Mediterranean Tour

Specialties from the Eastern Mediterranean and North Africa deserve some exploration.

The Mediterranean region, the cradle of Western civilization, has a long history of cultural and economic exchange across the trade routes of the Mediterranean Sea. In ancient times, the Mediterranean linked the dominant cultures of the region—Mesopotamian, Egyptian, Phoenician, Jewish, Greek, Latin, Arab, Persian and Turkish cultures—and it continues to define their fortunes today. The countries of the region share many cultural and culinary traits, if not political and ethnic ones.

Twenty-one modern states have a coastline along the Mediterranean Sea. From a culinary point of view, however, the region has three major areas, which share many similarities but also demonstrate many key differences. They are Southern Europe (Italy, France and Spain), the Eastern Mediterranean (including Egypt, Greece, Israel, Lebanon, Syria, and Turkey), and North Africa (especially Morocco).

Olive oil and olives represent the key similarity, along with garlic, tomatoes, onions and saffron. Fruits and vegetables thrive in the warm climate, and they include eggplants, squashes, peppers, mushrooms, cucumbers, artichokes, okra, and various greens and lettuces, as well as melons and a variety of citrus fruits. Legumes, too, including lentils, chickpeas, fava beans in Egypt, green beans in France, and white kidney beans in Italy, are an important part of the diet.

Not surprisingly, seafood is an integral part of the culinary culture, especially anchovies, octopus, squid, shellfish, swordfish and monkfish. Beef is relatively rare, because the land can’t sustain large herds, but smaller animals such as sheep and goats provide milk and meat, with lamb being particularly popular.

In the northern part of the Mediterranean, including Greece, major flavoring roles are played by wine and herbs, such as dill, basil, parsley, rosemary, mint, fennel, bay leaf, cilantro and oregano. However, moving in a clockwise circle around the region, spices become ever more important, particularly in North Africa, where cumin, allspice, cinnamon and cloves, sumac, coriander and turmeric are employed. The spice trend reaches its zenith in Morocco, with its intriguing collection of spice blends such as chermoula and ras al hanout.

Beyond the relatively well-known food of Italy, France and Spain—and beyond such common items as hummus, falafel, tabbouleh and kebabs—there are many Eastern Mediterranean and North African specialties to explore as possible menu items.

Couscous (North Africa) The word refers to both the grainlike pasta and an elaborate stew of vegetables, meat, chicken, chickpeas and other ingredients served over the steamed grain. It is often eaten with a chile-based condiment known as harissa.

Dolmah (Middle East, Greece, Turkey, Armenia) A family of stuffed vegetable dishes, the most well-known of which is grape leaves. Tomatoes, eggplant, zucchini and peppers may also be used, and the filling can consist of rice, onions, parsley and other herbs, with or without minced meat. Raisins, nuts and split peas are other possible filling ingredients.

Fattoush (Middle East) This Levantine bread salad consists of toasted pita mixed with olive oil, herbs and fresh vegetables such as tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers.

Ful (Egypt) What some consider to be the national dish of Egypt is a dish of cooked or mashed spiced fava beans.

Horta (Greece) Cooked stewed greens (such as spinach, chard, mustard greens or any combination) dressed with olive oil and lemon juice.

Kibbeh (North Africa, Middle East) Minced meat mixed with bulgur (cracked wheat) and spices, shaped into ovals and grilled or fried. It is traditionally served with tahini (sesame paste) dip.

Kofta, also spelled köfte, kafta, kufta, keftedes or kafteh (Greece, Middle East) A family of meatball-like mixtures of ground or minced meat, mixed with onions and spices, and sometimes rice or bulgur. They can be baked, grilled, fried or poached, and served with a spicy sauce.

Meze, also spelled mezze (Greece, Turkey, Eastern Mediterranean) A selection of “little dishes,” similar to Spanish tapas, that can include dips, olives, cheeses, cured meats or sausages, and various salads.

Moussaka (Greece, Turkey) A baked casserole of sliced eggplant, minced or ground beef or lamb, tomatoes, onions and peppers. The Greek version is layered with bechamel (white sauce), while in Turkey the ingredients are simply combined.

Tagine (Morocco) The name for the conical clay pot as well as the fragrant stew that’s traditionally cooked in it. Traditional tagines include chicken with preserved lemons and olives; lamb with raisins and almonds; and meatballs with tomato sauce. American versions may be made with pot roast, lamb shanks, or turkey legs.                 

Platform for Diversity

Stanford University’s dining program has a leg up on the Mediterranean diet.

It stands to reason that the dining options at Stanford University would feature a number of Eastern Mediterranean platforms. Rafi Taherian, executive director of Stanford Dining, is Persian, born in what is now Iran and educated in Naples. Not only that, but Stanford—located in the heart of Silicon Valley in California—is one of the top schools in the country, attracting students from all over the world, in particular to its graduate programs in engineering, law and medicine.

“Our student population is very, very diverse,” explains Taherian, who has been with the school for more than 10 years. “We have many students from the Middle East, North Africa and Europe. That’s one of the things that makes this campus so interesting—the presence of so many different cultures.”

Taherian and the Stanford Dining staff have worked hard to make sure that this diversity is reflected in the food offerings, to put cooking in its cultural context. “Several years ago, we started looking at all our recipes and realized that typical ‘Middle Eastern’ menu items like falafel weren’t cutting it. We needed to dig deeper and make it much more authentic.”

