International Cuisine - Mediterranean
The Mediterranean region runs far and wide but the basic culinary influences remain the same, from Italy to France, Spain, Greece and passing through Morocco, Syria, Lebanon all the way to Turkey, this region is rich with culture and food history. Since the produce remains essentially the same, even Arab nations have cuisines that are all about fresh flavours and a balance of tastes and textures. Their basics are all considered the most heart healthy foods today, olive oil, plenty of fresh greens and legumes and lentils that are rich in natural protein. With gourmet nations like France, Italy and Spain aside, smaller Mediterranean countries still eat simple, rustic foods that are sourced from the very region they live in. Roasted vegetables, fresh salads with fruits and nuts and desserts made with dough, honey and dried fruit are key components of this cuisine. There is plenty of balance between vegetarian and non vegetarian fare, even though part of this region is arid, preserved olives, fresh cheese made from goat or camel milk and unleavened breads make for healthy and hearty meals. Majority of the foods in a Mediterranean diet come from plants. From whole grains, fruits, vegetables, herbs and spices to beans, nuts, seeds, and olive oil are all foods there is a large focus on including seasonal fresh fruits and vegetables as well. Using herbs and spices allows you to cut back on added salt, sugar, and fat when cooking. Citrus juice is also a popular option for adding flavour to various dishes. Butter, margarine, and other solid fats are rarely used in cooking, the cooking medium of choice here is Olive oil which is a good source of monounsaturated fats, which are a type of healthy fat. A popular concept in Mediterranean cuisine is the concept of Mezze, which is a selection of small dishes served as a course or as appetizers before the main dish. Mezze can comprise a variety of dishes depending on the region, Arabs serve a lot of dips while Lebanese add a variety of fresh greens and Turkish mezze had a sweet savoury mix with lots of olives, nuts and fruit too.
- Falafel: Made with ground chickpeas or fava beans or both, these crispy fried patties or 'tikkis' are a street food staple in the Mediterranean region. A Vegetarian delight, this snack can be made into a meal by putting it in pita bread much like a variation of a 'vada pav' with a dressing made of hung curd and yogurt or plain hummus.
- Dolmas: Made across Greece, Turkey and Arab nations, Dolmas are made with deeply flavoured wine leaves which are preserved in brine which adds to the tanginess. The leaves are softened and cured and used as a wrap for seasoned rice. Dolmas can also be made with vegetables like aubergine, tomato or zucchini, by stuffing with rice and slow cooking to soften. These are served with condiments and can eaten both cold or warm.
- Shashlik: A great way to enjoy vegetables, a Shashlik is essentially any food that is skewered and cooked over a coal fire. Mediterranean shashlik usually includes tomatoes, zucchini, variety of bell peppers, cubed cottage cheese and even fruit to add more flavour and a touch of sweetness. Exotics like a variety of mushrooms add more to a shashlik. Sometimes the vegetables are marinated in olive oil, lemon juice, spices or herbs so that they absorb the flavour when grilled.
- Pilaf: Essentially a 'pulao', pilafs are a common side dish in Mediterranean meals. Since this region is so vast, they consume carbs in a variety of ways, from pastas and starch dense risottos to light leavened breads like pita and rice preparations like pilaf. Usually cooked in seasoned broth, pilafs are sometimes flavoured with whole spices with additions like vegetables, legumes and even beans and nuts. Garnished with rich dried fruits and a side of Mezze condiments like baba ghanoush, hummus and tzatziki.
- Cheese: The best cheese-producing countries in the world surround the Mediterranean Sea: Spain, France and Italy. But when it comes to 'Mediterranean cheese' it typically means a select group of eastern European and Middle Eastern cheeses, typically made from goat or sheep's milk and either pickled (in brine or olive) or fresh but not aged or matured. Choose from Feta, Goat Milk Cheese or String cheese made with a variation of Mozzarella. Because this region loves yogurt, the Labneh or hung curd cheese is very common too!
