A tour of the panoply of fresh, Levantine-inspired meze from Arabica Bar and Kitchen
Images: Jim Fenwick
As a definitive concept, the meze is difficult to pin down: its origins ambiguous, the exact components of its dishes varying widely. Even the word itself has at least five different spellings. Look for the ultimate in ‘authentic’ and I’m afraid you’ll soon be at a loss. There are infinite variations—meaning, there’s absolutely bound to be a version you’d like.
“Just as we all like different toppings on a pizza, so we all like different combinations of meze,” says James Walter, founder of Arabica Bar and Kitchen, who is responsible for the delectable, deli-like panoply of fresh meze dishes found outside the restaurant. So, what’s James’s favourite?
“It totally depends on my mood, what I fancy, the season. You just have to try them all, and work out your favourites!” he says with a grin. “The great thing about meze is, you can’t go wrong. It derives from a Persian word meaning ‘to savour in little bites’: the idea is to have lots of different flavours, which complement and contrast with one another.”
Crisp bulgur coating
A couple of dips (hummus, taramasalata, babaghanoush), a couple of salads and a couple of what James calls “finger foods” such as handmade kibbeh (“rugby balls” stuffed with lamb mince and pine nuts or aubergine laced with pomegranate molasses, with a crisp bulgur coating) is the suggested quota.
The staples are all there: tabbouleh, hummus, moutabel, along with Turkish delight and baklawa in a host of flavours. Other dishes are Levantine-inspired, but with an Arabica twist. “Meze differs region to region, across the Middle East. Everyone has their own spin, so we do the same in that respect and put our own little touch on things—change the tomatoes, say, or the spices or presentation. It will always be identifiable, though—we don’t do fusion.”
All the dips and salads are made two miles up the road, in Arabica’s Camberwell kitchens. “Bits and pieces of fruit and veg we source from the Market, as well as dairy from Neal’s Yard and vinegars from Brindisa. The bread in the taramasalata is from Bread Ahead,” he reels off.
Across the Middle East
“Where we can, we will always use Market produce, but for other things we need to go further afield—things like the sumac, pomegranate molasses, za’atar, all come from small producers across the Middle East, from suppliers I’ve built relationships with over many years.”
The focus, though, is always on taste and freshness. “Meze is all about enjoying fresh, delicious food,” James emphasises. “Grab a box of meze, walk around the Market, take in all the smells and sights and sounds. It’s perfect for this time of year—it’s light it’s healthy it’s fresh.” With the sun on our faces (and in our eyes) we do just that—close them and we could almost, almost, be in the Levant.