Mediterranean Food: 30 Iconic Dishes You Should Try
If you’ve ever looked into diets promoting healthy lifestyles, you’ve likely come across the Mediterranean diet. It’s linked to longevity, decreased risk of heart problems, and other health benefits. More than that, it’s incredibly varied, often colorful, and always packed with delicious flavors and an intriguing mix of textures. No wonder it is one of the most popular diets right now.
The Mediterranean diet is based on traditions dating back millennia. Seasonal food, simple preparation, and, importantly, a view of food as a source of pleasure and something to be enjoyed with others are the pillars of this approach to eating.
It’s based on seasonal, locally-grown fruits and vegetables, whole grains, pulses, nuts, and healthy fats. Sugar, salt, and processed foods don’t feature heavily. Although many dishes are plant-based, making it an excellent choice for vegetarians and vegans, meat, seafood, and dairy often feature in moderation.
This article will look at some of the typical ingredients fundamental to the Mediterranean diet and list some of the iconic dishes found across the entire region. We start with some of the fundamentals you’ll find everywhere, then suggest some salads, soups, mains and desserts to look out for.
So, if you’re looking for new, fresh and nutritious meals to try out we hope our choices will inspire you to experiment.
Olive Oil – Everywhere
The basis of most Mediterranean cuisine is, of course, olive oil. It’s believed that olives have been used for the last 6,000-8,000 years.
No surprise, because the regional climate and terrain are ideal for cultivating these hardy trees. Today, as a monounsaturated healthy oil, olive oil is prized because it’s thought to protect the heart.
The best olive oil is a rich green color. It’ll be labeled extra virgin and cold-pressed, meaning it’s extracted from the fruit using traditional methods – preserving all the flavor and goodness.
Seafood – Everywhere
The abundant seafood of the Mediterranean is harvested and prepared according to the local taste, and served bursting with beautiful flavors and textures. With lobster, abalone, shrimp, octopus, squid, prawns, sea urchin, and more all freely available, you’ll be spoiled for choice.
Fish – Everywhere
Sea bass, tuna, swordfish, mackerel, sardines – as each country borders the sea, it’s no surprise that fresh fish is perhaps more prevalent in Mediterranean dishes than meat. Whether grilled, fried, or stewed in a rich vegetable sauce, it’s a nutritious and mouthwatering staple.
Lamb – Eastern Mediterranean
Although beef, pork, and veal dishes are popular in Spain, France, and Italy, lamb is the meat you’ll find most frequently in the cuisines of North Africa and the Eastern Mediterranean.
You’ll find it stewed in Sicily and baked in yogurt in Albania. And of course, the chops are grilled in Greece, Turkey, and just about everywhere!
Wine – Everywhere
Wine has been produced in the region for at least 6,000 years. Given the ideal climate, grapevines are cultivated in just about every Mediterranean country, and wine drinking is a required part of any meal and a daily pleasure of life. And of course, every area believes its wine is the best.
Without further ado let’s round-up some of the most popular and delicious Mediterranean foods, starting with salads.
Popular Mediterranean Salads
1. Salad Niçoise
This perfect summer salad can’t help but conjure up images of lazy lunches in the chic eateries of the French Riviera.
The classic salad Nicoise recipe combines young string beans and boiled new potatoes, hard-boiled eggs, tomatoes, anchovies, and freshly grilled tuna. All perfectly dressed with red wine vinaigrette, of course!
2. Greek Salad
This simple and colorful Greek salad is often served as a side dish, but on the hottest days, it can make a light and refreshing meal by itself.
It’s a simple combination of ripe tomatoes, crunchy cucumber, olives, and perhaps sliced red onion and green bell pepper. The dish is topped with fresh feta cheese and drizzled with fruity green (usually local) olive oil. Use fresh crusty bread to soak up all the delicious juices.
Popular Mediterranean Soups
3. Gazpacho – Spain
Traditional Spanish gazpacho is a cold soup perfect for sweltering summer days. It’s simple to make, packed with healthy ingredients, full of fresh flavors, and so refreshing! You’ll find it served as a chilled appetizer in a small bowl with toppings, but people typically drink it from a glass.
