These Mediterranean pantry essentials are the must-have Mediterranean ingredients you need to stock for cooking deliciously healthy Mediterranean dishes. Whether you’re following the Mediterranean Diet or a lover of Mediterranean cuisines, the cuisines of the countries that skirt the Mediterranean Sea, then fill your pantry with olive oils, vinegars, olives, capers, anchovies, canned tomatoes, chickpeas, beans, and more.
Whether you’re considering testing out the Mediterranean diet that everyone seems to be switching to, or you’re simply a lover of the food of the Mediterranean, then you need to fill your kitchen cupboards with these Mediterranean pantry essentials.
Our list of Mediterranean pantry essentials includes the Mediterranean ingredients you need to stock up on for cooking Mediterranean cuisines, the cuisines of the countries that skirt and dot the Mediterranean Sea or Mediterranean basin, as the lands of the region are known.
Mediterranean food is some of the healthiest in the world and there’s so much to explore. While each Mediterranean country’s cuisine is distinct to its neighbours, many Mediterranean cuisines share traditional dishes, albeit with nuanced differences, and similar cooking methods and ingredients.
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Mediterranean Pantry Essentials – Must-Have Ingredients for Cooking Mediterranean Cuisines
Our list of Mediterranean pantry essentials include Mediterranean ingredients that we consider to be Mediterranean pantry staples for cooking traditional dishes of the Mediterranean. The list is by no means exhaustive, rather it consists of the most quintessential ingredients of Mediterranean cuisines.
What Cuisines are Mediterranean cuisines?
The food of the European Mediterranean countries of Spain, France, Italy, Greece, and Turkey are probably what first come to mind when we think of Mediterranean cuisines, however, Levantine cuisines are also Mediterranean cuisines. The cuisines of The Levant, of Syria, Lebanon and Jordan, are also Arabic cuisines.
The North African cuisines of Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco are Mediterranean cuisines. But while Egyptian and Libyan cuisines are Arabic cuisines, Libyan food also has influences from Italy due to its colonial history, and from the Maghreb region of Northwest Africa due to its geography as a neighbour of Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco.
Tunisian, Algerian and Moroccan cuisines are also Maghreb cuisines, rooted in Berber culture, rather than Arabic culture, although there are certainly Arabic culinary influences, as well as remnants of French cuisine and culinary culture due to their colonial histories.
Moroccan food exhibits culinary traces from Al Andalus (711-1492), the once Muslim-ruled Iberian Peninsula of Spain and Portugal, while their cuisines incorporate Moorish influences, particularly in the use of spices, sesame seeds and citrus. This history explains why Portuguese food is also partly Mediterranean, although much of the country faces the Atlantic.
Then there are the Mediterranean island nations of Malta and Cyprus, and the many islands of Greece, Spain, France, Italy, Croatia, Turkey and Tunisia, which have culinary elements distinct from the mainland. And let’s not forget the Balkan countries of Slovenia, Croatia, Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Albania, on the Adriatic Sea, considered the northern ‘arm’ of the Mediterranean.
What’s the Mediterranean Diet and Why is it so Special?
We can’t talk about Mediterranean food and Mediterranean ingredients without talking about the Mediterranean diet and what makes it so special. Apart from being so delicious, the Mediterranean diet is the healthiest of all diets, according to countless research studies.
The first study, which is credited with having brought the world’s attention to the health benefits of Mediterranean food, dates back to the 1950s, when it found that heart disease wasn’t common in the Mediterranean and that Mediterraneans were some of the healthiest people in the world.
The Mediterranean diet is largely plant-based and includes plenty of vegetables, fruit, legumes, whole grains, nuts and seeds, and herbs and spices, with olive oil the main source of added fat, and fish, seafood, poultry, and dairy eaten in moderation, and red meat and sweets consumed occasionally.
This list of Mediterranean pantry essentials includes the Mediterranean ingredients that distinguish the Mediterranean diet and we’ve provided links to some of our favourite recipes for Mediterranean dishes for your cooking pleasure.
