In the past couple of years a dozen new Middle Eastern restaurants have been added to Washington's menu so that now there are nearly 50. Greek restaurants still account for more than half, but now we have Turkish, Lebanese and Afghan in growing numbers. That means Washington is finally learning about mezze -- the dozen or more small dishes of hot and cold dips, spreads and morsels that start (and often complete) a meal in true Middle Eastern fashion. We have long known hummus and baba ghanouj, stuffed grape leaves and yogurt with mint and cucumbers. We are meeting anew torpedo-shaped stuffed kibbe and fiery sausages, hummus topped with meat and pine nuts, lemony sauteed sweetbreads and liver cubes. And borek is appearing in more varied shapes and forms. Main dishes are going beyond shish kebab to doner kebab (or gyros), yogurtlu kebab, tash tebab and shish taook.
If you find the distinctions between Middle Eastern restaurants confusing, you have good reason. A few dishes are strictly national: Greece's egg-lemon soup and pastitsio, Afghanistan's aushak and bulanee, Turkey's yogurtlu kebab, Arab countries' felafel. But many are found from Europe to Asia to Africa, with variations more from one village or family to another than from one country to another. Arabic food spreads yogurt over more courses, and uses cheeses even in its pastries; Greek dishes use lemon and eggs as a sauce instead; Turkish food is said to be the spiciest, but that often depends on the chef; and Arabic food is closely acquainted with hot peppers.Lebanese is the most elaborate, sophisticated and subtle -- sometimes. North African food, with its couscous and pigeon pies, is most clearly identifiable, though its cuisine is spreading across the Middle East, just as pizza is on American menus. But most Middle Eastern dishes are multinational.
Washington still has no Israeli restaurant, no Egyptian, no Moroccan, though Moroccan restaurants are flourishing elsewhere in the country as the joy of bastilla and eating from low cushions without forks is discovered. And, sadly, we now have no Persian restaurant.
In the meantime, we can happily make do with Afghanistan's aushak, Turkey's doner kebab, Lebanon's soujoukaia, Arabic tabulleh and Greek taramasalata -- and a layer of filo dough that extends from Mt. Rainier to Fairfax.