Mediterranean cuisine

Mediterranean cuisine: an introduction

Looking for a bit of sun and some Mediterranean cuisine? The region has a hugely diverse culinary landscape that can be a little overwhelming to navigate. In this guide, I cover an introduction to Mediterranean cuisine so you get an idea of the ingredients, flavours, and cooking styles, as well as where to travel to try it.

The Mediterranean region is not only renowned for its stunning landscapes, rich history, and vibrant culture but also for its exceptional cuisine. For many, a big part of the appeal of a holiday abroad is the opportunity to immerse themselves in the local cuisine – indeed, it’s becoming more common to book trips specifically to focus on food and wine. There are few more perfect holiday destinations for a foodie than the Mediterranean. From Greece to Spain, Italy to Turkey, the Mediterranean boasts a diverse culinary landscape that celebrates fresh, seasonal ingredients, bold flavours, and wholesome cooking techniques. To experience all the best spots, a Mediterranean cruise might be the perfect way to satisfy your taste for adventure. In this article, I’ll take you on a culinary journey to explore the best of Mediterranean cuisine and just why it’s so popular from my own experiences.

What is Mediterranean cuisine?

Mediterranean cuisine is not just a style of cooking; it’s a way of life – a celebration of fresh, vibrant ingredients, bold flavours, and wholesome eating. Originating from the countries that border the Mediterranean Sea, the cuisine reflects the diverse cultures, climates, and landscapes of the region. Unlike some other cuisines, the Mediterranean refers to the cooking patterns shared by a diverse range of nations living in the region around the Mediterranean Sea. While it might imply that all the cuisine is similar, there’s a lot of variety in the cooking found in this region. Here are a few characteristics that summarise Mediterranean cuisine:

  • Fresh, seasonal ingredients – be it ripe tomatoes, fragrant herbs, or succulent seafood, Mediterranean dishes are characterized by the use of high-quality, locally sourced produce.
  • Heavy influence of olive oil – olive oil is a cornerstone in Mediterranean cuisine from drizzling on salads to marinating meats, thanks to its rich flavour and health benefits.
  • Bold, diverse flavours – whether it’s the smoky flavour of grilled meat, tangy notes of citrus, or the earthy richness of roasted vegetables, Mediterranean cuisine has a symphony of flavours and textures.
  • Wholesome, balanced eating – with an abundance of fresh fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean proteins, Mediterranean dishes are not only delicious but also nutritious. The Mediterranean diet has also been linked to numerous health benefits.
  • Shared meals and hospitality – Mediterranean tradition celebrates shared moments and hospitality, and the warmth of dining is as important to the experience as the food itself.
Mediterranean cuisine

Where to try Mediterranean cuisine

If you’re travelling to the Mediterranean region, here are some top destinations to try Mediterranean cuisine:

  • Greece. Wander through the streets of Athens or the picturesque islands of Santorini and Mykonos to discover tavernas serving traditional Greek dishes like moussaka, souvlaki, Greek salad (horiatiki), spanakopita (spinach pie), and baklava.
  • Italy. Indulge in the incredible culinary delights of Italy, from the pizza margherita and pasta of Naples to the fresh seafood of the Amalfi Coast and the rustic Tuscan fare of Florence. When I visited Rome, I had a cacio e pepe dish that I simply haven’t stopped thinking about since!
  • Spain. Experience the vibrant flavours of Spanish cuisine in cities like Barcelona, Madrid, and Seville, where you can sample tapas (like patatas bravas and tortilla española), paella, and savoury jamón ibérico.
  • Turkey. Explore the bustling markets and street food stalls of Istanbul to taste Turkish delights such as kebabs, kofta, börek (stuffed pastries), mezzes, and baklava.
  • Morocco. Immerse yourself in the exotic spices and flavours of Moroccan cuisine in cities like Marrakech and Fez, where you can savour tagines, couscous, and mint tea.

Which ingredients are commonly used in Mediterranean cuisine?

There are a number of staple ingredients that form Mediterranean cuisine – all of which are thanks to the geography and weather in the area.

