The Mediterranean diet is touted as one of the world’s most nutritious diets, celebrated by health experts across the globe.
Rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes and olive oil, the diet is famed for being low in saturated fats and high in lean sources of protein like fish. Red wine, drunk in moderation, is even a bonus inclusion.
Yet the term ‘Mediterranean diet’ is a bit loose. It’s meant to infer a particular ‘Mediterranean’ identity to a specific cultural dietary pattern. But the fact is, the Mediterranean basin spans 22 countries across Europe, Asia and Africa, and each country along the Mediterranean Sea boasts a different diet, religion and culture.
“The term ‘Mediterranean diet,’ implying that all Mediterranean people have the same diet, is a misnomer,” reads a study on the origins of the Mediterranean diet, published in the Journal of Nutrition.
“The diets [of Mediterranean countries] differ in the amount of total fat, olive oil, type of meat and wine intake; milk vs. cheese; fruits and vegetables; and the rates of coronary heart disease and cancer.”
“The term ‘Mediterranean diet,’ implying that all Mediterranean people have the same diet, is a misnomer."
If there are dietary and lifestyle differences between Mediterranean countries, which country does the diet specifically refer to? And where does the Mediterranean diet really come from?
“People always tend to associate Greek and Italian food with the Mediterranean diet,” explains Anika Rouf, an Accredited Practising Dietitian and PhD candidate at the School of Life and Environmental Sciences at University of Sydney.
“Yet the first scientific investigation into the Mediterranean diet took place in 1948 by the government of Greece to improve population health, post World War II.”
The intention of the study, conducted by the Rockerfeller Foundation, was to look at how to raise the standard of living in post war Crete. The researchers eventually discovered that the healthy diet of local Cretans consisted of plenty of greens, fruit, herbs, olive oil and beans, some wine and lean proteins.
“They looked at the dietary characteristics of the population and found they ate mostly plant-based foods – it made up around 75 per cent [of their diet].
“This was far better than the diet of most people living in the USA at the time. The Western diet was much higher in animal foods than the Greek diet, even back then.”
“[Researchers] found archaeological and botanical evidence to show that people from Syria, Palestine and southern Turkey were having cereals and legumes back then."
Although research suggests the Greek government was the first to formally investigate the Mediterranean diet, its true roots are a historically debatable.
“The origins of the Mediterranean diet are lost in time because they sink into the eating habits of the Middle Ages,” a 2013 study on the history of health reads.
The geographical borders of the past are quite different to those of today. The eating habits of rich classes in ancient history also varied greatly to those of poorer classes and slaves living within the same country.
Even still, one historical theory explains that the diet may have descended from ancient and advanced civilisations in the Middle East in the ninth millennium BC.
“[Researchers] found archaeological and botanical evidence to show that people from Syria, Palestine and southern Turkey were having cereals and legumes back then," says Rouf.
“They also realised that pigs, sheep and cattle were domesticated around this time. And the crops that were produced then spread to the southern regions of Greece, Spain and Italy around 6000-4000 BC.”
Evidence of olives, figs, and vines also date back to the fourth millennium. It’s believed that the Greeks and Phoenicians, a civilisation that centred in the area of modern Lebanon and Syria, spread these food products to other regions of the Mediterranean in the first millennium BC.
Olives, wheat and vines – which represent the character of the Mediterranean diet – were found everywhere on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea by the middle of the first millennium BC.
Islamic culture may have also influenced the European diet through the introduction of various plant species: sugar cane, almonds, lemons and oranges.
It’s believed that the Greeks and Phoenicians, a civilisation that centred in the area of modern Lebanon and Syria, spread these food products to other regions of the Mediterranean in the first millennium BC.
“Arabic peoples also introduced new foods into the European diet when they expanded into Europe, bringing eggplant, rice and some spices from India,” Rouf explains.
Another study dates the Mediterranean diet back to the early Christians in the time of the Roman Empire.
The key elements of the Mediterranean diet – bread, olive oil and wine – were exported “in regions of continental Europe by the monastic orders, which migrated in those regions to evangelise those peoples. Bread, oil and wine, were in fact the central elements of the Christian liturgy, but they were later adopted also in the feeding of the common people of Europe.”
A new food culture arose, fusing the dietary patterns of two different civilisations, the Christian Roman Empire and the Germanic, and after some time, with that of the Arab world “which had developed its own unique food culture on the southern shores of the Mediterranean”.
The rest, as they say, is Mediterranean diet history.
This combination of ricotta, orange and chocolate is a classically Mediterranean one — you might have tried this filling in cannoli, a Sicilian dessert made of a fine, crunchy tube of pastry, filled with ricotta and various flavour combinations. In Provence, we typically add either orange blossom water or rosewater, anise or fennel flowers to the ricotta. This particular recipe uses pastis, an anise-based liqueur originating from Marseille, consumed profusely by the locals as a late-afternoon refreshment.
Vibrant flavours of the Mediterranean add a Greek accent to this comfort food dish. The Greeks are the masters of succulent, marinated meats, and this chicken is coated in a garlicky, zesty marinade, and flavoured with fragrant herbs such coriander, juniper berries and bay leaves, before being fried. Served with fried oregano sprigs and extra lemon to squeeze over the top, it’s best eaten with a shot or two of ouzo.
Consider making this salad even if you are not cooking the fish. It has a wonderful balance of fresh and cooked vegetables and makes perfect sense at the height of summer to early autumn, when these vegetables are at their peak. Oh, and do try this cooking method for fish when you’re feeling a little adventurous. You’d get the most tender flesh, I guarantee.