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Mediterranean food is home to some of the world’s most loved and iconic dishes. Many also believe this diverse cuisine is the key to a healthy life.
Mediterranean food’s geography, history, and recipes are also far greater than many people are aware of. So, if you’re curious to find out more, you’ve come to the right place.
Prepare for tingling tastebuds as we take an epic culinary journey through this beautiful region and explore 20 of its most delicious foods.
Simply put, Mediterranean food comes from all of the countries and regions that surround the Mediterranean Sea.
Today, 23 countries are classed as Mediterranean countries. All bring a unique range of flavors and techniques to Mediterranean cuisine.
Where to find Mediterranean food
Essentially, you can split Mediterranean cuisine into three culinary regions. These are:
Naturally, all three heavily influence each other. But each region’s climate and cultural differences have allowed them all to develop similar yet differing cuisines.
The Eastern Mediterranean cuisine largely includes Balkan, Greek, Turkish, Syrian, Lebanese, Israeli, Palestine, and Egyptian foods.
The Southern European region covers Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, and Southern French foods.
Across the sea, the North African influence on Mediterranean food comes from Moroccan, Algerian, Tunisian, and Libyan cuisines.
Important ingredients of Mediterranean food
Mediterranean food is full of fresh vegetables, tender meats, and a wide range of tastes.
Experts however have defined three core ingredients that all the different regions have essentially built their cuisines on: olives, wheat, and grapes.
1 – Olives
Olives have been grown in the Persian region for thousands of years. Today, a staggering 95% of the world’s olives are grown in the Mediterranean area.
This has led to olive oil becoming synonymous with Mediterranean cooking, and the go-to cooking agent over butter, fats, and other oils.
2 – Wheat
Records of wheat being grown in the Eastern Mediterranean area date back nearly 10,000 years.
This is why bread is such a vital ingredient to the Mediterranean cuisine, which, in time, led to other wheat-based foods, such as Italian pasta.
3 – Grapes
Lastly, there’s a reason wine is the drink of choice for many Mediterranean countries: grapes.
Persia’s position near the Black Sea provided the perfect climate to grow grapes. Evidence suggests grapes have been grown there for at least 8000 years.
But it was the Italians, several centuries before the birth of Christ, that first began using grapes to make wine.
Today, grape production here is pretty much only for wine. And nearly 40% of the world’s wine comes from Mediterranean countries.
Now that we have our bearings and a little context, let’s dive into 20 of the Mediterranean region’s most scrumptious foods.
With its puffy texture and soothing taste, pita is one of the world’s most well-known and loved breads.
This rounded flatbread, made from wheat flour, has been wrapping around delicacies in the Middle East for millennia.
Pita has evolved through the ages from some of the earliest recorded flatbreads, roughly 15,000 years ago.
It originates from the Fertile Crescent, an area of the Middle East spanning northern Egypt across to the Persian Gulf.
It was the Greeks, however, that really put pita on the map. The term ‘pita’ first entered the English language in the 1930s.
Pita gets its iconic ‘puffed’ look from being baked at very high temperatures, up to 475°F. This evaporates the water in the dough to steam.
This allows it to be used as a yummy pocket for a wide range of delicious foods.
However, some cuisines (such as the Greek cuisine), prefer the pocket-less pita. They bake it at lower temperatures, creating a flatter, rounder pita.
Pita is very much the ‘popular kid’ at the school of Mediterranean cuisine. It pairs with so many delicious foods.
Greeks love to dip it in rich sauces like hummus. Turkish people stuff it full of tender meat for their beloved kebabs. Cypriots layer its warm insides with soft halloumi.
In Palestine, it’s the perfect bread for a wholesome breakfast of hummus, pickled vegetables, and falafel.
Wherever your Mediterranean adventure takes you, you’re almost certain to see pita in a wide range of exciting recipes. Bread for all seasons!
Rich and fused with intense flavor, few Mediterranean foods console the stomach as well as a delicious moussaka.
This baked eggplant and ground meat casserole was made popular by Greek cuisine during the 1920s.
However, its origins date much further back, to Levant. This region to the east of the Mediterranean Sea includes Turkey, Lebanon, and Israel, among others.
The traditional recipe mixes the juiciness of sauteed eggplant and ripe tomatoes with minced lamb.