  • Olive oil – extra virgin olive oil is a cornerstone in Mediterranean cuisine, used for everything from sautéing and grilling to dressing salads and dipping bread.
  • Fresh produce – this is crucial. In Mediterranean cooking, you’ll discover an abundance of fruits, vegetables, and herbs that thrive in the Mediterranean climate, including tomatoes, aubergines, courgettes, peppers, lemons, oregano, basil, and parsley.
  • Grains and legumes – a lot of whole grains like bulgur, couscous, and farro, as well as legumes such as chickpeas, lentils, and beans, are incorporated into Mediterranean cuisine for added fibre and protein.
  • Seafood – thanks to the Mediterranean’s close proximity to the sea, it is little surprise a variety of fish and shellfish is in the diet, including salmon, tuna, sardines, shrimp, and mussels.
  • Cheese and yogurt – indulge in the creamy textures and tangy flavours of Mediterranean cheeses, including feta, halloumi, and ricotta, as well as yogurt, which is often used as a refreshing accompaniment or as a base for sauces and dips.
Moroccan tagine

How is food flavoured in the Mediterranean?

This will vary slightly, depending on where in the Mediterranean you find yourself, but on the whole, the following flavourful seasonings and spices are heavily utilised in Mediterranean cuisine:

  • Garlic – a staple in Mediterranean cuisine, garlic adds depth and aroma to dishes, whether minced, roasted, or sautéed.
  • Herbs – you’ll often find a variety of fresh and dried herbs like rosemary, thyme, sage, mint, and dill, which enhance the flavour profile of Mediterranean dishes.
  • Spices – Mediterranean cooking is characterised by warm and aromatic spices, such as cumin, coriander, paprika, cinnamon, and saffron, which add complexity and richness to the dishes.

Wherever you end up stopping on a trip around the Mediterranean, you should make sure you try at least one of that country’s most beloved dishes. That might mean enjoying an authentic Spanish paella on the shores of Valencia or an iconic bouillabaisse – a flavourful, herby seafood stew from France – as you pass through Marseille. Turkish food is among the cuisines most Brits want to try and it’s earned that position well with treats like manti, delicious lamb or beef dumplings covered in a spicy yoghurt sauce.

Which cooking techniques are used?

You’ll find the following cooking techniques commonly used in Mediterranean cuisine:

  • Grilling – grilling is often used to impart smoky flavours and charred textures to meats, seafood, vegetables, and even fruits, a popular cooking method in Mediterranean cuisine.
  • Roasting – roasting brings out the natural sweetness and caramelisation of ingredients, whether it’s vegetables, meats, or even whole fish, creating tender and flavourful dishes.
  • Braising and stewing – slow-cooked meats, poultry, and legumes in aromatic broths and sauces are commonly discovered in Mediterranean cuisine to infuse them with rich flavours and tenderise them to perfection.
  • Pickling and preserving – seasonal produce is often preserved by pickling vegetables, in fruit preserves, and in curing meats, a traditional practice in Mediterranean households.

How does the Mediterranean lifestyle feed into the cuisine?

The Mediterranean lifestyle is well known for being relatively relaxed, and even one of the healthiest in the world. A typical Mediterranean lifestyle includes the following:

  • Family meals – it is very typically Mediterranean to gather around the table with family and friends to enjoy leisurely meals filled with laughter, conversation, and shared dishes.
  • Seasonal eating – Mediterraneans embrace the rhythm of the seasons by incorporating fresh, seasonal produce into meals and adapting cooking to reflect the harvest of each season.
  • Moderation – it is common to practice mindful eating and moderation, savouring each bite and enjoying food in the company of loved ones without overindulging.
  • Active lifestyles – Mediterranean cuisine is balanced with an active lifestyle, incorporating physical activity into daily routine to stay healthy and energised.
Italian spaghetti

Must-visit foodie spots in the Mediterranean

Exploring the culinary wonders of the Mediterranean is a feast for the senses, with each country offering its own unique flavours, ingredients, and traditions. There are world-renowned restaurants and markets all over the region, and any one of the following I’d say could even be the highlight of your trip overseas. For many, the opportunity to dine at Sublimotion – the most expensive restaurant in the world, with prices running into four digits per person – would be reason alone to stop in Ibiza. Iconic eateries elsewhere in the Mediterranean include L’Opera, the bustling nightclub/restaurant hybrid in St Tropez, and Ravello’s Palazzo Avino with its stunning views of Italy’s Amalfi Coast. Whether you’re a seasoned foodie or simply passionate about good food, here are some must-visit spots in the Mediterranean where you can indulge in unforgettable culinary experiences:

