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The 5 Mediterranean Sauces and Why You Need Them

Linda explores food facts, folklore, and fabulous recipes one ingredient at a time.

Learn about chermoula, tahini, and more.

Learn about chermoula, tahini, and more.

On a recent trip to southern California, I stopped for lunch at a Lebanese sandwich shop in Santa Monica. If you have ever eaten at a Subway, you will understand the concept. Select your base (a bowl of couscous, flatbread, or a pita), select your vegetables, choose which protein you want, and then you have a choice of five sauces. It was one of the best meals I had on that vacation.

Let’s explore the origins of those five sauces, how to make them, and how to use them in dishes for your friends and family.

5 Excellent Sauces From the Mediterranean

  1. Chermoula
  2. Harissa
  3. Tahini
  4. Toum
  5. Tzatziki
Chermoula

Chermoula

1. Chermoula

At first glance, chermoula looks like a simple dish of basil pesto. It's made of fresh herbs and olive oil, but that's where the similarity ends. Chermoula is redolent with fresh lemon, a lot of fresh garlic, and the spicy kick of cayenne pepper.

With the help of a food processor, you can whip up a batch of Tania's chermoula in a matter of minutes.

How to Use Chermoula

  • Use as a marinade for white fish.
  • Stir into couscous.
  • Spread on boneless, skinless chicken breasts, then coat with slivered almonds or panko breadcrumbs and bake.
  • Drizzle onto oven-roasted vegetables.

2. Harissa

Harissa—the word comes from the Arabic harasa, meaning “to pound,” and that is exactly how the sauce/condiment is formed. Most food historians believe that chilies arrived in Africa when the Spanish occupied Tunisia in the early 16th century. Although recipes vary from region to region (resourceful cooks rely on local ingredients), everyone can agree that the basic components are smoked peppers, garlic, and olive oil.

This recipe for harissa paste from SimplyDeliciousFood toasts the whole spices in a pan to release their essential oils, then grinds and mixes them with peppers, tomatoes, and garlic to create a boldly seasoned paste.

How to Use Harissa

  • Mix a few tablespoons into your favorite burger recipe.
  • Drizzle onto roasted sweet vegetables (sweet potatoes, yams, or carrots are a perfect contrast to the smoky heat of harissa).
  • Add to yogurt for a spicy sandwich spread or fresh veggie dip.
  • Use in place of hot sauce on Buffalo wings.
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Read More From Delishably

3. Tahini

The sesame seed is one of the oldest oilseed crops, cultivated in India since 5000 B.C. Despite its diminutive size, this tiny seed is a nutritional powerhouse—packed full of Vitamins B and E, magnesium, iron, and calcium. There are many species of the plant, but it is the Humera seed of Ethiopia that is prized for making the best-tasting tahini, the rich sesame paste that provides the toasty flavor in hummus.

How to Use Tahini

  • Use as a marinade for chicken, especially if you plan on using the chicken in a Mediterranean main-dish salad.
  • Stir into Greek yogurt for a salad dressing or veggie dip.
  • Spread on toast, then drizzle with honey.
  • Toss with cold soba noodles.

4. Toum

This dip is bold in flavor, addictive, lethal to vampires, and not for the faint of heart. Toum (the Arabic word for garlic), is a Lebanese dip for chicken as ubiquitous as ketchup for fries in the United States, and it's packed with raw garlic.

Similar to aioli in preparation, toum is an emulsion of garlic cloves, kosher salt, oil, and lemon juice. That's it.

I mentioned chicken, but you can do so much more with this stuff.

How to Use Toum

  • Stir into soup.
  • Toss with pasta.
  • Make easy garlic mashed potatoes (just stir a dollop into those fluffy spuds).
  • Make even easier garlic bread.
Tzatziki Sauce

Tzatziki Sauce

5. Tzatziki Sauce

Tzatziki is the Greek food with an Indian heritage. The word tzatziki derives from the Persian zhazh, meaning herb mixture. Like pita bread, it seems that in Greece the yogurt/cucumber sauce appears on every table every day. To learn the history of this condiment, I went to The Greek on Wheels, who tells us:

A long time ago, when the Ottoman Empire was still in full trading swing, India was enjoying the simple pleasures of raita sauce, a seasoned yogurt-based dip. During this time, the Indian people were ruled by an elite Persian class that enjoyed the North Indian rice dish known as biryani.

However, the Indians would make the rice dish too spicy for the palette of the Persian elite. To balance out the fire of the spices, the Persians began to enjoy the soothing taste of the raita sauce. Cool as cucumber and soothing as yogurt, this classic Indian sauce was the perfect solution to the spicy rice.

When the Persians went back to the Middle East, they took the raita dish with them, and the beguiling sauce entranced culinary aficionados. More than any other nation in the Ottoman Empire, the Greeks enjoyed this dish immensely. However, they also experimented with this classic cucumber and yogurt dip until its Indian roots were almost invisible. Tzatziki was born.

So, tzatziki and raita are culinary cousins, but where they differ is in the fresh herbs and spices used. Raita is flavored with cilantro and, typically, garam masala. Tzatziki relies on dill weed, fresh lemon, and a touch of garlic stirred into the creamy yogurt/cucumber mix.

How to Use Tzatziki

  • Serve with grilled meat or fish.
  • Use as a dip for falafel.
  • Smear on burgers (especially veggie burgers, yum!).
  • Dollop on baked potatoes.
  • Serve as a chip dip (pita chips are a must).

Is One of These Five Sauces in Your Culinary Future?

© 2019 Linda Lum

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