A Taste To Remember: Arabic Mezze
Words by Michelle Jackson Rowe
I’m trying to remember if I’d actually eaten any Arabic Mezze - other than hummus before moving to the United Arab Emirates. Nothing really springs to mind, which makes me sad, because in the last 10 months, I have sampled all of the mezze I could get my hands on (the veggie variety anyway) and there hasn’t been a single dish that I didn’t like. I feel like I was depriving my tastebuds through my own sheer ignorance.
Arabic is of course a very broad term when it comes to food. Each country in the Middle East, indeed each region has their own specialities (just like everywhere else in the world) but today I’m going to look at the dishes that are reasonably similar wherever you may be… Jordan, Bahrain, UAE etc.
The term Mezze, means taste in Arabic and they are almost like tapas, in the sense that there a lot of options to choose from (both hot and cold), served in small dishes and shared as a starter. Today I want to share some of my favourites and give you recipes for two dishes that can easily be made at home.
My first experience of hummus (back in the 90s) was in a Greek restaurant and for longer than I care to admit, I thought that hummus was actually a greek dish. Having since educated myself, I know that it has, in fact, been eaten in the Middle East for around 1000 years (possibly longer) and is now a popular dish all over the world.
It’s also really very easy to make yourself (as long as you have the magic ingredient: tahini (a paste made of sesame seeds)) and once you’ve perfected the basic recipe to suit your own tastebuds, I’m pretty confident that you’ll be whipping up batches all the time.
Serves 2 mezze style (or one person for lunch if you’re hungry)
1 can of chickpeas, drained and rinsed
4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 heaped tablespoon tahini
1 clove of garlic, peeled
2 tablespoons water
Juice of half a lemon
1 teaspoon cumin
1 teaspoon paprika
A little salt and pepper
Add all the ingredients to a food processor and whizz it up - yep that’s it. The important thing is to make it work for you - this is my favourite way to make it. But you want more garlic, add more garlic, not a fan of cumin; just leave it out. Got a jar of sundried tomatoes festering in the fridge, add one to your hummus. You get the idea! Just whizz and taste, whizz and taste until it’s perfect.
If you buy tahini and wonder what-the-hell else you’re going to do with it, don't worry, I’ve got you covered. Moutabel is a fantastic dip-style dish full of smoky aubergines (or eggplant for those of you from the US). What gives the dish its unusual flavour is cooking the aubergine on an open flame. If you haven’t got a gas hob or barbecue, don’t panic, you can still get a very nice taste from adding smoked paprika and roasting them in the oven.
Serves 3/4 mezze style
½ cup tahini
Juice of 3 lemons
2 cloves of garlic, peeled
2 tablespoons yoghurt (natural or greek are best)
½ teaspoon smoked paprika
Salt and Pepper for seasoning
Start by roasting your aubergine. If you have a barbecue or gas hob, just pop the whole thing on a skewer and cooking for 30 minutes - turning every 5 minutes. If you’ve only got an oven, you can roast it by poking holes through the skin (so it doesn’t explode). Once cooked, leave it to cool for about 20 minutes, then run it under cold water and carefully remove the peel and stem.
OR, if you can’t do any of that, it's easy to get a similar flavour by peeling the aubergine, chopping it up, drizzling a little oil and sprinkling 1 teaspoon of smoked paprika over the top and leaving it to cook for around 30 minutes at 200c in your oven. You won’t get the same smoked flavour but it still tastes bloody good!
Once your aubergine is ready to go, add it to a bowl with the rest of the ingredients and either whizz it up with your processor (if you prefer a smooth dip) or mash it up with a fork (excellent for relieving tension after a tough day)
Serve with a little olive oil drizzled on top.
Similar to moutabel with its chargrilled aubergine, this dish also has tomato, bell peppers and onion which add a different texture. Plus the pomegranate seeds and molasses added on top are just magic.
An incredibly refreshing salad that consists of cubed tomato, cucumber, lettuce, spring onion, parsley and mint. Each restaurant I’ve eaten in has made their fattoush differently, but one thing that’s always the same is the toasted arabic/flat bread that is sprinkled over the top like croutons. There is also a sumac dressing that ties everything together and makes me want to eat all the fattoush.
These are my favourite four mezze dishes to order when I’m out. They usually come with a big bowl of arabic bread and some crudite, which is the perfect way to scoop out all this deliciousness. I’ll be honest: I usually don’t order a main dish - this is more than enough to fill me up, especially when I add a portion of sambousek into the mix.
Cheese Sambousek is another dish that you should definitely try if it’s on the menu. This is savoury pastry, filled with a tasty mix of cheese and herbs. They are really tasty and I dipping them in moutabel.
So the next time you head out for food, check and see if there is a Lebanese or other kind of Arabic restaurant that you can visit. I’m 99% confident that you won’t regret it.