The beloved Mediterranean diet is kind of like the king of the diet ballroom.
Best Diet lists love to sing its praises, and the research community continually crowns it with superlative after superlative:
The best diet for heart health!
This will reduce your risk of stroke!
Going to the Mediterranean will lower your blood pressure!
And all you have to do is eat like you live in the middle of the Greek coast – fresh fish, vegetables galore, plenty of olive oil and (of course) good wine.
As a registered dietitian who advocates the benefits of all of these things, I also have a big problem with the Mediterranean diet: it’s exclusive.
Or at least, the perception of the Mediterranean diet is exclusive, that is, one that focuses mainly on Greece, Spain, Italy and France.
But – and this is a big but – there are 18 other Mediterranean countries as well. Yet their foods, flavors, and cultures are rarely included in the beloved “diet” that is spoken of as “the best.”
North Africa is a Mediterranean country. So it is with Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia or Libya. The same goes for the Middle Eastern countries of Turkey, Israel, Syria and Lebanon. Yes, there is some overlap between many of these cultures in terms of food, but often the combinations, preparation methods, flavors and seasonings of most of these other countries are rarely discussed when the Mediterranean diet gets its medal. Golden.
The Mediterranean diet has been idealized and it is far from inclusive.
Brooklyn-based dietician Maya Feller, MS, RDN, CDN, agrees with me.
“The Mediterranean diet which truly encompasses the 22 countries around the Mediterranean Sea has unique flavor profiles, seasonings, herbs – foods with lots of spice and heat, but also a mix of sweet and spicy” , says Feller. “There is no single ‘diet’ that encompasses the entire Mediterranean region – the spicy dishes of Morocco bear little resemblance to the lemon and caper cuisine of southern Italy. Instead, Mediterranean cuisine is about what these cuisines have in common: a daily emphasis on vegetables and fruits, beans and lentils, whole grains, more seafood than meat and poultry, and healthy olive oil Fresh, high-quality ingredients and simple preparation techniques make the extraordinary flavors shine.
All of this reminded me of a conversation I had with colleagues in Turkey, cup after cup of what is called Cay, or Turkish tea “which is served from sunrise to sunset, at weddings, funerals , work meetings”. says Merve Doran, founder of Oleamea Olive Oil. And this is a perfect example: in Italy and Spain, it is the espresso that prevails, while in Tunisia, it is the mint tea. And in Turkey, it’s Cay. Foods, drinks, flavor combinations – it all differs from region to region. And each of these foods and beverages has its own health benefits.
Unfortunately, much of that is lost when paired with what is the American goal of the Mediterranean diet. And there’s certainly nothing wrong with the typical foods that are usually hyped – vegetables, seafood, olive oil, pasta – are all amazing, but given the melting pot that is America, some of these other flavors and combinations should be celebrated, explored and savored as well.
“I think the most important aspect for people to realize is that every culture has dishes, but they’re cooked in a different way or may look different,” says Shana Spence, MS, RDN, CDN of The Nutrition Tea. “I find most people tend to think of roasted vegetables, which are thin and delicious, but sauces, salsas, soups, stews, etc. are all dishes with vegetables that also offer nutrients. ”
Adopt the true Mediterranean diet in its entirety. If you enjoy cooking, consider a cookbook that highlights some recipes from North African countries or perhaps another Middle Eastern one. Perhaps you eat out regularly; if so, great, consider different restaurants that offer unique dishes, flavors, and influences from a variety of cultures.
Explore new spices, new flavors and new preparation methods to make them your own and reap the flavor and health benefits. And, yes, it can all be enjoyed while sipping Italian red wine with a side of Israeli burnt eggplant and Syrian pita and hummus, all drizzled with Turkish olive oil.
Or try a recipe from Israeli-born Executive Chef Noam Blitzer, of Red Hog Restaurant & Butcher Shop in Louisville, KY.
Chef Blitzer says he infuses many of these cultural flavors into the foods that feature on the rotating weekly menu with his team. “I left Israel when I was 6 years old. Israel is a melting pot of cultures. Different regional foods from the Levant countries fused with flavors from Europe, Africa, Asia and Latin America. All these different cultures came together and recreated local dishes with new flavors and techniques.” The flavors I grew up with are often in my dishes, like our ‘Aubergine Brulee’, it’s one of the most most popular on our menu.”
Israeli Burnt Eggplant
What you will need:
2 Italian purple eggplants, 2 each
4 garlic cloves
Juice of 2 lemons
2 teaspoons of salt
1 cup tahini paste
1/2 cup ice water
1 teaspoon Urfa pepper
1 teaspoon toasted sesame seeds
1 teaspoon of zaatar
1/4 cup pomegranate seeds
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1/4 cup toasted sunflower seeds
1/4 cup mint leaves
1/4 cup parsley leaves
How to do it:
1. Use a fork to poke holes all over the eggplant. Grill eggplant over high heat or under broiler until charred and very tender, about 20 minutes per side. Let cool.
2. In a medium bowl, combine the garlic, lemon juice and salt. Stir in tahini and water until smooth.
3. Once the eggplants are cool to the touch, cut them in half lengthwise. Take a fork and gently scrape the soft flesh from the eggplant and onto a serving platter. Top with salt, tahini sauce, seeds, herbs and olive oil.
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