An Exploration into Mediterranean Cuisine

Summer vegetarian pasta salad with broccoli pesto, peas, arugula, olives, pine nuts and bread crumbs on dark green background. Top view.

What does “Mediterranean food” mean? Ask a few people, and you’re likely to receive very different answers. While one person might think of a Greek salad sprinkled with feta cheese, another might think of a few Turkish stuffed grape leaf dolmas. That’s expected: there are twenty-one countries in the Mediterranean Basin; it’s only natural that “Mediterranean food” is wide and can denote any local cuisine or sub-cuisine from the region.

These countries, however, all share common denominators in ingredients, traditions, and practices. Here, we’ll break down the history of Mediterranean cuisine, including the significant impact of the Mediterranean Diet.

Calanques, the famous geological formation between Cassis and Marseille mediterranean coast of France

The Influence of a Single Book

Mediterranean food wasn’t always as popular as it is now, but in the ’70s, a trend started to take traction. One of the primary reasons? The term “Mediterranean Diet” was popularized thanks to the researcher Ancel Keys. His 1975 guide How To Eat Well And Stay Well The Mediterranean Way, which he wrote along with his wife Margaret Keys, was a bestseller. In it, the authors argued that Mediterranean food habits, traditions, and ingredients encourage superior cardiovascular health and may be correlated to longevity.

The book was based on research under Keys’ The Seven Countries Study, which included the U.S., Japan, Italy, Finland, Greece, the Netherlands, and former Yugoslavia. The study showed that men living in Italy and Greece had lower heart disease than the other countries surveyed, which the researcher correlated to their diet.

Turkish breakfast table. Flat-lay of peoples hands taking pastries, vegetables, greens, olives, cheeses, fried eggs, spices, jams, honey, tea in copper pot and tulip glasses, wide composition

Food as Intangible Cultural Heritage

Over the next few decades, Mediterranean food continued to enjoy its share of fame. In 2010, the Mediterranean Diet was inscribed into UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. “The Mediterranean diet involves a set of skills, knowledge, rituals, symbols and traditions concerning crops, harvesting, fishing, animal husbandry, conservation, processing, cooking, and particularly the sharing and consumption of food,” they wrote in the forward. Initially, UNESCO had recognized only Italy, Spain, Greece and Morocco as part of this, but in 2013, the list was updated to include Portugal, Croatia, and Cyprus.

The fame of Mediterranean food isn’t just about the recipes. The inscription acknowledges the sociocultural roles of “values of hospitality, neighborliness, intercultural dialogue and creativity, and a way of life guided by respect for diversity.”

The Mediterranean Diet vs. Mediterranean Cuisine

It’s crucial to note that the Mediterranean Diet isn’t synonymous with Mediterranean food. The “diet” is a voluntary, conscious effort at health and longevity taken by anyone in the world — typically in the West, where Ancel Keys’ research was published. This association typically conjures images of Italian, Greek, and Spanish food.

On the other hand, Mediterranean cuisine is a natural manifestation of the food habits and trade in the region. Restaurants in the U.S. labeled as “Mediterranean” tend to offer eastern Mediterranean food such as Turkish or Middle Eastern.

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