Mediterranean food has always had a presence in America, the melting pot of the world, whether in the form of the neighborhood Greek grease joint, the local tapas bar or the small, cozy independently owned Middle Eastern restaurant. We’ve seen further growth in Mediterranean cuisine’s popularity in recent time. This is partly due to the rise and growth of fast-casual dining options and also to the public awareness placed on the Mediterranean diet as a means for sustained long term health. This edition of First Bites brings us to wide array of food options found in this historically diverse region of the world.
The Mediterranean food pyramid differs from the conventional food period that we in America grew up studying as kids. Food groups like dairy, olive oil, fruits, vegetables, wild greens and unrefined grains are recommended to be eaten daily, whereas sweets, eggs, potatoes, olives, nuts, legumes, fish and poultry are to be had on a weekly basis.
And what about red meat? It’s recommended you only have it once a month according to the Mediterranean food pyramid, although meat enthusiasts who still adhere to the basics of the Mediterranean diet often resign to settling for smaller portions of red meat throughout their weekly diet.
Many people are familiar with certain staples of Mediterranean food such as falafel, hummus and pita bread, but Mediterranean food choices are far more limitless. Implied by the name, Mediterranean cuisine draws from a particular region (countries like Italy, Greece, Spain, Israel, Lebanon, Morroco and coastal France and Egypt), which means that the fusion of dishes has been contributed to by several ethnic groups over a vast amount of time (the Middle East was a crossroads of early civilization and cultural exchange was almost unavoidable).
Summertime outdoor concerts, picnics, even kids lunches today all have a common link … delicious hummus. You have probably noticed that your local supermarket carries more brands of hummus than it did just five or ten years ago. Hummus is everywhere these days, as a great replacement for mayo in Sandwiches, as an amazing healthy snack with veggies, and more commonly topped with deep olive oil and fresh parsley and served with fresh pita chips.
Many of us are familiar with hummus, which often tastes freshest in a restaurant setting. This is especially true when it is served with warm and fresh pita bread, right out of the oven. Alternatives to hummus do exist, however. There is a smoky counterpart called Baba Ghanouj. Popularized in Syria and Lebanon, Baba Ghanouj is made with roasted eggplant and blended with delicious lemon juice and olive oil. Some varieties of Baba Ghanouj found in neighboring countries add onions, yogurt or parsley to the mix. A wonderful appetizer that can also compliment many dishes, Baba Ghanouj is also delicious when eaten with crisp veggies.
For Veggie Lovers
Mediterranean cuisine offers vegetarians lots of dining options that they would be unlikely to see at an American cuisine restaurant. For one, vegetarians can enjoy falafel at almost any Mediterranean restaurant. Falafel is commonly believed to have originated in Egypt as a meal eaten by the Copts (the earliest Egyptian Christians) during the Lenten season. Falafel’s tender quality as bite-sized “meatballs” of ground up chick peas and/or fava beans nicely contrasts the crispy texture of a pita bread sandwich. Try a falafel sandwich or wrap with tzatziki sauce, a tangy yoghurt and cucumber sauce that is native to Greece and now commonly added to many Mediterranean dishes.
Another dish native to Greece that works nicely into a vegetarian’s diet is moussaka. Depending on the region, moussaka can be made with eggplant (Greece and Turkey) or can be potato based (Bulgaria and Serbia). Moussaka is sautéed in Turkey and Greece to form a casserole dish that combines tomatoes and onions (and sometimes another meat) with the eggplant. In other regions (the “Levant” or what we know as the Eastern Mediterranean), moussaka is eaten cold as a mezze dish (small plate appetizer).
If you aren’t a big fan of eggplant but are still looking for your vegetable fix, try some tebouleh. Tebouleh is a Levantine Arab salad made with bulgur (wheat grain), tomatoes, cucumbers, finely chopped parsley, mint, onion and garlic. Derived from the Arabic word tabil, meaning “seasoning,” the tebouleh salad is usually dressed in olive oil, lemon juice and salt.
