You’ve heard again and again that a traditional Mediterranean diet is one of the healthiest ways to eat. And it’s true! But the diet is more about including specific ingredients in your meals than it is about strictly duplicating the cuisine of any particular Mediterranean region.
Other cuisines can be just as good for you, especially when they include the same foods that make the Mediterranean diet special. Take inspiration from the many ways these signature Mediterranean ingredients—whole grains, legumes, yogurt, nuts, olive oil and, of course, fresh fruits and veggies—cross over into other cuisines.
Bulghur, farro, wheat berries, and other whole grains are staples in a traditional Mediterranean diet, but other high-fiber whole grains and grain-like cereals, such as quinoa, barley, brown rice, buckwheat and oats, provide many of the same health benefits. Substitute brown rice for white or try other grains with Asian stir-fries, Indian curries, or Mexican bean and rice dishes. Add cooked grains to chilies and stews and try switching out breakfast oats for wheat berries or quinoa. Take a cue from middle-Eastern and North African recipes that feature cracked wheat (bulghur) in grain salads (taboulleh), stuffed vegetables, and puddings.
Many Mediterranean soups, salads and side dishes feature white beans, fava beans and chick-peas (garbanzo beans). Middle-Eastern foods also feature legumes in a variety of classic dishes: falafel, hummus, lentil soup and lentil salad. Asian cuisine highlights soybeans in the form of edamame (fresh green soybeans), tofu, and other soy products, along with bean sprouts in salads and stir-fries. Beans star in many Mexican dishes, including burritos, black bean soup and classic frijoles. African meat stews often incorporate chick-peas and other beans. Swahili red beans cooked in milk or coconut milk are served slightly sweetened or savory with curry powder.
Traditional Mediterranean basil pesto is made with ground walnuts but, for a Spanish twist, substitute toasted almonds (and to make it Mexican, use almonds or pine nuts, and substitute cilantro for basil.) Europeans sprinkle roasted or pan-fried fish with toasted almonds or pine nuts. Almonds and walnuts find their way into Middle Eastern soups, stews, salads, and chicken dishes, while traditional African snacks combine nuts with roasted chick-peas. Try making crispy boneless chicken breasts or fish fillets by dipping in yogurt and coating with ground nuts instead of bread crumbs before baking.
The Mediterranean diet made Greek yogurt famous, but yogurt and other fermented milk products are eaten around the world. Cucumbers dressed in yogurt, garlic, and salt is a classic Middle Eastern side dish. Yogurt is served with many Indian dishes to cut the spicy heat. In parts of Africa, yogurt is used to make sweet couscous pudding and spicy sauces served with lamb and other meats. Swap yogurt for sour cream as a condiment served with Mexican foods or baked potatoes, and used in combination with mayonnaise potato salad or coleslaw.
Native to Mediterranean countries such as Italy, Spain, Greece and Turkey, olive oil comes in several forms that allow it to be used in any type of cuisine. For Asian cooking, neutral flavored “light” olive oil works best for sauces and marinades. It also has a higher smoking point than pure, virgin or extra-virgin varieties, which means it won’t burn over the high heat necessary for stir-frying, broiling and other quick-cooking methods. When used in Mexican, Middle Eastern, African, American, or other cuisines, the richer flavors of pure, virgin and extra-virgin olive oils generally complement the flavors of other ingredients.
Figs, pomegranates, grapes, and oranges are featured in the Mediterranean diet, as are leafy greens, sweet peppers, zucchini, eggplant, onions and garlic. But these same fruits and veggies are common to many cuisines, and your choice shouldn’t be limited to just a few. Less exotic fruits like apples, pears, peaches, berries, melons, and bananas all add the vitamins, minerals, and fiber essential to a healthy diet, and sweet potatoes, broccoli, bok choy, peas, cauliflower and carrots do the same. Mix it up! The Mediterranean way is for fruits and veggies to always be fresh and plentiful on your plate.