Mediterranean Cuisine Cooking for the Soul

Mediterranean Cuisine Cooking for the Soul

Mediterranean Food Cooking for the Soul

The Mediterranean Cuisine: A Geographic Region, a Climate, and a Cuisine

Unlike many other ethnic cuisines, Mediterranean cuisine is not the product of a specific ethnic group or culture.  Rather, it is a label referring to the culinary trends shared by a diverse array; of peoples that live in the region around the Mediterranean Sea.   While Mediterranean cuisine understood to be a unified culinary tradition in this country; in reality, there is a vast amount of cultural variance in the cooking found in this geographic region.

Mediterranean Cuisine

Mediterranean Cuisine: A Shared History of Interaction

Although Mediterranean cuisine isn’t governed by a single culture; it is very much the product of cultural influence and exchange.  The world’s earliest civilizations bordered the Mediterranean Sea; their development bolstered by the rich soil and temperate climate; that made agricultural production thrive.

As the point of intersection between Asia, Europe, and Africa, with major civilizations located in each area; the Mediterranean geographically destined to become a major trading hub.  Traders exchanged cultural commodities like spices and other food goods; resulting in the wide dissemination of certain ingredients throughout the cuisines of these disparate peoples.  It was through this form of cultural interaction; that certain fundamental elements of Mediterranean cuisine became popular throughout the region.

Conquest was another factor in shaping Mediterranean cuisines.

The different cultures of the Mediterranean came into direct contact as a result of the empire-building efforts of various civilizations.  Once one civilization overthrew the government of another, they often imposed their own cultural practices upon the conquered society.  At the same time, there was inevitably a certain amount of cultural persistence during the conquest; often resulting in the amalgamation of the conquering group’s culture with that of the conquered.  As societies blended together within the empire; culinary practices adapted and conformed; resulting eventually in the adoption of the current culinary identifiers of the Mediterranean cuisine by people throughout the region.

Common Elements in Mediterranean Cuisine

The overarching characteristics of Mediterranean cuisine largely shaped by the climate and geography of the region.  The sunny, mild Mediterranean climate yields an agricultural bounty that heavily influences the vegetable-dominant cuisines of the region.

Olive oil

The most universally used and prevalent ingredient in the cuisines of the Mediterranean is olive oil.  Olive trees are prevalent throughout the region, and the distinctive oil is a major export of many Mediterranean countries.  The pungent, sometimes bitter oil works its way into a variety of dishes. And used both as a cooking agent and a dressing.  Olives themselves are a regular ingredient in Mediterranean cuisine; adding a punchy, fermented, acidity to dishes.

Fresh vegetables

The fresh vegetables dominate Mediterranean cuisine, with a wide variety taking center stage in dishes throughout the region.  While there is some cultural variation, eggplant, artichokes, squash, tomatoes; legumes, onions, mushrooms, okra, cucumbers, and a variety of greens and lettuces; all flourish in this region and are commonly used.  Vegetables appear in dishes in a variety of forms: baked, roasted, sautéed grilled, puréed, and served fresh in salads.

Meat

Generally used sparingly in Mediterranean cuisine, and, in most of the Mediterranean, tends to be grilled.  The Mediterranean’s rocky terrain can’t typically support larger herding animals like cows; limiting meat options to smaller domesticate like goats, sheep, pigs, and chicken; as well as some wild game.  Goat and sheep milk also used in a variety of Mediterranean dishes; primarily in the forms of yogurt and cheese.

Seafood

A more prevalently used protein source, appearing in a variety of dishes. The close proximity to the Mediterranean Sea provides easy access to fresh seafood; which makes frequent appearances in dishes throughout the region.

Fresh herbs

A preponderant use of fresh herbs characterizes Mediterranean cuisine.  The climate and geography of the region naturally suited to growing herbaceous plants; both indigenous and imported.  While there is some cultural variation in the use of certain herbs; overall the culinary traditions of the Mediterranean use basil, oregano, thyme; rosemary, marjoram, parsley, dill, mint, garlic, tarragon, fennel, cilantro, and saffron.

The Culinary Distinctions of the Mediterranean

Although there are common elements that unify the cuisines of the Mediterranean, there are some significant regional and cultural differences.  The Mediterranean divided into three culinary regions; Eastern Mediterranean, Southern Europe, and North Africa.

