I love the Mezze style of meal where you can try a little of what you fancy instead of wishing you had ordered your friend’s meal. I like the congeniality of sharing food, passing it around, letting the conversation flow, taking your time over the meal. There’s the smooth hummus paste of chickpeas, garlic and tahini, the Moutabal creamy aubergine puree, the tabbouleh salad of bulgar wheat, speckled green with parsley and fragrant with lemon. Then the little hot sausages of spicy minced meat, or the miniature flaky pastry fingers enclosing salty cheese, or the Labbneh yoghurt dip with lemon and mint. All these I enjoyed during my travels in Lebanon.
But after a while, the mezze started to get a little repetitive. Let me explain. If you eat in a Lebanese home, you’ll get a totally different eating experience with a wide range of dishes and flavours. But in a typical local reaturant in Lebanon, the main foods on offer are a range of Mezze followed by different types of grilled meats, fresh fish cooked simply over the grill and fruit to follow. Grills can be nice and the fish was delicious but usually quite pricey, so for a light lunch we inevitably ended up with Mezze. Every day. I realised that it didn’t actually matter whether you payed top prices for your Mezze in a city restaurant or went cheap and cheerful in a backstreet cafe. The Mezze is almost always good and fresh because it’s such a staple.
Let me share a couple of Mezze memories with you. After visiting Chateau Musar in the hills above Jounieh, we asked the winemaker Tarek for a restaurant recommendation and he kindly drove us to a restaurant set on the hill and overlooking the sea. We had a fantastic view from the table by the window, only slightly marred by the building site nearby and the fact that the windows had to be closed when the noise of the bulldosers got too much. We joked that in typical Lebabnese style, next time we came back there would be a glitzy appartment block blocking the sea view. After we had the usual range of Mezze and some freshly grilled fish, the waiter brought us a huge selection of fresh fruit to try for desert, a sort of fruit Mezze which was wonderful.
My second and fondest Mezze moment was when we wandered into the Souk at the coastal town of Sidon, with narrow streets and old buildings. There were many small shops selling groceries and street stands with delicious sweet pastries, but then we spotted a small open cafe on the corner opposite the mosque. It had just a couple of formica tables, so we sat down, guestured and pointed to the steaming vat of chickpeas that were ready to be served. We got our bowl of chickpeas with the hummus on top and a swish of olive oil and sat down to enjoy our light lunch. But then the owner started to bring us lots of other small dishies to accompany our chick peas, some black glistening olives, some fresh green salad, some magenta pick strips of vegetable and flatbread to scoop it all up with. Suddenly our bowl of chick peas had turned into a feast. And all of this with a prime view of Lebanese life passing by our table, chattering groups of headscarfed girls, teenage boys playing with their mobiles and finally the men streamed out of Friday prayers in the mosque opposite. And when the bill came, I think we may have paid a couple of dollars each. I finished off with some cakes from the vendor outside the mosque – read about my free cakes outside the mosque here.
When we got back to Beirut after our mini tour of the country, my friend and I headed to the buzzing Downtown area for a meal out with half of Beirut. By that time we were all Mezze’d out, so it was a smart Italian restaurant for us, complete with giant pepper grinders. At the time I felt I’d had just too many Mezzes, but now, after writing this post, I’d be quite happy to have just one more Mezze, wouldn’t you?