Authéntico, from the Costa del Sol
The Mediterranean Diet & Some Cultural Aspects of It
The belly rules the mind. ~Spanish Proverb
From Laguna Beach, California to Fuengirola, Spain – that is where I moved three and a half years ago. I didn’t know then that I was in for the best time of my life. I didn’t know what I was going to find when I reached the golden shores of the Costa del Sol.
“Spain is the new California”. I coined this phrase as I became familiar with Spain. Fuengirola is on the same latitude as Santa Cruz in Northern California. The weather is only vaguely similar, mainly in the fall and winter, but that is where the similarities end. Every aspect of the Spanish culture from the perspective of this Californian is an experience in forging a new world.
The culture in Spain is dramatically unique from California. The term “laid back” probably originated in California but the term is reinvented here. The Spanish people, especially here on the coast, aren’t in a hurry to go anywhere.
I am guessing but I’d say that only 5% of the people who live in Fuengirola own a car. People walk everywhere they go. If you need to go farther than your feet will take you, you can take a taxi, ride a bus or ride a scooter! There’s a train to destinations north, from Fuengirola to Malaga. Malaga is the 2nd largest city in Andalucía, is about 45 minutes north and is where the airport is. I would say most of the train passengers onboard from Fuengirola are heading for the airport.
Moving to Spain, I traded crowded freeways for quiet Calles.
A predominant aspect of the culture in Spain that dramatically differs from the U.S. is the food. Food is a way of life here, not just a means of sustenance.
And of course, in Spain, they eat the Mediterranean Diet. So I am bringing you a first hand look into the food and the culture of food.
Ingredients are what distinguish the Mediterranean diet from all other diets. It is unique to the 13 countries surrounding the Mediterranean Sea, naturally. The diet simply evolved from the uncomplicated way of eating based on what is immediately available from the sea and the land.
The focus of the food is on fresh - fresh vegetables and fresh fruit, fresh fish and seafood. These ingredients are complimented with fresh bread baked daily from one of the many local bakeries.
All sorrows are less with bread.
~Miguel de Cervantes, Don Quixote
Olive oil is an important ingredient that distinguishes the Mediterranean Diet from other diets. It is the predominant oil used in all food preparation. Olive oil is not only an ingredient and widely used, it is an identity, because it is the main agricultural crop of Spain. As a matter of fact, olives that are used for and sold as Italian olive oil are actually grown here in Spain. On a road trip through Andalucía you will see acres and acres, as far as the eye can see, of olive tree groves. Flying over Andalucía, all the little dots that you see as you look over the land are rows of olive trees. The fact that Spain grows olives that are exported and used to make Italian olive oil is a little known fact in the rest of the world that is widely known here in Spain.
Along with fresh vegetables, fruit, fish and seafood, the Mediterranean diet is renowned for the sparse use of red meat. Chicken, pork and lamb are commonly eaten meats. All of these are accompanied with moderate intake of wine or beer.
There are no ingredients to substitute for the basics. Mediterranean food is simple, pure and regarded as a high point in the Spanish culture. Marketing is done daily. Small vegetable, fruit and fish markets are scattered among various stores in the Calles everywhere. Healthy, simple and delicious food preparation is not a frivolous aspect of life here. Fast food does not exist. Dinner isn’t quickly prepared. It is done with consideration, time and care to prepare for the mealtime, when family sits together and shares the joy and tribulations of their day. Family dinners are an old tradition still alive here.
Holidays are about eating and being together with family, days spent eating the specialties of the season. On the coast there are no trees, no egg hunts, no shopping, no increased traffic or gift exchanging, just preparing food for the entire family to gather to enjoy together.
Americans are family oriented, but not to the extent they once were and not similarly to the religiously centered family core that exists within the culture here. Neither social mores nor economic necessities have caused the family to disperse. Old fashioned gender roles still play a large part of the family experience, as well as the population being 94% catholic, causing families to predominate as the most important glue to hold society together. And they eat.
Let’s Begin at the Beginning, With Tapas
Tapas are a uniquely Spanish appetizer, not as common in other Mediterranean countries as they are here.
