An Introduction to Mediterranean Cuisine

A Geographic Region, a Climate, and a Cuisine

Mediterranean cuisine is not the product of a specific ethnic group or culture; it is a label referring to the dietary trends shared by diverse groups of peoples. There is a vast amount of cultural variety in the cooking.

A Shared History of Interaction

The world’s earliest civilizations bordered the Mediterranean Sea. The rich soil and temperate climate made agricultural production strong. Their location at the intersection between Asia, Europe, and Africa brought traders who exchanged cultural items like spices and other food goods.

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. When one civilization overthrew the government of another, they forced their own cultural practices onto the conquered society. As societies blended together within the empire, culinary practices adapted.

Common Elements

The most universally used ingredient in the cuisines of the Mediterranean is olive oil. Olive trees are common throughout the region. Olives themselves are also a regular ingredient.

Fresh vegetables are also a staple. Eggplant, artichokes, squash, tomatoes, legumes, onions, mushrooms, okra, cucumbers, and a variety of greens and lettuces are popular.

Meat is not served often. The Mediterranean’s rocky terrain doesn’t support larger herding animals like cows, so most of the meat comes from sheep, pigs, and chickens. It is usually grilled. Goat and sheep milk are also used in a variety of dishes.

The close proximity to the Mediterranean Sea provides easy access to fresh seafood.

The use of fresh herbs characterizes Mediterranean cuisine, including basil, oregano, thyme, rosemary, marjoram, parsley, dill, mint, and garlic.

Culinary Distinctions

The Mediterranean can be divided into three culinary regions.

Eastern Mediterranean:

  • Yogurt and fresh cheeses like feta, halumi, and labaneh
  • Parsley, sumac, mint, and lemon juice
  • Pomegranates and nuts
  • Grains like rice or flat breads like pita and lavash
  • Lamb, mutton, poultry, and goat meat
  • Bulgar wheat in salads like tabouleh
  • Chickpeas, cooked whole, ground into a paste, or fried

Southern European:

  • Wine in cooked dishes and on its own
  • Pork, goat, mutton, and lamb
  • Tomatoes, garlic, capers, anchovies, mustard, anise, and pine nuts
  • Leavened breads, pasta, and rice

North African:

  • Cumin, coriander, saffron, cinnamon, cloves, chilies, saffron, and paprika
  • Harissa and ras el hanout add spice to stews and sauces
  • Dried fruits
  • Preserved lemons
  • Couscous and granular semolina
  • Lamb, mutton, and goat meat
  • Moroccan tagine is a slow-cooked stew prepared in a conical-shaped ceramic pot

Source: An Introduction to Mediterranean Cuisine
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