People in the Mediterranean often live long and healthy lives, to the extent that the Mediterranean diet is often recommended as a way to live healthier. The problem is that there isn’t a single set of Mediterranean foods (and, the Mediterranean diet doesn’t always follow Mediterrean eating patterns anyway).
Instead, different Mediterranean countries and regions all have their own distinct food patterns and popular dishes. With this post, we offer an overview of popular foods in Mediterranean regions, while also highlighting why these foods are special.
To start off with, let’s talk about the general idea of Mediterranean eating. For the most part, Mediterranean eating is considered to be a diet that is high in fresh vegetables, fruits, whole grains, olive oil, nuts, beans, and seeds. Dairy and red meat are included too, but not in excessive amounts.
You’ll also notice that there’s an emphasis on whole foods that are prepared at home, rather than anything full of additives.
There are non-food aspects to Mediterranean eating too, including the idea of enjoying the food you eat and making meals a social occasion. This type of approach can be as important as the food you choose to eat. After all, many of us are constantly rushing around in our daily lives and this practice isn’t good for us at all.
Table of Contents
- Grape Leaves
- Olive Oil
- Fresh Fruit
- Red Wine
- Red Meat
- Fresh Vegetables
- Whole Grains
- Fresh Herbs
- Nuts And Seeds
Feta cheese is classically linked to Mediterranean food. The cheese tends to be salty and crumbly, so it’s easy to simply crumble it on top of a salad or any meal. The cheese is commonly made from sheep milk, although a combination of sheep and goat milk could be used instead.
You’ll often find feta used at the same time as other classic Mediterranean ingredients, like olives, and in traditional Greek dishes like spanakopita.
The word feta is now under a protected designation of origin. As part of this protection, feta in the EU must be made of sheep milk or a combination of sheep and goat milk, and must be produced in certain regions in Greece.
However, there are various cases where the term feta may be used for cheese that uses cow’s milk instead, such as in Canada for companies that used this term before October 2013. This means that you’ll need to check the label for any product that you buy to make sure that you’re getting authentic feta.
Grape leaves are mostly used to make dolmades. These are simply stuffed grape leaves and can be served as an appetizer or even as the main dish, on occasion.
Rice is the most common stuffing for these leaves, but you might see other ingredients used too, including herbs, olive oil, and even meat. The fiber in the grape leaves makes them a nutritious choice, while the dish also ends up being low in calories.
Olives are another ingredient that features heavily Mediterranean diets. Indeed, olive trees have a long history of being cultivated in the Mediterranean.
The olives will often be marinated in olive oil or another liquid to keep them moist and infuse them with flavor. Olives don’t just taste good either. They also contain various compounds that can help to improve your health.
There are many varieties of olives to choose from. Some are similar to one another, while others have distinct differences. Meals make use of multiple types of olives at the same time, which provides interesting flavor contrasts.
Olive oil remains the most common oil in many Mediterranean diets. We’re not just talking about using the oil as a salad dressing either. People in the Mediterranean often use olive oil when they cook as well.
The advantages of olive oil are hard to dispute. The oil is high in monounsaturated fats and contains a decent amount of plant-based nutrients as well. Extra virgin oil is thought to be particularly good for health, offering the most beneficial compounds without much processing at all.
The heavy reliance on olive oil is often thought to be a key reason for the low rates of heart disease in the Mediterranean. Olive oil isn’t likely to be the only reason for such an effect, but there’s little doubt that using the oil regularly is a good thing.
Fruit selections in the Mediterranean tends to focus on what is local and seasonal. This emphasis is best no matter where you live, as local and seasonal food tends to be fresher and have a lower carbon footprint. It will often be less expensive too.
While red wine isn’t technically a type of food, it is probably the most well-known drink for Mediterranean eating. And, as many writers are quick to point out, red wine has been linked to some health benefits.
These benefits come from some of the plant-based compounds present in the wine – as long as you’re drinking it in moderation. The inclusion of red wine is also a reminder of a key tenet of Mediterranean eating, which is the idea of slowing down and enjoying your food and the company.
This is an idea that we often overlook in our fast-paced modern world, but it is one that is truly worth focusing on. After all, stress has been linked to many health problems and becoming less obsessed about the foods that you do and do not eat is often a very good idea.
Seafood is a common source of protein in Mediterranean countries, with fatty fish and shrimp both being especially common choices. Not only are these a good source of protein, but they also offer omega-3 fatty acids, which can help to improve health in many ways.
Interestingly, salmon is often considered a key fish on a Mediterranean diet, even though salmon isn’t historically common in that part of the world. This difference is an interesting side effect of the Mediterranean diet become popular as a healthy way of eating – even though the diet promoted isn’t always what people would eat in the Mediterranean.
Interestingly, people in the Mediterranean often get more dairy from cheese and yogurt than they do from milk. While many people here focus on low fat dairy products, this isn’t the case for Mediterranean eating.
Full fat tends to be the way to go. After all, full fat dairy tends to be less processed than low fat versions.
If you look at Mediterranean diet discussions, you’ll often see that Greek yogurt is recommended. But, if you’re actually in the Mediterranean, Greek yogurt isn’t something that you can easily find, as the name Greek yogurt is a marketing phrase.
You will, however, find similar yogurt in many parts of the Mediterranean. Basically, the yogurt has been strained, which changes its texture and nutrient composition. Strained yogurt tends to be thicker, creamier, and a better source of protein than non-strained yogurt.
