Summer is just round the corner and the time is near to look forward to lighter, healthier, slimline snacks and meals. In this feature I will introduce you to some Balkan & Mediterranean appetizers known in Greece as ‘Mezedes’, in other parts of the Balkan as ‘Predjela’.
Mezedes or Predjela are basically small plates of any kind of food, either served hot or cold and more often than not accompanied by some strong local liquor.
In this feature I will talk about both. Some are Greek inspired, others from all over the Balkan. I will name the most popular and will explain how you can make some of these easily at home.
Whether in Serbia, North Macedonia, Bosnia & Herzegovina or in Greece you will be able to find quick, light and tasty appetizers always and everywhere.
In the western Balkan Predjela are starters, not the stars of a meal. In Greece and in Turkey they have a different way.
Common types of Predjela of the Western Balkans
- Pihtije (pronounced; pieg-ti-je)-jellied pork with garlic,
- Toom or tum, a North Macedonian dish made entirely of mashed garlic, lemon and salt.
- Smoked meats or Dimljeno Meso. In the Balkan, which has more mountainous terrain than not and where winters can be harsh, they tend to smoke all types of meat and fish in order to preserve valuable protein for the winter months. Meats and fish are usually smoked over a slow burning beech wood fires using no other preservatives except for salt.
- Red sweet roasted paprika with the skin and seeds removed then marinated & preserved in oil and garlic.
- Tourshi, pickled vegetables such as cauliflower, carrots, peppers, green tomatoes and cabbage.
- Kajmak or clotted cream. And for that you need..
- Proja or corn bread which comes in many variations; either plain, made from yellow or white corn, or stuffed with cheese and sometimes smoked bacon
- Cvarci (pronounced; “Tsvar-tsi“) These ‘scratchings’ made from pork belly are are a favourite among people of the western Balkans.
- Mini pies, made with filo pastry and filled with either minced meat, cheese, spinach, Swiss chard or a combination of these.
In Western Balkan countries these dishes are on the table just to work up an appetite. These are then followed by a Čorba , Sarma (cabbage leaves stuffed with minced meat and simmered in a broth), then by the main course which can either be roast veal, pork,lamb,grilled meats or all of these!
We are talking heavyyyy meals, always accompanied with plenty of free flowing wine, beer or *raki. A sitting can last for hours, after which you may need stomach surgery, so consider yourself warned 🙂
*Raki in the western Balkans is a drink distilled from fruit such as plum, pear, quince, apricots, sometimes peach or cherry and can have a very high alcohol percentage, 45% is not uncommon. Grapes, often not fit for making into wine, are also distilled into raki. This distilled drink is not raki but is called ‘loza’. Loza is clear, strong and most don’t have flavour like an Italian grappa. Although there are really good lozas out there this drink is not as popular as raki.
*Raki in Greece and in Turkey is always distilled from grapes and can have a high alcohol content but usually is around 30-35%. Raki in Turkey is usually flavoured with anise, a liquorice flavoured spice, reminiscent of fennel. In Greece the case is 50-50, meaning that some are distilled with added anise and others plain like loza in the Western Balkans. In Greece Raki may also be referred to as Tsipouro. Tsipouro is in fashion now and many distilleries are experimenting by adding other ingredients such as cinnamon, cardamon, clove and mastiha.
Mastiha (or mastic) is the natural resin that oozes from the trunk and branches of the mastic tree or ‘lentisk’, which really are more like shrubs and which are commonly cultivated on the island of Chios in Greece. Mastiha has a distinct pine-cedar flavour that is not comparable with anything else. Mastic is used to flavour tsipouro but is also used in bread-baking in many of the Aegean islands and to give flavor to certain pastries, especially those served around Easter time. Mastiha is also found in a Greek brand of chewing gum called Elma.
Whereas the western Balkans treat their appetizers as means to wet the palate, in Mediterranean Balkan, and I am talking about Greece and Turkey here, you’ll suddenly find a whole different approach towards the way Mezedes (meze in Turkey) are prepared, eaten and appreciated.
The philosophy of Mezedes.
Mezedes translates into; “small plates of delicious, quick bites, with many exquisite flavours, necessarily served with a little (or a lot of) alcohol, that should be enjoyed in the presence of good company and preferably consumed somewhere on an outdoor terrace on a warm summer evening preferably close to the sea”. Bet you never knew one word could mean so much.
Having said this I should mention that life in winter is much like life in summer, just different. The only constant is that mezedes are always part of life.
In Greece, at least, Mezedes are usually served with either Ouzo or Raki. Both are distilled from grapes. Ouzo is always anise-licorice flavoured while Raki, often called Tsipouro, is either with anise or plain. ‘Plain’ being similar in taste like Italian grappa.
