Most American cuisines revolve around the basics: burgers, pizza, BBQ, Italian food, and Mexican food. No doubt these foods hold a special place in our hearts. We have been eating them since we were toddlers. The purveyors of these foods are at every corner, either in the form of fast food or casual dining establishments like Olive Garden or Chili’s. Indubitably these foods are tasty, but I wanted to talk about my true favorite foods: Eastern Mediterranean foods. So let’s talk about 5 reasons why I eat Eastern Mediterranean food.
I began eating Greek and Near East food in my high school years. My father, who was a world-famous cancer doctor, traveled the word given speeches and presentations at various conferences. As such he was a fine connasier of world cuisines. I remember, in particular, he would bring back hummus and tabbouleh salad from a nearby Lebanese grocery store, Droubi’s, near our house in Houston. At first, I thought hummus was pretty repugnant given its consistency and taste. Tabbouleh I simply didn’t like because it was a parsley-based salad. It wasn’t so much that it was a parsley-based salad that dissuaded me but rather it was a salad in general. My former obese self shunned any attempts to eat food that was fast, processed, and unhealthy.
In time I developed a taste for hummus and tabbouleh especially when mixed together and eaten with pita bread. Bread was a favorite of “Fat Albert” and honestly it makes everything taste better. Later in high school, my dad started bringing me gyros from Droubi’s. I really liked them particularly because of the then-unknown tzatziki sauces oozing from it. My dad would bring home dolma (spiced ground meat wrapped in grape leaves) and baba ganoush (eggplant-based paste similar in consistency to hummus), but at the time I tried these foods once and shunned them for 10 years. Hummus I grudgingly began to respect.
Fast forward several years, I noticed that I began gravitating toward more ethnic fare in my life. This move is partly attributed to my bland palate. I’ve spoken about this in my Confession of an Obese Child episode entitled “The Diminished Palate.” Either it was due to my years of binge eating or maybe some genetic predisposition but I don’t taste much. I don’t have a palette when it comes to food and drink. Most of the fare that we, Americans, eat like the aforementioned pizza, burgers, and alike taste bland to me. Wine, of which I was never a big fan, is a libation I enjoy but honestly couldn’t tell you the taste difference between a cabernet, pinot noir, merlot, and other reds. I can’t pick up the hints of dirt, chocolate, berries, and alike infused into these drink.
Nevertheless, in my 30’s I began moving toward the spicy foods. And when I mean spicy I don’t mean peppers found in Mexican food. As an American of Mexican descent, I’ve always enjoyed Mexican food, but never jalapenos and other spicy elements of the cuisine. But I did begin gravitating toward Thai, Indian, and Middle Eastern food. The main reason: I think it is because they use spices and flavors not found in conventional American fare. I could actually taste the kick that a curry brings to your tongue.
Regarding Middle Eastern food, I was fortunate to come up a Middle Eastern restaurant that opened about a year after returning to San Antonio in 2007. Pasha was a place that in my ignorant culinary mind felt was Greek. But in fact its menu is more a fusion of Turkish, Greek, Middle Eastern, and Persian fare. As with Chinese, Italian, and Mexican foods, American restaurateurs add elements of the American diet to make these more ethnic foods more palatable to Americans, namely more salt, cheese, and sugar.
Pasha blew my mind and literally I ate its food at least once a week for 2 years straight. Never missed a week! I began with the standard Chicken shawarma dish with hummus and basmati rice. This was my safe beginning. I particularly loved the garlic aioli sauce that brought a great savory punch to the food.
From there I branched out, starting with the side dishes. I sampled the assorted varieties of hummus: garlic, pine nuts, onion. Later I returned to baba ganoush, and tried another eggplant paste called kashke pademjan. I also sampled the dolma, which was exquisite and tender, the falafel, kibbeh, feta cheese plates, and alike. All were amazing! I literally could just eat sides dishes all day!
After exhausting the side dishes, I ventured out to sample the entrees. I adored the baked fish, the lamb stews, the gyro platters and alike, but my absolute favorite Middle Eastern dish is moussaka. Moussaka is made differently in various parts of the Greece, the Near and Middle East, but it is essentially spiced ground meat with eggplant and bechamel sauce. Bechamel is a white custard-looking topping typically made from flour, butter, and milk. Moussaka, I suppose, can be seen as the Middle Eastern cuisine’s lasagna. It is absolutely delectable. It is my go-to dish, but I like to mix in the fish, chicken, and lamb in a semi-consistent rotation.
The piece de resistance is baklava. Baklava is most typically made of crushed walnuts or pistachios wrapped in filo dough drizzled in honey. It is the most common dessert of the Near and Middle Easter. Click HERE to see our homemade recipe. Baklava is pretty easy to make and compared to the standard American dessert of cookies, brownies, ice cream and alike, it is quite healthy. Nuts and honey, you can’t get too much more healthy than that!
The Benefits of Middle Eastern Food
We have spoken ad nauseum on the podcast and blogs about the serious repercussions of indulging in the Standard American Diet (SAD). It is loaded with excess amounts of sugar, salt, trans fats, and preservatives which have wrecked our health. Diabetes, heart disease, and cancer are skyrocketing as is our waistlines.
You might have heard of the benefits of the Mediterranean diet. It is commonly listed as the healthiest diet on annual rankings. Why?
- Prominence of olive oil. Click HERE to review why industrial-grade vegetable oils are so deadly. In the Near East they use olive oil for cooking and dipping. It is high in the beneficial unsaturated fats.
- Low carb side dishes. Hummus, tabbouleh, baba ganoush, all originate from vegetables. Not to mention the common use of salads. Mediterranean/Near East dishes tend to be high in lean meat protein, fats, but low in carbs.
Don’t get me wrong. This cuisine loves grains. For example, couscous comes from wheat as does the naan, the unleavened bread so pervasive in most of South Asia. But they don’t gorge on grains and refined flour like we do in the West. Maybe it is the red wine as well! Maybe it isn’t. Click HERE to see why.
Either way, consider expanding your palette. Try more ethnic food. In most cases, they use better quality ingredients and are owned and operated by small business owners. We need to support these businesses more than the multinational corporations that own our well-known restaurant chains.
Carpe Diem! Live a little and try some new foods. They may change your life.
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