Mediterranean food is as beloved as it is delicious, making the most of fresh ingredients that grow well in the Mediterranean climate or can be sourced from the surrounding land and sea.
From refined French delicacies to exotic Levantine flavors, Spain to Egypt and beyond, there are plenty of different Mediterranean cuisines to choose from, including well-known favorites such as Italian and Greek, to lesser-known Maghrebi and Ottoman.
This guide offers an introduction to Mediterranean food, encompassing a brief overview of Mediterranean cuisine and diet, a breakdown of different regions, as well as three authentic recipe examples from each Mediterranean branch.
What is Mediterranean food?
Mediterranean food describes the authentic and traditional food of the Mediterranean Basin region, which actually includes a wide variety of countries and cultures.
Examples of Mediterranean food include Egyptian cuisine, Greek cuisine, Italian cuisine, Levantine cuisine (from eastern Mediterranean countries such as Cyprus, Jordan, Lebanon, Israel, Palestine, Syria, and southern Turkey), Maghrebi cuisine (from northwest African countries: Algeria, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco and Tunisia), Ottoman (Turkish) cuisine, Provençal (southeastern French) and Spanish cuisine.
Mediterranean food typically uses three core ingredients: olives, wheat, and grapes, which all grow well in the Mediterranean climate. However, as obvious from the array of countries and regions listed above, there are many exceptions to the rule and it’s difficult to define Mediterranean cuisine as a whole.
What is the Mediterranean diet?
You’ve probably heard about the many benefits of the Mediterranean diet, which is mostly inspired by the eating habits of the Italians and Greeks. The diet is rich in olive oil, wheat and other grains, fresh fruits and vegetables, legumes, as well as some seafood, but typically low in meat and dairy.
Egyptian Cuisine – Mediterranean Food
Egyptian cuisine is all about legumes and vegetables, thanks to the rich agricultural benefits of the Nile Valley and its delta. As befitting a country with such a legacy, some dishes eaten in the times of ancient Egypt are still present in some form in modern times.
Often shortened to just “Ful” (pronounced “fool”), this simple Mediterranean dish consists of fava beans, oil and salt – soaked overnight and slow-cooked for hours. Ful is commonly eaten for breakfast, with eggs, cheese and bread, and it is a staple of the Egyptian diet.
Also spelled as koshary or koshari, this traditional Egyptian dish is a popular street food and one of the nation’s favorite things to tuck into. If you’re cutting out carbs, you may want to give this one a miss, as ingredients include layered rice, macaroni, lentils and chickpeas, topped with onions, red sauce and seasoning.
Kebab, Kofta & Shawarma
For meat lovers, don’t fear as there are plenty of Egyptian dishes perfect for carnivores too. Kebab is made with whole pieces of meat (often lamb or veal), whereas kofta is minced meat – both are prepared on a grill and served with bread, salad and sauces. Shawarma is similar to Greek gyros; marinated meat (usually chicken or beef) that cooks on a spit all day is shaved off and served in a wrap with tahini or tomaya.
Greek Cuisine – Mediterranean Food
Another form of Mediterranean cuisine with centuries of heritage, Greek cuisine has roots in ancient Greece and the Byzantine era, though has been influenced by Middle Eastern, Ottoman and Italian flavors over time.
Many Greek dishes feature olives or olive oil, grains, vegetables, herbs, lemon juice, fish and meat (veal, lamb and rabbit are common), cheese (especially feta) and yoghurt. Today, Greek restaurants are also noted for their energetic plate-smashing, which is usually reserved for special occasions and represents new beginnings.
This iconic Greek dish is based on layers (if you’re not familiar, it’s a similar layering style to lasagna) of eggplant, minced meat (typically lamb), tomato, béchamel sauce and cheese – which is then baked in an oven.
There are many different varieties of dolmades, ranging from the instantly-recognizable vine parcels to hollowed and stuffed vegetables or legumes such as peppers, zucchini, eggplant and gourds. The stuffing consists of rice and spices, sometimes nuts and often minced meat.
This delicious sweet makes for a sticky and tasty dessert. Flaky filo pastry layered with chopped nuts and honey is the perfect snack or ending to a meal.
Italian Cuisine – Mediterranean Food
Italian cuisine is one of the globe’s favorites, having spread with migration, including to the Americas, where it developed new tastes and made use of new ingredients. One of the key characterizations of Italian food is its simplicity, with a focus on quality over elaboration. It’s hard to narrow down just three of the best Italian dishes, but here goes:
Does this Italian favorite really need any introduction? Now beloved by the world over, pizza originated in Italy and specifically from the southern city of Naples, although many bakers lay claim to the invention of the pizza pie.
Spaghetti, macaroni, rigatoni, ravioli, penne, tagliatelle, farfalle, tortellini, linguine… even the names of different pasta types are enough to make you drool. However, you might be interested to learn that the quintessential spag bog isn’t actually Italian at all! Though you may see dishes with a rich tomato-gravy meat sauce (especially in Bologna), this is called ragu in Italia.
Gelato may look like ice cream at first glance, but it is so much more! Gelato actually has less butterfat than regular ice cream, plus it’s illegal in Italy to add air or water, so the finished product is denser and more packed with flavor.
Levantine Cuisine – Mediterranean Food
The traditional cuisine of the Levant region, Levantine cuisine is inspired by its neighbors as well as its history, long before borders were drawn up between modern-day countries.
If you’re struggling to choose, why not have a taste of everything? With meze (sometimes spelled mezze), diners receive a selection of small dishes – perfecting for sharing. The dips are stars of the show, such as hummus and baba ghanoush (an eggplant dip).