Make it in minutes – just whizz together some ripe tomatoes, cucumber, diced bell peppers (red or green), onion, garlic, vinegar, salt, and, of course, a generous glug of olive oil until you have a creamy orange soup.
4. Psarosoupa – Greece
This iconic fish soup from the Greek islands is made with almost any fish, fresh from the day’s catch. The addition of creamy avgolemono (a silky-smooth lemon, egg, and garlic sauce) makes the ingredients zing. So if you’re bored with the same old vegetable soup, this is one to try!
Mediterranean Snacks & Starters
5. Pizza Margherita – Italy
Pizza. It’s enjoyed everywhere – perhaps the most popular food in the world. A beloved addition to kids’ menus and the obvious choice when you need a quick meal delivery. But mass-produced pizzas are often a frozen mess of chewy dough and industrial toppings.
The real thing, however – oh, that’s something magical!
The classic pizza Margherita is made with fresh dough, topped with ripe local tomatoes, slices of the freshest buffalo mozzarella, drizzled with extra virgin olive oil (what else?), and baked in an open wood-burning oven.
Given this mouthwatering combination, it’s no surprise that authentic Neapolitan pizza-making was awarded UNESCO’s “intangible cultural heritage” status in 2017.
6. Couscous – Morocco
Although couscous is a staple of many North African counties, it’s most commonly associated with Morocco.
Although it resembles grains or seeds, it’s a pasta made from durum wheat. It’s traditionally prepared in a special ‘couscousier’, but the pre-steamed couscous we find everywhere has the advantage of being unbelievably easy to prepare.
Just pour on boiling water, cover, wait 5 minutes or so, and – voila! Serve it with roast meat, grilled fish, an aromatic vegetable stew, or a big salad.
7. Falafel – Eastern Mediterranean
Falafel is found everywhere in the Eastern Mediterranean, though Lebanon and perhaps Israel are best known for it. They’re a tasty combination of ground chickpeas with fresh herbs and spices, shaped into small patties and often served between slices of pita bread.
Falafel is popular street food, and you’ll find them offered in cafes and homes throughout the region. They’re often served with a big dollop of tahini (sesame seed) dressing, some local salad, and perhaps slices of eggplant.
8. Dolmas – Eastern Mediterranean
Grape vine leaves are stuffed with an aromatic mixture of lamb, rice, onion, warm spices such as cumin, and fresh cooling herbs such as mint and parsley. The parcels are slowly cooked in broth or water flavored with fresh lemon juice.
They’re very versatile and can be enjoyed hot or cold. Vegan and vegetarian versions, which omit the meat and substitute diced peppers, are also popular.
9. Pasta – Italy
What could symbolize Italian cuisine more than pasta? Usually enjoyed in the country as a first course, there’s a seemingly endless list of classic Italian sauces. Each cook has their own secret twist that makes their dish the best – and of course their family heartily agree.
From the traditional rich and tomato-based Bolognese sauce of the North to black squid-ink sauce in Sicily, each variation is served with the particular pasta shape that’s considered will bring out its consistency and flavor most effectively.
10. Cured Meats – Italy, Croatia, Spain and across the region
Cured meats and sausages are found almost everywhere across the Mediterranean region. Some famous products such as prosciutto di Parma (Parma Ham) and Jamon de Serrano are known worldwide.
But there is a vast range of local specialties to try. For example, Croatian Hamon, hailing from the island of Krk, is enjoyed as an appetizer, perhaps with some fragrant sheep’s milk cheese and maybe a chilled glass of dry white.
11. Ratatouille – France
Ratatouille is a classic end-of-summer Provencal vegetable stew that provides the perfect accompaniment to fish or meat dishes.
Equal quantities of chopped eggplant, zucchini, sweet bell peppers, and red onions are simmered gently in a garlicky tomato sauce, on the stovetop or in the oven. A fresh Mediterranean herb such as oregano or basil adds the final touch and, perhaps, a glug of white wine. Fresh crusty bread is an essential partner.
