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The 5 Mediterranean Sauces and Why You Need Them

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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.

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

Comments

Linda Lum (author) from Washington State, USA on August 19, 2019:

Denise, I'm happy. Hey, I've got another one for you to check out. How do you feel about vegan jerky?

Denise McGill from Fresno CA on August 19, 2019:

Okay, so I am snacking on vegan crackers and Toum right now. It was really much easier to make than the linked video and recipe lead me to think. I love it. I realize that's a lot of oil and I better not go too crazy with it as a snack but I really can't wait to put it on my salad this evening. Thanks!

Blessings,

Denise

Eric Dierker from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A. on August 19, 2019:

Bueno

Linda Lum (author) from Washington State, USA on August 19, 2019:

Eric, yes of course, you can make your own, and I wrote an entire article on "Exploring Hummus" just one month ago. Give it a Google and see what happens. (By the way, don't forget to put quotation marks around the title so that you get that specific word chain).

Eric Dierker from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A. on August 19, 2019:

Linda I was cruising around the hospital today. This medical group has the finest cafeterias in the whole wide world. I just settled in on five different hummus concoctions. I assume they must be good for you. Wow what a taste treat delight. I want to make my own -- what say thee?

Denise McGill from Fresno CA on August 19, 2019:

Thanks so much for the link. I'm so happy to have this recipe!

Blessings,

Denise

Linda Lum (author) from Washington State, USA on August 19, 2019:

Denise, YIKES, that should not have happened. Thanks for alerting me and I'll fix that ASAP.

Denise McGill from Fresno CA on August 19, 2019:

Forgive me for bringing it up but I don't see a recipe link for the Toum. I love going to this Greek restaurant and my husband and I love this garlicky sauce they use on the salad. For years I've been trying to figure it out and I think this must be it. And wouldn't you know it's the only one without a link.

Blessings,

Denise

Linda Lum (author) from Washington State, USA on August 12, 2019:

Lawrence, it is one of the few things in my landscape that the deer won't touch (and the snails and slugs don't care for it either). I'd much rather have mint than ivy.

Lawrence Hebb from Hamilton, New Zealand on August 11, 2019:

Linda

Absolutely it has to be fresh, thats why we've got bushels of it growing around our place (that and its a plant set on world domination

Linda Lum (author) from Washington State, USA on August 11, 2019:

Lawrence, I'm 100 percent on board with adding mint, but it has to be fresh. Tabbouleh with mint is so good! I have everything needed to make some (and dinner is just 2 hours away), so I'd best sign off and make some. Thanks for the reminder!

Lawrence Hebb from Hamilton, New Zealand on August 11, 2019:

Linda

For me it has to be Tzadziki, but with a slight difference, the dish I used to have always had fresh mint in it to give a wonderdful tang!

All five are delicious.

Linda Lum (author) from Washington State, USA on July 10, 2019:

Hi Mary. I did the hollandaise bearnaise thing about a year ago (look for exploring sauces...French). I hope one of these will perk up Ian's spirits and taste buds.

Mary Wickison from Brazil on July 10, 2019:

This was not what I was expecting! I thought it was sauces like Bearnaise or Hollandaise. All of these could really add the WOW factor to a meal.

My husband loves garlic so I'll let him know about toum (never heard of it before).

Linda Lum (author) from Washington State, USA on July 09, 2019:

Hi Shauna, I had not heard of toum either; I think you would have to go to a Lebanese restaurant to find it. Other sauces like tzatziki are more mainstream (they sell gyros at the State Fair and I can think of 3 gyro shops in the Tacoma area without using Google).

Shauna L Bowling from Central Florida on July 09, 2019:

Linda, I've not heard of many of these sauces. However, I love Tzatziki sauce. It's so refreshing! Actually, anything with fresh dill is a pleasure to my palate. It's also a wonderful cleansing bite between items on the plate.

Toum sounds like something I'd enjoy. Why have I never heard of it?

Linda Lum (author) from Washington State, USA on July 09, 2019:

Bill, I don't know how you've lasted this long without these sauces in your diet. But, it's not too late. Start now and you'll live to be 100. I apologize for being so tardy in getting the word to you.

Linda Lum (author) from Washington State, USA on July 09, 2019:

Good morning Eric. I love cilantro and I don't think you can have too much. Oregano, on the other hand, can quickly overwhelm a dish (and your taste buds). Enjoy.

Linda Lum (author) from Washington State, USA on July 09, 2019:

Pamela, thank you for taking the time to comment. Like you, I'm not a hot and spicy gal, but the tzatziki I had in Santa Monica was perfect. I hope you have a wonderful rest-of-the-week.

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on July 09, 2019:

Why I need them? I've never even heard of them!!! You mean I've made it seventy years without something I needed? Why didn't you tell me sooner, Linda? lol

Have a superb Tuesday!

Eric Dierker from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A. on July 09, 2019:

tzatziki it is for me today. I noticed I am out of dill. (I pick wild dill so it is just not the season)

My mom made a great Tzatziki so another excuse to call my sister for the recipe. Lately I have just associated this with Thai food.

So I will also shop ahead for Chermoula. I just love homemade sauces.I think I may experiment with cilantro and oregano with these -- not much, just a hint

Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida on July 09, 2019:

This is a nice variety of unique sauces. I don't tolerate anything too spicy as I get heartburn easily. I would like the first two sauces the best I think. I would have to cut back on some of the spices in other sauces, which I routinely do anyway. Have a good week Linda.

Linda Lum (author) from Washington State, USA on July 08, 2019:

Be careful Eric. You could damage your keyboard.

Eric Dierker from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A. on July 08, 2019:

I will be back, at the moment I am drooling too much.