Athens, Greece

  • Central Market (Varvakios Agora): dive into the bustling atmosphere of Athens’ central market, where vendors sell a colourful array of fresh produce, meats, cheeses, and seafood. Sample local delicacies like feta cheese, olives, and loukoumades (Greek donuts) as you wander through the vibrant stalls.
  • Psirri and Plaka Districts: explore the charming neighbourhoods of Psirri and Plaka, known for their traditional tavernas and cosy eateries serving authentic Greek cuisine. Savour classic dishes like moussaka, souvlaki, and spanakopita while soaking in the lively ambiance of these historic districts.

Bologna, Italy

  • Mercato di Mezzo: discover the gastronomic delights of Bologna’s Mercato di Mezzo, a covered food market offering a tantalising selection of fresh produce, meats, cheeses, and gourmet specialties. Don’t miss the chance to sample traditional dishes like tagliatelle al ragù (bolognese pasta) and tortellini en brodo (stuffed pasta in broth).
  • Osteria del Sole: step back in time at Osteria del Sole, one of Bologna’s oldest taverns, where you can enjoy a glass of local wine and a plate of cicchetti (small snacks) in a vibrant atmosphere filled with history and charm.

Barcelona, Spain

  • La Boqueria Market: lose yourself in the sensory overload of La Boqueria, Barcelona’s iconic food market located on La Rambla. Browse the stalls overflowing with fresh fruits, seafood, meats, and spices, and indulge in a culinary adventure that spans Catalan classics like paella, pintxos, and seafood tapas.
  • El Born District: wander through the cobblestone streets of Barcelona’s El Born district, home to a wealth of trendy cafes, tapas bars, and gourmet restaurants. Sample innovative takes on traditional Catalan cuisine and sip on locally produced vermouth as you soak in the vibrant atmosphere of this historic neighbourhood.

Istanbul, Turkey

  • Grand Bazaar: immerse yourself in the vibrant chaos of Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar, one of the world’s largest and oldest covered markets. Navigate the labyrinthine alleyways lined with spice shops, tea houses, and Turkish delight stalls, and sample a dazzling array of sweets, baklava, and kebabs.
  • Karaköy and Kadıköy: explore Istanbul’s hip neighbourhoods of Karaköy and Kadıköy, where trendy cafes, street food vendors, and seafood restaurants abound. Feast on mezzes, köfte (meatballs), and fresh fish sandwiches as you take in the sights and sounds of these eclectic districts.

Marrakech, Morocco:

  • Jemaa el-Fnaa: experience the sensory spectacle of Marrakech’s Jemaa el-Fnaa square, a bustling hub of activity where street performers, storytellers, and food stalls converge. Sample Moroccan specialties like tagine, couscous, and pastilla (savoury pie) while immersing yourself in the vibrant energy of this iconic square.
  • Riad dining: indulge in a traditional Moroccan feast at a riad, a traditional guesthouse with a courtyard garden. Enjoy a multi-course meal of mezze, couscous, and slow-cooked tagines, accompanied by mint tea and sweet pastries, in an intimate and atmospheric setting.

distinctions in Mediterranean cuisine

Although there are similarities across Mediterranean cuisine, there are some distinctions between the different areas and cultures. Generally speaking, there are a few different regions across the Mediterranean:

