Food Trends

Gather Around the Table: Enjoying Greek Mezethes, Food, and Laughter Together

The tables filled with mezethes are more than a way of serving food. It is a culinary tradition that celebrates traditional Greek food and the importance of sharing with friends and family. -BY John Jacobs

You may have partaken in a mezethes meal and not realized it because the food spread was called appetizers, hor d’oeuvres, antipasto, or share plates. Though you can call a table of appetizers a meze table, a true Greek meze is so much more than a table full of small plates of food. It is a cultural event where people unhurriedly share time, friendship, and traditional foods. The foods range from olives to meatballs and everything in between. This cultural tradition is valued as much for bringing people together as it is for the food options. It is a delightful, convivial opportunity for people to savor and enjoy each other’s company and food.

The Origins of Mezethes

Meze came to Greece from Turkey during the Ottoman Empire. The word “meze” means “taste” in ancient Persian. Mezedes or mezethes (plural for meze) are compared to appetizers but differ in several ways. Appetizers are usually an introductory course to a bigger meal. A meze is a meal by itself.

Another difference is that a meze is a centerpiece uniting food and people for as long as they have stories to tell. Everyone shares a variety of foods designed to present a mixture of flavors and textures and complement the drinks served, like ouzo (anise-flavored aperitif) or raki (made from grapes distilled twice or more). In Greece, alcoholic drinks are always accompanied by food because drinking alcohol to get intoxicated is not culturally acceptable. Instead, the combination of wine and spirits with plates of food is solely intended to promote conversation and friendship.

The Flexibility of Mezethes Adds to the Enjoyment

Meals of mezethes are a way of life in Greece. No one has their own plate of food but instead has an empty plate they repeatedly fill from small plates of food. Mezethes are served in homes, restaurants, and taverns any time of day or night that people feel like socializing. It is such a liberating food concept that enables people to create colorful food tables with varied flavors and aromas and showcase local ingredients. In other words, no two meze tables are the same, adding to the enjoyment.

Mezethes continue to reflect ancient Greece. Historically, Greeks ate many grapes, olives, eggs, vegetables, and especially legumes and fish. You will find these food items continue to make regular appearances. Ancient Greeks also ate bread, especially tiganitai (t??a??te?), which were unleavened pancakes described by Greek physician Galen in his book written somewhere between 207 and 216 CE on the subject of diet. That is how old the “girdle-cakes” are. The recipe has flour, honey, and sesame seeds fried in olive oil.

What can you expect to see today as a part of a meze? A huge variety of possible food plates is the answer! It could include dolmakadia, the iconic grape leaves stuffed with rice, onions, and herbs, stuffed muscles, shrimp, and keftedes, which are Greek meatballs that may show up drenched in tomato sauce. There may be bowls of olives, grilled sausage, and fried fish or chicken in ouzo sauce. Ouzo is Greece’s national drink made from grapes, berries, herbs, and spices with an anise flavor, so ouzo sauce has wine as an ingredient. You might find bowls of cheese or salted cucumber. Grilled vegetables and bowls of rice, bulgar, or potatoes may also grace the meze table.

Phyllo Dough EverywhereYou Look

Greek pies are another staple for the group meal. Spanakopita (Greek spinach pie) is a true delicacy made from phyllo dough and a filling made with spinach, feta cheese, herbs, and leeks. Greek tiropitakia is a feta cheese pie, and Kotopita is a crispy phyllo dough filled with chicken, feta cheese, dill, and red onions. Greek Hortopita is a savory pie made of phyllo dough, various greens, and herbs with some leeks, feta, and herbs.

Various dips are always present, like eggplant dip and feta cheese dip. Tzatziki is a yogurt and cucumber dip, and taramasalata is a fish roe dip. Rake fava dip is usually included because fava beans are embedded in Greek food culture. The dips are used for the vegetables, cheeses, meats, and breads. The bread is often fresh pita bread because it is ideal for dipping. Of course, Greeks love sweets, so a mezethes feast is not complete without desserts. There is baklava made with layers of phyllo, butter and nuts, and galaktoboureko (milk pie), a concoction of phyllo pastry and semolina custard. Portokalopita is an orange pie made with – yes – phyllo pastry – and orange juice, milk, eggs, and sugar. A liqueur will likely accompany dessert.

Kali Orexi!

One point to remember about mezethes if you travel to Greece is that each region has its favorite foods. The Crete meze-inspired meal will certainly include olives since Crete has 35 million olive trees. The Crete meze is known for its unique variety of foods, like pickled baby artichokes and askordoulakia (hyacinth bulbs), pickled in olive oil and vinegar. A local dish is xinohondros, a pasta served with farm cheese and tomatoes drizzled with extra-virgin olive oil.

In northern Greece, the food is a blend of historical influences, including Macedonian and Ottoman influences. The meze foods you may encounter tend to be heavier than the Crete meze foods. They include smoked octopus, fried cheese, and variations of meatballs, like soutzoukakia (cumin-scented meatballs) and perek, a skillet cheese-stuffed pie. Where you travel throughout Greece will influence what you eat. Many villages make their own sausages, and they will appear on the meze table, but seaside villages are more likely to serve marithes (fried smelts). An advantage of a meze is that you can taste foods you are not likely to try elsewhere or that are cooked quite differently from what you are used to eating.

Restaurants and taverns offer mezethes where you choose multiple dishes on a menu. The food is placed in the middle of the table, and each person uses a fork to select their food. If you are lucky, you will be invited to mezethes where you can socialize with the local people who can explain each offering and share the joy Greeks find in life. That makes a perfect meze meal – people sharing food and swapping stories and laughter.

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