LIKE tapas, a spread of mezze is one of the most convivial ways to start a meal. Instead of everyone being served a starter, several little dishes are put on the table to be passed around and shared. Whether you are in Egypt, Turkey or Bahrain, you will see a similar choice of dishes, each cooked according to a region's own recipes.
In both eastern Turkey and Iran I have been served one of the most simple salads: a bowl of freshly picked herbs (flat-leaf parsley, mint, dill, rocket), ready to be added at will to other dishes or to be eaten with soft cheese on flatbread.
In Lebanon a salad is often a self-assembly job, and you are presented with a plate of ingredients that everyone must cut and chop - including whole cucumber, tomatoes or peppers - before drizzling dressing mixed from the oil and vinegar laid out on the table.
Pomegranate is popular in many countries where eating mezze is part of daily life - the seeds are often scattered over dishes like jewels, while pomegranate molasses is used in dressings and sauces. When I was in Dubai recently, enjoying a wonderful Persian meal, pomegranate juice was served throughout. Its sweet-and-sour taste complemented the exotic flavours perfectly.
There are always salads, flatbread and purées to dip and dunk. A favourite purée is, of course, hummus, classically made with chickpeas. But there are also those made of fava beans or cod's roe, and you will almost always find tabbouleh salad and some grilled white cheese.
There are myriad ways of preparing aubergines - they are often served grilled and topped with thick yoghurt and mint or dill; or you can roast them, then scoop out the flesh and purée it with garlic, lemon juice and olive oil.
Kibbeh, a mixture of cracked (bulgar) wheat and minced lamb (or beef) is good, but it is worth remembering that this is a dish, like steak tartare, of raw meat. In some places hummus is topped with cooked lamb mince, which is utterly delicious - though mutton is often used instead, and to the uninitiated this can be a rather strong flavour. But the combination of creamy hummus, tasty mince and crunchy pinenuts on top is exquisite.
HUMMUS WITH LAMB MINCE AND PINENUTS
400g canned chickpeas, drained
1 fat garlic clove, peeled and chopped
juice of 2 lemons
2 tbsp tahini
3 tsp ground cumin
extra-virgin olive oil
200g lamb mince
For the hummus, place the chickpeas, garlic, lemon juice and tahini in a food processor with two teaspoons of the cumin. Blend until smooth, then add three tablespoons of oil and about the same of warm water - enough to make a thickish purée. Season to taste and then spoon into a shallow dish.
Heat the mince in a pan (don't add any oil) until browned, then add a teaspoon of cumin, stir and continue to cook for ten more minutes. Meanwhile, dry-fry the pinenuts until toasted and golden.
Just before serving, tip the lamb over the hummus and scatter with the pinenuts. Serve with flatbread or toasted pitta.</blockquote>
FATTOUCHE WITH POMEGRANATE MOLASSES
2 large pitta breads
1/2 cucumber, diced
2 large tomatoes, chopped
3-4 spring onions, chopped
3 heaped tbsp fresh coriander
4 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
juice of 1 lemon
1 tbsp pomegranate molasses
pomegranate seeds, to garnish (optional)
Split the pittas in half with a sharp knife and toast the four halves until they are crispy. Roughly tear them into bite-sized chunks and place in a salad bowl, then add the cucumber, tomatoes and onions with some salt and pepper. Roughly tear the herbs and add them to the bowl. Combine the oil, lemon juice and pomegranate molasses and toss the mixture over the salad, finishing off with a scattering of pomegranate seeds. Serve at once. Alternatively, serve the filling in toasted whole pittas, as shown in the photograph below.
AUBERGINE DIP WITH MINT
It is important to squeeze out the aubergine flesh really well, otherwise the dip will be runny.
1 large aubergine, unpeeled
3 large whole garlic cloves, unpeeled
juice of 1 lemon
2 heaped tbsp Greek yoghurt
2 tbsp mint leaves, freshly chopped
1 tbsp olive oil
pitta bread, to serve
Lay the aubergine and the garlic cloves on a baking tray and place in a preheated oven (230°C/ 450°F/gas 8) for 15 minutes. Remove the garlic and continue cooking the aubergine for a further ten minutes, or until it feels soft and the skin is charred and black.
Snip off the ends of the garlic and squeeze the soft insides into a food processor. Remove the skin of the aubergine once it is cool enough to handle, then scrape out the flesh. Squeeze it thoroughly dry in your hands or between sheets of kitchen paper, then place the flesh in a food processor with the lemon juice, yoghurt, mint and oil. Whiz until smooth, then add salt and pepper to taste. (You will need plenty of salt.)
Spoon into a bowl, chill for a couple of hours and then serve with warm pittas.