That's the modern Arabic way to say "bon appetite!" and it translates to: "May you have your meal with gladness and health!" We'll show you how with a fantastic Lebanese mezze spread of your own.
Lebanese mezze background
All through the Middle East and Mediterranean, folks gather around tables or sit on carpeted floors, laden with little dishes and platters of what we might call appetizers or tapas. From Greece to Lebanon, these bits and bites of olives, savoury pastries, cheeses, salads and preserved veggies are known as mezza -- or mezzah, mezzeh or mezze, depending on the region. Surely the most famous Lebanese dish is the tagine, a stew named after the earthenware pot it is cooked in, but it is generally reserved for more formal feasting.
Throwing a Lebanese mezze party is a welcome change from serving the usual North American or continental fare. A mezze party is a casual, relaxing and highly social event, and sharing a spread of exotic flavours is a sure-fire way to encourage conversation, greasing the wheels -- with olive oil, of course! -- of conviviality and friendship.
From the table setting to the menu, and even what to slide into the CD player, we've got your step-by-step guide to getting your mezze on!
Must-have foods and ingredients of a Lebanese mezze
Here are some of the most important ingredients and foods you'll need to have on hand when throwing a Lebanese mezza. Most are easy to find, some are seasonal and others may require a trip to the nearest international market. Stock your pantry with a few of the most called for items and you'll find yourself spicing up Monday night dinner, too!
Grocery list: Fruits and veggies
• Fresh mint
• Fresh parsley
• Green onions
Page 1 of 4 -- Stock up for your Lebanese mezze party with suggestions for meats, cheeses, sundries and dried foods on page 2
Grocery list: Sundries and dried foods
• Dried thyme
• Medjool dates -- These are the big, easily pitted dates that come around once or twice a year, not to be confused with the smaller, mushed up dates we use in baking year round.
• Mint tea
• Nuts and seeds -- especially pistachios and sesame seeds
• Olives -- fresh, brined and cured
• Olive oil -- The Middle East is a huge producer of fine olive oils at very reasonable prices.
• Phyllo pastry -- Once exotic, phyllo pastry is now available frozen just about anywhere.
• Pickles -- especially pickled turnips, which will definitely require a bit of sleuthing to find.
• Pita bread
• Pomegranate molasses -- A thick, tangy-sweet syrup made from pomegranate juice
• Tahini -- This paste is simply made of ground sesame seeds and it's vital to Middle Eastern cooking.
• Zata'ar -- This is a blend of spices, including dried thyme, sumac and sesame seeds.
Grocery list: Meats and cheeses
• Cheese -- Akkawi is a Lebanese, salty, soft cow's milk cheese. Feta will do if akkawi is unavailable.
• Lamb, mutton, chicken, squab and fresh fish are the favoured proteins on the Lebanese table. As a coastal country, fresh fish abound, and inland, it's all about smaller livestock that can eke out a living from dry scrub.
If you're an adventurous chef with lots of time and talent, then go ahead, show off and make all these classic mezze dishes from scratch. But if you're not, it's OK, we won't tell. Visit any Middle Eastern or Mediterranean grocer and you'll find everything you need, already made. All you'll have to do is transfer the foods into pretty dishes. Round out your offerings with bowls of nuts and olives, and platters of fresh pita bread and veggies for dipping.
Page 2 of 4 -- Discover five great mezze recipes to try, plus other must-have Lebanese dishes for your gathering on page 3
Here are the essential Lebanese mezze dishes you simply must have:
• Baba ghanoush -- This smoky, silky dip is made from roasted or grilled eggplants and tahini. Grill the eggplants in their skins over coals to give them the best flavour.
Recipe: Roasted Garlic and Eggplant Dip
• Baqlawa -- a.k.a. baklava. This dessert features layers of phyllo and ground nuts soaked in honey syrup. Done right, there is nothing like the combination of crisp leafs of pastry, meaty nuts and the moist, syrup-soaked pastry base. Baqlawa is a bit time-consuming to make, but rather easy to find in bakeries and grocery stores, and it's the perfect end -- along with a pot of mint tea and plate of Medjool dates -- to an unforgettable meal!