There are hundreds and hundreds of different tapas. Tapas are as creative as the chef making them, limited only by ones imagination – due to the large variety of vegetables available, the variety of cheese and meat and bread to work with, to arrange in any tasty combination. There is a core of common or standard tapas that are found in every nook and cranny of a bar. Even in a small rustic salty bar, as well as in the larger or more popular bars, you will always find Russian salad, albondigas in salsa roja, paella, sardines and red peppers in garlic and olive oil, stuffed red peppers, marinated mushrooms in tomato sauce and tortilla de patata, to name just a few.
Bars here aren’t like typical bars back in the U.S. They are abundant, and every one of them is a special neighborhood meeting place, to have a bite, a glass of wine and good conversation with friends. Spaniards drink wine and beer plentifully but in always in moderation.
In fact, the Mediterranean diet is about moderation. It has to be about moderation when it comes to portions, which is why Spaniards, who eat 4 meals a day, typically, eat dinner at 9 or 10 at night and still maintain healthy weight. You do not see many overweight Spaniards. They eat the Mediterranean diet which is highly regarded as being the healthiest diet on earth.
It is well known and documented that the Mediterranean people, because of the diet and their lifestyle in general, have the lowest incidence of heart disease. The Mediterranean diet is credited with not only lowering risk of heart disease, but also the risk of cancer and Type 2 Diabetes.
You do not see any fast food companies operating in Spain, by Spaniards, because they do not exist. There used to be a McDonalds here in Fuengirola. It was open in the summer only and was supported mainly by tourists. Now that the economic crunch has diminished the tourist base, the McDonald’s isn’t open anymore.
Spaniards eat lunch in 2 separate meals rather than at one mid-day meal. Early afternoon is when tapas are the order of the day. It is a light meal consumed around 1 or 1:30 in the early afternoon. Lunch later in the afternoon is the main meal of the day.
Bocadillos, or sandwiches, are also a lunch item for some people, but they aren’t sandwiches that you would be familiar with. Instead they are on baguettes or rolls, are not dressed with mayo or mustard, and are made up of plain meat or plain flaked tuna and maybe some cheese. Bocadillos are very simple but delicious, always made on a plain roll. I have never seen Spaniards eating “sandwich bread” although it is sold in the market.
Late afternoon lunch is the main meal of the day. It consists of salad, meat, vegetable, and a glass of wine, dessert and a cup of coffee or tea.
Dinner is later in the evening at 8, 9 or 10, which means that although late lunch is the main meal, portions are small, to be able to have and enjoy dinner without being too full from late lunch.
Lunch meals and dinner is commonly had in a café or bar with friends or with family. The culture is highly social; friends and families meet to have meals out together. Cafés and bars bustle with crowds at lunch and dinner and everyone looks happy – laughing, talking and eating. Lunch and dinner meals out are time to relax and enjoy yourself and the company you are with. This is part of the Mediterranean culture.
We should look for someone to eat and drink with before looking for something to eat and drink... ~Epicurus
Salads served with late lunch or dinners are simple, consisting of iceberg lettuce, corn kernels, sliced red peppers, flaked tuna, and are served without dressing. They are dressed with oil and vinegar by you at your table.
Among the many, many unique food experiences I have discovered and now become used to, is how different the food items available in the grocery store are from those available in the U.S. In this instance, grocery stores in Spain simply do not have salad dressings. In markets in Spain there is no long isle with a vast number of brands and flavors of salad dressings to select from. No ranch, honey mustard, spicy this or cheesy or creamy that. There is only plain, simple oil and vinegar, available in their respective sections of the store. Some markets import salad dressings - and there is a high premium on them. But no one except the occasional ex-pat is interested in them.
Baking ingredients and consequently the baking goods isle are absent from markets here, also. You will find flour and sugar, but that’s the extent of the baking ingredients available. There is plenty of chocolate in stores. But there are no flavorings, food color, marshmallows, chocolate chips, coconut, vanilla, baking soda, baking powder, raisins, sprinkles, pans and certainly no boxed mixes of cakes or biscuits or brownies. I presume Spanish women don’t bake at home. There’s also no Karo syrup.
This was a serious challenge for me because I especially enjoy baking. My mom was from the mid-west and was a great cook; I was raised traditionally and was used to making cakes, pies, cookies, nut breads and other baked goods and candy and other good things - like Rice Crispy treats. Here in Spain I had to look for alternatives for common baking ingredients. I had to go a long way to find cake pans in particular. I searched for cake pans high and low, for months, to no avail. Eventually my sister in California mailed cake pans to me. Other friends have mailed ordinary baking ingredients to me. But, when they run out I still have to use substitutes and basically have had to adjust to what I can use that is available here. Walnut pie anyone? No pecans create the next best nut pie in Spain.
