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A guide to Mediterranean cuisine

The Mediterranean region comprises 21 countries and they all bring their influence to what we call Mediterranean cuisine.

What is the first thing that comes to mind, when you think of Mediterranean cuisine? Is it a Greek salad or a mezze platter or are you just thinking olive oil? While these are some of the popular dishes, there is so much more to Mediterranean cuisine since it encompasses the entire Mediterranean basin, which covers 21 countries in Europe, Middle East, and Africa. These vastly different geographical areas including Spain, Italy, Greece, Egypt, Turkey, and Syria, among many others all add to what we call Mediterranean cuisine today. But the cuisine actually dates back to ancient Egypt between the third and fourth centuries A.D.

The Mediterranean region which is basically the area around the Mediterranean Sea is known for growing olive trees in abundance and thanks to that the most well-recognized and popular ingredient in Mediterranean cuisine is olive oil. The other cornerstones of the cuisine are wine, bread and fresh herbs. Besides, the cuisine uses a lot of fresh vegetables. Eggplant, artichoke, tomatoes, cucumber, spinach, lettuce, and onions are roasted, sautéed, grilled, pureed, or served fresh in salads.

Meats such as chicken, beef and pork are typically grilled and served as kebabs or skewers.  Additionally, seafood is regularly included in a Mediterranean meal.

Meats such as chicken, beef and pork are typically grilled and served as kebabs or skewers.

Fresh herbs dominate Mediterranean cuisine giving it the unique and fresh flavour that all of us love. The region is known for growing herbs such as basil, oregano, thyme, and rosemary, to name a few. While a lot of dried spices are used, fresh herbs are what makes a dish particularly flavoursome.

Over the past few years, Mediterranean cuisine has become very popular in India. Celebrity chef Saby says there are various reasons for it, one of them being the large variety of vegetarian dishes. “Mediterranean cuisine has a lot of options for vegetarians. Plant-based cuisine forms the largest part of the diet in Mediterranean cuisine. So that fits into the way we eat. We are not the kind who would eat a 500 gm steak with a side of salad. That is not the Indian way of eating. Even when we eat meat, our consumption is about 200 gm at the max. So, Mediterranean becomes very palatable and suitable for Indians.”

Plant-based cuisine forms the largest part of the diet in Mediterranean cuisine.

In the Mediterranean, food is not just a meal, but an important unshakable ritual. There is no place for stale products, semi-finished or low-quality produce. “What characterises the cuisine is the freshness of the produce,” says Saby. While breakfast is mostly cereals, cheeses and fruit, lunch comprises bread, pasta or meat. Dinner is more about seafood and vegetables. And of course, there is great wine to accompany all of it.

Mediterranean cuisine can be divided into three regions, and each has its own influence on the cuisine.

Eastern Mediterranean

This region includes Turkey, Greece, Syria, Israel, Lebanon, Palestine, and Egypt. A lot of yoghurt and cheese is used in the food. In addition, spices such as sumac, parsley, mint, and lemon juice dominate dishes.

The area is also known for its nuts, chickpeas, fava beans, sesame seeds. Chickpeas are ground into hummus while tahini is made from sesame seeds. Pita bread and meat kebabs are specialities of this region.

Southern Europe

This region comprises Italy, Southern France, and Spain. These areas are known for their wines which are frequently used both for cooking and consumed on their own at most meals, setting this region’s Mediterranean cuisine apart from all other regions.  Garlic, tomatoes, and pine nut combinations are used in a lot of dishes. A variety of grains such as wheat are used in their breads and pasta.

North Africa 

The final region includes Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, and Libya.  A wide variety of spices are used in North Africa to add unique flavours to its very distinct Mediterranean cuisine. Some of the more common spices are similar to those used in India and include cumin, coriander, saffron, cinnamon, cloves, chilies, and paprika. In addition, dried fruits, recognised for their sweetness, are used a lot and are characteristic of this region’s Mediterranean cuisine. Grains such as couscous also define this region’s cuisine.

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