What is Mediterranean food? (Explained!)
When you think of Mediterranean cuisine, what’s the first thing that pops into your mind? Olive oil? Feta? Kalamata Olives? Fish? Maybe whole grains?
Those ingredients are what you’ve seen on cooking shows, what you see at restaurants, and what your friends may rave about. But what exactly does it mean for food to be “Mediterranean”?
It’s important to understand what makes this cuisine what it is in order to fully appreciate what you’re eating when you make a dish from the region, or when eating out at a restaurant that serves Mediterranean dishes. So buckle up and get your forks and knives ready, because you are about to learn everything that there is to know about Mediterranean food!
What is Mediterranean cuisine?
Mediterranean cuisine refers to the whole range of traditional dishes and cooking methods found all around the Mediterranean basin. It’s rich in veggies, fruits, legumes, herbs, spices, nuts, and whole grains such as wheat or barley breads —as opposed to refined counterparts—.
In a nutshell, the focus of Mediterranean food lies on fresh, minimally processed ingredients, pronounced flavors, and simple recipes. But if we had to sum up what Mediterranean food is in just one word, we would say: variety.
Many people believe that this type of cuisine comes from one specific country or even region within a country, but Mediterranean food spans across the entire Mediterranean region. This includes countries like Italy, France, Egypt, Spain, Turkey, and even Syria!
However, when someone says “Mediterranean food”, what they are most likely referring to is Greek food — the most well-known one of the whole Mediterranean catalog.
Greece has a contrast of great flavors: it takes the typical Eastern flavors and mixes them with ingredients from the Mediterranean Sea. Lots of meat, seafood, legumes, spices, lemon, and lots, LOTS of olive oil.
The standard dish of Greek cuisine is moussaka. This rectangular-shaped pie combines layers of ground beef with eggplant, bechamel sauce, and potatoes, and is often made at home by moms and grandmas. Although many people may confuse it with lasagna, it’s something very different — a symbol of Greek cuisine.
We’ve all eaten pita bread before, but in Greece, this bread isn’t eaten in pieces to scoop sauces or dips, as many Americans are used to. Pita bread is almost exclusively used in Greece as a “boat” or wrap for souvlaki, gyros (a meat “sandwich”), and other meat-filled dishes.
Speaking of souvlaki, this is another iconic Greek dish, very popular when it comes to street food. It consists of skewered pieces of pork (although it can be beef, lamb, chicken, or even fish) marinated with lemon juice, mint, oregano, and olive oil, and cooked on the grill. Depending on the presentation, it can have mixed or interspersed vegetables, be wrapped in pita bread, or be paired with French fries. No matter how it is served, it’s definitely the perfect dish for meat lovers.
Greek cuisine also has a strong preference for dairy products, with yogurt and cheeses ruling the list. Cheeses such as feta, kefalotyri, and mizithra are the locals’ pride and joy, which they enjoy almost on a daily basis. As well as dishes such as spanakopita (pie filled with spinach, feta cheese, and onion), melitzanosalata (eggplant salad), and a whole assortment of delicious Greek-flavored foods.
Is Greek and Mediterranean food the same thing?
While Greek food is considered a hallmark of Mediterranean food… Are they the same thing? Yes, but not really.
Although we use the terms Greek food and Mediterranean food interchangeably on this side of the world, they are technically not the same thing. You see, “Mediterranean food” is an umbrella term that, as we mentioned above, encompasses different foods such as Turkish food, Syrian food, and Greek food. Greek food is basically a “kind” of Mediterranean food, but not all Mediterranean food is Greek.
Turkish cuisine is basically the heritage of Ottoman cuisine, and a fusion of Central Asian, Middle Eastern, and Balkan cuisines. When it comes to typical Turkish food, it’s worth mentioning that this country has contributed to the world one of the most beloved fast-food dishes: the döner kebab (or kebab). It’s difficult to find someone who hasn’t tried this dish and, in fact, there are restaurants all over the world that only focus on it.
