Mediterranean food is immensely popular all over the world. The wonderful aromas and flavours of the varied cuisines of this region tend to leave a lasting impression on all those who appreciate good food. Two adjectives – robust and intense – beautifully describe the range of dishes from coastal Spain through France, Italy, Greece, Turkey and along North Africa.
These countries have influenced each other’s food habits over the years and their cooking has evolved into sharing common principles. There is a great regional diversity between the countries around the Mediterranean Sea and yet there are so many similarities. They mostly use the same ingredients and have many similar dishes. It probably has to do with the shared climate and produce, the age old trading between the port cities, with the same influences from – Roman, Greek, Arab, Ottoman, Spanish – spreading across the region. The hall mark of Mediterranean cuisine is its flexibility, the vast range of ingredients and its numerous variations.
Though there are a number of similarities the Mediterranean cuisine in its entirety can be divided into three main regions: North African, which is Morocco; Eastern Mediterranean which covers Egypt, Greece, Israel, Lebanon, Syria and Turkey; Southern European which consists of Italy, France and Spain. Southern European food has distinct touches of wine and herbs, while the North African food has spices adding that special flavor.
Model for healthy eating
Mediterranean diet is very nutritious and is held as a model for healthy living. The high life expectancy of people living around this region is proof of this. Plenty of grains, fresh vegetables, pulses, fresh fruits and nuts, with little meat, plenty of fish, and olive oil as the medium of cooking are the major ingredients of the Mediterranean cuisine and have long been adopted as ideal healthy fare. Olive oil contains a high proportion of mono-unsaturated fats which research has proved its beneficial effect on health. Bread is a staple food throughout this region and is an integral part of every meal. It is served with a bowl of soup or a platter of fish or with a bowl of hummus or with tapenade. Also the variety of breads available through this region is remarkable. Though the basic ingredients remain the same the range of flavours and textures are simply amazing. From the soft Italian breads to the gorgeous Greek olive breads to the delicious unleavened pitta breads – they are all delicious and wholesome.
The real appeal of Mediterranean cuisine lies in its perfectionist quality of the cooking techniques, the rich flavours, aromas and colours, as well as its simplicity. It is the kind of food that anyone can begin to love and then continue the love affair for the rest of their lives! Many households around the world are adopting some Mediterranean food in their everyday cooking, as well as for entertaining.
The region’s bounty
The best known dishes are simple fare produced for generations from plentiful home grown or local ingredients. The Mediterranean world is defined by the sea that lies at its heart and the consequence of this is a cuisine that makes full use of its abundant fish and shellfish. Onions, tomatoes, and garlic, surrounded by olive oil, begin many of the Mediterranean dishes. Eggplants are abundant, as is squash, peppers, mushrooms, cucumbers, artichokes, okra, and a variety of greens and lettuces. Legumes are also quite hearty like lentils, chickpeas, fava beans in Egypt, green beans in France, white kidney beans in Tuscany. Fresh herbs that are widely used include rosemary, basil, cilantro, parsley, mint, dill, fennel, and oregano. A characteristic that must be noted about the Mediterranean’s food is that the regions fresh fruits and vegetables are second to none.
The mouth watering delicacies
Perhaps the best part of the Mediterranean cuisine is the importance given to snacks and starters that can be served any time of the day. The Spanish tapas are renowned. So also is the sumptuous selection of appetizers called meze that the Greeks, Turks and Moroccans enjoy so much.
The Mediterranean Sea makes it possible to include an endless variety of fish and shellfish preparations. Each country has its own distinct flavour but one thing common is that they insist on fresh catch – practically taken from the sea straight into their kitchens. The classic Seafood stew delicately flavoured with saffron is something to die for. However seafood is not the only non-vegetarian ingredient one can enjoy on their menu. Veal, lamb, pork and chicken are also cooked in plenty.
There is a wrong notion that the Mediterranean food is all about non vegetarian. You can find some of the most luscious and flavourful vegetarian fare here cooked with sun ripened eggplants, zucchini, bell peppers and tomatoes that not only add flavour and taste to the dish but also tremendous visual appeal. Salads feature quite prominently on a Mediterranean menu. Colourful vegetables with simple dressings make ideal first course and even serve as great accompaniments to the main course.
As is anywhere else in the world, a Mediterranean meal too ends on a sweet note. A peep into their repertoire will reveal a mind boggling selection of sweet treats. From the gorgeous looking gateaux’s to dainty cakes, from crisp biscuits to delicate tarts, the Mediterranean sweet dishes are known for their fabulous falvours and textures. The glorious selection of seasonal fruits such peaches, apricots, melons and cherries give that royal touch to the sweet dishes. Dates are widely used throughout the region, either served filled with cream or ricotta cheese or as a delicious filling for mouth-watering tarts.
Mediterranean food, while simple to cook, is delicious and healthy too. So just sit back and enjoy the extremely robust and delicious fare!