There is something that irks me about Greek cuisine: there is no such thing as a meze for one. Look at any menu of any Greek restaurant and you will see that a meze is priced per person, but the reality is that it is never actually ordered for one. Look at the tables around you and you will see that the choice for lone diners will more often than not be a single serving of moussaka or kleftiko; it can feel very Shirley Valentine.
A meze generally refers to a meal made up of a selection of small(ish) sharing plates. Although the term has come to be synonymous with appetisers, namely because of its Persian etymology (meze comes from the Persian word for ‘taste’ or ‘snack’), for Greek Cypriots a meze is a complete meal.
Here is a complete guide to a meze:
- It starts small: olives dressed with lemon, garlic, herbs and olive oil, and perhaps some raw pickled vegetables.
- The hodgepodge section: next comes the most ‘colourful’ part of the meze, not just visually but gastronomically; it is a little hodgepodge. You will be served classic dips including taramasalata, houmous, tahini and tzatziki, as well as tomatoey giant butter beans, olive-oiled baby boiled potatoes, a delicate little salad of lemon and parsley-flecked shredded crabstick, and dark violet chunks of vinegary beetroot, all of which are to be eaten with chargrilled triangles of pitta bread.
- A possible meander to the village: depending on how traditional your hosting restaurant is, you might then have a little village fare of scrambled eggs with charred courgettes, or pork in aspic (which was sold to me as ‘Three Little Pigs jelly’ when I was a child).
- Char-grilled hors d’oeuvres: including garlicky giant field mushrooms and salty short-stacks of tender pork loin and halloumi.
- A hop, skip, jump and swim to the fish course: a small dish of cold seafood followed by hot fishy fare of both the fried and grilled variety; calamari, little whitebait and a whole ‘something’ – usually red mullet but a seabream is not an ersatz these days in Greek restaurants.
- The meaty crescendo: This is the grandest course, not least in its serveware; the meat selection is traditionally presented on large platters that would not be out of place at a Tudor banquet; you will eat both souvlakia (small cubes of grilled meat, otherwise known as kebabs) and their bony big sister, souvla (larger chunks of meat, lamb cutlets if you’re lucky). Also gracing the platter will be sheftalia; generously seasoned and spiced minced meat that is squat-shaped and wrapped in caul fat – think of these as squat little sausages (see my recipe in Helen Graves’ fabulous new book, Live Fire).
Given all that food, it is not surprising that a meze is a meal synonymous with sharing, and company. But eating sharing food is no different – it is food that reveals our appetite for connection.
The first time I lived alone I would often find myself trying to recreate a restaurant style meze for one; I took full advantage of the M&S meze deal and courtesy of the ‘3 for £5’ offer, as it was back then, I would have a non-traditional meze just for me. I did not have a deep hankering for rubber band squid salad (please never buy that). Really, this was my way of managing my feelings of loss and loneliness. By eating family style, I was holding my family in mind. Sharing food creates feelings of empathy whether there are people around the table or not.
I was reminded of this a short while ago when my client came into our session with a shopping bag that was filled to the brim; I noticed those familiar, translucent plastic pots of meze I once knew well, and a block of halloumi teetered on top. She intended to recreate a recent meal she had shared with her new work colleagues. She told me all about what she ate and how she had been had at halloumi (‘I’ve never had it before, it was so good!’). And just like halloumi, she practically squeaked with joy when she talked about feeling wanted and accepted by her new group of friends. It was clear that tonight she was going to dine on those feelings of connection that were first-time and fast-growing. With food like meze, it seems you cannot help but feel connected to something bigger.
This story inspired my recipe for spanakopita crumpets.