Nikolaos Tselementes, a French-trained Greek chef, was the man who made moussaka one of the most famous Greek dishes.
His approach to layering moussaka is the widly used recipe today.
Commonly, the bottom layer consists of layered eggplant and plenty of olive oil.
The middle layer is the meat layer, pairing minced lamb with a range of delicious vegetables and seasonings.
Lastly, a top layer of Béchamel, or white sauce, brings the whole moussaka together. Nikolaos Tselementes would prepare the three layers separately and then bake them together.
With Greece under Turkish rule, Tselementes’ inclusion of the classic French Béchamel sauce was his way of trying to rid the dish of Turkish influence.
Moussaka is loved across the Mediterranean in a wide range of recipes. Filling and flavorful, it’s a dish for all occasions.
The Mediterranean climate allows for some truly ripe and juicy vegetables and fruit to be grown.
Just waltz through a Greek, Turkish, or Italian food market, and you’ll be amazed at the size and vibrant color of the fruit and vegetables.
Plus, in the searing heat, often a cold and refreshing salad is the order of the day.
It’s imagined that a Greek salad was the result of farmers in rural areas preparing a quick meal with the food they had on hand.
The Greek salad traditionally combines chopped tomato, cucumber, bell pepper, and olives, fresh from the ground or markets.
Its defining feature is feta cheese. Traditionally, a slice was used to coat the salad ingredients. Now, you can find salads with cubed or crumbled feta.
Drizzle the salad with olive oil and season generously, and you have a refreshing salad at the beating heart of Greek cuisine.fdd023
Baklava is an utterly divine and multi-textured pastry dessert, originating from Turkey during the Ottoman Empire’s rule.
It sandwiches beds of crushed nuts between layers of filo pastry, and it fuses these layers together with sweet honey syrup.
Baklava’s pastry layers have a flakey and buttery texture. This crunch, combined with the thick, sweet texture of the honey, is an exquisite bite.
Pistachios in Turkey and walnuts in Greece are the commonly used nuts. But many other crushed nuts have been used in Baklava recipes.
Served chilled, it’s a perfect slice of heaven to follow dinner on a warm Mediterranean evening.
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Dolmas are a very important family of Mediterranean foods. The act of stuffing vegetables with hearty foods has been practiced for centuries.
Dolmas are believed to originate from the Middle East. Stuffed vegetable recipes have been documented in Arabic cookbooks long before the Ottoman Empire.
Countries in the East Mediterranean and Middle East regions all have very different takes on Dolmas.
In Turkey, you’ll find vibrant, roasted eggplant stuffed with ground lamb and hearty rice, rich with spices and splashed with lemon.
Head north to the Balkans, and you’ll find sogan dolmasi in Bosnia.
This recipe stuffs peeled onions with minced beef, rice, generous seasonings, and sour cream.
To the east, in Syria, Iraq, and Armenia, you’ll find balls of spiced and cinnamon-infused rice wrapped snuggly in vine leaves.
As Mediterranean foods go, dolma is one of the most historically significant. It shows how innovative and resourceful you can be with simple ingredients.
Borek was a true favorite of the Ottoman Empire. Its name is believed to be derived from the Turkish word bur, ‘to twist’.
And the first thing you’ll notice about this flavor-filled baked pastry is its twisting, spiral shape.
Borek is traditionally made with filo or yufka pastry. It’s baked in a large pan and then cut into slices once ready.
In other regions of the Mediterranean, its baked as individual, bite-sized pieces.
As for the fillings, Mediterranean countries all have their own delicious take on this wonderful dish.
Turkey’s Su böreği, a popular variation, has a creamy mixture of feta cheese and parsley between the layers of flaky pastry.
In Armenia, thick cheeses, spinach, or ground beef are the order of the day. Greece has even created a dessert borek, filled with citrus flavors.
Borek’s influence can be found as far as the Balkans, North Africa, and even West and Central Asia. It’s a Mediterranean food of the people, for sure.
We’ve explored some truly hearty foods to this point. So let’s take a look at one of Mediterranean food’s most beloved appetizer dishes.
Mezze comes from the Persian language, literally meaning ‘to taste’.
Mezze itself is not a food, but a collection of small dishes and appetizers, varying from country to country.
