When faced with a menu of dozens of items, most of us feel spoilt for choice if not very confused. Time Out takes a closer look at the mezze menu and picks some of the dishes you simply must try.
Living in the Gulf, many of us have probably chanced upon a Lebanese eatery. The experience usually includes a wealth of little dishes laid out for sharing and the menu is often so replete with choice, it could leave you at a loss. Mezze is the term used for little hot and cold appetisers usually served in Middle Eastern cuisine. They can be served for any meal, and the tradition is meant to unite people around the table in a spirit of sharing. The term itself has origins from Greek, Persian and Turkish roots; all essentially implying tasting or little snacks.
In most Arabic restaurants today, the menu will include staple mezze dishes, as well as variations depending on the cuisine type. But according to Chef Ali Hussain from the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon and executive chef at Al Nafoorah, Jumeirah Emirates Towers, the custom originates in Lebanon: ‘mezze-style eating actually originated in Lebanon over 1,800 years ago. The name and concept initially began in the city of Zahle and started with as many as 60 to 70 small portions of various types of hot and cold starters and bottles of Lebanese grape and anise beverage. It was a way of socialising – bringing all types of people together and sharing in the joys of life and good, honest food.’
For those of you who aren’t from the Gulf or lack an Arabic guide to help you navigate these vast menus, we’ve enlisted the help of Chef Ali and Lebanese diners in the city, to offer a beginner’s guide to mezze, from what to order, how to eat and where to head in Dubai for Lebanese food.
Chef Ali guides us through the signature Lebanese mezze.
Chicken liver is one of our signature dishes. We use approximately 200kg of chicken liver each month to make it. The chicken liver is cooked in pomegranate sauce and seasoned with white and sweet pepper and lemon juice.
Eggplant salad includes grilled chopped eggplant, mint leaves, parsley, spring onions and tomato with olive oil and lemon.
Fattet laban is made with a base of crisp bread, with chickpeas and yoghurt topped with a combination of garlic and coriander, which has been cooked in ghee and then sprinkled with fried pine nuts. There are lots of types of fattet, however fattet laban is the original version, now chicken and other meats are sometimes added.
Fattoush is a very well-known salad with a mix of vegetables including lettuce, cucumber, tomato, parsley, mint, radish, spring onions, water cress and fried bread mixed with pomegranate sauce and
olive oil, topped with sumac.
Hummus contains boiled chickpeas which have been pureed and then mixed together with tahini sauce, fresh lemon juice, salt and a dash of cold water. Hummus should always be served with a pure olive oil and can be sprinkled with fried pine nuts for some added texture. It is important to use the best quality tahini sauce as this affects the flavour. Each month at Al Nafoorah, we produce about 2,100 bowls.
Kibbeh is essentially oval ‘meat balls.’ We use a special method of preparing our kibbeh – firstly beef mincemeat and a dough are mixed together and put to one side. Then lamb mincemeat is pan-fried with onion and pine nuts. The dough is then stuffed with the lamb meat and shaped into oval balls, before it is deep fried. The combination of the beef and the lamb mince ensure the outside is extra crispy.
Kibbeh nayyeh is actually raw meat. Lamb leg is the best meat to use and is blended in a mixer and then mixed with cracked wheat, salt, white pepper and cumin. The dish is then garnished with mint leaves and raw onion. Traditionally, people would spend hours mincing the lamb meat with a mortar and pestle, ensuring the meat was perfectly combined and had a silky smooth texture.
Makanek are delicious mini lamb sausages with Arabic spices such as cloves and pepper which have been fried with pomegranate sauce.
Lebanese dining etiquette
Two Dubai-based Lebanese expats explain their nation’s dining ‘dos’ and ‘don’ts’
Ali Kotob, 29, Cabin Crew, from Tripoli
Favourite mezze dish: tabbouleh.
Do: ‘If the host insists on serving you something, take it gracefully, refusing for any reason would be considered rude. If you can manage take a second portion, and feel free to sample a bit of everything offered, hosts always enjoy seeing their guests sampling everything. It is also polite to try a second portion. Compliment the cook; they obviously love to have their culinary skills praised. A simple gift like chocolate or flowers, though not expected, is always appreciated and seen as a very thoughtful gesture.’
Don’t: ‘As with most Arab cultures, it is improper to eat with your left hand. Don’t expect to eat and leave. Dinner is always followed by dessert, fruit and then coffee or tea.’
Rawya Abdel Qader, 22, PR Account Executive, from Akkar
Favourite mezze dish: ‘I can’t pick one since mezze compliment each other; fatoush, baba ghanouj, hummus and chicken liver.’
Do: ‘Greet the elders of the group first, and wait to be told where you may sit. You’ll be surprised by the generosity of the Lebanese table. You are welcome to eat as much as you would like, try a little of everything as turning down the food is rude. Expect to be urged to take second or even third helpings. It is best to eat less on your first helping so that a second helping is possible. This shows your host you are enjoying the food and are being taken care of.’
Don’t: ‘Don’t be late for dinner. Don’t leave food on your plate, and don’t eat directly from the mezze plates, transfer it to your own plate first. Never leave the table until everybody has finished eating. Guests are served tea or coffee immediately after the meal. Rejecting this would be insulting.’
Five more Lebanese restaurants to try
Within the grand surroundings of either branch of this high-end Lebanese restaurant, sample perfectly prepared mezze.
Jumeirah Emirates Towers (04 319 8088). Other location: Jumeirah Zabeel Saray, Palm Crescent, Palm Jumeirah (04 453 0444).
The food may be a little pricey, but it’s worth a treat. The views of Dubai Fountain make this an excellent spot to take visitors for dinner.
The Dubai Mall, Downtown Dubai (04 339 9789).
The Beiruti café chain has an exceptionally charming atmosphere, distinctly feminine decor with a soft retro touch, including detailing such as rose patterns and coloured tiles.
Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Boulevard, Downtown Dubai, Dubai (04 448 3384) Other location: Mirdif City Centre (04 251 5161).
This traditional Lebanese venue is constantly crammed with shisha smoking regulars on the terrace, whatever the hour, making it a highly atmospheric eatery to visit.
Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Boulevard, Downtown Dubai (04 420 5444).
This quirky little street-eat inspired spot is open until 4am and is an excellent budget, late-night spot.
Sheikh Zayed Road (04 327 6060).