What is a Meze?
Nearly every Middle Eastern or Mediterranean cookbook I’ve ever looked at understandably describes the Middle and Near Eastern and North African mazza or meze or mezze as “appetizers.” First, let’s talk about this spelling. Mazza is how it is properly transliterated, but this type of food is usually transliterated from the Greek or Turkish, where it is also known, as meze or mezze. One word also used in Algeria to describe meze is qimiyya and in Tunisia one might hear ādū. Mazzāt (plural) are little tidbits served on little plates and they certainly bear a resemblance to appetizers or tapas. In fact, there is nothing wrong in serving them as appetizers. But, for the record, it is incorrect to speak of the Middle Eastern mazza table as appetizers. To think of these small dishes as appetizers or tapas is to misunderstand the Arab or Near Eastern culinary sensibility. For the Arab, and this goes for the Turks and Greeks too, the notion of a food needed to “open the appetite” is completely foreign. The Arab simply starts eating; one is hungry and the stomach enzymes are ready to go to work. An appetizer just slows the process down, so says the Muslim, and the Prophet Muhammad is said to have recommended this as well. It differs from tapas in that meze are not bar food as is tapas. Tapas is always followed by dinner once the bar hopping comes to an end and everyone heads for their reservation. A mazza table on the other hand can be the entire dinner, thus it is more appropriate to compare mazza to the Scandinavian smörgåsbord, to which it is more philosophically related, rather than hors d’oeuvre, antipasti, tapas, or appetizers.
The origin of mazza is unknown, but one food writer offered the explanation that the word comes from the Italian mezzano, meaning an intermediary course of foods, introduced by Genoese merchant-traders in the fourteenth-century Middle East to refer to certain foods. I have never come across this explanation in any of my readings and unfortunately the classical lexica are not much help, but there is a certain plausibility to this explanation. On the other hand, the word mazza derives from the root word “to suck” which also gives the word for “acidulous.” An Arab writer claims that mazza is a colloquial expression meaning “what” in the exclamation mazza haza (what is this?). Other Arabs have told me that that explanation is nonsense. And might the word have any connection with the Hebrew word for unleavened foods, mazzot? I must leave this for a linguist.
(Photo below: Meze table, Al-Waha Lebanese Restaurant, London)