But kebab isn’t its only noteworthy recipe — typical Turkish food goes far beyond that. In fact, you could say that Turkey boasts a highly diverse cuisine with many world-famous dishes, such as baklava (a dessert made of filo pastry filled with chopped nuts or pistachio paste), dolmas (grape leaves stuffed with rice and seasoned with spices and lemon), and köfte (beef or lamb meatballs mixed with spices). Lots of spices, lots of meat, and lots of flavors!
Syrian cuisine is a very ancient tradition. Its origins are linked to the country’s history, whose capital, Damascus, can be considered one of the oldest in the world. There is no doubt of the influence of Ottoman, Iraqi, Lebanese, and Turkish gastronomy on Syrian cuisine, which is essentially a mash-up of the cultures of the ancient civilizations that were established in Syria and the surrounding countries.
Despite the fact that it has evolved significantly through time, Syrian cuisine still remains one of the most vegetable and lentil-dependent cuisines out there. The favorite ingredients for cooking its best-known recipes are eggplant, chickpeas, fava beans, garlic, fava beans, cabbage, cucumbers, tomatoes, pistachios, and lamb and sheep meat.
Speaking of their most popular recipes, we definitely have to mention shawarma, a “sandwich” of sliced lamb or chicken and vegetables, wrapped in pita bread, similar to the Greek gyro. You can also add hummus, a spread made from cooked, mashed chickpeas blended with lemon juice, tahini (a paste made from ground sesame seeds), and garlic, to shawarma.
Some other typical recipes are kousa mahshi (zucchini stuffed with rice and minced meat), kibbeh (croquettes stuffed with lamb meat, bulgur wheat, and spices), and mujaddara (lentils cooked with wheat or rice, fried onions, and olive oil).
What is a typical Mediterranean dinner?
Ready to give your meals a delicious and unique Mediterranean twist? Let’s review how a typical Mediterranean dinner looks:
If you’re looking for a super simple Mediterranean dinner, look no further than horiatiki, a.k.a, Greek village salad.
The horiatiki salad is the authentic and classic Greek salad, a fresh food that characterizes Mediterranean gastronomy. And the beauty of it all is that it’s a dish that is extremely simple to make since it needs few ingredients without any kind of cooking.
You’ll need ripe tomatoes, cucumbers, red onions, olives, green bell peppers, dried oregano, salt, red wine vinegar —or fresh lemon juice—, creamy feta cheese and, of course, extra virgin olive oil.
Then, just cut the tomatoes, cucumbers, bell peppers, and onions into large slices, serve them in a bowl, add some olives, a dash of salt, and dried oregano, and finally, toss the salad with olive oil and red wine vinegar before serving the feta cheese in blocks on top of it. As easy as ABC!
However, if you want something a bit more “complex”, there is a must-have dish that should be included in any Mediterranean style dinner: baked salmon with garlic and lemon.
- Everyone knows that lemons are a great match for fish in general, and salmon is no exception, especially in this recipe where lemon is the protagonist thanks to a simple lemon-garlic sauce. To make it you’ll only need the juice of 2 large lemons + lemon zest, minced fresh garlic to taste, quality extra virgin olive oil, and a power trio of spices that boost flavor: dry oregano, paprika and black pepper.
- After prepping that delicious sauce, get a baking sheet lined with a generous piece of aluminum foil to wrap the salmon in, brush the top of the foil with olive oil, pat the salmon dry, season it well with salt, and place it in the baking sheet.
- Then, pour the lemon-garlic sauce all over the salmon evenly, add lemon slices —as you already know, you can never have enough lemon when it comes to salmon—, and wrap it with the foil.
- Finally, bake the salmon in a 375 degrees F heated-oven for 15 minutes or so, depending on the thickness of the salmon, and when it’s ready, place it under the broiler for a couple more minutes just to make it look even more appetizing. The only thing left to do is to garnish it with some fresh parsley, and that’s it! Easy peasy lemon squeezy (pun intended).