Today Stanford has three dedicated Eastern Mediterranean platforms:

Cypress, offering North African (Moroccan, Algerian) and Middle Eastern (Turkish, Syrian, Lebanese) specialties in the Florence Moore (“FloMo”) dining facility.

RedSaffron, with “healthy Mediterranean” menu items (from Portugal, Greece, Sardinia), in Ricker Dining.

Olives, a café in the Main Quad offering “Mediterranean regional flavors with a California influence,” which also has evolved into a successful catering enterprise.

The diversity of these offerings reflects the diversity of the Mediterranean region itself. “You see a lot of similarities between certain Mediterranean specialties, but there are also significant differences,” says Taherian. “Take something as simple as tsatziki (a sauce/condiment made with yogurt and cucumbers). In Iran, it is mixed with garlic and mint, and possibly nuts. In Greece, it is seasoned with olive and vinegar; in Turkey, the sauce is thinner and sprinkled with sumac. ”

Cypress and Red Saffron both function as destination concepts within larger dining facilities, enabling students to have the largest possible variety of choices. “Each one is a separate station within the dining hall, but takes up only about a quarter of the service space,” says Taherian, allowing room for other venues such as hot entrees, salad bar and so on. (Each of the school’s eight dining halls has a signature platform, such as Abbondante for Italian food and the Southeast Asian Tao Now.)

In addition to a rotating selection of Mediterranean foods, says Taherian, each platform also offers context so that diners can learn about the cultures behind the menu items. This might take the form of books, displays and P.O.S. materials that offer a “window” onto the respective culture.

Each platform also has a centerpiece, in the form of exhibition cooking equipment. In the case of Cypress, it’s a doner kebab machine, a kind of vertical rotisserie that twirls layers of meat such as lamb or chicken over a bed of tomatoes; as the meat turns and roasts, it renders its fat. To order, a chef carves the meat from the outsize skewer, and serves it on pita with tahini, tsatziki, pickled red onion and a sprinkling of sumac, a lemony Middle Eastern spice.

At Red Saffron, the “hook” is a large grill dispensing such specialties as grilled Mediterranean cod, chicken souvlaki, Tuscan beef sausage with white bean sausage, and panini sandwiches. There is a bruschetta bar and a rotating selection of Mediterranean entrées and side dishes including chicken braised with olives and tomatoes, polenta with sundried tomatoes and sautéed broccoli rabe.

Taherian calls Olives a “little jewel” of an operation, 500 square feet of well-designed self-service space that generates more volume than just about any other foodservice venue on campus. The signature item is marinated olives, available by themselves by the container but also included on many of menu items.

Pleasure, Not Guilt

 Nick Camody shares Parkhurst’s Mediterranean Diet strategy.

For the last several years, Pittsburgh-based Parkhurst Dining Services has been experimenting with ethnic menu options as a way to offer healthy choices that don’t have to be marketed as healthy—just great-tasting and authentic. In the process, the company has also made a number of overall changes that reflect the Mediterranean Diet ideal, using healthy oils, and adding more grains, legumes, and fruits and vegetables, the latter through its FarmSource program. CEO Nick Camody explains the company’s thinking.

“Our goal is to provide authentic, incredibly tasty food that is also healthy. The old marketing ploy of using the heart symbol hasn’t worked in the past because a lot of customers have equated removing the fat with removing the flavor. We’re working to convert that mindset, so that our customers will say, ‘Wow, this tastes great—and oh, by the way, it’s also good for me.’

We’re doing this by focusing on world flavors, such as the Mediterranean. Not Italy and France but the eastern Mediterranean—Greece, the Middle East—and North Africa. We’re also re-engineering all of our recipes to promote better health and authenticity, not just in the area of Mediterranean but also Latin America and Asia.

We’ve replaced all of our oils with healthy choices such as olive oil, canola, and walnut and grapeseed oil. We now purchase as many fresh and minimally processed foods and make as many products as possible in-house.

For instance, four years ago our breakfast taco bars would have included jarred salsa and prepared guacamole.

Now the same bar features fresh salsa, sliced avocados, rice and beans, cage-free eggs and fresh tortillas, which makes it more Latin than Tex-Mex. People enjoy it more, and they eat less. Plus the Glycemic Index of these foods is half of what it used to be, which is much healthier.

We’re able to source fresh sustainable foods through our FarmSource program, which calls for at least 20% of our food to come from local farms and other suppliers within a 100-mile radius. That program has been instrumental in our quality positioning, and now we’re extending that into more authentic ethnic menu items.

We recently worked with Mediterranean cooking expert Joyce Goldstein to develop a number of eastern Mediterranean-style salads that are presented on platters on our salad bars. We do a lot of things with chickpeas—using the dried variety rather than canned, because they’re more authentic—as well as other beans, legumes and grains. We also put out olive oil, walnut oil and grapeseed oil, as well as flavored vinegars, so that customers can dress their own salads with products that are delicious but also healthy. And we’re redesigning point-of-purchase merchandising materials to be more educational, for instance talking about the history of grapeseed oil and where it’s used, with recipes for how to use it at home. The emphasis is on authenticity and flavor. The health aspect is there, especially if someone is interested in learning more about it, but it’s not in their faces.

The strategy has really been working well. It’s been well-received, and sales are moving up. We’ve been working with our culinary team to develop and implement new recipes, and we’re addressing all our offerings, station by station.

This represents a real change for the company, for our chefs, and for our customers. The emphasis isn’t on healthy food, it’s on great food. It plays on pleasure, rather than on guilt.”


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