I do not know what made me think of it today but I suddenly had a memory of Cairo and other places in the Middle East where I served at a time when I was Consul Pasha.
The name Consul Pasha was bestowed upon me by my Egyptian friends, a Pasha is or was an Honorific title given to people who served at a certain level in the government of the Ottoman Empire, you were either a Pasha or a Bey. A Pasha could also be the brother in law of the Ottoman Sultan, a general or a senior diplomat. In Egypt until fairly recently it was given as a sign of respect.
When you live abroad you often have to get used to many different foods and cuisine tradition which are totally foreign to you. Many countries hold on to their culinary traditions and do not give in to fast food or food globalization. As a tourist you just need to step out of your International chain hotel to realize that no one eats like you do. A good example in Italy, where tourists will stuff themselves with Pizza and cheap pasta because these are the only two foods they recognize from back home. Missing all the other culinary dishes of veal, wild truffles, cheeses, beef and seafood.
One discovery in the Middle East was the variety of the food and its quality. I learned a whole new way of eating and what was wonderful was the freshness of all the dishes, always made daily from scratch and always served fresh. A good Host would make it a point of honour to have the best food for his guests. You would never hear the phrase ” It is just something we threw together at the last minute, nothing fancy”, that would be an insult to your guests. You would also not be served dips and chips or peanuts or something frozen or processed. Same went for liquor, only certain brands of Scotch was acceptable, yes even amongst my Muslim friends. Scotch was not seen as alcool it was the drink of Gentlemen. No one would think of offering you a beer.
If you were not invited at home, the host would make sure he knew a good restaurant and know the owner and or the chef and make sure the quality was high, no haphazard selection of a place they did not known or who did not have a good reputation.
The first time I was invited for dinner, we arrived around 9 PM, dinner would never be served before 11:30PM so in the meantime Mezzeh was served with Raki or Arak anis flavour drink on the rocks with a little water. Also know in Greece as Ouzo or in France as Pastis. It is closely associated with food and all culinary matters in the Levant.
The word Mezzeh is found in all the cuisines of the former Ottoman Empire and comes from the Turkish meze “taste, flavour, snack, relish”, borrowed from Persian, Maze.
The photo below show the traditional display put before you, an incredible variety. This is before dinner while you are a glass of Arak. Now the real connaisseur will only have a little bite and will not make a point of finishing all the plates presented. This is just so that you are not famished by the time dinner is served later on. All of it is very good and as a novice you might be tempted to eat too much. Your Host will press you to eat more, but does so only out of politeness. You have to know to refuse politely while always showing interest in the dishes. It is a complicate ”Oriental” tradition one could say, but then in the Orient nothing is ever simple. Far too many people fall for the Mezzeh and then are caught not being able to have dinner, that was a faux pas. Worse still colleagues would complain about the hour and make a quick exit after the Mezzeh course. They were never invited again, forgetting that they were not back home and cannot behave as if they were.
I will never forget one evening in Damascus when a colleague of mine invited some of our contacts who had been more than generous in their hospitality towards us in the past. He counting his pennies decided to short changed his guests by ordering just a couple of plates of Mezzeh and cheap beer. What a stupid mistake and how embarrassing it was.
In Cairo we use to go to a restaurant called Papillon in Mohandessin (Engineer city) on the Western bank of the Nile with a friend of mine A.M. El Solh. They had a great Mezzeh.
Popular mezzeh dishes in Cyprus, Iraq, Iran, Turkey, Lebanon, Palestine, Jordan, Egypt and Syria include:
Mutabbal/Babaghanoush – eggplant (aubergine) mashed and mixed with seasonings.
Hummus – a dip or spread made from cooked, mashed chickpeas
Hummus with meat (hummus bil-lahm)
Falafel – a deep-fried ball or patty made from ground chickpeas, fava beans, or both.
Tashi – Dip made from tahini, garlic, salt and lemon juice with chopped parsley garnish.
Köfte – meat balls and patties consisting of ground meat, usually beef or lamb, mashed onions, spices and a small amount of bread crumbs.
Kibbeh (İçli köfte in Turkey) – dishes made of burghul, chopped meat, and spices
Kibbe Nayye – burghul, chopped lamb meat, and spices
Spicy lamb and beef sausages (naqaniq/maqaniq/laqaniq and sujuk)
Halloumi cheese, usually sliced and grilled or fried.
Souvlaki – Bite sized meat cubes (lamb is very common), grilled on a skewer over charcoal.
Stifado – Slow cooked beef stew with lots of onions, garlic, tomatoes, cinamon, pepper and vinegar.
Afelia – Diced pork marinated in wine with coriander seed, then stewed.
Lountza – Smoked pork loin slice, usually grilled.
Dolma Vegetables like peppers, eggplants or courgettes stuffed with rice, chopped mint, lemon juice, pepper, minced meat. (Turkish)
Sarma (also known as Koubebkia or Mashi Warqenab) – Grape vine leaves, stuffed with rice, chopped mint, lemon juice, pepper, minced lamb. (Turkish)
Yogurt (Mast-o-Khiar in Iran)
Cacık – Dip made from plain yogurt, chopped cucumber with finely chopped garlic and mint leaf.
Tarama – a fish roe dip based on cured carp fish roe, mashed potatoes and olive oil. In the traditional Istanbul variety of this dish, a substantial part of the roe must remain intact.
Labneh – strained youghurt which tastes similar to cream or sour cream only more tart.
Shanklish – cow’s milk or sheep’s milk cheeses
Muhammara – a hot pepper dip with ground walnuts, breadcrumbs, garlic, salt, lemon juice, and olive oil
Pastirma – seasoned, air-dried cured beef meat
Tabbouleh – bulgur, finely chopped parsley, mint, tomato, spring onion, with lemon juice, olive oil and seasonings
Fattoush (Fatuş in southern Turkey) – salad made from several garden vegetables and toasted or fried pieces of pita bread
Arugula (known also as Rocket) salad
Yes all of it will be presented to you and then a full dinner. My favorite Mezzeh dish are: Babaghanoush, Hummus, Falafel, Köfte, Halloumi cheese, Dolma, Tabbouleh, Fattoush, Olives, Tulum cheese with a nice drink of Arak. Of course this would be accompanied by conversation on various topics.
Because Ramadan just started a few days ago, dishes served during the Holy Month are totally different, IFTAR is the meal served as sunset. The dishes are too numerous to name and many are special dishes and desserts made specifically for Ramadan. If you do Ramadan and fast during the day, it is important that you not stuff yourself quickly at Iftar, your stomach cannot take it and a polite person will eat slowly, serve food to others and enjoy a long meal, at the same time eating in moderation. But that is another topic for another time.