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The Mediterranean Diet consists of foods from countries that surround the Mediterranean Sea. These countries vary in culture, but also vary in the way they prepare their meals. One key difference is the Mediterranean spices and herbs used to flavor recipes.
Beyond the food you eat on the Mediterranean Diet, spices and herbs are important pieces of the overall health benefits of the diet.
Take the time to learn the health benefits of the various Mediterranean spices and you will be well on your way to achieving a healthy diet.
Besides adding flavor to your recipes, spices and herbs also add many healthful benefits.
Regularly including flavorings in your recipes and meals may help with:
- blood sugar levels,
- infection, and
- help lower bad cholesterol.
Other benefits may include decreasing your risk of cancer, lowering blood pressure, and improving your mood.
Of course, these potential health benefits are a result of the regular use of spices and herbs in your meals.
You will recognize some of these spices and herbs as they have worked their way into mainstream diets and recipes. Others you may be less familiar with.
Herbs are the leaves of plants. Examples include basil, chervil, dill, oregano, and thyme.
Spices are harvested from the non-leafy parts of the plant such as seeds, berries, roots, bark, etc. Examples include capers, cinnamon, and turmeric.
For more on the differences between herbs and spices read, Herbs vs Spices | A Debate.
Learn more about the Mediterranean Diet Guidelines so you can learn how to eat this healthy diet.
Mediterranean Spices and Herbs
Typical spices and herbs used in Mediterranean Diet include Basil, Bay Leaf, Black Pepper, Capers, Caraway Seeds, Cardamom, Chervil, Cinnamon, Cloves, Corriander, Cumin, Dill, Ginger, Nutmeg, Oregano, Paprika, Parsley, Rosemary, Saffron, Sumac, Thyme, Turmeric.
Learn more about these spices and how they are used below.
Uses and Benefits of Spices and Herbs
Tender-leafed basil is a herb that grows best outdoors in warm climates such as the Mediterranean.
Health benefits of including basil in your diet include helping your body manage inflammation, anxiety, depression, and age-related memory loss.
Use: It is a common ingredient in Italian recipes such as pesto and marinara sauce but also compliments fresh tomatoes. Use in soups, roasts, and salad dressings.
Native to the Mediterranean area, Bay Leaf is a rich source of Vitamin A, C, Iron, Potassium, Calcium, and Magnesium.
Used as a home remedy to help with:
- migraine when brewed in a tea 1
- topically, as an essential oil, to help sore muscles and joints 2
- help with digestion.
Use: fresh or dried to flavor soups, stews, pasta sauces, and braises. Leaves should be removed prior to consuming the dish.
Black Pepper is ground from dried peppercorn berries and is rich in vitamins and minerals. Freshly ground peppercorns in a pepper mill#ad will provide the most flavor because ground pepper quickly loses its potency. It contains large amounts of a compound called piperine.
Piperine has been studied and found to calm the body’s immune response. In addition, it is an antioxidant, may help with inflammation, and has anti-ulcer properties. 3
Use: sprinkle on fresh fruit such as melon, strawberry, or pineapples. Flavoring in soup stock, sauces, marinades, and stews. It is used to flavor all kinds of meat from burgers, poultry, fish, and anything you want to roast.
Buy whole peppercorns and store them in a dry, cool cabinet for up to 6 months.
Capers are pickled flower buds from the Capparis spinosa bush that is native to the Mediterranean. The flower buds are dried and later brined to produce the caper flavor used in recipes.
Capers are rich in calcium, magnesium, fiber, and vitamin C. This herb has anti-inflammatory properties and may help control diabetes.
Use: chicken dishes, salads, and roasted vegetables.
This spice is the fruit of a biennial plant similar to carrots grown in Europe, Asia, and Northern Africa.
It helps the digestive system by stimulating gastric juices and improves overall appetite. Lastly, Caraway seeds help improve the circulation of blood.
Use: Salads, soups, stews, baked goods, and bread,
Cardamom in your diet may provide a variety of health benefits. It may help decrease inflammation in the body.3 It also acts as a diuretic and so may help lower blood pressure.
Cardamom contains cancer-fighting compounds, helps support complexion, helps with skin allergies and ulcers. It has antibacterial effects so it may help prevent cavities.
Cardamom also helps improve blood sugar levels. Using cardamom makes food have amazing flavor with all of these added health benefits.
Available in both green and black varieties, it is a relative of ginger. You can purchase ground cardamom or use the whole pod which is about the size of cranberry in cooking. Its use in recipes provides a pungent aroma and a sweet, spicy flavor.
Use: season meats and vegetables.
