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Nutrition Smarts

A Middle Eastern Journey

Middle Eastern cuisine encompasses the foods of Lebanon, Egypt, Iran, Israel and other countries in the region. The exotic aromas and flavors of its foods—from baklava to tabbouleh—entice the American palate.

The bonus: Healthful ingredients abound on restaurant menus, making it easy to enjoy a delicious and nutritious meal when dining out.

Make It Mezza

Explore foods beyond the familiar hommos, pita bread and kebabs by choosing from an array of “mezza,” or appetizers. Middle Eastern menus typically feature long lists of mezza, also called mezze or mezzeh.

Rather than ordering a large entree, diners can pick two or three of these small plates for a variety of tastes. In the Middle East, restaurants compete to have the highest number of mezza on their menus, and stateside restaurants often have numerous options as well.

Lebanese Taverna, which operates four restaurants, three cafes and a market in the Washington, DC area, has an extensive list of mezza. Its flagship location in Arlington, VA offers fifty-seven options, over half of which are vegetarian.

“It’s more than just a meal. Mezza is a cultural experience in itself,” says Grace Abi-Najm Shea, whose parents opened the first Lebanese Taverna twenty-six years ago. “It’s an interactive experience of different tastes and flavors.”

Abi-Najm Shea and her siblings grew up helping out in the restaurant and took over when their parents retired. Over recent years, they have watched as small plates like tapas and mezza have becoming increasingly popular, and they have expanded their menu to match the trend.

Mezza is a healthful option as well. It appeals to many different diets with its array of choices, and as Abi-Najm Shea points out, the foods tend to be low in starches like rice and other common entrée accompaniments.

Ingredients 101

According to Abi-Najm Shea, three ingredients form a “holy trinity” for Middle Eastern dishes: lemon, garlic and olive oil. Together, they add flavor to dressings, marinades, salads and more.

Bread is a central element of the Middle Eastern meal. Flat bread and pita are used for scooping up dips and kebabs and stuffing with falafel. Pieces of bread appear in salads and entrees as well.

“In our culture, bread is used as a utensil,” says Abi-Najm Shea, adding that her mother always has bread with her meal even if she’s eating Italian rather than Middle Eastern. Lebanese Taverna takes its bread seriously, baking fresh pita daily at all of its locations.

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