What is a Lebanese Mezze?
The Lebanese Mezze is a selection of small dishes that are served as appetizers in the Middle East, North Africa, and Greece. Often the mezze is served as a part of multi-course meals, but it can also act as a series of snacks during a social engagement. The mezze is about more than food, as it has an invaluable social role for the cultures that participate.
While some see the Lebanese Mezze as an appetizer, I think it’s reasonable that some consider it a full meal. You can find fish, meat, or vegetarian mezzes to suit your preferences. Often a mezze will feature a series of dishes brought out in groups of four or five at a time. There is a traditional pattern for the dishes. Yogurt, salad, and olives typically come first, followed by dishes with eggs and veggies. Subsequently you have fish or small meat dishes, and at the end come full meat grills, whole fish, and so on. Conversely, many restaurants offer unique spins on the mezze that introduce dishes absent from this traditional lineup.
A Short History of the Lebanese Mezze
The mezze is an important part of the Lebanese diet, having only later expanded to Spain, Greece and many other Mediterranean countries. I don’t think anyone can say for sure when it started, but the Lebanese Mezze is centuries old and it has been a core influence on their culture.
Despite its age, the mezze hasn’t changed that much. It’s still a social gathering at heart, which helps to elevate it above the status of a simple meal. Most of the time, the Lebanese have their mezze with dinner, but depending on the situation and region, it might also be a part of lunch, or the sole meal. In the end, aspects of the mezze can be tweaked like this, but the foundational social aspect remains. It just wouldn’t be a mezze if it was had alone.
What are some of the common health benefits of a Middle Eastern diet?
The Middle Eastern diet is low in processed foods and sugar, which means they get fewer carbs than one might in a Western nation. Instead, the Middle Eastern diet features many high protein dishes – such as certain nuts, meats, and yogurts. The low-carb and high-protein combination helps to naturally keep practitioners of this diet at a healthy weight. Olive oil sees liberal usage, providing a lot of healthy fats in the process, whereas things like chickpeas and beans provide fiber for a smoother digestive process.
Research has also found that the olive oil so central to the average Middle Eastern diet has natural antioxidants, called phenols, that reduce inflammation. Olive oil is also great for your heart, as it is high in Oleic acid, which – amongst other things – reduces blood pressure. Perhaps the Lebanese and other like-cultures are consuming it out of taste and palate preferences, but they couldn’t have chosen a better super-food condiment if they’d tried!
Hot Mezze Plates
Hot mezze plates are designed to incorporate a wide variety of ingredients and are usually cooked. This gives the chef a great deal of options insofar as how they prepare their dishes. Popular hot mezzes include falafel, meatball-like kibbe, and dried milk cheese called shanklish, but there are many more to be tried. While hot mezze plates can require a lot of time to prepare, I think they’re a great opportunity to experiment with the formula of the mezze. Anyone can adapt the traditional ingredients from their region and create their own variation without altering the spirit of the mezze as a gathering. On the whole, I’ve found hot mezze plates to be enjoyable and satisfying, especially given the quantities of food!
Cold Mezze Plates
Compared to hot plates, cold mezze plates are easier to prepare, requiring only a quick combination of ingredients and a smattering of seasoning or oil. I can appreciate the appeal of a meal that doesn’t require any cooking, especially after a long day is over with, but I could see how a creative cook might find it limiting to stick with only chilled ingredients.
Popular options for cold mezze plates include olives; pickled radishes; labneh—a form of Greek Yogurt; taboulieh—a minty, parsley based vegetarian salad; hummus; mixed nuts; green almonds; and baba ganoush—which is mostly mashed and seasoned eggplant. The Lebanese in particular are fond of green under ripe plums, which are bitter to the taste and might not be especially appetizing to people with Western palates
Hot or Cold Mezze Plates
Certain mezze dishes can be served either hot or cold, with the temperature and preparation of the dish having a significant impact on its flavor and taste. If, for instance, I was in the mood for some haloumi cheese as part of a mezze, I might decide I want it nice and melty, or I might prefer it cold and sliced. The variety this introduces can be appreciated by both foodies and those more interested in preserving their diet. A popular mezze that gets served both hot and cold is the stuffed grape leaf.
Of course, a single mezze can feature a wide procession of plates, some of which can be hot, while others can be cold, so at the end of the day you’re free to mix and match your preferences however you see fit.
While the mezze has spread far and wide, the Lebanese arguably still do it the most justice, especially in terms of raw enthusiasm. To them, it is more than a snack or an excuse to chit-chat. The mezze has become a daily ritual and a central part of the Lebanese identity. It is to them what afternoon tea is to the British—an opportunity to stop, get your groundings, and bond with the people you’re sharing it with. While the delicious food on offer surely helps, the endurance of such a ritual is more about the human element and passing down traditions to those around you.
For your own mezze cooking inspriation, check out "Taste of Beirut" by Joumana Accad. She offers over 175 delicious Lebanese recipies from classic to contemporary mezzes and more.