What to Eat
While a Middle Eastern meal might exclude meat, it would never exclude bread. From leavened breads to flat breads, there is always some form of this staple at table.
A typical meal will start with the appetizer, known as mezze. Order a mezzes course in Lebanon and other countries and you will soon learn why the tables are so big. Dozens of tiny dishes with exotic tidbits are placed on the table all at once. A strategy even exists among restaurants in a neighborhood, each one promoting that they serve fifty mezzes, or sixty mezzes, or seventy mezzes, all in competition to attract the customer.
You probably have had some typical Middle Eastern mezzes: baba ghanouj, an eggplant dip; hummos, a garlicky chickpea spread; borek, feta-stuffed phyllo pastries; and dolmas, stuffed grape leaves.
Depending on what country you are in, the main course may include felafels, deep-fried chickpea balls; kebabs of grilled lamb or chicken; khoresh, lamb stew in a sweet-sour sauce; or any number of rice dishes mixed with meats, fruits and nuts.
Salads, vegetables and breads will accompany the meal. Tabbouleh, a tart parsley, bulgur and tomato salad, sauteed eggplant and tomatoes with yogurt, and spinach are popular. Pita and other flat breads of course are common, but so are leavened breads including the traditional Jewish Challah and varieties of sourdough.
For dessert, expect a small cup of sweet, thick coffee (do not drink the sludge-like grounds in the bottom of the cup) -- unless you are in Iran, where tea is preferred. Nut-filled desserts ranging from baklava, the honey sweet phyllo pastries, to almond crusted cookies, are favored. But don't expect dessert everyday, as it is usually only served when entertaining, much as it is in the US, although bakeries commonly sell sweet such pastries for morning snacks.
Unlike the US, where licking one's fingers is frowned upon, the proper sign that a guest has enjoyed the meal is the licking of one's fingers. This makes sense, though, since Arab meals are served communally, from the same dish and eaten with the thumb and first two fingers. A jug of water for cleansing the hands before eating and after eating, a hot steaming cloth, are provided.
If invited to an Arab home, you would do wise to fast beforehand or exercise vigorously to build up an appetite. As a guest, you will be presented with a splendid feast and the best way to show your appreciation is to eat it up in large quantities. Don't be surprised, too, if all the women are seated separately from the men. Such long-standing customs do not flex easily for outsiders, and Islamic tenets make gift-giving of pictures or statues of women, as well as alcohol, a foreigner's faux pas.
MIDDLE EAST FACTOID:
The word gourmet did not originate in France, but actually comes from the Farsi word for stew: "Ghormeh." It is believed to have been brought back to the western world by French Crusaders, impressed by the lavish feasts of the Middle Eastern tables.