Mezza is a much-loved tradition that stretches for hours, and is celebrated not only in Lebanon, but also in neighbouring countries throughout the Middle East and the Mediterranean.
It consists of a leisurely banquet of small dishes, both hot and cold, for diners to work their way through. These regional and seasonal specialities are accompanied by fresh vegetables, pickles, nuts, bread and often arak – a Middle Eastern anise-flavoured liqueur –served over ice. In Lebanon, mezza can be enjoyed as a meal in its own right, or as a lead up to the main meal, usually consisting of grilled meat, poultry or fish.
Zahlé, situated to the west of Beirut in the idyllic and fertile Beqaa Valley, is known as the home of mezza. “Its main attraction is a promenade dotted with restaurants that are famous for mezza,” says Sydney-based Norma Dakhoul, of Norma’s Lebanese Foods (normaslebanesefoods.com.au).
A former hub on major trading routes, Zahlé’s repertoire of mezza dishes is said to have been built as travellers stopped here and brought with them different ingredients, flavours and techniques.
Here, Norma, who is also involved in Sydney’s Souk Society to increase the profile of Middle Eastern cuisine in Australia, shares a few simple recipes for a mezza banquet inspired by visits to Zahlé restaurants.
Photography Mark Roper
As seen in Feast magazine, November 2013, Issue 26. For more recipes and articles, pick up a copy of this month's Feast magazine or check out our great subscriptions offers here.