With armchair travel only a click away and an endless variety of international cookbooks available, even a staycation can bring you tastes far from home right in your own kitchen. Once exotic foods have now become staples, as everything from pita to pad thai, tandoori to tamales, have become as American as hotdogs and hamburgers (themselves delicious borrowings from foreign lands.) Even supermarkets now carry a wide assortment of international ingredients, and the proliferation of specialty markets makes it a snap to reproduce the national delicacies of cultures around the world.
The selection of small dishes known as mezze, and the vibrant social atmosphere surrounding it, began in the Ottoman Empire and may be found today throughout the Mediterranean and Middle East, write Nadia Zerouali and Merijn Tol in “Souk: Feasting at the Mezze Table” (Smith Street Books, $35), a collection of 100 classic and contemporary mezze recipes, accompanied by mouth-watering photography. Beyond the flatbreads, kebabs, grape leaves, and hummus you’ll find authentic Middle Eastern dishes including moutabal (eggplant spread with yogurt, pomegranate, oregano); classic tabbouleh; Armenian salad with paprika dressing; rakakat (fried cigar-shaped delicacies) with haloumi, feta and parsley; spiced goat leg; and rice pudding with turmeric, tahini and pine nuts.
Typically dozens of hot and cold dishes are offered at the mezze table. “The ingredients for these delights all come from the area, purchased at the local souk, or market,” write Zerouali and Tol. “The whole ritual takes a couple of hours, and then you are completely full and can barely speak – especially any mezze novices, who overdo it almost immediately. The experts know how to pace themselves.
“The word ‘mezze’ stems from the Arabic ‘tamazzaza,’ which means to taste in small bites, in other words, taking the time to fully enjoy all the smells, colors, aromas and flavors. It may also come from the Persian word ‘mazza,’ which means taste, or from the Turkish word ‘meza’ for table (‘mesa’ in Spanish and ‘mensa’ in Latin).”
While we can easily find ingredients for the mezze at the local supermarket, specialty store or online, throughout the Middle East shopping for them at a souk or marketplace is a daily event. As early as the 6th century BCE open-air souks were part of city life. They were originally located outside city walls where traveling caravans stopped, but beginning around the 10th century, with expanding populations, more permanent structures or covered marketplaces were relocated to the city center. Today they may usually be found in the city’s old quarter, or medina, and are a popular destination for tourists
“Mezze is not just the Middle Eastern equivalent of tapas; It is also a way of life,” the authors explain. “Traditionally, mezze culture only really existed in Arab Christian and Jewish circles. Fortunately, that’s no longer the case, with the culture now being embraced by everyone. Throughout our time in the Middle East, it became clear to us that mezze is equal to the generosity and hospitality of the Levantine people. And when we think back, our hearts and minds filled with warmth and desire for the smells of the souk and those lovely hours spent around a mezze table full of sensational food.”
For impressions of Israeli shuks, as they are called there, one could do no better than to consult Faye Levy, the lead cooking columnist for the “Jerusalem Post” and the author of more than twenty acclaimed cookbooks, including “Feast from the Mideast” and “1,000 Jewish Recipes.” Levy lived in Israel for seven years and is a frequent visitor with her husband, Yakir Levy, her co-writer for the Jerusalem Post, who was born there.
“When I’m in Israel, I love going to the shuk, whether it’s Shuk Hakarmel in Tel Aviv or Mahaneh Yehudah in Jerusalem, where I head straight for the halva stand,” Levy noted by email. “The fresh sesame halva is amazing, especially the creative kinds of halva marbled with dates and other fruits. The fresh laffa and other just-baked breads are also very tempting. Naturally, I enjoy the lively atmosphere and the chance to taste and learn about foods that are new to me.”
Levy considers strolling through a shuk a midday mini vacation. “The colorful scene is usually more social and animated than the supermarket, with people walking by and chatting as they select the produce. When we lived in Bat Yam, we enjoyed our weekly shopping trips to Tel Aviv to Carmel market, even though we had to take two buses. The atmosphere at the market was always changing. One week the air would be fragrant with strawberries. Another time persimmons seemed to be everywhere; it was in that shuk that I saw and tasted a persimmon for the first time.”
Rakakat with Haloumi, Feta and Parsley
Yield: 10 to 15
A classic on any warm mezze menu with their crispy dough and melting cheese. With filo you always have to work fast, sprinkle with oil and keep the pastry under a clean tea towel.
13 ounces filo pastry
1 small bunch parsley, separated into sprigs
9 ounces haloumi, sliced into thin strips
7 ounces feta, crumbled
Oil for frying
- Make sure you have clean damp tea towel and small bowl of sunflower oil ready to go.
- Remove filo from packet, and cover with tea towel. Take one sheet filo and cut vertically into two pieces. Put one piece back under tea towel.
- Lay other piece on work surface with short end facing you. Place a few sprigs of parsley near end closest to you and fold edge of filo over parsley. Rub folded pastry with a little sunflower oil. Next, make a line of haloumi and crumbled feta along end closest to you, then fold in long edges about 1/2 inch, and roll the whole thing up into a neat cigar shape. Seal end with a little sunflower oil. Repeat with remaining filling and pastry, working fast so pastry doesn’t dry out.
- Heat oil to 350°F or until a cube of bread dropped into oil turns golden brown in 30 seconds. Fry cigars, in batches, until golden brown. Drain on paper towel and eat immediately.
Armenian Stuffed Carrots in Tamarind, Pomegranate and Coffee Sauce
Yield: 4 to 6 servings
The Armenian kitchen is full of aromatic flavors such as paprika paste, pomegranate molasses, peppers, dried fruit, and stuffed vegetables, such as carrots. The combination of spicy cloves and sweet and sour pomegranate molasses with the carrot is really delicious.
3 very large carrots
10 1/2 ounces ground lamb
2 ounces short-grain rice
1 garlic clove
2 teaspoons seven spice
1 tablespoon ground cinnamon
Salt and pepper
3 tablespoons tamarind paste
1/4 cup espresso
3 1/2 fluid ounces pomegranate molasses
Flat-leaf parsley or cilantro, finely chopped
- Clean carrots and cut them into 2-inch lengths. Core each piece of carrot (we use an apple corer). Boil carrots until just tender.
- Mix lamb with rice. Peel garlic and, using a mortar and pestle, crush well with cloves, then add to lamb and rice mixture along with seven spice, cinnamon and salt and pepper to season. Fill carrot pieces with meat mixture, then place stuffed carrots upright in pan with lid.
- In small bowl, combine tamarind paste, espresso, pomegranate molasses, spoonful of water and salt and pepper, then add to pan. Place over medium-low heat and cook with lid partially off about 25 minutes, adding extra water if it boils dry, until rice is tender. Serve warm, sprinkled with parsley or coriander.
Source: “Souk” by Nadia Zerouali and Merijn Tol
Jlife Food Editor Judy Bart Kancigor is the author of “Cooking Jewish” (Workman) and “The Perfect Passover Cookbook” (an e-book short from Workman), a columnist and feature writer for the Orange County Register and other publications and can be found on the web at www.cookingjewish.com.