There are quite a few delicious meat dishes as well. These include kebobs,—wonderful chicken and beef that is marinated in lemon and herbs, grilled, cut up in pieces, placed on skewers with pieces of onion and tomato and served on tender basmati rice—shawarma and kofta.
Kofta (or Kufta/Kafta depending on the region) is a native Persian food that spread across the Mediterranean following the reign of the Ottoman Turks. The word kofta translates to “mashed” in the Persian language, and dates back to the time when food was regularly ground up in mortars with pestles. Kofta is essentially a meatloaf or collection of meatballs. Made with chicken, lamb, ground beef or a mix of meat, the minced meat if usually thrown together with spices and/or onions.
Shrimp and fish koftas are found in Southern India (non-red meat koftas are commonly found in India, which includes the vegetable variety) and along the Persian Gulf. In Lebanese cuisine, kafta is usually prepared by mixing the ground beef with onion, parsley, allspice, black pepper and salt.
Shawerma refers to the traditional Middle Eastern process of roasting rotisserie meat. The shawarma meat is roasted on a spit, sometimes for as long as an entire day, and seasoned with herbs and spices. The most common meats to be prepared as shawarma include lamb, veal, chicken, turkey and beef, as well as mixed meats.
Shawarma meats are often thrown into sandwiches (pita variety) or wraps, and prepared with vegetables and some sort of dressing/sauce. You’ll often find tabbouleh, Fattah (a crumbled bread, meat, rice and vegetable soup), tabboon bread, tomato and cucumbers served with shawarma meats, and these sandwiches and wraps are often dressed in sauces which include tahini, amba, hummus or flavored with spices like nutmeg, cardamom and cinnamon. Garlic lemon juice and yogurt are often key ingredients to a shawarma sandwich’s dressing, with water and salt serving as optional additives as well.
The Mediterranean people have a sweet tooth as well. One of their most popular desserts is baklava. Baklava traces its origins to the Ottoman Empire and ancient Assyria. It is now a common Middle Eastern, Central Asian and Southwest Asian pastry. Originally eaten as a dessert for special occasions, as only the rich could afford it, baklava was a popular dish at weddings.
Made from phyllo dough (thinly layered sheets of crispy unleavened bread), syrup or honey, sugar, and butter, baklava is often filled with cashews, almonds, walnuts, pistachios, and other ingredients for added flavor. Walnuts were commonly thrown at weddings instead of rice, as they were believed to act as an aphrodisiac – along with chick peas and pine nuts.
Baklava can be a sticky treat due to its syrup or honey content. Sugar, water, cinnamon, honey, and lemon juice are common ingredients for the syrup found in baklava. Other ingredient options include corn syrup, cloves, ground cardamom and rose and orange water.
What’s in Mediterranean for Me?
So how do we know that the Mediterranean diet is so healthy? Mediterranean foods have been correlated with a lower diabetes risk. Diet studies have also suggested that those who regularly eat Mediterranean cuisine enjoy a lower blood pressure and lower rates of cancer, Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s, and heart disease. Although leading health organizations like the American Heart Association are hesitant to nominate the Mediterranean diet as the ideal diet for long term health, its effects have been praised by many reputable nutritionists and researches and have been cited publicly in the media by the likes of Dr. Oz, Rachael Ray and Brooke Burke.
The Mediterranean diet carries potential mental health benefits as well. A 2009 study published in the Archives of Neurology showed that a diet that resembles the Mediterranean diet lowered risk of mental decline among participants in the survey. The average participants age was 77, meaning that participants in this study were already at a higher risk of mental decline or mental disease such as Alzheimer’s or dementia. The older age of the participants also led to a supposition that the participants were likely set in their ways as far as dieting was concerned and were not likely to change their diets when data was collected at a later time after the initiation of the study.
A special thanks to Pita Pita Mediterranean Grill in Palatine, Ill. for providing the Mediterranean dishes pictured in this blog.
Which Mediterranean dish is your favorite? Do you believe in the health benefits of a Mediterranean diet? Let us know in the comments sections below.