Sunday, September 26, 2010
Today will be about the popular mezze, or mezzeh, or mezza. Regardless of which word you use, it all means the same thing: taste. It is a Persian word in origin.
We've always had the main ones at our family dinners: baba ghanoush (eggplant dip) and tahina. The hummous and taboulah were never regulars on our table, but did make an appearance quite often. The tahina experience, I have to admit, was ruined for me during my undergraduate years.
Prior to university, both my mom and dad would make a little side of tahina to go with dinner. It's almost like having a side of flavour at the dinner table. While my mom's recipe would be made with tahina, white vinegar, olive oil, and salt/pepper, my father's was made with lemon juice instead. Regardless of the preparation, having it fresh at the table and drizzled over a meat dish, or with some pita bread was a given.
Then I left home and saw what the 'others' had been doing to tahina. Vegetarians, vegans, and new-age cooks were using it to flavour dishes like 'Green Goddess': steamed greens with a tangy tahina dressing; tofu with tahina; tahina spread on toast...so many other atrocities that I can't even speak of. All that to say that my experience with tahina became tainted over time to the point that I've had to re-train myself to embrace the tahina I once knew and loved: the pure tahina sauce used as a side dish or with pita. That's it.
I've also had issues over the years with new-age hummous. And by new-age I mean hummous that is mixed along with other ingredients. In the grocery store, people love to buy roasted red pepper hummous, or pesto hummous, or olive hummous. To all those I say no, no and no! Hummous is perfect in its simplicity: chick peas, garlic, tahina, olive oil and lemon juice. Its taste comes from the freshness of the ingredients and the non-complication. I'm not averse to creative cooking; but I do get pangs of pain when I see such a simple dish get over-analyzed and made-over into something that is a far cry from its origin.
Thankfully Egypt has yet to succumb to these culinary changes. I know in the more western types of grocery stores you may find these ghastly variations, but for the most part, Egyptian cooking, regardless if it is a high-end restaurant or little hole in the wall, takes pride in the freshness and simplicity of its food.
With just about any order at a restaurant or cafe, you will usually receive a mezze course. As I noted above, mezze likely originates from the Persian word for taste. Don't forget that Egypt was under Persian rule three times, dating back to 525 BC. The final Persian conquest of Egypt lasted a bit longer in 618 BC. But this legacy of mezze can be found all throughout North Africa and the Middle East.
The idea behind the mezze is a light course followed by the main meal. In Egypt, you will always get a small plate of hummous, baba ghanoush, and tahina. Those seem to be the standards. Depending on which restaurant you are at, you may also get taboulah, and khiar be lebaan (cucumber yogurt). You can also order additional mezze such as tamaaya (falafel), basturma bil baid (basturma and eggs), bisara (fava bean dip), tomato and cucumber salad, white bean salad, and kobeiba. The idea is to have the table filled with lots of small tastes of food to get you warmed up for the main entree. Or, as one article noted, the arabic word 'masmiz', which means to nibble and includes the assyrian word 'miz' meaning table. So it seems the mezze is a tasting of small food set out on the table.
Although this is the tradition in restaurants, you don't usually find this elaborate setting in the home. When I visit family in Egypt, it's not just a simple meal that is put together. It's usually five or six different dishes laid out; but the mezze are also laid out to accompany the main dishes. Everyone sits and eats both courses at the same time. There is no separation of courses. This may be a family trait or a common theme with most families, but generally, Egyptians are not the type to get up and change the table to accompany a two-course meal. They are more practical: everything is laid out in one go.
For today's recipes, I decided to prepare the common mezze dishes: baba ghanoush, hummous, tahina and taboulah. I should note that taboulah is not the most common Egyptian mezze. It's more popular in Lebanon, but I love it, and it's so easy to make it's almost a shame not to share the recipe. They are the simpler ones, and eating them fresh makes a world of difference in the taste. I would highly suggest though, making all of these a few hours (4-5) in advance before eating them. The trick to these mezze dishes are letting the flavours infuse for a couple hours, but still remaining fresh.
Cooking time: 10 minutes
Preparation time: 1 hour
Yield: 4-6 persons
6 Indian medium-sized eggplants (or 3 regular large eggplants)
1.5 teaspoons tahina
1 clove of garlic
half a lemon
2 tablespoons of olive oil
pomegranate (optional - for garnish) --my aunt's great idea!
1. Heat oven to 400F
2. Wash eggplants
3. Using a knife, cut into the eggplant all over (this makes sure the eggplant cooks in the oven without exploding)
4. Place eggplants in oven for about an hour (a baking tray is not necessary, just easier)
5. Check on eggplants after an hour
6. If you can pierce a knife easily into all areas of the eggplant, and they look darker in colour, then they are cooked
7. The skin should easily come off the eggplants (you can try running them under cold water to facilitate process)
8. In a food processor, add cooked eggplants, tahina, olive oil, garlic, salt to taste and a squeeze
10. Once pureed, you can add pomegranate seeds for garnish. It also adds a nice balance of flavours.
Preparation and cooking time: 10 minutes
Yield: 4-6 persons
1 cup of tahina
2-3 tablespoons of olive oil
lemon juice or white vinegar
paprika powder (optional - for garnish)
1. In large bowl, add tahina, olive oil and squeeze a little lemon juice (or add 1 tablespoon of vinegar)
2. Mix and taste
3. Add salt to taste
4. Mix and adjust taste with more salt and lemon juice/vinegar
5. Garnish with a splash of olive oil and pinch of paprika powder
Total preparation time: 10 minutes
Yield: 4-6 persons
2 cups of chickpeas (canned or dried)
1/2 tablespoon of tahina
2 cloves of garlic
squeeze of lemon juice
1-2 tablespoons of olive oil
cumin powder (optional - for garnish)
1. In a food processor, add chickpeas, tahina, garlic and olive oil
3. Taste and add lemon juice and salt to taste
5. Garnish with a splash of olive oil and cumin powder
Total preparation time: 45 minutes
Yield: 4-7 persons
2-3 tablespoons of bulgar
1 cup of water
2 cups of fresh chopped parsley
handful of fresh mint
1/3 cup of diced red onion
1 diced tomato
1 teaspoon of salt
1. Add water to bulgar so it can soak for about 30 minutes
2. Chop parsley and mint as finely as possible -- you can chop it in a food processor, but it can lose some of its flavour that way
3. In a large bowl, add diced onion and tomato and parsley
4. Add bulgar
5. Add squeezed lemon juice --the key to good taboulah is lemon juice, don't be afraid to add it, but you don't want the parsley swimming in juice
7. Add salt to taste
8. Taboulah tastes better the longer you leave it to mix in its flavours. Ideally, after making it, leave it overnight and then eat it!