Fish & Seafood: Savoring the Bounty of the Mediterranean Sea

“A tavola non si invecchia mai” “At the table
one never ages.”
Italian Proverb

Sometimes, in the West, fish and seafood get a bad rap.
Many people associate them with diet and sacrifice.
Their obvious health benefits and low fat content
do make them popular with dieters. And for people
who have given up meat either for health or spiritual
reasons, fish is the go-to substitute. It is rare that one
hears of a celebratory meal with fish as a main course.
In countries surrounding the Mediterranean Sea, how-
ever, things couldn’t be more different. There, serving
fish alone is a celebration, and seafood is at the heart
of many holidays, from Christmas Eve in Italy to the Eid
al Fitr in Egypt. During the Ottoman period (thirteenth
to twentieth centuries) in Turkey, there were special
chefs called balikci who prepared only fish.
The sea and its bounty have always been integral to
the livelihood of the region. In addition to providing
food, the Mediterranean Sea was an ancient highway
that connected continents and enabled trade between
countries. To this day, fishing, often even the old-
fashioned kind, is an important profession for men in
coastal towns, and it is taken very seriously. Fishermen
in the region bring their catch to shore early in the
morning. Restaurateurs and housewives buy something
that was caught within a matter of hours, and cook it
the same day. In addition, many fishermen use tradi-
tional methods that are more environmentally sound
and beneficial to the community.
The reverence that Mediterranean peoples share for
bodies of water was evident even in ancient times.
Living in harmony with the sea was very important to
the cultures of the region. Ancient Egyptians, Greeks,
and Romans paid close attention to marine biology, as
do their modern descendants—today’s Italian news,
for example, reports on migratory patterns of fish on a
weekly basis.

The ancient Egyptians used to worship a Nile god
called Hapi. They believed he was responsible for the
biannual flooding of the river that provided natural
irrigation—therefore causing a wide variety of produce
and grains to flourish. In order to thank Hapi for being
so generous, the Egyptians held Nile festivals each July,
during which time they forbade anyone to fish or re-
move anything from the water. Instead, special prayers
and incantations were cast into the Nile in a sacred
statement of gratitude. When sunset came and the
festivities began, people were once again able to take
from the Nile. To this day, fish and seafood are beloved
foods in Egypt, often incorporated into holidays.
When Greek and Roman powers came to be in Egypt,
the Egyptian reverence for the Nile was adapted to the
Mediterranean, and many of the ancient deities were
associated with the power of the water. With the rise
of Christianity, Italians and other coastal dwellers trans-
formed their ancient beliefs into Christian ones. Instead
of gods, the locals assigned the Virgin Mary or various
saints to their seashores. They would hold special vigils
to give thanks to the water, often casting statues,
prayers, and flowers onto the water to give thanks for
its gifts, just the way the Egyptians had done millennia
before. Even today, in many places in the Mediterra-
nean, vigils are held, and communities congregate en
masse to pray for fuller nets and to make safe trips.
Nutritional Benefits
The Mediterranean diet recommends eating fish and
seafood often, at a minimum of two times per week.
High in protein and low in calories, fish is an excellent
choice for anyone trying to gain muscle, lose weight,
or increase brain function. Fish is full of omega-3 fatty
acids, which the body requires to function, yet cannot
produce on its own. They are known to lower triglycer-
ides and blood pressure, and reduce blood clotting and
risk of stroke and heart failure.
Consuming fish as little as once a week promotes body
wellness and positive health benefits. But a 2011 study
found that a single extra serving of fish per week can
reduce heart disease risk by 50 percent. According to
Hypertension:Journal of the American Heart Associa-tion
women who didn’t eat fish regularly had 50 per-
cent more heart problems, three times greater risk for
disease, and higher blood fat levels than those who did.
In addition to omega-3s, seafood has essential nutri-
ents such as zinc (immune-system support), potassium
(heart health), selenium (anti-cancer protection), and
iodine (for thyroid function), along with vitamins A
(vision, organ function, immune support) and D (bone
strength, nutrient absorption, disease prevention).
Additional benefits of omega-3 and fish consumption
have been shown to:
– potentially lower the risk of Alzheimer’s disease,
dementia, and decreased cognitive function
– subdue the symptoms of ADHD (poor concentra-
tion, reading skills, and negative behavior)
– relieve and prevent asthma symptoms
– keep skin nourished and hair lustrous
– help reverse UV damage from sun exposure
– enhance mood, including depression, postpartum
depression, and Seasonal Affective Disorder
– protect the vision of those suffering from
Age-Related Macular Degeneration
– prevent inflammation and improve rheumatoid
With all of these healthful reasons to consume more
fish, many still avoid it altogether for fear of mercury
levels and unclean water. When purchasing fish, one
has to take mercury levels, health benefits, and the wa-
ter sources into account in order to make an informed
decision. With no single guide currently available to
analyze all three factors, the Environmental Defense
Fund does produce a Seafood Selector, and Monterey
Bay Aquarium created a Seafood Watch program that
addresses mercury levels and water cleanliness. I am an
advocate of the freshest local seafood possible, or im-
ports from safe sources. I strongly encourage shoppers
to educate themselves as much as possible to make the
best choices and reap the most health rewards.
A serving size of fish is 3.5 ounces (100 g). I’ve devel-
oped quick-cooking recipes with maximum flavor and
health benefits that win over even the toughest critics.
With these simple, flavorful, and healthful recipes,
seafood will become an easy go-to meal for a busy
weeknight. For safety reasons, cook seafood to an
internal temperature of 145°F (63°C) for 15 seconds, or
until flaky, opaque, and no longer translucent.