12. Ful Medames – Egypt
A much-loved breakfast staple in Egypt and the Eastern Mediterranean, fava beans seasoned with lemon, garlic, and cumin are cooked in rich olive oil, together with a delicious mixture of fresh ripe tomatoes, onion, and flat-leaved parsley. It’s best scooped up with flatbread straight from the oven.
13. Hummus – Eastern Mediterranean
These days, hummus is a global favorite. It’s a quintessential dip from the eastern Mediterranean made by blending chickpeas (aka garbanzos) with tahini (sesame paste), garlic, and citrus. Scoop it up with batons of fresh vegetables (carrots, celery) or warm pitta bread.
Whether you buy it ready-made from the supermarket or whizz your own together in moments, this creamy beige snack is tasty, nutritious, and very moreish. Perfect for vegetarians and vegans, it’s packed with plant-based protein.
14. Tzatziki – Greece
Another iconic dip from the Greek islands, with some simple pitta bread makes the perfect summer snack or a side for grilled meat and fish. Best of all, it couldn’t be easier to make!
Traditionally it was made from strained sheep or goat’s milk yogurt, but any thick, creamy Greek yogurt will work just fine. It only takes minutes to prepare! Just mix in some finely chopped or grated cucumber, garlic, and some fresh soft herbs such as mint, dill, or cilantro and voila!
15. Escalivada – Spain
This famous vegetable dish originates from Catalonia in northeast Spain. Thought to have been invented by farmers who prepared it as their sheep grazed in the mountains, it’s a simple mix of eggplants, bell peppers, onions, and tomatoes, traditionally grilled whole over hot embers.
Once cooked, peeled, and the seeds removed, they’re ready to be served as an appetizer or side for meat or fish cooked on the same fire.
16. Burek – Eastern Mediterranean
You’ll find unique burek recipes in Turkey and across the Balkans – it’s even considered the national dish of Bosnia & Herzegovina. Traditionally phyllo pastry was stuffed with meat, cottage cheese, or potatoes, then shaped into a pie and cut into quarters. However, in bakeries today, you’ll likely find burek curled into a spiral.
Burek can be served as an entrée, an appetizer, or a street snack. As a meat filling is optional, they’re a perfect choice for vegetarians or vegans. They’ve also earned something of a reputation as a great hangover food, especially when served with a glass of chilled kefir – fermented milk from a cow, sheep or goat.
17. Paella Valenciana – Spain
Paella is Spain’s most well-known dish. It was originally a dish for agricultural workers. Made with short-grain rice, plus whatever ingredients were readily available, tomatoes, onions, beans, and possibly snails, rabbit or duck. On special occasions, chicken and a few saffron strands were added.
Paella is traditionally eaten straight from the massive pan with each person using their own wooden spoon. The familiar modern version, paella de marisco (seafood paella) replaces meat with seafood and ditches the beans and green vegetables.
18. Tagine – Morocco
This iconic slow-simmered Moroccan stew is easy to make, endlessly versatile, and packed with nourishing ingredients. The name tagine is used both for the dish and the name of the distinctive cooking pot.
Each cook has their own secret take on the exact combination of sweet and savory ingredients. Slow cooking tenderizes even the toughest cuts of meat.
The basics are vegetables, herbs, and spices, but tagines can also include chicken, fish, vegetables, chickpeas, and eggs. It’s typically spooned over steaming couscous, with flatbread to scoop it all up.
19. Moussaka – Greece
Ah, moussaka! The ultimate comfort food found in every Greek home and tavern is also loved worldwide! This traditional eggplant bake is made with fried eggplants, potatoes, a rich beef or lamb mince sauce, and finished with a creamy béchamel sauce.
It’s not a dish you can throw together in minutes – making it at home takes some time and effort – but as it’s so filling and delicious, it deserves a place in your special treat repertoire.
