Serving Up the Seven Species
Learn about the ancient Mediterranean foods that bring health benefits of biblical proportions to today’s tables
When someone mentions archaeology, it’s hard not to imagine epic finds — intact, glittering lost cities! Booby traps! Pirate treasure! — on a mind-blowingly cinematic scale.
That’s not to say there aren’t plenty of exciting discoveries every year, but the day-to-day work on a dig is meticulous, slow, detail-oriented stuff. So what’s maybe most amazing is that eagle-eyed archeologists have spotted tiny but telling clues at archaeological sites throughout Israel — think wheat grains, olive pits, date seeds — that illuminate what daily life was like thousands of years ago, and how what we ate back then connects to how we eat today.
And some, namely wheat, barley, grapes, figs, pomegranates, olives, and dates — aka the Shivat Haminim, or Seven Species — were such important cornerstones of ancient Israeli agriculture, they got special mention in the Torah. They were vital to Jewish ritual observance too — the first fruits of the harvest were brought as offerings to the temple in Jerusalem. Thanks to their symbolic and cultural significance, the Seven Species were popular decorative motifs on buildings and countless ancient Jewish artifacts, from oil lamps and coins, to mosaics and jewelry.
We’ll show you how to bring these healthful foods to the modern table, whether for holiday celebrations or every day.
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Seven Species FAQs
Eating the Seven Species has its benefits. Learn about those benefits right here.
Why should I eat the Seven Species now?
Modern scientists reexamining the Seven Species in the context of the Mediterranean diet suggest that these nutrient-dense, antioxidant-rich, anti-inflammatory foods are excellent enhancements to the heart-healthy eating pattern. Historically used both culinarily and medicinally, studies now show that these foods valued by our ancestors remain powerful tools to help prevent disease and promote wellness.
Do I have to eat Mediterranean-style dishes all the time to see health benefits? Is the Mediterranean diet still good for me if my family comes from another part of the world?
To be clear, the Mediterranean diet pattern is just one of several traditional heritage diets that’s built on lots of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and legumes. They all offer considerable health benefits, and enjoying meals from any or all of them is a delicious way to promote wellness — regardless of your personal ancestry.
To get you started, we’ve rounded up Middle Eastern-inspired recipes that center on each of the Seven Species and highlight the flavors of Mediterranean cuisine. But the region is wide, and encompasses dishes from North Africa, the Greek isles, and parts of Europe near the Mediterranean Sea, like Italy and the South of France. In other words, regardless of what thrills your palate, there are lots of delicious cuisines that include these special ingredients.
Wheat gets top billing in the Torah’s list of the Seven Species, which clues us in to its agricultural and ritual importance. As the first crop of the seven to ripen, a good harvest was a sign of a fruitful growing season. Scientists and farmers are working to bring back ancient wheat species for their unique flavor profiles, health benefits, and to promote biodiversity.
Freekeh is young green wheat that was smoked in the fields as an ancient preservation technique. Now, an Israeli Jewish-Arab partnership seeks to modernize production of the healthful ancient grain that’s prized in their traditional and modern local cuisines. This easy weeknight recipe from neighboring Lebanon pairs baharat-seasoned chicken with smoky, satisfying freekeh.
Almost every one of the Seven Species makes an appearance in this gorgeous grain salad. Nowadays, farro is a catchall name for emmer wheat, spelt, and einkorn; many consider emmer wheat — cultivated in the Fertile Crescent over 9000 years ago — the true farro. Tip: Semi-pearled farro retains whole-grain goodness, but cooks more quickly than whole farro.
Instead of buying pita chips, make your own with this super-easy recipe. Use whole-wheat pita for the best nutrition profile and have fun with different spice combos.
Bulgur — cooked, cracked, dried wheat — has been integral to Middle Eastern cuisine for at least 4000 years. In case you’re counting, this colorful, seasonal take on tabbouleh includes three of the Seven Species (four if you swap in raisins for the currants).
In ancient Israel, barley was a staple crop for humans and was used as animal feed. It was also used in religious rituals and as a unit of measure. Enjoying the nutritious, soluble fiber-rich grain regularly can help improve cholesterol and blood pressure levels. Barley also promotes a healthy microbiome, and may improve glycemic control — a boon for folks managing diabetes or pre-diabetes.
Pearl barley cooks up creamy, without the constant stirring required by traditional risotto recipes. Mushrooms, asparagus, goat cheese, and herbs make this a great vegetarian main dish, or hearty side.
This vegan, phyllo-topped pie is reminiscent of spanakopita, with the satisfying chew of barley added to the filling. Not vegan? Crumbled feta or goat cheese is a great addition.
Loaded with a variety of mushrooms and veggies, this vegan soup gets its deliciously complex flavor from smoked paprika, cumin, and coriander.
Though closely associated with Turkish cuisine, asure is a symbolic dessert with cross-cultural appeal enjoyed throughout the Levant. Culinary lore says this sweetened barley or wheatberry pudding, often made with beans and dried fruit, was first enjoyed by Noah and his family in thanks for their ark finally touching dry land. This version uses canned beans and chickpeas to simplify the prep.
In outlining the Seven Species, the Torah calls Israel “a land of … grapevines,” so any fruit of the vine — whether grapes, raisins, wine (or even vinegar!) — fits the category. However you prefer your grapes, these polyphenol-rich fruits promote cardiovascular health and may help prevent certain cancers.
