Mediterranean cuisine part III

Mediterranean cuisine

Turkey, North Africa and the Middle East

This post concludes a short series about the Mediterranean cuisine by discussing the culinary traditions of non-European countries bordering the Mediterranean Sea: Turkey, North Africa and the Middle East.


Mediterranean cuisine in Turkey

The Turkish cuisine is based on a wide variety of dishes. The Turkish culinary tradition has evolved through the combination of three key elements: an educational environment, imperial cuisine, and a long social tradition. Turkey is rich in food products thanks to its flora, fauna and regional diversity. The Turkish culinary tradition reflects entirely the richness and prosperity of a culture born in the capital of the powerful Ottoman Empire. Turkey has the privilege of being at the crossroads between the East and the Mediterranean. Cooking is an integral part of the culture of this country and is part of the ritual of everyday life.


The main products are meat, dairy products, vegetables and cereals. In ancient times the Turks cultivated wheat to use it in different types of leavened and unleavened bread, cooked in clay ovens, fried on a plate, or buried in the embers. The use of the filling not only in pasta but also in all types of vegetables has always been common practice.


Today, Turkey is one of the seven countries in the world that produces enough food to feed the entire population and also have to export.


The foundations of Turkish cuisine are based on cereals (rice and wheat) and vegetables. The Turkish cuisine requires that the dishes should highlight the taste of the main ingredients, instead of hiding it with sauces and spices, which are used in a very simple and thrifty way.


Among the products based on cereals, stand out the ekmek (white bread), the pide (a type of focaccia), the simit (rings of sesame seeds), and the mantles (similar to ravioli), as well as an entire family of food made from puff pastry called borek. Ekmek, pide and simit are usually consumed the same day they are baked. The advanced ekmek is then used in a variety of dishes or becomes animal feed. The manti, pasta dumplings filled with a special mixture of meat, are eaten with generous portions of garlic yoghurt and melted butter with paprika. The borek is a dish for special occasions whose sheets are laid in layers or folded in different shapes that are then filled with cheese or meat and then baked or fried.


Pilav is another basic element in typical Turkish cuisine. The most common are made of chapped grain and rice. The first is cooked with whole onions, sliced tomatoes, green peppers sautéed in butter, and then boiled in beef broth. The rice pilav normally comes with vegetables and meat dishes.


The most common dessert after meals is fresh seasonal fruit, or milk cakes: the muhallebi. The latter are gluten-free puddings prepared with starch and rice flour. Once they were prepared without eggs or butter. There are other milk-based desserts such as rose-water puddings or milk-based milk with chicken breast. Baking desserts are part of the baklava family. The baklava is prepared using thin sheets of dough brushed with butter and then folded several times after being filled with pistachios, walnuts or cream. The baklava is baked in the oven and then covered with a syrup.


Finally, a delicious dessert is made with special bread cooked in a syrup and then filled with nuts and cream in addition to the marzipans made with almonds and pistachios.


Mediterranean cuisine in North Africa

The North of Africa includes several countries bordering the Mediterranean Sea: Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, Libya and Egypt. The region has a high degree of geographical, political, social, economic and cultural diversity which has influenced the region’s cuisine and culinary style.


Over the centuries, traders, travellers, invaders and immigrants have influenced the cuisines of North Africa. The Phoenicians of the 1st century brought sausages; the Carthaginians introduced wheat and its by-product semolina. The Berbers have re-adapted semolina to make the famous couscous, the best-known North-African dish worldwide. Olives and olive oil were introduced before the arrival of the Romans. Since the seventh century, the Arabs have introduced a variety of spices, including saffron, nutmeg, cinnamon, ginger and cloves, which have contributed to and influenced the culinary culture of North Africa. The Ottoman Turks then brought cakes and pastries, and from the New World, arrived potatoes, tomatoes, courgettes and chilli.

In the North African cuisine, the most common foods are fish, goat, lamb, beef, dates, almonds, olives, as well as various types of vegetables and fruits. The use of legumes, nuts, fruit and spices is very common. Most of the dishes are spicy and the most common spices are cumin, ginger, chilli, cinnamon and saffron. Fresh mint, parsley and coriander are also widely used.


Algeria – The Algerian cuisine differs slightly from region to region. The influence of the Berber cuisine is strong, but so is the Turkish-Ottoman influence, due to the past Ottoman occupation of this area. Rich, varied and colourful, the Algerian cuisine makes extensive use of vegetables, such as aubergines and courgettes, but also of fruit, grains and olive oil. In Algeria, there are more than 150 couscous preparations. Vegetables are simply cooked with olive oil or meat. The Algerian meal usually consists of a hot dish, with bread, followed by vegetables seasoned with olive oil. Dinner is usually the main meal and is consumed late at night, especially during the month of Ramadan. Each region has its own cuisine and the consumption of pork is prohibited in accordance with the laws of Islam.


Morocco – The most famous dish of the Moroccan cuisine is bstilla, a crunchy, sweet and salty pie, consisting of wrapped thin puff pastry stuffed with meat, nuts or toasted almonds, sugar and cinnamon. The latter is also used in other dishes, such as salads, while saffron gives colour and flavour to desserts. Also, the use of dried fruit is frequent in several savoury dishes. Finally, I would like to mention the tajin, a rich stew made of meat, vegetables and legumes, which takes its name from a traditional terra cotta pot.


