Andrew Coppolino offers a sampling of mezze in Waterloo region
Mezze is all about sharing and making memories, says restaurant owner Jawad Ghabra
In the past several years, the idea of the "small plates" and "shareables" menus have become more popular at North American restaurants.
This includes "mezze," which has long been part of Lebanese, Syrian and other Middle Eastern cuisines; they are smaller dishes that a group of people gather around and share.
Also known as muqabilat or maza, mezze "kick start" your appetite, says Shawerma Plus owner Jawad Ghabra, or they can be an entire meal.
"It's those different, small bites, it brings a lot of memories," Ghabra said. "For us, because we grew up in the Middle East, when you see that and you see the bond with all the family and friends over that particular meal, you're enjoying at least one, two hours, sometimes it can be way more than that."
He can list dozens of appetizers including seasoned and soaked nuts, olives, grilled halloumi cheese and makdous (eggplants stuffed with walnuts and red pepper), to name a few.
Salads make mezze a good option for vegetarians, Ghabra notes. He says that depending on your cultural background, the focus can be vegan and vegetarian.
"We make a crazy amount of salads in the Middle East that revolve around olives, artichokes or cauliflower," he says. "You use the amazing olive oil that is coming out of your own land, too. Just like the Italians and Spaniards."
From shawarma to mutabal
There are several dozen shawarma restaurants in Waterloo region serving the seasoned, spit-roasted chicken that is made into a wrap with sauces, vegetables and pita: it's a hugely popular take-away and hand-held street food.
But a few restaurants serve casual and plentiful meals of mezze in their dining room. Down on the Boardwalk, Naranj Middle Eastern Cuisine in Waterloo lists both hot and cold mezze on its menu, including staple dishes such as fried kibbeh of cracked wheat that is stuffed with minced beef and spices and mutabal which is a roasted and slightly charred eggplant dip with tahini, yogurt, lemon juice and olive oil, among others.
The original Shawerma Plus location on King Street near University Avenue serves baba ghanouj, falafel, mohummara and musakkan rolls of sumac-seasoned chicken. Gabra often prepares special menu items that feature the flavours of Syrian mezze.
At Chic Pea Pita and Grill in Waterloo, the restaurant is perfumed with the lovely aroma of chicken roasted on charcoal, but the mezze include a good falafel, kibbeh, Beirut hummus, fried halloumi cheese and sujuk flatbread; the latter is great for sharing — and is rich and filling.
I've recently discovered an interesting dish called shingleesh (or skanklish, or a spelling variation thereof) at Mashawi Charcoal Grill and Shawarma, ("mashawi" refers to grilling). The location in north Waterloo has been open for a couple of years and has a half-dozen or so mezze, including a sampler platter.
The shingleesh is essentially a za'atar-spiced "cheese ball," sliced and served with pieces of fresh red onion, cucumber and tomato. The dish is eaten not with utensils but using pieces of fine, thin bread — both slightly chewy and slightly crispy – that is cooked on a large convex griddle called a "saj." It's delicious.
Finally, are there times of the year when mezze has an added focus? Of course, at religious and other ceremonial periods that is likely the case. But, like many other cuisines — and certainly given the impetus to eat locally that is an important philosophy of many restaurants — the idea of eating mezze seasonally certainly becomes that focus, Ghabra says.
"Traditionally, I think the time element for mezze is concerned with what kind of vegetable we have right now," he says. "You might cook certain dishes depending on availability."