Eastern Mediterranean cuisine

which encompasses some Middle Eastern cuisine, describes the culinary traditions of Greece, Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, and Egypt.  Yogurt and fresh cheeses like feta, halloumi, and lebanah feature prominently in Eastern Mediterranean cuisine; yogurt appears in a variety of sauces or as a condiment; while cheese either cooked into dishes or eaten raw in a multitude of culinary contexts.

The flavors of parsley, sumac, mint, and lemon juice dominate the Eastern Mediterranean cooking palate; while pomegranates and nuts are regular ingredients in sauces and spreads.  Grains take the form of rice or flatbreads like pita and lavash.  Lamb, mutton, poultry, and goat meat are prominent proteins, and typically grilled; either whole, as skewered chunks of meat like kebabs, or ground and skewered like kibbeh; or spit-fired like gyros.  Bulgar wheat also used, predominantly in salads like tabouleh.  Chickpeas used in a variety of contexts; often as a meat substitute, and can be cooked whole, ground into a paste for a spread, or fried.

Southern European cuisine

found in Italy, Southern France, and Spain contains specific ingredients; that distinguish it from the rest of Europe’s cooking traditions and other Mediterranean countries.  Unlike other Mediterranean cuisines; wine a prominent element of Southern European dining; both as a flavor enhancement in cooked dishes and on its own.  Pork also consumed more by these countries than the rest of the Mediterranean. And is more prevalent than goat, mutton, or lamb.  Tomatoes, garlic, capers, anchovies; mustard, anise, and pine nuts used in a variety of combinations to flavor Southern European dishes.  A multitude of different grains consumed like: leavened bread, pasta, and rice are staples.

North African cuisine

This cuisine characterized by the abundant use of spices. Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, and Libya all regularly use cumin; coriander, saffron, cinnamon, cloves, chilies, saffron, and paprika in their cooking traditions.  Harissa and ras el hanout are two fiery spice mixtures; used predominantly in Moroccan cuisine; giving a characteristic heat to stews and sauces.  Dried fruit like dates, apricots, and raisins; make frequent appearances in North African cuisine; both on their own and in cooked dishes.

Preserved lemons add a characteristic salty, brined pungency to North African food.  Couscous, granular semolina that has the appearance of bulgur wheat with a rice-like texture; is a popular North African grain, accompanying a variety of stews and meat dishes.  Lamb, mutton, and goat meat are the dominant protein in North African dishes; although chicken, and even beef, make regular culinary appearances.  The Moroccan tagine, a slow-cooked stew of meat, vegetables, and sauce prepared in a conical-shaped ceramic pot; perhaps the most recognizable and popularized of North African dishes: an aromatic, hearty, well-balanced dish.

But What About The Mediterranean Diet?

Although both used interchangeably; Mediterranean cuisine not always meant to mean the same thing as the popular Mediterranean Diet; that people refer to for a healthy eating diet.  In fact, many chefs that create one-of-a-kind Mediterranean dishes only concentrating on the ingredients; not whether the food offers a health benefit.

That being said, lots of Mediterranean cuisines are healthy and can be attributed to the ingredients; which used in most Mediterranean style foods and make up the basis of the Mediterranean diet.

Fast Facts About The Mediterranean Diet 

Many people have heard of the “Mediterranean Diet”. But some just think it is another diet scam that will come and go. It is actually an older diet! and people have been mimicking the eating styles of the Mediterranean region for many years now. And it has shown benefits to those who follow it.

Most diet plans set up merely for weight loss. But this diet is great for heart health along with weight loss. It bases meals off of fruit and vegetables along with “healthy” fats found in olive oil.

These fats are known to have lower levels of “LDL” (low-density lipoprotein). This actually reduces cholesterol and plaque buildup in arteries.

Other foods incorporated in the Mediterranean Diets meals

are whole grains, legumes; moderate cheese consumption, and spices used for flavor instead of using salt. Compared to other diet plans; this eating pattern has shown a healthy increase in fiber consumption; which helps control blood sugar and digestion.

Also, incorporating fish at least twice a week is part of the Mediterranean Diet. The omega – 3 fatty acids are essential to the body; means we don’t make them so we have to consume them through the diet.

These fatty acids increase “HDL” (high-density lipoprotein) which sometimes referred to as the good cholesterol.

Some foods emphasized in the Mediterranean Diet are:

  • Hummus
  • Spinach
  • Salmon
  • Feta cheese
  • Greek yogurt
  • Whole wheat flatbread
  • Moderate red wine consumption
  • Hard-boiled eggs

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