Turkish mezze encompasses a spectrum of delicious flavors. These include sliced melon, pepper and walnut sauce, and fried calamari.
Tabbouleh, hummus, and baba ghanoush are much-loved mezze dishes as well.
These are just a few of a humongous list of foods. In Greece and Cyprus, foods like fava beans and grilled cheeses are beloved mezze dishes.
Mezze serves two differing purposes, depending on the region you eat it in.
In Turkey, Greece, and the Balkans, mezze is an appetizer that’s widely served at social gatherings where people are drinking alcohol.
Plenty of alcoholic drinks, like rakia and Cyprus brandy, go hand-in-hand with the diverse tastes of mezze.
In the Muslim Mediterranean regions, where alcohol is not drank, mezze is eaten as a main course.
Our next stop takes us to Lebanon and a multi-layered salad that’s at the core of Levantine cuisine: Fattoush salad.
‘Fattoush’ as a word comes from the Arabic word fatt, meaning ‘to crush’. Fattoush, like Greek salad, is another example of Mediterranean resourcefulness.
It is believed Lebanese farmers would gather up any scraps of pita bread they had remaining.
Then, they would fry them in oil and simply throw them into a salad of vegetables they had on hand.
This recipe became wildly popular throughout the Levant region. Many variations of it exist throughout the countries of the region.
Today, a classic Fattoush salad will utilize freshly chopped cucumbers, lettuce, tomatoes, onions, and radish.
A little spring of mint or a dash of lemon helps add an extra layer to the warm dough and the crisp vegetables of the salad.
A true Mediterranean delight and one of its most simple but diverse foods.
Time now to head into North Africa and put the spotlight on one of the most well-known foods of vegetarian cuisine: falafel.
Falafel is a simple yet delicious recipe. Each ball is made of a mixture of mashed chickpeas and various herbs and spices.
These little bitesize treats are rolled into small patties. They are then deep-fried and served alone or as part of a larger meal or meze.
The origins of falafel are fuzzy. It’s believed they date back to ancient Egypt, designed as a simple snack to replace meat during fasting.
Lava beans were originally used in falafel. But as this food made its way north into the Middle East, chickpeas soon replaced lava beans.
In Mediterranean food, you’ll find them nestled in fresh salads, pita sandwiches, and dipped in a range of tasty sauces, like tahini.
A Mediterranean dish with a rich history and a wide range of varied recipes, the Moroccan tagine is essentially a Mediterranean stew.
The word ‘tagine’ however refers to the style of cooking, in a large and shallow pot over high heat, rather than referring to the ingredients.
Tagine dates back to the 9th century, when much of North Africa and Levant was conquered by Arabic ruler Harun al-Rashid and his armies.
Moroccan tagine covers a vast selection of recipes, both meat-based and vegetarian. The sweet and savory fusions are what make tagine so alluring.
Spices are rife in Moroccan tagine. You’ll commonly find the taste of cinnamon, saffron, and ginger, among others, in these recipes.
Then, there’s the fusion of native fruits with classic savory ingredients. One classic Moroccon tagine pairs succulent lamb with prunes or apricots.
All of this deliciousness soaks in a broth of fresh vegetables and spices. Moroccan tagine has wild and audacious flavors, that often bend the mind.
Bold, rich, and outrageously delicious, this is a Mediterranean food to add to the foodie bucket list.
Believed to have been brought to the Mediterranean by Tunisian Jews, shakshuka takes poached eggs to an entirely new level.
Shakshouka starts out life as a ripe and rich base sauce, made of juicy tomatoes, peppers, onions, and a good drizzling of olive oil.
As with many North African foods, spices are plentiful. The flavors of paprika, nutmeg, cumin, and pepper are all prominent in the sauce.
Atop this bubbling stew, poached eggs are planted. These eggs are heavily seasoned with spices to further intensify the flavor.
These types of tomato-based stews have been eaten in the Middle East for centuries. The Ottoman Empire, in particular, ate many variations of shakshuka.
Traditionally, it’s served in an iron pan, similar to a tagine. This helps keep shakshuka piping hot while you eat it.
If it has fava beans, you can almost guarantee it’s a food from Egypt. Ful Medames is an Egyptian favorite, and its inception dates back thousands of years.
Essentially, Ful Medames is a fava bean stew. But there’s so much more to this wholesome staple than just delicious fava beans.