Often served with meze, tabbouleh is a vegetarian salad with ingredients such as tomato, onion, bulgur wheat (soaked, rather than cooked), chopped parsley and mint, plus a generous seasoning of olive oil, lemon juice, salt and pepper.
These tasty deep-fired balls made from ground chickpeas or fava beans can be found both in restaurants and as street food. Though believed to have originated in Egypt, falafel drizzled in spicy sauce and tucked into a pitta with pickled vegetables is also a key dish in Levant and Middle Eastern cuisine.
Maghrebi Cuisine – Mediterranean Food
Perhaps one of the lesser-known Mediterranean cuisines is that of Maghreb, which spans a large region of northwestern Africa and therefore is incredibly diverse in itself, having been influenced by geography, cultural mixes and economics.
Formed from crushed durum wheat semolina, which is then steamed and traditionally served with a stew – this is couscous. There are local variations from country to country, and couscous can also be served as a side dish or even dessert.
Originating in Morocco, this sweet-and-savory pie is stuffed with either meat or seafood. It’s often served as an appetizer at the start of big meals for special occasions. Ingredients include warka (or werqa) dough, broth, spices and the filling – squab (pigeon), chicken, fish, or offal.
Tajine, or tagine, is a slow-cooked and hearty stew named for the earthenware pot that it is cooked in, served with bread. There are meat versions as well as vegetarian options, with powerful spice combinations that include ginger, cumin, turmeric, cinnamon, saffron, paprika and chili.
Ottoman Cuisine – Mediterranean Food
Ottoman cuisine, or Turkish cuisine, is the fusion and refinement of dishes also present in neighboring regions, such as Central Asia, the Middle East, Europe and the Balkans.
The doner kebab, like many other types of kebab, is made using slow-cooked meat that rotates on a vertical spit. The seasoned meat is sliced into thin shavings, then served in pita bread with salad and sauces. Originally eaten during the times of the Ottoman Empire (1299-1923), the doner kebab is now a well-known fast food served all over the world.
Köfte, or Koftah, is a dish that is sometimes simply called Turkish meatballs. Served on the street as snacks, dipped in yoghurt, or served with salad and rice – there are many different versions of this traditional Turkish dish, including Çiğ Köfte, where the meatballs are eaten raw!
Pide is a cousin of the Italian pizza, but with more of a boat shape. The dish consists of a flat pastry base, topped with meat or vegetables, plus cheese, then cooked in a hot stone oven. The result may be calorific, but with limitless topping options, it’s a great Turkish dish to try, especially if you’re looking for vegetarian options.
Provençal Cuisine – Mediterranean Food
The cuisine of Provence, these dishes are derived from a dry climate, rugged landscape, farming of sheep and goats, as well as the abundant seafood available in the Mediterranean Sea.
Bouillabaisse is a traditional fish stew that comes from the French port city of Marseille and was originally made using rockfish species that fishermen were unable to see at restaurants and markets because they were too bony. Today, other seafood can also be found in bouillabaisses, including sea urchins, crab and octopus. The name comes from two French words: bolhir (to boil) and abaissar (to simmer).
No, not the animated film (but also yes, the animated film because it’s about the dish too). Ratatouille is a vegetable stew, originally from Nice, which mixes ingredients such as tomato, onion, zucchini, eggplant, bell pepper and garlic with leafy herbs such as marjoram, fennel, basil, bay leaves and thyme.
Not a full dish, but still a tasty bite, this salty spread is made from crushed or blended olives, capers and anchovies. Tapenade is often served with bread as an hors’ d’oeuvre and the name comes from the French word for capers, tapenas.
Spanish Cuisine – Mediterranean Food
Spain’s complex history and diverse geography and climate has led to traditional dishes modified over time, as well as many regional dishes from when Spain’s lands were divided differently.
Originating in Valencia, paella is one of the most famous Spanish dishes. It takes its name from the wide and shallow frying pan that the dish is cooked in, usually over an open fire.
The traditional paella valenciana is made with rice, green beans, meat (rabbit, chicken, or sometimes duck), lima or butter beans, olive oil and saffron, with optional but common additions being snails, artichokes and rosemary.
You may be more familiar with paella de marisco (seafood paella), which switches out the meat, beans and veggies for seafood; or paella mixta, which combines meat, seafood and vegetables together.
The name tapas actually comes from the Spanish word for “lids,” which is meant to indicate that you should put lids on top of your dishes and drinks when out socializing. Originating in Spain’s Andalusia region, tapas is meant to be shared and there are limitless options to choose from, giving you a taste of everything.
Dish variants depend on where in Spain you’re dining and how traditional or innovative the establishment is, but some of the most authentic tapas to try include patatas bravas (fried potato with salsa), calamares (battered squid), croquetas (croquettes), gambas (prawns), chorizo (sausage), pulpo (octopus), as well as cold snacks such as cured meats, olives, cheeses and bread.
This refreshing soup is served cold and popular during the summer when Mediterranean days can be very hot. Also from Andalusia, the ingredients of Gazpacho are raw, blended vegetables such as garlic, tomato and cucumber, mixed with olive oil and vinegar.
Mediterranean Food Conclusion
Mediterranean cuisine is rich, traditional, authentic and as you may have gathered from the list of various types above, very diverse. Did we miss out your favorite variety of Mediterranean cuisine? Do you have a lesser-known Mediterranean recipe or Mediterranean dish recommendation that you’d like to share?
Let us know your favorite Mediterranean flavors in the comments below. And if you’re traveling around the Mediterranean soon, then remember that the best way to explore a region’s culture is with your taste buds!