  • Eastern Mediterranean – this cuisine has some similarities to Middle Eastern cuisine, covering Greece, Turkey, and the other countries in this region. Common foods include fresh cheese like feta, halloumi, and yogurt as part of sauces. You’ll find a lot of mint, citrus, and parsley in the cuisine, as well as rice or flatbreads including pitta. Lamb, mutton, and poultry are common, often grilled in kebabs or gyros.
  • Southern Europe – cuisine found in Italy, the South of France, and Spain contain specific ingredients that make the cooking distinctive. Wine is a key ingredient in southern European cuisine, both on its own and as a flavour enhancer in cooking. Pork is eaten more in these countries than elsewhere in the region, as are tomatoes, garlic, capers, and anchovies. Pasta, rice, and leavened bread are also common.
  • North Africa – key characteristics of North African cuisine include the use of spices, like cumin, coriander, saffron, cinnamon, cloves, chillies, saffron, and paprika. You’ll also find harissa and ras el hanout – especially in Morocco – which add a kick in stews and sauces. Dried fruit is often in abundance, as well as preserved lemons and couscous. When it comes to meat, lamb, mutton, and goat are predominant. Tagine is probably the best well known dish in North Africa.

Mediterranean cuisine experiences 

If you’re intrigued by the prospect of getting more involved in Mediterranean cuisine, there are so many ways to get closer to it than just via the dishes. I really recommend specialist cooking classes with local experts to learn how to make iconic dishes the authentic way, or to visit one of the region’s many incredible wineries. As well as giving you the chance to enjoy exploring some really beautiful settings, taking the time to explore farms and vineyards will give you a greater appreciation for your meals when you sit down for dinner in the evening. It’s a great ingredient for a fulfilling holiday.

How to bring home a taste of the Med 

Your culinary exploration shouldn’t have to end when you return home, either. Write down or record what you’ve learned on your travels to better retain it to try yourself, and make sure to pick up some local ingredients that you can transport back safely. I’m forever doing this on my travels – saffron from Turkey, pasta from Italy, and olive oil from Spain. Some things just don’t taste the same when you buy them back at home! Items that come in bottles and jars tend to be easier to pack in suitcases, as they can be wrapped securely with towels or clothes to fit snugly into available space, but you can even bring back some perishable items if you freeze them before packing in a zip-lock bag with some dry ice. 

Mediterranean cuisine: FAQs

Here are some of the most common questions about Mediterranean cuisine:

What kind of food is Mediterranean cuisine?

Mediterranean cuisine is characterised by fresh, seasonal ingredients including olive oil, vegetables, fruits, grains, seafood, and lean meats like chicken and lamb. Herbs and spices like garlic, oregano, basil, and mint are commonly used to enhance the flavours of dishes. Dishes often include salads, grilled meats, hummus, falafel, couscous, and various types of flatbreads. Overall, Mediterranean cuisine offers a balance of flavours and healthy eating inspired by the culinary traditions of countries surrounding the Mediterranean Sea.

What are examples of Mediterranean dishes?

Examples of Mediterranean dishes include Greek salad (horiatiki), Italian pasta dishes like spaghetti alle vongole (with clams), Spanish paella, Moroccan tagine, Lebanese tabbouleh, Turkish kebabs, and French ratatouille. These dishes often feature fresh vegetables, olive oil, herbs, spices, seafood, and grains, reflecting the diverse culinary traditions of the Mediterranean region.

Which countries offer Mediterranean cuisine?

Countries that offer Mediterranean cuisine include Greece, Italy, Spain, Morocco, Turkey, Lebanon, Syria, Tunisia, Egypt, Cyprus, and France (particularly regions like Provence). These countries border the Mediterranean Sea and share common culinary traditions characterised by the abundant use of olive oil, fresh vegetables, seafood, grains, and aromatic herbs and spices.

Identifying the single most popular Mediterranean dish depends on personal preferences and regional variations. Some of the most popular Mediterranean dishes, however, include Greek moussaka, Italian pasta dishes like spaghetti alla carbonara or lasagna, Spanish paella, Lebanese hummus, Turkish kebabs, and Moroccan tagine. These dishes are celebrated for their flavours, cultural significance, and widespread appeal both within their respective countries and internationally.

By embracing the principles of Mediterranean cuisine – fresh ingredients, bold flavours, and wholesome cooking – you can embark on a culinary journey that nourishes both body and soul. So, who else is booking a trip to one of these regions to enjoy the vibrant and delicious world of Mediterranean cuisine? Buon appetito!

That’s my introduction to Mediterranean cuisine for you! I hope you found it helpful. If you have any other questions, feel free to drop them in the comments below and I’ll do my best to answer them.

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