A number of flavors are common in Ful Medames. Both the zest of lemon juice and the heat of chili peppers are added for plenty of kick.
Cumin, garlic, parsley, and onion all find their way into the stew, along with other vegetables.
Once cooked, Ful Medames pairs with a wide range of sides.
Egyptians enjoy this stew with vegetable oil, hard-boiled eggs, or cured beef, among many others.
It’s believed the core recipe has barely changed from the recipe used in ancient Egypt.
Naturally, this simple but wholesome stew found its way across North Africa and to the Middle East. It’s enjoyed in many countries.
Perfect for both breakfast or a main course, Ful Medames is a Mediterranean food not to be missed.
Couscous is such a simple Mediterranean food, but its influence throughout the region, and across the world, has been astronomical.
It’s believed couscous first came from Morocco and Algeria in the 11th century.
North African immigrants eventually brought the dish to France, where it’s popularity spread like wildfire.
The craft of making couscous is a fascinating one. Put simply, couscous is made of thousands of tiny balls of crushed semonlina.
Semolina are the excess grains that come from durum wheat, that are not classed as flour.
To make couscous, semolina is sprayed with water, then rolled by hand into tiny balls. Finally, its sprinkled with flour, then drained by sieve.
And where do we even begin with eating couscous? It can be found in salads, with vegetables, in stews, and in some places even as a dessert.
Couscous is yet another example of Mediterranean food’s incredible simplicity. Developing national dishes from leftover grains is quite an achievement!
Via North Africa, we’ve now reached France. While northern France is associated with European cuisine, southern France is very much a part of the Mediterranean region.
That leads up quite nicely to ratatouille. This flavorsome vegetable stew is one of the hallmarks of French cuisine, and it’s loved across the globe.
Ratatouille comes from Nice. The first recipes date back to 1877, but the modern recipe gained fame during the 1930s.
This ratatouille is built on a rich base of tomato stew. Slices or chunks of eggplant, bell peppers, and zucchini provide vibrant colors and fresh flavors.
Into the stew also go generous amounts of garlic and onion. The broth is then flavored with basil, thyme, and a number of other herbs.
Old-school French chefs believe the true way to make ratatouille is by cooking the vegetables separately, then adding them into a big pot.
Ratatouille is cooked slowly, to attain a thick, creamy texture. This also allows the flavors to seep into the liquid.
French cuisine needs no introduction. But ratatouille’s influences and ingredients make it an iconic Mediterranean food.
But our time in Nice is not over just yet. There’s another Mediterranean food from this city with global recognition: niçoise salad.
This fresh and vibrant salad, as with many Mediterranean recipes, started out life as food eaten by poor people.
In Nice throughout the 1800s, a dish of tomatoes and anchovies, splashed with olive oil, was an easy-to-prepare meal for the city’s poorest.
In time, the salad found its way into restaurants and began to evolve. By the 1900s, the salad was rife a range of new and exciting ingredients.
Today, the classic salade niçoise stays true to the core ingredients of tomato, anchovies, and olives.
Common as a tossed salad, you’ll also find a range of fresh and crisp vegetables, like peppers and shallots.
This is then topped with either pieces of hard-boiled egg, or a spread of canned tuna, drizzled in olive oil and seasoned generously.
Described by many as the perfect summer salad, salade niçoise is a wonderful dish for a warm Mediterranean day.
Our journey continues along the coast down to Valencia, and to a dish that’s been a bedrock of Spanish cuisine for centuries.
Paella fuses delicious meat and vegetables with a particular type of rounded rice, iconic with the paella recipe.
As with many Mediterranean foods, it was Middle Eastern settlers who first introduced Spain to this type of rice in the 10th century.
But paella as we love and know today was created much later. Its origins can be traced back to the rural areas surrounding Valencia in the 19th century.
Paella’s appeal is in the way it’s cooked. The ingredients are cooked slowly in a circular, shallow pan over an open fire.
Paella dishes can be humungous in size. For large Spanish gatherings and families, it’s the perfect meal to feed so many mouths.
Lashings of olive oil cook the rice, giving it that crisp, golden color. Saffron and rosemary are used to season the recipe.
Traditionally, tender cuts of rabbit, chicken, or duck were used. With Valencia being so close to the coastline, in time seafood was used.
