Of dips and dunkings

August 19, 1997|By Robert and Carolyn Black

Mezza, a symbol of hospitality in the Middle East, is a variety of small dishes and appetizers

Israel and the Arab world have differences in the political arena, but their tastes often coincide when it's time to eat. The Jew and the Muslim are companions when dining, and nowhere is this more evident than in the common fondness for the small dish that is a symbol of hospitality known as mezza.

Seeking expert advice on mezza and other foods of the Middle East, we approached the chefs of the worldwide hoteliers of Sheraton corporation. With hotels in Israel, Egypt and other Arab countries and cruise boats on the Nile, the knowledge of their culinary staff spans the Mediterranean coast of Africa. The information that follows stems from a series of interviews with Sheraton chefs in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Cairo, Hurghada and Nile River cruises.

The word mezza stems from the Greek maza meaning "mixture." In mezza, the mixture is a wide variety of small dishes suitable for dips, dunkings and vegetable salad appetizers.


In the Middle East, lunch is considered the main meal of the day. It usually is served between 1 and 3 p.m. The soul of this meal is mezza, a large selection of appetizers. At a major gathering, as many as 40 items may be used.

Essential to the table of mezza are fresh baked local breads (baladi) that are used for dunking and dipping. Americans will find pita bread serves the purpose well. The primary dipping dish is hummus, a puree of chickpeas, lemon juice and olive oil blended with a sesame sauce called "tahina."

An irresistible dish

The hummus is placed in a small salad dish, and the bread is torn into bite-sized pieces and dipped into it. The diner may choose to use a common dip dish or spoon the dip unto a plate. As with most Arab dishes, caloric content is high. It is, however, an irresistible dish that American visitors to Egypt consume in large quantities.

Chickpeas should be soaked before cooking and then drained. The chickpea has a very high energy content and is rich in calcium, carbohydrates, protein, phosphorus and iron.

A yogurt dip called labna is another favorite and shares the table with a broad bean puree called bessara.

Vegetables form an important part of the small dishes of mezza. Rice is important to the Egyptian diet, and bean rissoles (with varying names and recipes) are found throughout the country. Bamia (Egyptian okra) is baked, boiled and used in stews. The variety of vegetables may include artichokes and asparagus tips. Warak Einab is vine leaves stuffed with onions, carrots and tomatoes, all blended with coriander, sunflower oil and lemon juice. Lady fingers of oven-baked okra share the table with the stuffed vegetables of Dolma Mahshia. Vegetables often are pickled.

Meats and seafood mezza may include roast beef, chicken salami, oysters and lobster. Masalikia is chicken livers with tomatoes, peppers and onions. Meatballs are made of mixed beef, herbs and chopped onions dusted with flour, fried in peanut oil, heated in tomato sauce and then sprinkled with parsley and pine kernels. The result is a tongue-tempting dish given the tongue-twisting name of Dawood Basha Salsa Hara.

Mezza is ideal party fare. The variety of dishes and dips provide a remarkable array of flavors.

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