Instead of tomatoes, this vibrant take on gazpacho uses grapes. A green tomato, grape, and cucumber relish and a drizzle of olive oil garnish the refreshingly savory cold soup.
This hearty vegetarian grain salad features a fabulous interplay of textures and flavors, with its combination of juicy grapes, chewy spelt, creamy chickpeas and cheese, and crunchy seeds. Make a meal of it or serve it as a side dish.
If you’ve fallen into a veggie rut, the unusual addition of roasted grapes may be just what it takes to fall in love with standards like roasted cauliflower all over again.
For wine drinkers looking to moderate their alcohol intake, spritzers are worth considering. This one includes fresh mint, a great complement to Middle Eastern cuisine.
Fresh and dried figs were used as food and medicine in ancient Israel and Egypt. Fig fruits and plant parts were also used in wine and cheesemaking. The fiber-rich fruits are a good source of nutrients, including potassium, vitamin K, calcium, iron, and magnesium.
Serve these simple honeyed figs as an accompaniment to roasted meats, or as part of a cheese board.
If you need a showstopping dessert that will thrill any cheese lover, this gorgeous, fig-topped cheesecake is sure to fit the bill. A food processor makes quick work of the preparation.
These wholesome, fruit-studded muffins could fit in any category, because they include every one of the seven species. But we’re adding them to the fig collection, because while fresh figs get lots of food photo love, dried figs deserve recipe representation, too.
Dried figs and fig jam are simmered into the syrupy marsala-infused sauce that tops this quick, lusciously creamy feta dip.
Majestic pomegranates, with their stunning hue and abundance of seeds, symbolized beauty, fertility, and a meritorious life. Prized in antiquity for their hydrating properties and sweet-tart seeds, pomegranates were also used in fabric dyeing and as medicine. Today, researchers recognize their powerful antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects, and the preventive and therapeutic roles they may play in cancer and metabolic, cardiovascular, and neurodegenerative diseases.
Perfect for entertaining, these pomegranate and pepper-topped crostini are such a breeze to assemble you won’t want to wait for company to find reasons to enjoy them.
Though this Syrian-Lebanese Jewish recipe is a Rosh Hashana (Jewish New Year) specialty, it would make a beautiful, dairy-free addition to festive meals year round. Olive oil, pomegranate arils, and olive oil enhance the spiced rice.
We may think of beets as staples of Eastern European and Nordic cuisines, but archaeological and text references suggest they first grew along the Mediterranean and were cultivated in ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome. They’re significant in Jewish culinary culture, so it’s not uncommon to see them paired with some of the seven species. This gorgeous recipe is versatile, too. Try it served over greens and topped with goat cheese.
These easy ice pops combine sweet-tart pomegranate juice with honey, milk, and yogurt for a healthful treat. For a vegan version, use your favorite vegan milk and yogurt and agave.
Olive and olive oil recipes
Symbols of peace in Judaism, Islam, and Christianity, olive trees, their fruits, and the oil they produce are iconic of the ancient and modern Mediterranean diet. Olive oil was used for food, light, skin care, and medicine. First press oil (what we call “extra-virgin olive oil” today) was used for anointing royalty and in religious rituals. Today, researchers acknowledge that olive oil’s role as the primary fat in the Mediterranean Diet is a key factor that makes it one of the world’s healthiest eating patterns.
For a splurge-worthy taste of authentic fair trade Galilean olive oil, check out Sindyanna’s award-winning offerings. The woman-led company is a joint Arab-Jewish effort committed to solidarity and peacebuilding.
As if mixed olives weren’t delicious enough, this recipe gives them an easy upgrade with orange zest, herbs, and a quick stint in the oven. Your cheese plates and charcuterie boards just got tastier.
Figs add a touch of sweetness and depth to this savory olive spread. Scoop it up with pita chips or baguette slices, or use it as a sandwich condiment.
This refreshing Moroccan salad hits all the right sweet-savory-spicy flavor notes. Chef Einat Admony walks you through the easy prep in this video-guided recipe.
Chef Gregory Gordet demystifies whole fish cookery in a recipe one reviewer calls “the best fish I have ever made.” Want an even simpler, yet equally impressive dish? Try this Easy One Pan Mediterranean Cod.
Date and honey recipes
Biblical scholars and historians generally make the case that when the Torah dubs Israel a “land flowing with milk and honey,” it’s referring to silan, or date honey. But archaeologists have found evidence of established apiaries in ancient Israel and wall paintings in Egypt that date from Biblical times, so it’s possible that bee’s honey is being touted, too. We’ve included recipes for both naturally sweet possibilities below. (And if you’re firmly Team Date, our primer on nature’s candy offers a rundown on the varieties, health benefits, and 22 recipes.)
An Ottolenghi recipe reinterpreted as a freezer-friendly, sheet-pan bake? Yes, please! (Did we mention it’s gluten-free, allergy-friendly, and company-worthy?) Excuse us while we put this recipe into regular rotation.
This adaptable recipe is easy, beautiful, and truly delicious. Pomegranate arils sit like little jewels atop the creamy filling in plump, sweet dates. Omit the nuts if allergies are a concern.
This honey-sweetened cake is made with olive oil instead of butter, so it’s easy to mix, and arguably healthier. Thyme, lemon zest, and the tang of yogurt add distinctly Mediterranean flavor.
More Mediterranean-inspired meals
Build out an entire week of Mediterranean meals with these next articles.