Mediterranean Pantry Essentials – Must-Have Ingredients for Cooking Mediterranean Food
Topping our list of Mediterranean pantry essentials is olive oil, the key ingredient of Mediterranean cuisines. Elizabeth David, author of A Book of Mediterranean Food, first published in 1950, pointed out that the geography of the Mediterranean region is defined by the distribution of the olive tree.
Olive trees are grown from Palestine to Portugal and olive oils are used in the preparation of food in all Mediterranean cuisines, from the Levant to the Maghreb. Olive oil is whisked with vinegars to form salad dressings and poured into pans for healthy frying.
Ask a Mediterranean cook where the best olive oil comes from and after boasting that their own country produces the finest olive oil in all the lands, I bet they’ll agree Spanish olive oil is the best. In fact, Spanish olive oil is the most awarded olive oil in the world.
The best olive oil is a Spanish extra virgin olive oil, especially for vinaigrettes and other salad dressings. I use it on everything from Mediterranean salads, such as panzanella and the tomato salad below, to Italian pastas and simply to dip freshly baked sourdough into – all I add is a little sea salt.
For cooking, extra virgin olive oil, which is the healthiest olive oil, is fine for pan-frying on medium heat, however, for frying on high heat, you’ll want regular olive oil, which has a higher smoke point. Regular olive oil and light olive oil are best for deep-frying.
Olives, anchovies and capers are high on our list of Mediterranean pantry essentials as this trio of ingredients are Mediterranean staples. We always have back-up jars of all three in the pantry, in addition to whatever jars are open in the fridge. They’re also used together in many Mediterranean recipes, from dips and salads to pastas and pizzas, and braises and roasts. But let’s start with the olives.
We keep jars of three types of olives in the pantry – juicy Kalamata olives from Greece, which get used in sourdough bread, Greek salads, pastas, and the tapenade below; plump green olives from Spain or Italy, which are perfect in the braised chicken dish below; and Spanish sliced pitted black olives, which get tossed into pastas and sprinkled onto nachos (not Mediterranean, I know).
This olive tapenade recipe is based on the classic French tapenade recipe from Provence in southern France that’s made with only four ingredients – black olives, capers, anchovies, and olive oil – although I also add a little red wine vinegar or sherry vinegar although that’s not strictly traditional. I serve it with homemade cheese straws or sourdough crackers.
This Moroccan chicken tagine recipe with preserved lemons and olives makes one of Morocco’s most popular Moroccan tagines, and features loads of olives, as well as umami-rich preserved lemons, another Mediterranean staple you can read about, below. Moroccan olives are some of the most delicious in the world; I wish we could get them here.
Also high on our list of Mediterranean pantry essentials is a jar of anchovies, as the second of the trio of Mediterranean ingredients of olives, capers and anchovies, Mediterranean staples that feature together in so many dishes, such as spaghetti alla puttanesca, below.
Anchovies may be small fish but they are big in flavour, rich in nutrients, and loaded with omega-3 fatty acids, which are healthy fats that are considered to be essential fats, with a long list of health benefits.
While these saltwater fish are found in the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian oceans, anchovies are perhaps most associated with the Mediterranean. I think that’s partly because in ancient Roman times, anchovies formed the base of the fermented fish sauce called garum.
And while garum was made all over the Mediterranean, prepared in pretty much the same way that fermented fish paste prahok from Cambodia, and fish sauce all over Southeast Asia is today, some of the finest garum was said to have been made in Spain, just as some of the finest anchovies come from Spain today, such as these Ortiz salted anchovies.
But also because anchovies feature so heavily in the Mediterranean cuisines, from Spanish tapas, such as Gildas, skewers of rolled anchovy, an olive, a green guindilla pepper, and a boqueron, an anchovy pickled in vinegar, and Italian pastas, such as spaghetti alla puttanesca, a rustic pasta dish with a piquant sauce of garlic, capers, olives, anchovies, and crushed red pepper.