I will briefly mention the open markets, which are nothing short of thrilling. It is one thing to visit a foreign country and thrill at the excitement of seeing how people live in other countries. Becoming familiar with the open food markets in Spain has been a highlight of living here, that I never tire of. On Tuesdays there is a huge open market that we call the “vendor market” because all the vendors of new products bring their wares to the fairgrounds, which is a huge area that people flock to from cities all around Fuengirola, because of its variety of products, available at low cost.
There is an amazing vegetable and fruit market there also. Dozens of fresh farm produce vendors create amazing colorful displays and the mass of people there buying fresh produce generates great, exciting energy.Mediterranean diet
There are several vegetable and fruit stands and markets all over town. The food is all fresh, beautiful, is grown without pesticides. Produce from Spain, I found, is more delicious than fruit and vegetables I’d eaten before. Tomatoes are huge and tasty, carrots are tender and succulent.
One last thing. . . Did I mention that the Costa del Sol just happens to be the warmest region on the European continent? It is. The town of Nerja, in particular, is the warmest. The area around Nerja, part of Andalucía, is the only place on the continent of Europe where avocados, bananas, mangos and bread fruit grow.
Back to the Mediterranean Diet
I have painted a broad picture about the ingredients available to cooks and the basics of the culture of eating the Mediterranean Diet. Next, let’s get to some basic Mediterranean diet menu meal plans that will guide you toward designing a healthy Mediterranean diet for you. It is more effective if you are eating this diet while actually here, because the outdoor lifestyle, the sun, the walking, the marketing and the general culture that all are as much of the “diet” as eating is.
Barring the sun and the daily walks along cobbled Calles to the market, let’s give you some basics that may help you imagine being here and being part of it. And you can possibly incorporate some of the activities where ever you live.
Mediterranean Diet Breakfast
All happiness depends on a leisurely breakfast. ~John Gunther
For breakfast you have a variety of choices. Typically breakfast consists of a roll and coffee. If you are dieting there are a few alternatives that if you stick to will absolutely aid your success in reducing body weight and becoming healthier.
Yogurt is my first breakfast menu selection. Breakfast Yogurt Suggestions:
Eat ½ to 1 cup yogurt, plain or low fat with any combination of these options: bananas, blue, black or strawberries, raisins, muesli, oatmeal, walnuts, almonds and or a teaspoon of honey.
Make sure you purchase cultured yogurt to maximize nutritional value. Cultured yogurt is an excellent source of calcium and protein and can lower your cholesterol.
Breakfast of yogurt is a nutritious and delicious meal.
See Yogurt on the Low Cholesterol Diet Page under the heading "8 Foods You Should Eat Everyday”. If you haven/t read this page yet, I highly recommend it.
Eating fresh fruit requires the time to buy and prepare it. I don’t know how common my personal experience is however, I have always been a conscious, healthy eater, yet I bought fruit that invariably sat and got over ripe before I actually ate it. In my personal diet now, I eat a large amount of fruit but it always takes time to prepare. Bananas need sliced, apples need sliced, watermelon and other melon, all need to have rind removed and to be sliced. Laugh or moan as you will, but often fast food is consumed because of the lack of time taken to perform these very tasks. Food preparation takes time, and taking the time required to make it work for you will be a huge benefit, I promise you. Obviously, most fruit is already wrapped naturally and can be easily and conveniently eaten. Putting it in something, like yogurt or a salad, requires your time to prepare it. It’s all part of the charm and pleasure of eating.
Any fruit in your yogurt will do.
Another breakfast option is fruit juice with plain toast, or toast with jam or tomato puree, as it is commonly eaten here in Spain.
A great, maybe the very best breakfast food, (which is not a Mediterranean food), is oatmeal. Oatmeal sold here is imported from either Norway or England. Spanish people are not familiar with it and I would say they don’t eat it. However, oatmeal is high in fiber, is attributed as an essential food for lowering cholesterol and a recommended portion is ½ cup per day. It’s easy to prepare, you can embellish it with fruit, and it tastes as good as it is good for you. I serve it as breakfast every day and believe it is a mainstay of an overall good healthy diet.
