Welcome to Cyprus, sunshine island of exotic fragrances and Eastern Mediterranean flavours.
Whoever said that civilization started on the table and variety was the spice of life surely had Cyprus in mind. In ancient times it was said that Cyprus invented the art of good living, and the island’s name became synonymous for luxury to both the Gods and humans.
Tavernas, restaurants and hotels offer French, Italian and “international” menus. But they take pride in preparing Cypriot food and specialties, especially in the tavernas and the popular restaurants. These are some of the Cypriot dishes, which delight both tourists and residents alike.
When you order Meze (or mezedes or mezedakia) in a Cyprus hotel or restaurant, you are served a rich selection of appetizers and savouries in up to 20 saucerlike dishes. For example various cheeses, like halloumi, kaskavalli or feta, tomatoes, olives, celery, sliced artichokes or smoked ham, houmous (ground chick peas, with olive oil and garlic), octopus (or squid), shrimps, fresh fish, such as barbouni (the delicious red mullet), succulent snippets of chicken or turkey, cucumbers, green peppers, tomatoes, seftalia (homemade sausage), koupepia (stuffed vine leaves).
The local bread made of homegrown wheat and the village salad with fresh coriander, green olives, olive oil, lemon and feta cheese make the mouth water. So can taramosalata, a delicious dish made from fish roe, olive oil and lemon.
This consists of moussaka, made from minced lamb or beef and herbs covered with layers of sliced potatoes, eggplant and zucchini, or tavas, a veal, onion and herb dish served in little earthenware bowls straight from the oven and sprinkled with “artisia ” spices. Souflakia or Kebab, is either bits of lamb or pork skewered and roasted by slow charcoal fire and eaten with chopped onion, salt and pepper in a ‘pitta’, a flat, unleavened bread. This dish is often a meal in itself, especially if served in a big ‘envelope’ of bread together with delicious local yiaourti (yogurt). Such a feast is followed by a selection of excellent juicy fresh fruit – oranges, grapefruit, tangerines, melons, lemons, apples, pears, cherries, apricots, figs, pomegranates, bananas, purple plumbs, grapes, dates, almonds, walnuts etc. Some friendly advice! The rule is “eat a little of each” otherwise you’ll find halfway through your meal that you just can’t go on to taste what follows!
If all this seems a bit too much for you to eat – and such a meal can cost less than six pounds – you can order a three course meal, which can also be Cypriot food and style. Some of the best dishes are Cyprus raviolis (a pasta dish) or avgolemoni (lemon and egg soup), patcha (a kind of lamb stew served with lemon). Lemons in Cyprus go with every meal and every meat. Kleftiko (lamb roasted in traditional oven) or suckling pig with roast potatoes are delicious. Cyprus grows some of the finest potatoes of the world. Other famous dishes include grilled or fried fresh fish, such as synagrida, fagree, red mullet, vlachos, trout.
For people who like a more simple meal, Cyprus has the national dish of sailors’ beans, called “fasolada”, or there is the sturdy afelia, which is pork soaked in wine, sautéed with oil, coriander and wine. There’s also zalatina (highly seasoned brawn), Cyprus smoked sausages, flavored with pepper and lentisk, or laurel.
Game abounds in Cyprus, including partridge, hare, woodcock snipe and pheasant. And there are specialties like koupes, pourekia, kattimeria – thin semolina paste delicacies filled with meat, almonds or eggs and cheese, etc.
Souzoukko, a favorite at Cyprus festivals and fairs, is made by dipping strings of nuts in heated grape juice until the confection solidifies. Glyko are preserves of almond, date, apricot, cherry, quince or grapes, always served with a glass of cold water. Loucoumi, or Cyprus Delight, Kadeifi and baklava or galatopureko, are all rich oriental honey cakes. Cyprus honey is excellent. Soumada, made of almonds and a favorite hot drink.