20. Stuffat tal-fenek – Malta
Stuffat tal-fenek, a traditional rabbit stew dating back centuries, is widely accepted as Malta’s national dish. It’s slow cooked until the tender meat falls off the bone, and the rich tomato, garlic, and red wine sauce ensure it’s filling and delicious.
21. Kebab/Gyros/Shawarma – Turkey, Greece, Middle East
Today, gyros, aka kebab and shawarma, are among the world’s most famous street foods.
Pork and chicken (in Greece) or lamb and veal (in other countries) is cooked on a rotating vertical spit. Then, thin slices of juicy meat are stuffed into pitta bread, with salad items such as tomatoes, lettuce, onion, and cucumber. This succulent combination can be topped off with sauces such as tzatziki or tahini.
22. Bouillabaisse – France
The authentic recipe for this classic Provencal dish is a matter of endless debate. Suffice to say that it was initially a simple stew created by the fishermen of Marseille using their day’s catch.
The basic recipe involves fish boiled rapidly in water and plenty of olive oil. This creates a rich smooth broth.
You’ll find it made with all types of fish and seafood, with additions of garlic, leeks, fennel, and saffron. The broth is typically poured into a dish lined with bread, and the fish served separately.
23. Escargot – France
Snails can be prepared with or without their shells. However, they don’t have a strong taste which is why they’re typically cooked with a buttery sauce that may include a glug or two of wine.
Fun fact: although snails are almost exclusively associated with French cuisine, in fact, the Spanish consume more than three times as many: 16,500 tones per year, as opposed to France’s modest 5,300 tones.
They are a popular food in other Mediterranean countries such as Italy and Greece.
24. Buzara Mussels – Croatia
These are locally known as dagnje na buzaru or školjke na buzaru. Buzara means stew in Croatian, but buzara-style cooking has come to mean shellfish or crustaceans prepared with olive oil, wine, garlic, breadcrumbs, and fresh herbs.
Easy to prepare, typical buzara-style mussels take around 40 minutes to cook. Serve with fresh crusty bread for mopping up the delicious broth.
25. Cevapi – Montenegro, Bosnia, Balkans
Cevapi are elongated meatballs made from a simple combination of meat, salt, and pepper cooked over a charcoal grill, giving them their distinctive smoky flavor.
Cevapi are often served stuffed into pitta bread with sliced onion. This can be topped with ajar, a Balkan dip made from roast eggplant and red bell peppers.
26. Zeytinyağlılar – Turkey
In Turkey, cold vegetable dishes, simply prepared with olive oil, often accompany main courses. Delicacies such as sarma (stuffed cabbage leaves), dolma (stuffed vine leaves), and other ingredients such as kidney beans, artichokes, and black-eyed peas are staples on every lunch or dinner table.
27. Dobara – Algeria
The story of the origin of dobara says that when her husband brought an unexpected guest home and she only had very humble ingredients from which to create a dish, the enterprising wife combined them so well that the recipe became famous throughout Algeria, and even beyond.
Chickpeas, broad beans, tomatoes – and no meat – combine with the spices to create an economical, warming, and tasty meal.
28. Baklava – Eastern Mediterranean
Famous all over the Eastern Mediterranean, each country has its own take on the basic baklava recipe. It’s a sumptuous, sinfully sweet buttery dessert made from phyllo pastry, finely ground pistachios or other nuts, and drenched in a sweetened lemon juice syrup. Irresistible!
29. Gelato – Italy
There’s ice cream. And there’s Italian gelato. Artisan ice-cream makers all over Italy pride themselves on using the freshest, most natural ingredients to create a treat worthy of Italy’s demanding dessert connoisseurs.
Once you’ve tasted homemade gelato from a family shop with recipes handed down through generations, there’s no going back!
30. Knafeh (Kanafed) – Eastern Mediterranean
This sweet cheesy pastry is wildly popular dessert throughout the Middle East and the Eastern Mediterranean. The syrup can be flavored with rose or orange blossom water. Overall a fragrant delight and a fitting conclusion to any Mediterranean meal.