In the overall diet plan I highly recommend drinking or using non-fat milk on your oatmeal and in coffee. Many brands fortify milk with vitamins to make it even healthier for you to drink. Non-fat milk does not have to be like drinking water, some brands are thin and not very tasty. I have found several brands of non-fat milk that are good and creamy tasting. Look around, try a few brands and use non-fat milk for the long run of cutting fats from your diet.
Last, in my shortlist of breakfast suggestions, is fruit salad. Fruit salad can of course, be a selection of most anything you like. Prepare it in advance and keep it in a plastic tub for up to 3 days, without it becoming wilted or not nice to eat anymore. One of my favorite fruit salad combinations is bananas, pineapple and coconut. Add oranges and it’s still a delicious tropical fruit salad.
If you are eating only fruit in the morning it’s likely that you will be hungry again before lunchtime. There are healthy crackers that often are digestive aids too, are a great item to have either with your fruit, or to keep available for when your hunger strikes.
Mediterranean Diet Lunch
Lunch is easy too. If you are here on the Med lunch certainly would consist of either tapas or a bocadillo. I am going to give you recipes for a good selection of typical foods that, depending on your situation – whether you are at home or at work, may work for you.
Meanwhile, my suggestion for lunch for either weight loss or to establish and maintain a healthy diet is to eat a salad and have a piece of fruit. This lunch can be very delicious, satisfy your hunger and will ultimately lead to either weight loss or improving your health, or both.
Salads ought to have a good variety of cut vegetables: corn, tomatoes, red peppers, graded or sliced carrots, sliced onion, or any other of your favorite vegetables, and good healthy green salad leaves, including spinach. See Spinach on the Low Cholesterol Diet page.
In the previous page, Low Cholesterol Diet, and in the preceding page, The Grapefruit Diet, I have given you both great diet food suggestions and an actual weight reducing diet plan, that you can borrow ideas from to create your lunch menu. Often, meals can be redundant. However, they need not be boring if you change the ingredients within your salads daily or weekly. It isn’t too time consuming to do if you prepare the items ahead of time and keep them in the fridge, to mix into your salad to suit your taste on any given day. To the list of salad ingredients above I would also add sliced or julienned beets and sliced eggs. These ingredients can make a terrific, satisfying lunch that once you get used to eating, you will realize the value of not eating that fast food sandwich or burger for lunch any longer.
Eating a piece of fruit as a dessert to your lunch meal can be even more filling, and you cannot or will not gain an ounce if salad and fruit are your lunch meals.
There is always the trusty convenient sandwich to be had for lunch. Make sure you use good integral wheat bread and limit the dressing used to the very minimum. Lettuce on your sandwich may be just the thing to lend some nice moisture, taste and crunch to your sandwich if you for go the dressing. As everyone knows, mayonnaise is high in calories, and eliminating these calories over time is means fewer calories to burn off. That is, if you want to reduce your weight.
A healthy intake of water is mandatory to keep your body happy, both for general rinsing of your system but also to aid weight loss. Remembering to drink enough is keenly important - general wisdom is to drink 8 glasses a day. You will be surprised how drinking this much water can keep you full, and can result in your waistline reduction. It makes you feel terrific and healthy to be on a plan where you eat well, are drinking plenty of water, when the results of both begin to be noticeable.
If you like a snack in the afternoon there is hardly any alternative better for you or that will not create increase in weight, than fruit. Not surprising, eating an apple is super good, easy and is indisputably good for you. Substituting other snacks and replacing them with a piece of tasty, juicy fresh fruit will certainly significantly improve your health and will create weight loss.
Mediterranean Diet Dinner
Dinner can be simple but include a large variety of options, so your hunger is satisfied, your taste buds are satisfied and variety is maintained so that you don’t lose interest in maintaining a super healthy diet and lifestyle.
Eating a salad for dinner is both healthy and will help reduce weight. Eating a salad that consists of ingredients mentioned above is great to have again at dinner time. The secret is to use little or no dressing. If you use dressing, try using olive oil and vinegar. Using O & V, salt and pepper and if you like, add some garlic powder. Your salad can be satisfying without being dressed with creamy dressing. I often add crumbled blue cheese into my salads which gives them a full extra flavor that blends well with the lettuce and veges. Using a diet or light dressing may be a reasonable concession. Try using oil and vinegar, you might like it!