Often called French parsley, Chervil has an anise flavor. When eaten regularly in your diet it may help with fluid retention, coughs, digestion problems, and high blood pressure.
Have you heard of the classic French Spice mix?#ad Chervil is one of the key spices along with chives, parsley, and tarragon.
Use: flavor salads, soups, and sauces.
Harvested from the inner bark of a tropical evergreen tree, the bark is dried to produce cinnamon quills. It is available in a lighter-colored form called Ceylon which imparts a milder flavor. The typical cinnamon we all think of is cassia cinnamon which is the spicey, reddish-brown variety.
Cinnamon is loaded with antioxidants. It can help fight inflammation and infection. It also helps lower cholesterol and calms the immune system.3 Cinnamon may improve sensitivity to insulin and help reduce blood sugar levels. 4
Use: flavor meats, bread, and baked goods. Also a component of the spice blend Garam Masala.
The aromatic clove is the dried and unopened flower bud of Indonesia's tropical clove tree.
Cloves are full of antioxidants and contain compounds that help with inflammation and may help with diabetes and depression.
Use: ground or whole to flavor roasts baked foods and hot beverages.
Including Coriander in your recipes adds a nice bright lemony-sage flavor to the dish. It has multiple benefits. Coriander is a wonderful source of dietary fiber, magnesium, iron, and manganese as well. Coriander may help lower bad cholesterol (LDL)
Use: add to curry dishes and as a spice rub for fish and chicken.
An ancient spice, cumin originated in the Mediterranean. A key ingredient in curry powder and chili powder, cumin adds an earthy flavor to Southwestern and Indian recipes.
Cumin can be used both as the whole seed or ground and has a nutty flavor. It is included in many spice blends.
It's reserved primarily for savory recipes. Cumin, an antioxidant, has many health benefits including being a good source of iron and may improve blood sugar control. In addition, it may help with digestion, support cholesterol levels, and improve sleep.
Use: salads, soups, meat, fish, vegetables, and sauces.
The herb may lower inflammation and can help fight infection. It is a good source of calcium, manganese, and iron. It may help lower cholesterol, and aid digestion.
Used to brine dill pickles, dill seed has a strong flavor that intensifies when heated. You can also use chopped dill as a salt substitute when you are trying to cut back.
Use: potatoes, soup, salad, sauces, and fish.
Another Mediterranean native is the fennel plant. While the stalks and bulb are used in cooking as a vegetable, the seeds are used for flavoring. Fennel seeds have an anise or licorice flavor.
It is a nutritious plant that is often used to help support digestion.
Use: meats, sausage, and soups.
Ginger is a root spice that is commonly used to flavor oriental dishes.
With many health benefits, ginger has been studied for its anti-inflammatory effects in rheumatoid arthritis 5. It is also known to help calm the digestive tract by easing nausea and vomiting, gas, and diarrhea 6
Use: savory dishes, soups, teas, and even desserts.
Nutmeg seeds are the fruit of the nutmeg tree. Sold whole or ground, it is a common flavoring in custards and creamed spinach.
Nutmeg is used in many sweet as well as savory dishes. It has anti-inflammatory properties, acts as an antioxidant, and also has antibacterial properties. Lastly, including in your diet may help boost libido.
Use: pies, puddings, custard, cookies, and spice cakes.
Oregano is a hardy, perennial herb that comes in many flavor varieties, from peppery to lemony to burn-your-tongue hot. Usually more flavorful when dried than fresh.
Oregano is another herb that's high in antioxidants, and compounds that may help reduce inflammation, and fight bacterial and viral infections. It's used to treat stomach ailments, especially digestive issues.
Use: salads, tomatoes, meat, fish, and vegetables.
Paprika is the spice that is often sprinkled over your grandma’s favorite deviled eggs. It is packed full of Vitamin A responsible for visual health, strengthening the immune system, and may also have anticancer properties. Look for Smoked Sweet Paprika for more flavor.
Use: stews, soups, pasta, sauces, and marinades.
Parsley is a concentrated source of vitamins such as A, C, and K, all of which are plant-based compounds. Its use may help protect against cancer and diabetes and it also improves bone health.
Use: with a peppery flavor use to season sauces, soups, chicken dishes, grilled and baked fish, or just as a garnish.
This herb contains a compound that may help decrease inflammation and fight infection.3 Rosemary is known to help to alleviate muscle pain, improve memory, boost immune and circulatory systems, plus promote hair growth.
Use: seasoning in various dishes, such as soups, salads, casseroles, stews also meats like poultry, Lamb, steaks, pork, and fish, especially oily fish.