This bigoli con salsa recipe from Venice makes another one of our favourite anchovy dishes of the Mediterranean, a thick wholewheat pasta called bigoli is doused in an onion and anchovy sauce, and sprinkled liberally with parsley. It’s a classic Venetian pasta dish that is deceptively simple and decidedly delicious.
Next on our list of Mediterranean pantry essentials is a jar of capers, as the third of the trio of Mediterranean ingredients of olives, anchovies and capers that feature together in so many Mediterranean dishes, such as pasta alla puttanesca and my tomato salad, above, as well as this warm potato salad with capers, anchovies and chives.
Capers may taste of the sea but they are actually the small ﬂower buds of the caper bush. After harvesting, they’re preserved in salt or pickled in brine. They add saltiness, savouriness and umami to Mediterranean dishes and are a perfect companion to olives and anchovies.
Although capers are grown right across the Mediterranean, the finest are the capers from Pantelleria, the tiny Italian island that’s closer to Tunisia than Sicily, and is the only place where capers have been awarded an IGP or Protected Geographical Origin.
The sea breezes are said to give the caper berries some of they’re salty flavours, but salt is also used to preserve capers, whether the capers are dry salt-cured, brined in salt water and vinegar, salt-cured or dehydrated and fermented. Only the oil-packed capers, which are jarred in extra virgin olive oil, exclude salt in their preservation process.
We include plenty of capers in this braised chicken with olives and capers recipe, which makes incredibly succulent chicken legs in a Mediterranean style with a couple of surprising Asian ingredients. Adapted from a Spanish recipe by Australian chef Martin Benn, it’s a foolproof set-and-forget chicken recipe that no matter how long you leave it or reheat it the chicken remains juicy.
Chickpeas, whether dried chickpeas or canned chickpeas, are another one of our Mediterranean pantry essentials that you need to stock in your kitchen. (If only to make hummus!) Found right across the Mediterranean, and used in everything from salads and soups to stews and braises, chickpeas are a Mediterranean staple.
Like lentils, peas, beans, tamarind, soybeans, and peanuts, chickpeas are legumes – a plant, fruit or seed of a plant in the Fabaceae or Leguminosae family, which when used dry is called a pulse. Legumes have long been a source of protein in traditional Mediterranean diets.
Perhaps the most quintessential Mediterranean chickpea dish is hummus, the Arabic dip that’s typically eaten with an array of mezze or as a side to a mixed grill, right across the Mediterranean, particularly in the Levantine cuisines of Syria, Lebanon, Palestine and Jordan, and the larger Middle East, from Egypt to Iraq and the Arabian Peninsula.
‘Hummus’ means ‘chickpeas’ in Arabic and while the dish is thought to have originated in medieval Egypt, it’s found right across the Arab world, from North Africa through to the Levantine countries of Syria, Lebanon and Jordan, in the state of Palestine and Israel, and throughout the Arabian Peninsula.
The dip or spread called hummus is more correctly hummus bi-tahina, which is essentially a chickpea and tahini dip. Travel the Middle East and you’ll spot all kinds of hummus on restaurant menus, from the simplest, hummus bi-zayt (chickpeas with olive oil) to the most sublime, hummus wa rummaan (chickpeas and pomegranate).
Our easy authentic hummus recipe can be made with canned chickpeas and a handful of other ingredients that you throw into a food processor. Recipes don’t get much easier than that. But if you prefer to make this homemade hummus recipe from scratch, you’ll need to begin with dried chickpeas and soak the chickpeas overnight to soften them. We eat our hummus with crispy pita chips or homemade crackers.
A staple of Mediterranean cooking, chickpeas are used in so much more than hummus, of course. This authentic Moroccan chickpea soup recipe, which we learnt to make in Marrakech years ago, makes one of the best chickpea dishes and is one of the classics of Moroccan cuisine.