Step-by-step photographed recipe: Lebanese Baklawa
• Fattoush salad -- Just about every cuisine in the world enjoys recipes for day-old or stale bread. There's panzanella in Italy, timatim fit fit in Ethiopia and in India, yesterday's pastry is crumbled into chaat papri. Lebanon is no exception. If you don't happen to have any stale pitas hanging around, don't fret, they're going to be cut up and fried in olive oil anyway. Toss the pita croutons with chopped tomatoes, cucumber, mint, parsley, garlic, onion and purslane or mâche.
• Hummus -- By now this kid-friendly, vegetarian spread is a staple most of us have eaten at home or at parties. You may not have made your own though -- but it's so easy! Check out this recipe for classic or basic hummus, and feel free to jazz it up with roasted red pepper or black olives.
Recipe: Make your Own Hummus
• Labna -- It seems like many cultures enjoy yogurt-based condiments. India has raita, Greece has tzatziki and throughout the Middle East you'll find labna, labneh or lebnah. However you spell it, it's creamy and delicious, and a perfect foil for the sharp, acidic and spicy flavours on the table. This thick dip -- which is almost cheese-like in some regions -- can be made at home with goat or sheep yogurt and some cheesecloth for straining, or, once again, leave it to the professionals and grab a tub off your grocer's refrigerator shelf.
• Samboosak -- These little two-bite, meat-filled turnovers or pastries are somewhat like Indian samosas or English Cornish pasties. Now, you could watch this how-to video to learn to make your own, or just buy them frozen at your local Middle Eastern shop.
• Tabbouleh -- A traditional salad made with loads of fresh, finely chopped parsley and bulgur or cracked wheat, tabbouleh is healthy and vibrant, and is bursting with the flavours of lemon, tomato, onion and garlic.
Check out our super-easy recipe here: Traditional Tabbouleh Salad
• Yabrak dolmas -- You might be more familiar with these blanched grapevine leaves stuffed with rice and meat as Greek dolmades. But just like the recipe below states, these can be a bit fiddly to make and they are readily available in stores.
Recipe: Stuffed Vine Leaves
Page 3 of 4 -- Learn how to serve drinks and set a colourful table for your mezze party on page 4
Many of the countries where mezze are served are predominantly Muslim, so alcohol would not be part of the meal. In Christian households, however, each region has its libation of choice, from Ouzo in Greece to Arak in the Middle East.
How to serve great drinks for your mezze
Completely chill a bottle of Ouzo or Arak. Remove the cap and insert a pour spout. Display the bottle on the table in a champagne bucket full of ice alongside a pretty tray of tiny shot glasses, tumblers and a jug of chilled water -- some prefer the alcohol with a drop of H20.
The host or hostess can serve the drink, or guests can self-serve. Now, Ouzo and Arak can be pretty strong stuff, so do also include a non-alcoholic option, such as pomegranate punch. And consider a welcoming sparkler of pomegranate juice and bubbly wine or ginger ale for the kids and designated drivers.
Visit some second-hand or thrift shops and find the most colourful silks you can. Silk scarves and saris make gorgeous tablecloths, and when hung from the ceiling, or draped over sofas or curtain rods, they can turn a dining room into a sultan's tent.
Look for dishes in rustic terracotta, hammered copper or brass, and wood. Look for glasses -- both shot glasses and tumblers -- with fancy gold filigree. Whole pomegranates make a wonderful centrepiece when piled into a pyramid. And pomegranate seeds frozen into ice cubes are beautiful in tall drinks.
Fairuz is one of Lebanon's most famous and beloved exports. She plays her lovely voice like an instrument. But if you can't find any of her CDs or download her music on iTunes, a belly-dancing soundtrack will do quite nicely. Especially once the Arak starts flowing!
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