Saturday, September 22, 2007

An Arab Mezze

Oh, to feast at the legendary table of Fakhreddine in Amman during a balmy spring evening, or to pick at the dishes laid out at Madaba's Haret Al Jdoudna in the sultry heat of a summer lunchtime! But nothing compares to the huge, groaning tables of mezze that adorn Beirut's serious eateries, where you leave the table after the main course and repair to the table behind you where they've laid out dessert!

The Levant has a cuisine that is utterly unique - a combination of amazingly fertile coastal land and a history of ebb and flow that has laced the plenty and fecundity of the land with the tragedy of constant conflict. The food of Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and Palestine are the foods of Greece and Turkey, of Arabia and Africa. It's all in here and it's one of the great cuisines of the world.

Much of the experience of Eastern Mediterranean food is down to the mezze, a meal of many delights that mixes salads, dips and little hot things into a huge communal dipping session. Experienced hands know very well that the mezze is invariably followed by a huge course of grilled meats and therefore not to overdo the mezze. And then they completely lose the run of themselves and do just that.

The mezze is eaten either by reaching over and swooping a cunningly curved piece of bread into the dainty or by taking the whole dish and transferring some to the plate in front of you using the nearest knife, fork, spoon or thing. There's little etiquette and no formality: it's the most social way to eat since the dope fondue.

Mezze consists of a range of salads, dips and fatayah, or hot snacks.

Salads such as fattoush, add a touch of greenery to the proceedings. They're also invariably clustered around the big daddy salad, a whole lettuce surrounded with sticks of fresh carrot, spring onions, chilis, peppers, tomatoes, cucumbers and pretty much everything else the restaurant could hoist out of the garden. You'll get pickles, too: from oily olives through to wincingly sharp pickled turnip and carrot.

Dips are eaten in restaurants with fresh puffy rounds of Arabic bread pulled out of the brick ovens, hot and ready to swoop, scoop and dip with. Many dips use tahine, sesame paste. They provide a remarkable variety of flavours and the chance to indulge infinite combinations. The MotherDip is houmous. People have fights over houmous.

Fatayer are finger foods: here are a range of traditional bits and bobs that go with a mezze, from crunchy, soft-centered cheese sambusek (samosas), through fried kibbeh to little hot sausages, spicy with sumak. And even assafir - little birds, eaten whole and crunchy.


Some Popular Mezze Recipes

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