In Olives, Lemons & Za’atar, Rawia Bishara takes you on a culinary journey from Nazareth to New York, with dishes that honor and expand on her mother’s unique approach to Middle Eastern home cooking. In this excerpt, Rawia discusses mezze, the assortment of nibbles and drinks that lead off a large Middle Eastern meal. The book is available now on Amazon and at your local bookstore from Kyle Books.
The Italians have antipasto, the Spanish tapas, the Americans appetizers, the Chinese dim sum. In the Middle East, there is mezze, small plates of food served all at once, before the main course, to provide a bounty of tastes and textures. That said, one or two plates can comprise a snack, while a few more can add up to a whole meal. Mezze is invariably served with arak, an anise-flavored spirit, to sip in between swipes of creamy dip on Arabic bread, forkfuls of fried or raw kibbeh and bites of spicy meat pies.
The simplest mezzes are made up of whatever is on hand in the garden and the pantry. When I was growing up, this meant makdous, labneh, olives, hummus, Arabic bread, cucumbers and tomatoes.
At its core, though, mezze is a mood. In Arabic, the verb for mezze is, mezmiz, which loosely translated means “eat, talk and drink” — all at once. Imagine friends and family sitting around a table, passing heaping plates of hummus, baba ganouj, falafel and za’atar bread, and laughing, talking — and of course debating heatedly — amid the clang of glasses and plates. Mezze is a ritual about sharing — not just bites of delicious food, but stories, experiences, laughter and opinions.