As someone that grew up in the Middle East, and counts herself as somewhat of an expert on Mediterranean cuisine, I’m at once thrilled, bemused, and cynical at the sudden popularity of the Mediterranean diet in health circles, and find it necessary to weigh in on the basic definition of Mediterranean food or a Mediterranean diet.
Here’s a definition from this week’s NYTimes article attributing brain benefits to the Mediterranean diet: "Rich in fish, poultry, vegetables and fruit, with minimal dairy foods and meat."
And here is a fuller definition, that came out when the first study showing the benefits of the diet came out earlier this year:
“The mainstays of the diet consisted of at least three servings a day of fruits and at least two servings of vegetables. Participants were to eat fish at least three times a week and legumes, which include beans, peas and lentils, at least three times a week. They were to eat white meat instead of red, and, for those accustomed to drinking, to have at least seven glasses of wine a week with meals. In addition, one group assigned to the diet was given extra-virgin olive oil each week and was instructed to use at least 4 four tablespoons a day. The other group got a combination of walnuts, almonds and hazelnuts and was instructed to eat about an ounce of the mix each day."
Ok, so here’s what I think of all this. First of all, to me, the hallmark of the Mediterranean diet is eating a lot of vegetables and fruits. I find that from childhood, people around the Mediterranean regard good vegetables as an everyday treat. Good tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers are relished. The start of the orange season, the first appearance of clementines, the first stone fruit, are all reasons for excitement.
The Mediterranean diet is not lowfat, but it is low in animal fat. The oil of choice, when available and affordable, is olive oil. In parts where it’s more difficult to find, other types of oil would be used. But animal fat is rarely the choice for a couple of reasons. One is that milk and milk products are less plentiful. And second, the animals themselves, when used for meat, are not of the type that yield much fat.
It's hot around the Mediterranean, so drinking milk straight up, as is common in northern European countries, is almost never done, it wouldn't keep very well. Which perhaps explains the propensity of Mediterraneans to be lactose intolerant as adults. But yogurt, and various light cheeses made from yogurt or from sheep's milk - Pecorino, Caciocavallo, Labneh - are eaten regularly although in moderation. Once fermented, cheese and yogurt can be kept much longer than raw milk, and there's that added advantage that the lactose in them has been broken down by fermentation.
Which brings me to a part of the definition that I object to. The idea that the Mediterranean diet focuses on white meat (i.e., chicken), over beef. No! Depending on where you travel around the Mediterranean, beef, lamb, or pork would be the meat of choice, not chicken. Around most of the Mediterranean, eating chicken was rare. For more affluent Italian households, chicken was reserved for Sunday dinner. And as my father once told me, the farmers around his hometown of Ancona used to say that if someone ate a chicken it was for one of two reasons. Either the person was sick, or the chicken was sick.
The reason for the confusion is most likely because traditional Mediterranean diets consist of only small amounts of meat. I found a wonderfully phrased explanation in Yotam Ottolenghi’s beautiful cookbook, Jerusalem. In it he says: “In a place where cooking whole cuts of meat was, for most of its history, considered a mad extravagance, meatballs, kebabs, and stuffed vegetables were a sensible alternative.” So in fact, while dark meat is usually the meat of choice, its quantities in the diet are relatively small. The idea of the 16oz steak is unheard of. And if you ate a piece of chicken, it would be the thigh, or the leg (those are considered the best) or a little piece of breast, but a quarter chicken would be considered exorbitant.
For many around the Mediterranean, this also means that everyday food often did not include meat. That’s the motivating element for such delicious street food as Falafel (made of chickpeas, and essentially vegan), hummus, babaganoush, tahini, mejadara (a lentil and rice dish). And all of these are served with generous helpings of salads and cooked vegetables.
And what about fish? In reality, fish was eaten mostly if you lived right by a port. Otherwise it was expensive and not readily available. Certainly it wasn’t eaten in the quantities suggested by the modern “Mediterranean diet”.
So what do I consider to be typical of the Mediterranean diet? An abundance and variety of vegetables and fruits. The use of oil instead of animal fat, with a specific love of olive oil. The embrace of legumes and seeds – chickpeas, lentils, sesame seeds. The love of nuts – almonds, walnuts, pinenuts – although these are used mostly for special occasions, they were expensive. The use of whole grains – spelt, bulgur wheat, barley. A moderate consumption of light cheeses and yogurt. And the complex and yet sparing use of meat – often ground up, mixed with vegetables and legumes, and prepared in delectable ways. All of this makes my mouth water.