Remember: Mediterranean food is also defined by more than just what you eat, even how you prepare your dishes plays a major role in Mediterranean cuisine. So, if you want to prepare a true Mediterranean dinner, make sure to replace any type of butter with quality extra virgin olive oil, don’t forget that lemon can be your best friend in most recipes, and last but certainly not least — don’t, and we repeat, do not overcook fish or any type of seafood. You’ll thank us later!
What Key ingredients are usually found within a Mediterranean Diet?
You’ve probably seen the Mediterranean diet dominate headlines for many years, but even though its popularity is at its peak, there is still a lot of confusion over which ingredients are included in it and which aren’t. Are yogurts included? Is beer or wine? Can cheese even be part of a Mediterranean Diet? Allow us to clear some things up for you!
If we’re talking about the key ingredients of the Mediterranean diet, olive oil is undoubtedly the most important one. 95% of the olive tree cultivation is found in the Mediterranean area, and it is also one of the oldest crops in the region, dating as far back as 3,000 years BC. But what really makes this flavorful oil one of the pillars of the Mediterranean diet is the amount of oleic acid —a powerful antioxidant— and the vitamins it contains, such as vitamin E, A and K.
In addition to olive oil, there are many other ingredients that are a hallmark of the Mediterranean diet, but just to make things easier for you, we’ll separate them into 10 groups: fruits, vegetables, legumes, whole grains, nuts and seeds, fish and seafood, dairy, poultry, eggs, and herbs and spices.
- Fruits: apples, oranges, dates, pears, bananas, melons, grapefruits, figs, peaches, strawberries, lemons, grapes (and wine, of course!).
- Vegetables: tomatoes, bell peppers, spinach, kale, celery, broccoli, arugula, onions, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, potatoes, asparagus.
- Legumes: pulses, chickpeas, beans, lentils, peas.
- Whole grains: brown rice, oats, rye, barley, quinoa, corn, bulgur, buckwheat, whole wheat and pita bread, farro, pasta.
- Nuts and seeds: peanuts, almonds, walnuts, macadamia nuts, cashews, hazelnuts, pistachios, pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds, pine nuts.
- Fish and seafood: tuna, shrimp, trout, salmon, sardines, oysters, clams, octopus, crab, mussels, sea bass, mackerel, barramundi, cod.
- Dairy: cheese (brie, feta, parmesan, ricotta, manchego, chevre), greek yogurt, milk.
- Poultry: chicken, turkey, duck.
- Eggs: chicken, quail, and duck eggs.
- Herbs and spices: garlic, basil, bay leaf, mint, rosemary, parsley, cumin, sage, nutmeg, thyme, cinnamon, pepper.
Of all these ingredients, it’s suggested that, ideally, chicken, duck, turkey, eggs, cheese and yogurt should be consumed in moderation. And what about red meat? You may ask. And we hear you, fellow meat-lover, but in the headquarters of the Mediterranean diet the types of meat par excellence are fish and seafood. Red meat can be included sporadically, but not on a regular basis —although in some Mediterranean countries a considerable amount of red meat is consumed—.
As for foods that should be limited, the list includes added sugar, refined grains, refined oils, trans fats, highly processed meats and highly processed foods overall (bye-bye KFC!).
P.S: If you’re used to eating highly processed foods, excluding organic ingredients from your recipes and spending many of your evenings at McDonald’s, we don’t blame you, we’ve all been there. But if those are your eating habits, a sudden shift to a Mediterranean diet may not be right for you. We strongly suggest that you adapt your palate and your system to these ingredients gradually, trying different legumes, nuts and fruits every week, so that you can get used to the new explosion of flavors in the best way possible.
Is the Mediterranean Diet a Healthy Way to Eat?
There is enough evidence that shows that diets rich in fruits, legumes, vegetables, and whole grains, as well as fish, nuts, and low-fat dairy products, do offer many health benefits. And guess what? These dietary characteristics have always been taken into account in the traditional Mediterranean diet.