Tunisia – In addition to its spicy vegetable purée, the Tunisian cuisine is famous for its briks, which are panzerotti made with very thin phyllo pastry. These can be stuffed in many ways, but usually with tuna and olives, or mushrooms and cheese, and fried. Tunisian cuisine also uses many fresh legumes, vegetables, grains (mostly rice and pasta). Tagliatelle in particular (rishta) are steamed and not boiled as done in Italy. Fish is consumed mostly by people living on the coast. Finally, eggs often appear in the form of omelettes and pies, and they are prepared with lots of vegetables, particularly onions. Finally, ojja is a traditional Tunisian dish made of eggs, tomatoes, meat and curcuma or curry, similar to the Basque piperade. Another popular recipe is the harissa, made with red chilli peppers and garlic.


Libya – The Libyan cuisine combines the traditions of the Mediterranean cuisine, as well as the North African and Berber cuisines. It has also been strongly influenced by the Italian domination, as evidenced by the use of pasta and tomato, although prepared with more spices than in Italy. Olive oil is used in almost all recipes. Common foods include dates, grains and milk, used for instance, to prepare the bsisa. The latter is made of roasted cereals ground with fenugreek, aniseed, cumin and sugar.


Egypt – In the Egyptian cuisine, spices such as chilli, sesame, cumin, ginger and coriander are usually mixed with grains, legumes and Mediterranean vegetables. The national dish is the ful mudames, served with finely chopped fresh vegetables and unleavened bread. Legumes are also used in koshari, sautéed in a tomato sauce and served with rice or short pasta. Egyptian people appreciate infusions, in particular, the red carcadé, which is very thirst quenching and characterized by a sour taste (besides being very rich in vitamin C). Coffee is often flavoured with cardamom, a spice known for its digestive properties.


Mediterranean cuisine in the Middle East

The Middle East has been the cradle of many great civilizations of the past. Over the millennia, the alternation of different cultures has played an important role in the culinary development of the region. Middle Eastern cuisines have been influenced by the Arab tradition and the historical trade of spices. Middle Eastern dishes are commonly prepared using extra virgin olive oil, garlic and spices (cumin, cinnamon and ground coriander), added to fresh vegetables served with rice or legumes. The desserts are delicate and simple and are commonly prepared with walnuts, syrup and orange blossom water. Middle Eastern recipes tend to be simple but very diverse.


Lebanon – The characteristics of Lebanese cuisine are the hors-d’oeuvres (called meza) that can be either main dishes or side dishes. Meza is served before the actual meal consisting of one or more dishes. This cuisine uses spices (coriander, cumin, turmeric, pimento, etc..) as well as dried fruit (pine nuts and almonds), sesame butter (tahin), bulgur and especially lemon, used in many recipes.


Garlic and onions are also frequently used. Typical of the Lebanese cuisine is the use of pomegranate, whose grains are used in the preparation of mashed aubergines. Among the most popular Lebanese dishes are tabuleh (salad with bulgur), fattouch (rich salad with pieces of bread), hummus (mashed chickpeas with sesame butter and lemon), and notes falafel (fried meatballs of chickpeas and broad beans). These dishes are some of the typical Lebanese meza. More elaborated dishes include kibbe (a mixture of meat, bulgur, onion and spicy pine nuts) and batinjanmahshi (courgettes and aubergines filled with rice and meat with spices) among others.


Syria – Based on simple and fresh ingredients, the Syrian cuisine merges Ottoman and French influences, creating a lot of appetizing delicacies. Throughout the area there is a delicious assortment of mezzeh, cold and mostly vegetarian appetizers made of aubergines, peppers, tomatoes, beans, chickpeas, presented in many variations. The most celebrated cuisine is that of Aleppo, where a typical dish is made of rice croquettes (kebbeh) prepared with bulgur and minced meat, fried in oil. The same dough is used to make a sort of burger, which is then grilled.


Israel – The Israelian cuisine includes both local dishes, that come from the traditions of the indigenous Israelis, and others imported by the Jews after the Diaspora. This cuisine has adopted and continues to adopt, elements of various styles of the Jewish cuisine. It is a diverse cuisine, which has evolved over the centuries, shaped by nutritional rules, Jewish festivals and traditions. It is also influenced by the Mizrahi, Sephardic, and Ashkenazi cuisines. The result is a cuisine that incorporates many dishes traditionally consumed in the Middle East and in Mediterranean countries (fruit, vegetables, dairy products and fish), and foods such as falafel, hummus, shakshouka, couscous, and za’atar, which are now considered synonymous with Israeli cuisine.

Picture of Gianluca Tognon

Gianluca Tognon

Gianluca Tognon is an Italian nutrition coach, speaker, entrepreneur and associate professor at the University of Gothenburg. He started his career as a biologist and spent 15 years working both in Italy and then in Sweden. He has been involved in several EU research projects and has extensively worked and published on the association between diet, longevity and cardiovascular risk across the lifespan, also studying potential interactions between diet and genes. His work about the Mediterranean diet in Sweden has been cited by many newspapers worldwide including the Washington Post and The Telegraph among others. As a speaker, he has been invited by Harvard University and the Italian multi-national food company Barilla.

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About Me

I’m an Italian nutrition coach, speaker, entrepreneur and associate professor at the University of Gothenburg. I started MY career as a biologist and spent 15 years working both in Italy and then in Sweden.

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