Mezze, a style of dining in the Mediterranean and the Middle East, resembles Spanish tapas and other small plates and finger foods that are meant to stimulate the appetite. But unlike those appetizers, mezze (which is pronounced "meh-zay") is meant to make up the entire meal. Served with or without alcohol, this style of eating features a combination of cold and hot foods, including vegetables, meat, dips, and breads.
What Is Mezze?
Mezze (mazza, meze, mezzah, mezzeh or mezza, depending where it's served), is a style of eating that's popular in the eastern Mediterranean, North Africa, the Balkans, Western Asia, and the Middle East. This includes countries such as Greece, Turkey, Egypt, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Lebanon, Iran, Dubai, Armenia and so many more. In these regions, mezze is a mixture of small plates often filled with bite-sized foods, dips like hummus and baba ghanoush, flatbreads, salads, and finger foods such as stuffed olives, tiny cured fish, hard cheeses, and meatballs.
Unlike Spanish tapas or pintxos, which are served as an appetizer or bar food, mezze has more in common with the Scandinavian smorgasbord, insofar as the whole meal is made up of small plates. When dining out, there is no set course list to a spread of mezze; it comes out throughout the meal as the food is ready.
What to Drink With Mezze
Often, mezze gets served in tandem with local beverages, especially liquor and/or wine. Traditional spirits consumed with mezze are often flavored with anise and include arak, tsipouro, ouzo, raki and, in Cyprus, locally made brandy. White wine (and lighter red wine) is another popular beverage paired with mezze. Nonalcoholic drinks are also enjoyed with mezze, including hot Moroccan mint tea, Turkish coffee, and karkade, a cold Egyptian drink made with hibiscus.
Origins Of Mezze
Mezze has been eaten all over the Middle East and the Mediterranean for centuries, but didn't originate in one specific place. Rather, it evolved as a way for these regions to loosely socialize over a meal without worrying about portions or plating individual entrees. The eater simply takes what they want and puts it on their own plate, often going back for more. This also allows guests to drop in and not worry about interrupting a formal dinner, or leave early without missing any of the food. Because these dishes are quick to put together, mezze is often served for impromptu get-togethers.
No matter where mezze is eaten, it's common to feature both hot and cold foods, which might include a regional variation of hummus, tabbouleh (fresh parsley and mint salad), baba ghanoush (eggplant dip), and dolma (stuffed grape leaves), along with various olives and meat and/or vegetable kebabs.
Each country has specialties, such as tulum cheese in Turkey, kufteh (herbed meatballs) in Iran, and taramosalata (roe spread) in Greece, for example. A Bulgarian cured meat called elena fillet is very popular. In Lebanon, you'll also find kibbeh, a cracked bulgur wheat croquette and kafta, a type of meatball often served as a kebab.
Mezze Vs. Tapas
Often mezze is compared to tapas, but while both types of foods are served as a spread of small plates and finger foods, they aren't eaten the same way. Spanish tapas are meant to inspire the appetite and are eaten often as bar food before the main meal. Mezze, on the other hand, is the meal and usually consists of even more items.
Tapas, which are unique to Spain, often feature roasted and salted nuts, olives, ham croquettes, patatas bravas (fried potatoes), grilled octopus, hard Spanish cheeses, slices of cured meat like chorizo, and pan con tomate, also known as tomato toast. Mezze has fewer fried options and usually consists of more dips like hummus and baba ganoush, fresh pita or flatbread, kebabs, dolmas, herb-filled salads, olives, fresh cheeses, and cured fish and meat.
What Dishes Are In Mezze?
There is no usual flow to the serving of a mezze spread; the dishes come out as they are ready. Often this means dips and cold plates come out first, followed by the hot foods and bread. Mezze can be made up of just a few, or dozens of dishes, depending on what's available and the size of the dining party. These are the main items you'll find in mezze spreads, though each region has its own specialties and spice nuances.
Thick dips are used to enhance fresh vegetables and flatbreads such as pita. These include the Eastern Mediterranean eggplant dish baba ghanoush as well as the chickpea, lemon, and garlic dip called hummus, which may have started in ancient Egypt. Next, there's tzatziki, a cucumber and yogurt dip with Persian roots that's popular in Greece. And there's muhammara, a spicy, bright red Syrian dip made with red pepper and walnuts.
Kebabs originated in the Middle East centuries ago and are basically skewers of cooked meat and/or vegetables. Depending on the region, the meat, which can feature lamb, goat, chicken, beef or fish, is flavored differently. In Armenia, spiced oblong meatballs are usually made with lamb. Iraqi mezze includes marinated chunks of chicken or lamb on skewers called tikka. Pakistan and Turkey have the most types of kebabs, and are also the areas where kebab is almost always served with a mezze spread. The kofta, or kafta, kebab is a popular one in Turkey that's made of ground meat, onion, and spices, and packed onto the skewer like a meatball before being cooked.
A mezze spread often includes at least one salad. In Iran and Persian cooking, there is fattoush, a simple salad of greens, tomatoes, and fried pieces of khubz, a type of pita bread. Piyaz is a Turkish dish made with beans, onions, sumac, and parsley. Many countries have a version of tabbouleh, featuring a lot of fresh parsley, lemon, bulgar, tomato, mint, onion, and spices. There's also Mediterranean za'atar salad made with fresh za'atar, olives, and cut tomatoes.
The bread served as mezze is mostly flat and round yeast-leavened breads. The most popular is pita, which has been around for at least 14,500 years. From Turkey comes lavaş, a thin and puffed bread often served hot. Some regions serve lavash, another thin leavened flatbread that's shaped into large ovals and folded. On the savory side are breads such as burek or bourekas, a stuffed pastry popular in Turkey, Israel, and throughout the Middle East.
Dolmas, also called stuffed grape leaves, dolmades, tolma, and yebra, are a popular mezze item and consist mostly of grape leaves stuffed with rice, onion, and parsley. This finger food hails from the Ottoman Empire and can be served hot or cold. Falafel, too, can end up on a mezze platter, often as little balls perfect for popping in your mouth. The Cyprus unripened semi-hard cheese halloumi is another popular item, and it's served grilled and sliced.
There are many recipes for the various dishes that make up a mezze spread. A good rule to follow when planning the mezze menu is to pick foods that go well together, such as hummus and pita, and that everyone likes. These are three classic mezze dishes that can be paired with many others.
How to Eat Mezze
There's no trick to eating mezze: all one needs is a plate and an appetite. Often, silverware is not required since these foods are eaten with the hands, though serving utensils are useful for plating. Bread is used to scoop up dips, and can also work as a vessel for grabbing falafel and grilled meats.