When in Greece you eat, you also drink (alcohol) and whenever you have drink you’ll most likely be served with something to eat, even if it’s just a handful of peanuts or some julienne cut carrots dressed in vinegar and salt. This way table sessions can last for hours and thus, in Greece and in most of the Balkans, the table is yours for as long as you are there eating and drinking. There are no first nor second sittings in restaurants and tavernas in Greece and, according to my personal experience, neither anywhere else in the Balkans.
Mezedes should be made from the freshest and best ingredients available. Vegetables, fish and meat should be seasonal when these are at their tastiest, plentiful and good value for money.
An other thing to be said about Mezedes is that the variation largely depends on where you find yourself geographically. Mountain areas tend to serve up meaty dishes, while places closer to the coast focus more on seafood.
The list of Mezedes in Greece is huge. Here are some which you’ll be able to find in Tavernas.
- Florina Peppers (πιπεριές Φλωρίνης) -roasted red peppers marinated in olive oil
- fried squid (καλαμαράκια τηγανητά) – squid rings dusted with flour, then deep fried
- Lakerda (λακέρδα) – salt cured bonita fish dressed in olive oil. this method is also used with other types of fish
- loukaniko (χωριάτικο λουκάνικο)- a beef/pork sausage flavoured with leeks and/or orange zest
- Octopus (χταπόδι) – Grilled octopus dressed with olive oil, red wine vinegar and oregano
- Tiri saganaki (φέτα σαγανάκι) – pan fried cheese. Saganaki means small skillet. So, anything can be saganaki.
- Greek Salad (χωριάτικη σαλάτα)_tomatoes, cucumber, onions and feta cheese drizzled with olive oil.
- Keftedakia (κεφτεδάκια) – grilled meat balls using beef-pork and/or lamb.
- Soutzoukakia smeirnakia (σουτζουκάκια σμυρνέικα)- beef/lamb meat balls stewed in tomato sauce.
Here are a few mezedes which you can also try making at home.
Taramasalata, a dip made with Cod fish roe is very popular in Greece and hence you’ll be bale to find this delicacy in almost very taverna. If you would like to make this at home then you’ll need to obtain the cod fish roe which in Greece is sold as ‘Tarama’. This smoked and salted roe is mixed in a blender together with onions, lemon, old bread soaked in water and oil. I prefer to use olive oil for this. Add all ingredients into a food processor, except for the oil. Start your machine and drizzle the oil slowly into the mix until you get a smooth emulsion.
- Melizanasalata is meze using aubergine, feta cheese, olive oil, garlic, vinegar and chopped parsley. The best results are gained by placing whole (preferably thin) aubergines onto hot charcoal and roast the vegetable till the skin is scorched and black. If you can’t use the barbecue then place the aubergines in an oven and bake for 45 minutes on 200°C or 390°F. The skin won’t scorch but the flesh will be cooked and soft to use. Scoop the flesh into a bowl, add chopped garlic & parsley, a generous quantity of Olive oil, a large squirt of red wine vinegar, salt and pepper to taste and mix into a paste.
- Gtipiti or Htipiti is basically feta cheese, mixed with olive oil & chopped roasted hot green peppers, which are called ‘Kafteri’. These peppers are commonly grown in the Mediterranean, especially in Greece and are not chilies even though their spiciness is definitely on par with some of the more devilish kind.
- French Fries with oregano and Kefalotiri, which is a mild semi-hard Greek cheese. This needs no further explanation because the recipe is the dish. The next time you have some (hand cut, home made) french fries try grating your favourite hard cheese on top then sprinkle a little oregano to finish. Very nice!
- Tzatziki, a yoghurt dip made in Greece from yoghurt. Best is to use strained yoghurt, which is yoghurt where much of the water has been removed. If you can’t find ready strained yoghurt then buy ordinary, not too sour tasting yoghurt. Ladle the yoghurt into the middle of a thinly woven cloth, then fold the edges towards one an other, turn and tighten the cloth till water start to seep through the material. Place the the tightened cloth into a colander and leave to seep for half an hour, now and then tightening the cloth further. Slice a cucumber lengthwise and scoop out the seeds. Take a clove of garlic (or two) cut into very small pieces. Chop up a small bunch of dill. Mix everything together with salt, olive oil and red wine vinegar.
Before you turn the page
There are plenty more other Mezedes that I would happily put on the list but then the list would be endless. I suggest, therefore, if and when one day you’re lucky enough to find yourself in Greece walk into a ‘taverna’ and ask the waiter for what’s on offer. Tavernas in Greece usually are family run eateries, that maybe simple in decor but mostly offer excellent food at very reasonable prices.
Alternatively you could visit a Mezedopoleio. These are specialist tavernas which are currently popping up all over Greece and are very popular with the locals who frequent these places to meet, eat and drink. Tsipouro, raki or ouzo are the preferred beverages of guests but plenty of wines, both red and white are also common.