- Condiments: A classic Mediterranean Mezze or appetizer spread comprises of a variety of olives, cheese, fruit and dips. Dips are a good way to fortify a meal when you live in a region that is mostly desert and produce is limited. Also this cuisine has a lot of grilled, pan fried and dry foods that are best enjoyed with condiments. The most popular is Hummus, made with sesame paste of Tahina, garlic, olive oil and chickpeas. Now Greek Tzatziki made with yogurt and Lebanese Baba Ghanoush made with roasted eggplants are becoming popular all over the world.
The beauty of Mediterranean cuisine is that it uses both herbs and spices, making rich, fragrant dishes!
- Basil: Very common in France and Italy, this sweet and peppery herb is common across the Mediterranean region. Used raw or added few minutes before a dish is done cooking, basil is best enjoyed in salads, pastas and even in dips and with grills.
- Chives: Chives belong to the onion family but have a milder, more delicate flavor than onions. They are rich in vitamins A and C and complement salads and dressings, yogurt, egg, and pasta dishes, casseThey can be used both fresh and dried but are most delicious raw in salads. Chives add a touch of onion fragrance to bakes, stews, soups and even sauces.
- Bay Leaves: Bay leaves are the natural flora of this region and are used in plentiful especially for rice preparations. Just a leaf or two of bay impart a lot of aroma and flavour to soups, broths, stews and pilafs.
- Cilantro: Very similar to coriander, this is a strongly aromatic herb found in Southern Europe and the Middle/Far East. It has a slightly pungent flavour reminiscent of sage and lemon with the cooling after taste of fresh coriander. Cilantro is best used fresh but it is also dried and stored to sprinkle over salads and stews.
- Black Caraway Seeds: The peppery taste of black caraway (nigella seed) is enjoyed on flat breads and with lentils and vegetables and in spice blends and pickles. Texture wise, they also add a pleasant crunch to a preparation.
- Fennel: Mediterranean cooks often toast fennel seeds and serve them with seafood. Fennel seeds are commonly used in vegetable, grain and legume dishes and it adds a sweet, mild licorice flavour. It is also a component of soups, tomato sauces, cakes, pastries, breads, beverages, salads and dressings.
Common fruits & veggies:
- Cous Cous: Garlic's strong aroma and taste make it a powerful addition to any dish. Fresh garlic tends to have the most robust flavour, but garlic powder and even garlic salt taste great and are common key ingredients in everything from dips to seafood dishes in American cuisine.
- Olives: Lovers of olives find it hard to choose between Spanish and Italian varieties both of which have distinctive flavours and attributes but if you ask Greeks and Arabs, they will say their olives are the best. Olives are used to add flavour to a Mezze spread, they are cured in brine or olive oil and eaten as is with a variety of fruit, cheese and local breads.
- Arugula: Also called Rocket or Roquette leaves, this leaf is actually a herb with a peppery mustard flavor. Younger, smaller arugula is milder tasting and less bitter. Arugula has traditionally been used in Italian cuisines but is a popular component of greens served in a Mezze. It is also good with cheeses, sandwiches, chicken and salads, egg dishes, pasta and tomato dishes, and sautéed vegetables.
- Citrus Fruits: These fruits thrive in the Mediterranean climate, The entire region enjoy from oranges to clementines and use them in preserves, desserts and cooked savoury foods too. Citrus is used for salad dressings, sauce reductions and at time even grilled with other dishes to impart a fragrance to add to the smokiness.
- Aubergine: Also called eggplant, this fruit of the nightshade family comes in a variety of shapes, sizes and colours too. In Mediterranean cuisine, the large, round aubergines are roasted to make dips while the oblong ones are deseeded, stuffed and cooked usually in a tomato gravy. Since it is usually available all year round, it is extensively used, from Moussaka in Greek food to Baba Ghanoush which is a dip to famous Italian, Ratatouille.
- Vegit Falafel: Inspired by Mediterranean cuisine, Vegit Falafel brings together chickpeas, moong dal and semolina with a spice blend that's customized for the Indian palate.