However, it’s just as important to pay attention to the ingredients in your yogurt. You want a product that hasn’t been through much processing and doesn’t have too many additives. Some yogurts are unfortunately packed with artificial ingredients or excess sugar. Neither of these will help you very much at all.
Feta isn’t the only type of Mediterranean cheese to consider. A variety of others are used regularly, including ricotta and parmesan.
Goat’s milk cheese is used as well, which sometimes goes by the name chevre. This cheese can vary dramatically, depending on the ingredients and how it is made. Some versions work well as a spread for bread, while others may need to be crumbled in the same way as feta.
Red meat is used sparingly in the Mediterranean diet. This is often a regional choice, as the Mediterranean landscape does not easily support large animals like cows.
When red meat is included, it tends to be grilled. Lamb is a particularly well-known example, which may be combined with bold flavors like lemon and paprika. Goat meat is also popular, partly because goats thrive in the Mediterranean environment.
However, it’s important to mention that there is a lot of variation. Some parts of the Mediterranean use red meat more than others. Similarly, lamb might be the most common meat in one part of Greece, while another part may use a wider variety of meat types.
Mediterranean diets are often heavily plant-based and poultry, like red meat, isn’t a frequent inclusion. Still, many people will enjoy some type of poultry once a week or perhaps a little more often.
Another difference is that Mediterranean meals often don’t use the meat as the star of the meal. Instead, meat or poultry is simply one ingredient. This can mean that the amount of meat used is less than what you might expect.
Legumes feature heavily on a Mediterranean diet. They’re all healthy whole foods and they tend to be filling too. They’re also plant-based sources of protein, which is an important feature.
Even if you don’t plan to give up meat any time soon, relying on plants for some of your protein is a healthy decision all around. Beans and chickpeas are both legumes that you’ll commonly see in Mediterranean dishes.
You don’t need to stick to traditional Mediterranean dishes either. You can use many of the same ingredients in new ways, like by creating a protein bowl using Mediterranean food and some other additions.
Mediterranean eating is renowned for being fresh and vibrant. The reliance on vegetables is a key part of this pattern. Most of the vegetables will be familiar to readers, like mushrooms, squash, leafy greens, artichoke, onions, and cucumbers.
Many people rely on eggplant too. While this vegetable isn’t universally loved, it does have a meaty texture that can be satisfying in meals that don’t rely on meat. Eggplant doesn’t have a strong flavor of its own either, which gives you the chance to use sauces, herbs, and spices to flavor your dish.
In many ways, the specific vegetables that you choose don’t matter. The way you cook and eat the vegetables matters much more. Cooking in olive oil is a common approach and tomatoes are often included when cooking vegetables.
Tomatoes are an interesting addition to this list, as they weren’t originally native to the Mediterranean region. You wouldn’t know that these days, as tomatoes have become a staple part of Mediterranean cooking.
Fresh tomatoes aren’t the only option either. Canned tomatoes and tomato paste also feature heavily. These options can be powerful for situations where there aren’t any fresh tomatoes on hand. Tomato paste also acts as a concentrated source of the beneficial compounds from tomatoes, including lycopene.
Grains have a mixed reputation these days, as they are high in carbs. But, carb content isn’t the only thing that influences whether or not a given food is healthy. In fact, some high carb foods can be good for you, while some low carb ones certainly are not.
Mediterranean eating generally avoids refined grains, which often means no white bread or white pasta. However, whole grains are a key aspect of the eating approach. This means you’ll be focusing on whole grain bread and pasta much of the time.
However, there are still many times where regular pasta and bread is used in Mediterranean eating. There is also plenty of variation depending on the region and situation. After all, people don’t tend to follow the exact same eating patterns all the time. There’s often variation.
We talked about legumes earlier, but chickpeas are particularly popular, so they’re worth talking about separately. Hummus is a very common way to use chickpeas, partly because it is easy to make and combines well with other ingredients.
However, there are many other ways to use chickpeas too. Chickpea salad is one common example and salads often use other Mediterranean ingredients, like feta and olives. Chickpeas can also be used in stews to create hearty meals.
Couscous is created from tiny balls of semolina flour that have been steamed. Couscous tends to be viewed as a grain and is treated as such for cooking. Yet, it’s more accurate to say that couscous is a type of pasta.
Regardless of what you call it, couscous is a popular choice for meals, partly because it cooks very fast. It also has a mild flavor, so you have plenty of control over the way that your meal ends up tasting. Plus, couscous is made from whole wheat flour, which helps matters too.
Still, couscous is often considered inferior to other options, as it contains relatively few nutrients and is high in carbs. You’ll get more benefits from an ancient grain like quinoa, although quinoa isn’t strongly linked to Mediterranean eating.
Herbs play a key role in Mediterranean eating. They help to add extra depth and flavor to meals. The exact herbs used vary by location, but some common ones include mint, garlic, basil, rosemary, oregano, and thyme.
If you’re new to Mediterranean cooking, the reliance on herbs may take a little while to get used to. Still, the end result is certainly worth the effort.
Nuts And Seeds
Nuts and seeds feature in many Mediterranean diets and have a long history in the region. After all, these are whole foods that contain plenty of healthy fats and protein – and whole foods tend to feature prominently in Mediterranean eating patterns.
The nuts and seeds often relied on are the same ones that you’ll find elsewhere, such as almonds, cashews, pumpkin seeds, pistachios, and walnuts. Chestnuts are surprisingly common as well.
Eggs feature in Mediterranean diets for the same reasons that you’ll see them in many other parts of the world – eggs are nutritious and they’re easy to use. They’re also a good way to make a meal more filling, especially if there isn’t much meat present.