What comes to mind when you think of Mediterranean cuisine? Is it pizza, the ever-popular Italian dish? Pasta, kebab or falafel? Most of us tend to think of these popular foods only. However, Mediterranean food is not limited to pizza and kebab only. There are so many dishes from breads to vegetables that are distinctly Mediterranean. A traditional Mediterranean food comprises of fresh fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, as well as some fish. As Mediterranean foods are highly plant based with significantly lesser use of animal products, they are considered much healthier in comparison to other continental dishes.
Olive oil, wine, bread, and dried spices are all staples of Mediterranean cuisine. Mediterranean cuisine encompasses foods that belong to the Mediterranean basin, which includes countries such as Spain, Italy, Greece, Egypt, Turkey, Syria etc. While the pan-Mediterranean encompasses a wide range of dishes, we are presenting foods belonging to three distinct cultural bases namely Greek, Turkish and Syrian.
Many people immediately think of Greek food when they hear the phrase "Mediterranean cuisine." However, much of Greek cuisine is influenced by foods and concepts from Turkey, Persia, and Arabia. Tzatziki, for example, may seem to be authentically Greek, but its origin—right down to the name—is Turkish. Greek cuisine has been around for thousands of years and is deeply entwined with Greek culture. Olive oil, vegetables, fresh seafood, wine, lamb, beef, lemon juice, and cheese are among the many ingredients used in modern Greek cuisine.
Within Greek cuisine, there are several different areas, such as Cretan, Macedonian, and Cypriot, but for now, let's focus on some iconic, traditional Greek dishes!
- Pita bread
Since 1100s, pita has been a part of Greek cuisine. Souvlaki, gyros, and other sandwich/condiment combinations almost exclusively use pita bread as a sandwich pocket.
A gyro is a sandwich made of meat cooked vertically on a rotisserie spit. The gyro's origins can be traced back to donor kebab, and it is now a popular fast food choice in Greece.
- Dolmades, or stuffed grape leaves
Dolmades are grape vine or cabbage leaves that have been stuffed with rice and herbs and boiled until fork-tender.
While Turkish food comes from a different cultural and historical setup than Greek food, these two cuisines share several similarities. Though kebab, yogurt-based sauces, and pide are unmistakably Turkish, they are also influenced by other cultures and cuisines.
Kebab includes grilled meats typically cooked on a skewer. It is served with bread or rice, either with or without skewer.
Menemen is an egg-based dish with green peppers, tomatoes, and freshly ground pepper. Menemen is a breakfast dish in Turkish cuisine, served with bread for dipping and a variety of side dishes.
Baklava can be made with pistachios, almonds, or walnuts and served in a variety of ways. To make a lighter preparation, some variations use milk or fresh cream instead of syrup or honey that is traditionally used.
Syrian cuisine has evolved dramatically over time, but many of the recipes that are still used today are thousands of years old. Syrian cuisine, out of all the Mediterranean cuisines, is probably the most vegetable- and lentil-based, relying heavily on eggplant, cabbage, cauliflower, chickpeas, pistachios, and many more.
Shawarma is a common Syrian street food that consists of bread stuffed with shaved meat (beef or chicken) and served with hummus, onions, pickles, and occasionally French fries. Shawarma is served on a platter with hummus, salad, pita, garlic sauce, and rice.
- Meze (appetizers)
Meze is traditionally served with bread before the main course in Syrian culture. It is a platter of small dishes served as appetizers that include hummus, baba ghanoush, kibbeh, muhammara etc.
- Hummus is a creamy dip or spread made from ground chickpeas, tahini, and lemon juice. The tahini is what gives hummus its distinctive flavor.
- Another dip or spread is baba ghanoush, which has a mashed eggplant base. It is meaty and filling, with a distinct flavor that distinguishes it from hummus and yogurt-based dips.
- Kibbeh is a popular Middle Eastern dish made with finely ground beef, bulgur (cracked wheat), onions, and spices. Kibbeh is such a popular dish that it is considered the national dish of many Mediterranean countries.
- Muhammara is a spicy pepper dip that originated in Aleppo, Syria (due to the Aleppo pepper) and is one of the many dishes that distinguish Syrian cuisine from other Mediterranean cuisines. It's made with pepper paste, ground walnuts, and olive oil, of course. It's eaten as a dip or spread, similar to hummus and baba ghanoush. It's also delicious with grilled meats and fish.