A meze is not a meal course like an appetizer (although meze dishes can be served as appetizers), but rather a dish, hot or cold, spicy or savory, often salty, that is served alone or with other mezethes as a separate eating experience. It's a word with its roots in antiquity, the word and usage came to Greece from Turkey. In Greek: μεζέ, plural μεζέδες (mezethes, pronounced meh-ZEH-thes).
The Purpose of Meze
The role of the meze course is two-fold. First, the food is used to complement and enhance the taste of the drink (wines, ouzo, raki, etc.) and second, to provide the backdrop for a social gathering. Unlike appetizers (orektika in Greek) which are intended to whet the appetite for the meal to come, it is common for groups of family and friends to gather or go out for mezethes. The group will share several of these delightful dishes, a drink, conversation, and laughter. The little plates are shared by everyone at the table, which not only provides a wonderful variety of flavor and texture sensations but also creates the kind of happy, convivial (perhaps noisy) atmosphere for which Greeks are well known. The role of meze is quite similar to the Spanish version of tapas.
Traditional Meze Dishes
There are many dishes traditionally served as mezethes. There's a great deal of flexibility in what's included on the table. Most of it comes down to personal preference and the tastes of the crowd. Some mezes include meat, others do not. Some are served warm and others are cold or room temperature. Some meze may be as simple as pasta elias, or olive paste that is served with breadsticks or toasted bread. Greek restaurants often have a separate meze section of the menu. Dishes that might otherwise be served as an appetizer, a salad, or even a small portion of one of the main dishes can be included in the meze. Mezethes are great choices for parties and buffet meals. They offer a wide variety and a great way for guests to get acquainted with the tastes and flavors of Greek food.
Hosting a Meze Meal
If you are planning a Greek meze meal, there are a few tips to keep in mind. Know your guests and provide a variety of meat and vegetarian options for the crowd. Make sure that the food is easily shareable and easy to eat. Cutting a moussaka into bite-sized pieces is not the best plan. Individual portions, scoops of salad, dips, or individual stuffed grape leaves are very easy to share and eat. Be sure to have some warm bread, small plates for everyone, lots of drinks, and your meal will be a success. You could also host a meze potluck and have all of your guests bring their favorite meze. Create a sign up prior to the event to avoid any duplicates.