As a person of Cypriot heritage, I am more than familiar with the beauty of the Mediterranean diet. In Cyprus, eating takes on an almost ceremonial air - dishes upon dishes of colourful food are brought out for you to marvel at, which are always accompanied by a huge salad and warm bread. We then eat until our hearts are content - in the evenings we can sometimes be at the table for hours, chatting in between each delicious mouthful, whiling the time away.
There are many variations of what is considered to be a Mediterranean diet. Countries from three continents follow this way of eating and include Spain, Italy, Greece, Cyprus, Lebanon and Syria. Because of the differing cultures of each of these countries, the Mediterranean diet consists of a rich variety of dishes.
"In northern African countries such as Morocco and Tunisia, they commonly use meat, seafood, olive oil, olives, vegetables and fruit," explains the executive chef Ajith Matharage, who specialises in Mediterranean cuisine at the Tilal Liwa Hotel in Abu Dhabi. "They normally cook by stewing or baking and their most popular dishes are couscous and tajine."
Matharage goes on to explain that eastern Mediterranean countries such as Egypt, Lebanon and Turkey use meat, wheat, olives, vegetables, fruit, yogurt and beans; they typically cook by steaming, grilling or boiling and their popular foods are kibbeh and kofta. Meanwhile, in southern European countries such as Spain, Greece and Cyprus the ingredients used are mainly fresh vegetables, fruit, seafood and pasta, and popular dishes include Greek salad and paella.
It came as no surprise to read studies that show that the Mediterranean diet is consistently found to have an abundance of health benefits. New research that was recently published by the New England Journal of Medicine shows that eating a Mediterranean diet cuts by 30 per cent the chances of those at risk of stroke or heart attack. Another study, published by Maastricht University, showed that if you're a non-smoking woman who eats a Mediterranean diet high in fruit, olive oil, vegetables, fish and nuts, you can add up to 15 years to your life. Now there's a reason if you ever needed one to try to adopt the Mediterranean way of eating.
Other studies have shown that it reduces the risk of heart disease as well as cardiovascular mortality, and also leads to a reduced incidence of cancer, as well as a lowered incidence of Parkinson's and Alzheimer's diseases. "The Mediterranean diet is considered healthy because it includes fruit, vegetables, wheat, olives, olive oil, seafood and herbs," explains Matharage. "Olive oil is used instead of butter, which is high in cholesterol, and herbs are used to give flavour to food instead of excessive salt."
According to Hanan Wehbi, a Dubai-based personal trainer and nutritionist, another reason why the Mediterranean diet has been known to be healthy for so long is because of the weather the region has been blessed with. "We witness four seasons in the year and therefore enjoy all the heavenly fresh fruits and vegetables that our soil can bear. Hence, we can smell, taste and enjoy these foods the way God created them," she says. "This is why most of the Mediterranean recipes are fresh and raw, because of how tasty the ingredients are - they don't need lots of cooking and spices to make them edible. Take, for example, two famous Mediterranean dishes: fattoush and tabbouleh - they're a mix of vegetables put together with lemon and olive oil," she adds.
Wehbi explains how most items in the mezze section of any Mediterranean menu are raw and fresh and whenever we consume a mix of fresh, raw foods, we get the minerals and vitamins directly from the source, making the food more nutritious and healthy. "One of the other reasons why the Mediterranean diet is heart-friendly is because of the excess use of olive oil in the food, versus ghee and other cooking oils," she says.
Looking for a way to lose weight without compromising on taste? Perhaps you should consider adopting the eating habits of the Mediterranean. Wehbi says that the diet can be healthy if followed properly - this means incorporating loads of fruit and vegetables into your meals, only using fresh produce and cooking with olive oil instead of other oils.
"Stay away from bread, pasta and rice and you will see immediate weight loss," she says. "What most people don't know is that certain vegetables are filled with carbohydrates, so theoretically we don't need to add any source of carbohydrates to our diet. For example, carrots can be mashed like a potato and are considered high in carbs, and so are mushrooms, courgettes and legumes. Therefore, have two cups of steamed vegetables instead of mashed potatoes and you'll see a difference in your clothes in no time."
How to incorporate Mediterranean eating habits into your diet
Tips from Samantha Wood, the founder of the restaurant review blog FooDiva (www.foodiva.net)
Start by planning meals around vegetables, fruit and dairy products that are available locally and therefore seasonal and very fresh - check out the growing farmers' markets in the UAE now, where the produce available is not only incredibly fresh (and in some cases organic), but also much cheaper than buying imported, tasteless produce from the supermarkets.
Decide on dishes based on the produce you have picked up - and cook simply using a good virgin olive oil with herbs and spices for seasoning.
Remember that virgin olive oil has a lower smoke point so if you are frying, it's best to use another oil, such as rapeseed, for high temperatures.
Recommendations of Mediterranean restaurants in Dubai by Samantha Wood
I am half Greek-Cypriot so I am naturally biased towards Elia, the Greek restaurant at the Majestic hotel in Bur Dubai. Don't let the location put you off - the restaurant's interior and cuisine is one of Dubai's best (www.dubaimajestic.com or call 04 501 2666).
La Petite Maison, whose cuisine is French-Niçoise with an Italian influence shining through, is a must-visit (www.lpmdubai.ae or call 04 4439 0505).
Almaz by Momo, the Moroccan eatery in Harvey Nichols at Mall of the Emirates, is a personal favourite (call 04 409 8877).
Mediterranean recipes to try at home, As recommended by Chef Ajith Matharage
Fresh garden salad with buffalo mozzarella
30g green onion
20g red radish
20g rocca leaves
100g Buffalo mozzarella
2 tsp olive oil
2 cherry tomatoes
2 tsp balsamic vinegar
Salt and pepper to taste
Wash and dry all the salad produce.
Put all the salad in a bowl and mix together with olive oil, balsamic, vinegar, salt and pepper.
Pour the salad in a plate and place cheese on the middle of the salad.
Brush the leftover liquid from the mixing bowl on to the mozzarella cheese.
For the garlic toast, take any kind of country bread and cut in slices. Get one clove of garlic and scratch onto the bread. Toast it under a grill.
Quick salmon with lemon and olive oil
1 large lemon
2 garlic cloves
200g fresh salmon fillet
1 tablespoon chopped coriander and basil leaves
Salt and pepper to taste
2 tablespoons olive oil
200g assorted green vegetables (asparagus, broccoli, spinach & fresh herbs)
Mix together the lemon, olive oil, basil, olives, coriander, salt and pepper in a bowl. Marinate the salmon for 15 minutes in the mixture.
Preheat the top part of your oven.
Place the salmon in the oven, leaving a half-foot gap between the oven tray and the top of the oven. Broil for 15 minutes and turn over once.
Blanch the assorted greens in boiling water, strain and keep on the side.
Once the salmon is cooked, sauté the assorted greens in olive oil. Place the sautéed greens on the middle of the plate and place salmon on top.
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