This brand of paella, cooking seafood like muscles and shrimp, along with other beloved meats like chorizo, has become wildly popular.
Paella is a Mediterranean food with so much character. It’s wholesome, delicious, and keeps you coming back for more.
Let’s stay in Spain, and take a look at another food that’s a huge part of Spanish culture: tapas.
The idea of spreads and appetizers served together dates back to Roman times.
But, tapas as we know and love today was first introduced in the 18th century by Spanish innkeepers.
At the time, many travelers were staying at their inns. Naturally, the innkeepers wanted to offer them food.
But due to language barriers and other factors, the innkeepers struggled to communicate with travelers.
So, they would put out a table of different appetizers. This way, the travelers could pick and choose what they liked.
Today, tapas encompasses flavors from the deepest seas to the highest mountains.
From cold meats to soft cheeses, smoked chorizo to battered squid, there’s a taste for everyone.
Mediterranean food is much more than just food. It’s a huge part of social activity and culture. Nothing sums this up more than tapas bars.
If you’re not ready to leave Spain, our article on Spanish food will give you plenty more must-try foods to explore.
This is food that needs no introduction. To stay true to the Mediterranean roots though, we need to travel back to 16th-century Naples, Italy.
Through the years, oil, tomatoes, or even fish were added to the top of flatbreads, which at the time were being referred to as ‘pizza’.
A poor person’s food at the time, the diversity in recipes slowly evolved through the years.
And in 1889, it is believed chef Raffaele Esposito, a talented Neapolitan pizzamaker, gave birth to the very first pizza margherita.
To honor Margherita of Savoy, the Queen consort, he developed a pizza with mozzarella cheese, tomatoes, and basil as the toppings.
These three ingredients were used to represent the colors of Italy: white, red, and green.
Wonderful pizza can be found across Italy. But if you can visit Naples and order yourself a rustic, stonebaked pizza, you’re truly in for a treat.
Pizza margherita fuses many of the iconic Mediterranean tastes. A wholesome wheat-bread base, juicy vegetables, soft cheese, and plenty of olive oil.
Hailing from northern Italy, risotto is a simple and wholesome rich dish, that has been eaten for centuries.
The key to risotto is in the broth, in which the rice cooks. Both cook together until a thicker, creamier consistency is achieved.
Through the years, many flavors of risotto have been created and curated.
Common risotto recipes see parmesan cheese, onions, wine, and butter all cooked in the broth with rice.
Legend has it that in 19th century Italy, a chef’s apprentice added saffron to a rice dish at a large wedding.
For those who believe the tale, this is credited as the very first ‘risotto’.
Today, you can find risotto with a range of different flavors and tastes. Mushroom risotto is a signature at many Italian restaurants.
Finally, in a region responsible for nearly 40% of world exports, how could we not mention the drink adored by the masses: wine.
Wine production has been a Mediterranean craft for millennia. First, it was Persia, thousands of years ago.
Greece and Cyprus were making wine several thousands of years later. Next came Spain.
Its commercialization and distribution was thanks to Italy, in the 9th century. And several centuries later, France began producing wine.
From Veneto in Italy to Thrace in Greece. From Bordeaux in France to Mallorca in Spain. There is just so much amazing wine to try.
When traveling through these countries, always ask small restaurant owners for their recommendations.
There will always be local wines, made in a nearby region, that are absolutely delicious but relatively unknown.
Despite not being a ‘food’, few would disagree that wine arguably defines Mediterranean cuisine better than any food.
Mediterranean wine is rich, comforting, and full of flavor. But more importantly, it’s more than just food and drink.
Wine sums up Mediterranean cuisine perfectly. It’s a way of life. It’s about nature’s finest ingredients. Being with friends and family. Enjoying life.
That was quite the adventure, I’m sure we can all agree. From hearty Balkan staples to Ancient Egyptian practices, we’ve covered so much.
As we’ve seen, Mediterranean food is much more than Italian food and olive oil. There’s an incredible number of countries that influence it.
For people of the Mediterranean, food is their culture, passion, and way of life.
Whether your travels take you through along the Moroccan coast or down the beautiful beaches of the Balkans, great food will always be around you.
Here’s to Mediterranean cuisine. Its flavor, its diversity, and its ability to bring friends, family, and total strangers together.
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