Eating potatoes as a carbohydrate is a great compliment to a meal. Try using olive oil drizzled over your potato instead of butter. It still tastes good, and eliminates the high cholesterol fat in butter from your diet. With some salt and pepper, you probably won’t even be able to tell the difference, but your heart will.
Eating legumes on a regular basis is good for you. There are plenty of varieties of beans to choose from. Common here are garbanzo beans, used a lot in soups. Also popular are white and pinto beans. Black beans are the best option and are available everywhere. Here is a really good recipe for black beans.
Lentils are also a great vitamin source and are a delicious legume. Use them in soup, salads or by themselves as a side dish. Please click here for a terrific, delicious recipe for Mediterranean Summer Lentil Salad.
Eat Your Vegetables!
Nothing, besides eating a salad, can be as beneficial for you as a good side dish of vegetables. Needless to say there is a huge variety of options for you to choose from. All you have to do is buy them, and if at a minimum all you do to prepare them is to steam them, you are doing well. If you get creative and combine your veges into a casserole or saute them together in garlic and olive oil, you are doing well then too. I think a very good option is for you to use is to look at the website I found that may get your creative juices flowing. See this great website for lots of low calorie, delicious vegetable recipes.
Depending on your time and your objective, whether to lose weight or just get healthier, you can be as simple or creative as you wish. Eating well is essential for longevity, vitality and well being, and vegetables are a large part of the plan.
Meat, Fish, Seafood and Chicken
Please, less red meat - more fish. There is a lot of research documented to support the fact that eating red meat in abundance causes heart-disease. And, red meat is difficult for your body to digest.
Two low calorie beef menu suggestions that taste great are made using very low fat ground meat, prepared in patties or as meatloaf. See this great recipe for Mediterranean Diet Meatloaf. It is really great-tasting and can be easily prepared as a meal for one or for a family. Or, Hamburger Patties cooked in a pan without oil, prepared with diced onion, green bell or spicy Anaheim peppers are a very good main course also. Top them with Blue Cheese, and it’s a super terrific meal.
One terrific suggestion for a delicious meat meal, Mediterranean style is Mediterranean Chili. Don't miss reading this recipe if you are a chili lover.
Eating fish, high in protein (good for your hair, nails, regenerating new healthy cells in your body) is better for you than any other source of protein from meat. A great suggestion for both weight reduction and to create a healthy low calorie, low cholesterol diet is to eat fish three times a week. Having fish dinners 3 times weekly is more often than many people normally eat fish and may be challenging as far as variety options in the menu.
What's that you say? You would like a terrific recipe for Mediterranean Linguini with Clam Sauce? Well wait no further!
And here are some simple fish meal options and recipes: Mediterranean Spicy Panga (white fish filets) with Sweet Potatoes and Black Beans; Sauteed Panga with Baked Potatoes and Salad; Panga Stir-Fry; Calamari Dinner or Tapas.
Chicken, pork and lamb are great menu additions with many preparation options, and are healthy and delicious food. See this recipe for a great meal – Mediterranean Roast Chicken.
The countries that border the Mediterranean Sea are Spain, France, Monaco, Italy, Malta, Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Albania, Greece, Turkey, Cyprus, Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco.
Not all ingredients of the Mediterranean diet are consistent throughout each of these countries. There are many regional differences, but what is consistent is the focus on fresh vegetables and fruit, fresh fish and seafood, and lots of them. To these, add fresh baked bread, a glass of red wine, friends and family and enjoy life a little longer!
Don't think I would leave you hanging without including dessert.
No meal is complete without dessert!
I will begin my collection of delicious yet light wonderful evening meal desserts with Mediterranean Honey Cake.
Mediterranean Honey Cake is a take-off of a traditional white cake, which can be frosted with any flavor you prefer: coffee, caramel, banana walnut, strawberry, or any other flavor you feel like having on it. There are no boundaries for how to frost a vanilla, er, in this case, a honey cake.
In this recipe I have chosen to use a Cream Coconut, and blended it with soft cream cheese and a dash of honey for sweetness, to create a wonderful Honey Cake that you will be happy to serve and all to enjoy.
It's a real Mediterranean delight!
Please see the recipes from the Mediterranean Diet page and other great recipes for everyday cooking on the Mediterranean Diet Recipes page.
We invite you not to miss it! ;)
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