute the meal itself.
For us, meze meals are perfect for summertime, as these dishes taste good cool or at room temperature.
Although meze can include fish or meat, for our meze meals we most often prepare meze made of vegetables. Several cooked vegetable dishes accompanied by feta cheese or hard-boiled eggs, sliced raw vegetables and pita or crusty bread can make a light yet satisfying lunch or supper.
One of the most memorable meze spreads we had was served at Anadolu restaurant in Antakya in southeast Turkey. It included a salad of fresh za’atar, a grilled eggplant spread with yogurt and garlic and sprinkled with red pepper flakes, and a favorite of ours, the spicy walnut and red pepper spread known in Turkey as cevizli biber and elsewhere in the Mideast as muhammara. According to Gorsky, this dish originated in Aleppo, where peppers grow in abundance. In fact, Aleppo is only a short distance from Antakya, and peppers are an important agricultural product throughout the region.
Another tasty salad served at Anadolu restaurant is abagannuc. The name sounds like baba ghanouj but the reddish spread looked and tasted very different from the eggplant and tehina salad we know.
In Antakya, wrote Jale Balci in Antakya: City & Cuisine, the spread is made from grilled whole eggplants, red peppers and tomatoes, which are pounded and combined with crushed garlic, olive oil and salt.
In much of Turkey, vegetables for meze are prepared as zeytinyagli, or foods cooked with olive oil, but in southeast Anatolia tehina is also popular for enriching vegetable dishes. Balci makes a fava bean spread the way Israelis make humous from chickpeas; the cooked beans are mashed with tehina, lemon juice, olive oil and cumin.
Meze often includes fried eggplant, braised green beans or okra with tomatoes, wrote Gorsky. Her broiled eggplant dip includes yogurt, tehina and thinly sliced walnuts. Yogurt and tehina enrich her garlicky potato dip, too (see recipe). Walnuts and olive oil, but not tehina or yogurt, enhance Kochilas’s Greek eggplant as well as her skordalia, or potato dip.
“There are restaurants, called mezzethopoleia, that serve nothing but small plates and they are the favored lunch and late-night spots of Greeks the country over,” wrote Kochilas. “You pass by in the afternoon to share a glass [of wine or ouzo] with a friend or colleague, and end up nibbling on eggplant salad, fava, roasted peppers and fried vegetables with skordalia.”Faye Levy is the author of Feast from the Mideast.
Okra in Spicy Tomato Sauce
Sautéed onion, garlic, allspice and fresh and ground coriander flavor the fresh tomato sauce in this dish.
Use fine-quality olive oil for stirring into the finished dish.
To prevent sticky okra, pat the pods dry after rinsing them, and sauté them before adding any liquid. Choose small okra pods so they will be tender. They should be firm and dark green.
Makes 4 servings
❖ 350 to 450 gr. (¾ to 1 pound) okra, preferably under 7.5 cm (3 inches) long ❖ 3 to 4 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil ❖ 1 onion, chopped ❖ 3 or 4 medium garlic cloves, minced ❖ 1/3 cup chopped cilantro (fresh coriander) ❖ 350 to 450 gr. (¾ to 1 pound) ripe tomatoes, peeled if desired, and diced, with any juice reserved ❖ 1 tsp. ground coriander ❖ ¼ tsp. ground allspice, or more to taste ❖ Salt and freshly ground pepper ❖ ¼ tsp. hot red pepper flakes, or to taste ❖ 1 to 2 tsp. lemon juice, or more to taste
Rinse okra lightly in a strainer.
Transfer okra to paper towel-lined plates, arranging them in one layer.
Let stand for about 30 to 60 minutes to dry. Trim okra by cutting a bit off the top and bottom ends without cutting into seed part of pods.
Heat 2 tablespoons olive oil in a deep, heavy skillet or sauté pan.
Add okra and sauté over medium-high heat, stirring often, for about 4 minutes. Remove from pan with a slotted spoon.
Add 1 tablespoon oil to pan and heat. Add onion and sauté over medium heat, stirring often, for 7 minutes or until it begins to turn golden. Add garlic and sauté for a few seconds. Stir in 3 tablespoons cilantro, tomatoes with any juice, ground coriander, allspice, salt and pepper. Bring to a boil. Return okra to pan and add pepper flakes. Cover and cook over medium-low heat for 20 minutes or until okra is tender.
If sauce is too thin, cook the dish uncovered over medium-low heat for 5 minutes. Remove from heat and lightly stir in lemon juice, being careful not to break up okra. Stir in remaining olive oil. Taste and adjust seasoning. Serve hot, lukewarm or cold, sprinkled with remaining cilantro.
Garlicky Potato Dip
Yogurt and tehina combined with garlic turn potatoes into a savory dip in this recipe, from An Edible Mosaic – Middle Eastern Fare with Extraordinary Flair. Author Gorsky notes that many Middle Eastern dip recipes were created to use up leftovers, but “whether or not you have leftover potato, this dip is definitely worth making.”
Makes 8 servings
❖ 500 gr. (about 1 pound) potatoes, washed ❖ 2 cloves garlic, crushed ❖ ¾ cup plain yogurt ❖ 4 Tbsp. tehina ❖ 1 Tbsp. fresh lemon juice ❖ ½ tsp. salt ❖ 1 Tbsp. olive oil ❖ Pinch ground red pepper (cayenne) ❖ Fresh coriander leaves (optional, for garnish)
Put the potatoes in a medium saucepan and add enough water to cover them by 2.5 cm (1 inch). Bring to a boil over high heat, then turn heat down to medium and cook until a paring knife slides right out when inserted fully into the middle of the potato, about 30 minutes.
Cool 20 minutes; then peel the potatoes and transfer the flesh to a medium bowl. Coarsely mash with a fork.
Add the garlic, yogurt, tehina, lemon juice and salt to the potatoes; stir with a fork to combine, being careful not to over-mix.
Combine the olive oil and ground red pepper in a small bowl.
Transfer the dip to a serving bowl and drizzle the olive oil mixture on top; garnish with fresh coriander leaves.