Grown and harvested primarily in the Mediterranean and India, Safron comes from a flower stigma. It is an expensive spice, due to its limited production and difficult harvest. But, its light fragrant flavor keeps cooks coming back for more.
Sold in slender red threads from the flower, it is typically ground into a powder for use in recipes.
Saffron may improve moods and help treat depressive symptoms. It also may have cancer-fighting properties, reduces appetite to aid in weight loss, and several other benefits.
Considered one of the most expensive spices, a pinch is really all you need to flavor and color food. While the spice is naturally deep red in color, when mixed with food it turns a golden yellow.
Use: seafood, soups, stews, bread, and cakes.
Sumac is a spice that is a burgundy red powder with a somewhat lemony flavor. It is an antioxidant known to soothe stomach upsets and may also help normalize blood pressure.
Use: rub, marinade, dressing for vegetables, meat, and fish.
Thyme helps boost immunity. It’s packed with vitamins C, and A, copper, fiber, iron, and magnesium. It has many health benefits from fighting infections, to lowering cholesterol and blood pressure. Including in your diet can boost your mood and calm your cough.
Use: egg, bean, vegetable, potato, and rice dishes.
Another root spice can be used in either powdered or root form. It has been used as a dye due to its bright yellow color, as a flavoring in food, and is the primary ingredient in curry powder, and as a supplement for inflammation. The primary active ingredient for health benefits in Turmeric is curcumin. 7 It is packed full of vitamins, nutrients, antioxidants, and fiber.
Use: spice mix for meat or BBQ rub, ingredient for homemade salad dressings or marinades.
There are many more spices used in the cooking of Mediterranean meals. These are just a handful of spices and herbs each one has incredible benefits. As we name more you will understand how wonderful this culture is and the meals they make.
When you see these health benefits, the thing to remember is that adding these Mediterranean spices to one dish or eating them for a short period of time will not allow you to reap these health improvements. The key is to include them regularly as part of the Mediterranean Diet.
Mediterranean Spice Mix
Include any of these spices in your Mediterranean dishes and you will easily elevate their flavor without the need for salt.
Baharat is a blend of spices that typically includes Cinnamon, Allspice, Coriander, Cardamom, Black Pepper, Nutmeg, Ginger, Cloves. The actual blend may vary by region. It gives a sweet and smokey zip to almost any dish.
It is best to start with small amounts until you are familiar with the spice. For a marinade mix with lemon and olive oil. You can also sprinkle on olive oil for a dip with bread.
Use: meat vegetables, rice, and lentils.
Tabil is a blend of earthy coriander, aromatic garlic flakes, caraway seeds, and spicy chili.
Use: add spice and warmth to meat dishes, and yogurt sauces.
Za’atar is a blend of spices and herbs that adds a savory citrusy flavor to your meals. Za’atar mixes vary from a base of thyme, toasted sesame seeds, and sumac. Additions of marjoram, oregano, and salt are also popular.
Use: Enjoy mixed with olive oil with crusty bread for dipping. Use it as a marinade for tofu or mix the spices into breadcrumbs if you're making breaded veggies. Sprinkle on hummus, grilled chicken, mix with feta cheese, tomatoes, and onions.
A ristra is a woven, hand-strung rope of garlic or chilis.
One teaspoon of dried herbs is equivalent to approximately 1 tablespoon of the fresh herbs.
How to Grow Your Own Fresh Herbs
If you love cooking with fresh herbs you can easily grow your own. Worried you don't have ideal conditions?
Herbs are forgiving plants and can easily be grown in a window sill planter, or a container where you have limited space on a patio or balcony.
To grow your own herbs, simply fill your container with a planting mix for Herbs and Vegetables. Add a rooted starter herb plant and surround it with soil. Set the container in a spot where it will get 6-8 hours of sun daily or in a sunny window. Water sparingly.
Want fresh herbs year-round? Simple bring your containers indoors to a sunny window or transplant them to indoor containers.
Bring herbs up to your level with an elevated plant stand.
Not sure which herbs to start with? I chose oregano, thyme, basil rosemary, and parsley for my garden. Or order a starter kit of fully rooted herbs.
I am amazed at how quickly the starter plants took off and I love having fresh herbs for my recipes.
When I need fresh herbs I simply take my kitchen scissors and snip the amount I need. I rinse them underwater and dry them with a paper towel. Before chopping, I strip the leaves from the stems and then finely chop. Chopping before use helps release aromatic oils in the herbs and spices.
So easy and the fresh herbs add bright color to my recipes. Try it!
June 2022 Update: Updated post with information on growing herbs and images.
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