Yoghurt aside, this rich Moroccan soup can be made completely with ingredients from your Mediterranean pantry, from olive oil and canned tomatoes (see below) to dried spices such as ground cumin and ground paprika, and something we haven’t touched on here, store-bought chicken stock, although of course you can use homemade.
Everyone has canned tomatoes in the pantry, right? Used in so many cuisines around the world, from Southeast Asia to India and the Middle East to Europe, tomatoes are native to Central and South America. The first tomato was brought from Mexico to Spain by conquistador Hernán Cortés and cultivation began in the Mediterranean in the 1540s.
Fresh tomatoes are wonderful, used in everything from this Spanish Andaluz style gazpacho soup, tomato salads such as the Italian classic panzanella salad made with stale bread to Italian pastas such as this orecchietti con sugo al pomodoro (‘little ear’ pasta with fresh tomato sauce), below, which we learnt to make in Puglia. Maria, the manager of a holiday rental in the countryside near Alberobello arrived one morning and hung up a massive bunch of sweetest tomatoes in our kitchen.
Ripe tomatoes are packed with umami, which is why tomatoes are a key ingredient of tomato sauce or ketchup (which actually originated in China) and Italians take the time to bottle their abundant harvests of ripe tomatoes into passata, puréed and strained tomatoes, which is another Mediterranean pantry essential.
Canned tomatoes are also excellent, as well as affordable, convenient and healthy. Research shows canned tomatoes are nutrient rich, an excellent source of Vitamin C, and contain lycopene, which is an antioxidant that’s found in a lot of red-coloured food, such as red capsicum or red bell peppers to our American readers.
One of our best Mediterranean recipes made with quality canned Italian tomatoes is this quick and easy Italian tomato sauce recipe, below, which will make you a deliciously rich homemade tomato sauce, based on the classic Italian tomato pasta sauce made in kitchens all over Italy, every single day – with just a few tiny tweaks. You’ll also need extra virgin olive oil and sea salt.
That recipe gets used in some of our best pasta recipes, my juicy Italian meatballs recipe, my spaghetti with meatballs recipe and my recipe for Italian-Australian chicken parmigiana or chicken parma, as we call the breaded chicken cutlets topped with tomato sauce and mozzarella.
You can also used canned tomatoes to make these centuries-old Mediterranean breakfast eggs dishes such as chakchouka, also spelt shakshuka, a Tunisian baked eggs dish in a rich tomato sauce that’s cooked right across North Africa and in parts of the Levant, and its Italian cousins.
Eggs in purgatory or uova al purgatorio in Italian is from Naples and consists of eggs poached in a rich tomato sauce, best done in a Dutch oven, while its relation from Calabria is known as uova fra diavolo (eggs between the devil) and uova ca ’nduja (eggs with spicy Calabrian sausage), which is made with ’nduja, the spicy spreadable sausage from Spilinga in Italy’s southernmost province.
Part of the legume family, white beans are next on my list of Mediterranean pantry essentials. There are countless dishes across the Mediterranean made with white beans, from creamy white bean dips to hearty soups and stews, from a classic French cassoulet to an Italian green minestrone soup and classic ribollita for a Tuscan bean, kale and bread soup.
The white bean family includes beans such as haricot beans, navy beans, cannellini beans, and butter beans. For our delicious white bean recipes, I mostly use canned cannellini beans or tinned butter beans, which I love for their earthy taste and creamy texture.
You can start with dried beans, such as dried haricot beans, which need to be soaked overnight before boiling the next day. Wash and drain the beans, then submerge them in cold water and soak them for anything from 8-24 hours. .
We have more white bean recipes on the link, below, including the Turkish white bean salad recipe for Antalya usulü piyaz from the Mediterranean city of Antalya. I blend the white beans until thick and creamy, spread some drained white beans on top, then the tomato salad and boiled eggs. I drizzle on extra virgin olive oil and sprinkle on sumac or Aleppo pepper or even chilli flakes before serving.
Please do let us know in the comments below if you make any of our dishes with these Mediterranean pantry essentials as we love to hear how our recipes turn out for you.