For starters, it’s not a restrictive diet. In fact, a simple 1-week menu can vary a lot due to the wide range of pulses, vegetables, fruits, nuts and fish available on the market, all full of nutrients and antioxidants (omega-3, B vitamins, zinc, folic acid, iron, etc.) that complement each other beautifully if you know how to match them. So if you’re worried about not getting the nutrients you need to function properly in your day to day life, don’t worry — the Mediterranean diet won’t let you down.
Speaking of antioxidants, do you know what they are also good for? To drop cholesterol levels and prevent cardiovascular disease.
Researchers from the Lyon Heart Study examined 605 patients aged 55 – 80 years who had previously had a myocardial infarction, and discovered that those who followed the Mediterranean diet had a 50% to 70% lower risk of chronic heart disease than those who followed a diet similar to the American Heart Association (AHA) Step-I diet, which is designed to lower cholesterol levels.
Plus, a Mediterranean diet may reduce stroke risk in women (up to 20%!), slow cognitive decline or reduce the conversion to Alzheimer’s disease, improve blood sugar control (thus help manage type 2 diabetes), and even help with rheumatoid arthritis (hello, anti-inflammatory omega-3!).
It is a fact that this diet can help the elderly who are prone to suffer several health conditions that typically arrive with age, but… What about the not-so-elderly? Can young people also benefit from this diet?
Absolutely! Who doesn’t need nutrients, vitamins and antioxidants? Thanks to them, our body and mind can function at their best, no matter how old we are. As you can see, the Mediterranean diet it’s not only a healthy way to eat — it’s one of the healthiest ways to eat!
Can Following the Mediterranean Diet Help With Weight Loss?
Although the Mediterranean diet is not primarily a weight loss diet, it’s been proven that it can help some people achieve that goal.
A systematic review of 5 studies done in 2015 found that the Mediterranean diet was as effective as other well-known diets such as the low-carbohydrate diet for weight loss, resulting in up to 22 pounds of weight loss over the course of 1 year. But why did that happen?
Well, that weight loss happened because whole grains and pulses are naturally filling, which may incline people to eat less.
Also, this diet is high in fiber thanks to the strong presence of legumes and those same whole grains, which are always a great addition to any diet. Plus, it’s rich in fruits and vegetables and low in processed foods and sugars, all of which are highly recommended for weight loss.
And don’t get me started on antioxidants! They are the stars on the Mediterranean diet as they can help you prevent chronic conditions like heart disease, but that’s not their only duty. While the antioxidants by themselves won’t trigger weight loss, a diet rich in them is crucial to helping you shed pounds as they can increase energy production during exercise.
However, it’s key that you keep something in mind if you want to follow the Mediterranean diet during your weight loss journey: pair the diet with a healthy lifestyle. Drink lots of water, exercise, lower your alcohol intake —unless it’s wine—, get proper rest, and decrease your stress levels. We know that sometimes it’s easier to believe that just by changing our eating habits our weight will drop instantaneously, but if you really want that Mediterranean diet to improve your metabolism in the most optimal way, make sure to improve your overall lifestyle too!
Mediterranean Food is not only healthy but has an amazing flavor profile!
Sea food, nuts, spices, legumes… Mediterranean food has everything! The blend of different flavors brought by different cultures is exactly what gives Mediterranean cuisine its characteristic amazing flavor that many people love, and that will be the first thing you notice when you take a bite.
Moreover, its relevance to the well-being of our health is not limited only to the fact that it is a tasty, diverse, and balanced diet. Its low content of saturated fats and sugars, and its abundance of vitamins, fiber and antioxidants are what really make the Mediterranean diet an excellent choice for those who wish to lead a healthy lifestyle.
While living near the warm waters of the Mediterranean, with plenty of sunlight, fresh seafood and dishes full of olive oil on every corner surely helps to follow this diet naturally, Mediterranean food can be found all around the world now. So if there is no trip to Italy or Greece planned anytime soon don’t worry, just get the right ingredients and voila — Mediterranean diet at home!