When You Think of Mediterranean Cuisine, What Comes to Mind?
Is it the ever-popular Greek dish, moussaka? Or what about hummus, börek, tabbouleh, and baba ghanoush? You’ve likely eaten at least one of those dishes before. From breads to vegetables to oils, there are so many ingredients and dishes that are uniquely and iconically Mediterranean.
While many dishes are recognizably Mediterranean, actual Mediterranean cuisine encompasses the Mediterranean basin, which covers several vastly different geographical areas including Spain, Italy, Greece, Egypt, Turkey and Syria, among many others. Several cornerstones of Mediterranean cuisine include olive oil, wine, bread, and dried spices.
For many reasons, whether it’s the popularity of the Mediterranean diet, or Syrian refugees eager to share their culture with now-fellow Americans, Mediterranean restaurants of all cultures around the United States are becoming more and more popular.
So let’s dive right in.
What is Mediterranean Food?
When many people think of “Mediterranean cuisine”, their first thought is typically Greek food. But much of Greek cuisine has roots in Turkish, Persian, and Arabic foods and ideas. (With so many neighboring countries of Greece, it’s unavoidable!) For example, you may recognize tzatziki as authentically Greek, but its roots—right down to the name—are Turkish. Greek cuisine is several thousand years old and is heavily intertwined with Greek culture as a whole.
Today’s Greek food heavily depends on olive oil, vegetables, fresh seafood, wine, lamb, beef, lemon juice, and cheese, among many other ingredients.
There are many different regions within Greek cuisine itself, like Cretan, Macedonian, and Cypriot, but for convenience’s sake—let’s explore some iconic, traditional Greek dishes!
We’ve all eaten pita bread before, and we all recognize it as a Greek staple.
Pita has been memorialized within Greek cuisine since the 1100s. In Greek cuisine, pita bread typically isn’t eaten in pieces alongside meals, like many Americans are used to. In Greece, pita bread is used almost solely as a sandwich pocket for souvlaki, gyro, and other sandwich/condiment combinations.
Dolmades, or stuffed grape leaves
Dolmades are grape vine or cabbage leaves, typically stuffed with rice and herbs, then boiled until the leaves are fork-tender.
The term “dolmades” is uniquely Greek, but the concept of “dolma” is seen throughout many other Mediterranean cuisines, and the leaves can be stuffed with tomato, onion, or minced meat.
Possibly the most recognizable Greek food in the US, a gyro is made with meat that’s cooked on a vertical rotisserie spit. The gyro’s roots are in doner kebab (you could say the original meat cooked in this manner) and is a common fast food option in Greece today. In Greece, you can typically find pork and chicken gyro.
Turkish food is not quite as popular as Greek food in the United States, but their cuisines share many similarities. Items like kebab, yogurt-based sauces, and pide, while undeniably Turkish, cross borders with other neighboring cultures and cuisines.
We could talk for days about the role of kebabs in Turkish cuisine, as it refers to not only meat-on-a-stick, but also meats wrapped in bread, casseroles, and stews.
From döner kebab to kagit kebab (a mixture of meats and vegetables baked in a paper pouch) to shish kebab (skewered grilled meats and vegetables), there are a variety of meat-based dishes that embody Turkish cuisine and that are still prepared today.
Menemen is an egg-based dish that also includes green peppers, tomatoes, and ground pepper. Fresh herbs can also be added to the scrambled egg mixture before being cooked.
In Turkish cuisine, menemen is commonly eaten for breakfast, served with bread for dipping alongside many other side dishes (In Turkey, breakfast is typically a heavy meal.). Like many other Turkish dishes, it’s served in the same pan that it cooks in, allowing for further cooking after being removed from heat.
Turkey is responsible for quite a few world-renowned desserts! Turkish delight, Baklava, and halva are just a few examples of Turkish desserts that we see quite often in the US, and that are still enjoyed in Turkey.
Baklava is made with pistachios, almonds, or walnuts, and can be prepared in a few different ways. Several variants use milk or fresh cream instead of the syrup or honey typically used, to make for a lighter preparation.
In the US, Turkish delight is associated with a distinct rosewater flavor, but it can be produced in many flavors and variants, utilizing lemon or Bergamot orange, for example. Its unique gel texture with its starchy coating makes it an unmistakable confection in Mediterranean cuisine.
Syrian cuisine has changed wildly throughout history, but many of its recipes still used today are thousands of years old. Out of all of the different Mediterranean food worlds, Syrian food is perhaps one of the most vegetable- and lentil-dependent cuisines, heavily utilizing eggplant, cabbage, cauliflower, chickpeas, pistachios, and so much more.
Aleppo's Kitchen is a Mediterranean restaurant that is home to this unique sub-category of Mediterranean food, and serves the following dishes (and more). Foodies may recognize the city of Aleppo as the culinary capital of the Middle East due to its unique food origins. Since it’s on the Syrian-Turkish border, Aleppian cuisine encourages cultural togetherness when it comes to those two locations.
In Syrian culture, meze are typically served with bread before the main course is eaten. Hummus, baba ghanoush, kibbeh, and muhammara, among many others, are common choices for Syrian meals, and at Aleppo’s Kitchen.
Hummus is a smooth dip or spread made with ground chickpeas, tahini, and fresh lemon. The tahini is what makes hummus, hummus!
Baba ghanoush is another dip or spread, this one with a mashed eggplant base. It’s meaty and filling, with a unique taste compared to hummus and yogurt-based dips.
Kibbeh is made from finely ground meat, bulgur (cracked wheat), onions, and traditional spices. In Syria, lamb, goat, or camel might be used. Kibbeh is so widely consumed that it’s considered to be the national dish of many Mediterranean regions.
Muhammara is a hot pepper dip that has origins in Aleppo, Syria (because of the Aleppo pepper), and it’s one of the many dishes that help Syrian food stand out from other Mediterranean cuisines. It’s made using a pepper paste, ground walnuts, and of course, olive oil. Like hummus and baba ghanoush, it’s eaten as a dip or spread. It can also be served alongside grilled meat and fish.
Possibly the most popular Syrian street food, shawarma is characterized by bread stuffed with shaved meat (beef or chicken) alongside hummus, onions, pickles, and sometimes French-fries. In a sit-down restaurant setting, shawarma can be found in a platter alongside hummus, salad, pita, garlic sauce and rice.
Mediterranean cuisine: Many Similarities Among Cultures, but Also Many Differences
As you can see, the term “Mediterranean cuisine” covers a lot of ground, much more than we have room to discuss in this post.
While staples like olives, fresh cheese, bread, vegetables, and nuts tie together many different Mediterranean cuisines, Syrian food stands out due to its uses of different spices and ingredients, coupled with its centuries-old traditions that are still proudly embraced today.
Aleppo’s Kitchen promises a unique culinary experience. It fills the void when it comes to not just Syrian, but Mediterranean food in Anaheim, California. To learn more about Syrian food, feel free to contact Aleppo's Kitchen with your questions, we would be happy to help.