Relax and let yourself slip into the Cypriot pace of life. Why not take a seat by the sea, under a vine pergola or mimosa tree and sip your first brandy sour, or an ouzo. Nibble on a nut or even better, pass the time with a handful of sunflower seeds or passatempo as the Cypriots call them.
Just sniff Cyprus and you could become intoxicated by the tang of fresh lemons and the delicate citrus blossom, the wholesome smell of freshly baked bread or the fermenting grapes from the wine harvest.
Cypriots, as you will soon discover, are a naturally hospitable people and generous to the extreme, in a way that is so much part of the Mediterranean. Cyprus lies at the crossroads of the Levant, as this eastern end of the Mediterranean is known. Just take a glance at its history and you will see how various empires, invasions, foreign settlers and traders over the past 3,000 years have brought their influence to Cyprus. They have also brought their recipes and many any of these have been introduced into Cypriot cooking, the main ones coming from Greece,Turkey, Armenia, Lebanon, Syria. Italy, France and latterly Britain. These foreign flavours have combined with the food produced on the island to give Cyprus its own traditional cuisine.
It’s turbulent past has made Cyprus self-sufficient and in rural areas Cypriot families still produce almost everything they need, from pourgouri (cracked wheat) to cheese, home baked bread and smoked cured pork. Not so long ago the grain, oil and wine were stored in Pitharia, those enormous onion shaped terracotta pots that adorn the countryside. The island has always produced a huge variety of food due to its fine climate. In fact everyday foods such as figs, beans, chick peas, bitter herbs, olives, dates, almonds and nuts date back to the Bible. The Cypriots cook with less oil than their Mediterranean neighbours and their diet is a healthy one, apart from their love of syrup soaked pastries! Everything is cooked fresh, daily, and the quality of the produce is superb, due no doubt to the motto of the Cypriot housewife… ’If it isn’t fresh we don’t want it.’
If you are in a hurry, then you can find fast food in the shape of a pitta bread envelope, filled with souvlakia (kebab) and salad, but slow food is more the order of the day in Cyprus.
After all, why rush when there is time to enjoy your meal.
Some of other popular local dishes found in most restaurants and Tavernas are the following:
Bourgouri Wheat porridge, a substitute for rice
Colocasi Sweet potato, having a gastronomic affinity with the turnip
Feta Cheese made from goat’s milk Glyko Sweet, consisting of fruit preserved in syrup
Halloumi Salty white cheese, made from lamb’s milk
HiromariLocal ham, pickled in wine
Kaskavalli Mild cheese
Kephalotiri Cheese like Gruyere
Keftedes Spiced meat balls
Koupes Fried meat rissoles enclosed in pastry
Loukoumades Similar to doughnuts with honey
Lounza Smoked pork tenderloin
Pitta Flat unleavened bread
Tahini Sesame ‘dip’ popular in eastern Mediterranean
TalattouriSalad dressing or dip based on yoghurt.
What to look for
It may seem difficult to find anything but the meat dishes that Cyprus is so deservedly famous for. One place to get help is the many guide books to Cyprus, which cover the wide range of food there is on offer. Much of what follows draws on the extremely informative ‘basics’ section of ‘The Rough Guide to Cyprus’ by Mark Dubin.
If you want to try some of the best meat dishes the island has to offer, you can choose any of the following:
Kleftico – lamb or goat roasted with vegetable in an outside oven
Souvla – lamb or goat cooked on a rotisserie
Souvlaki – pork grilled on a skewer
Sheftalia– small rissoles of mince, onions and spices wrapped in a ‘skin’ of gut, rather like small sausages.
Moussaka – the famous moussaka, slices of aubergine, courgette and potato overlaid with mince and a white sauce.
There is more to Cypriot cooking than these dishes, however, and for vegetarians and meat eaters alike, no trip to Cyprus would be complete without trying some of the following non-meat dishes:
Meze You can find meze in almost any restaurant in Cyprus and it’s a great way of sampling a number of different small dishes – sometimes as many as 30, so make sure you leave plenty of room! The staple dishes of meze are vegetarian – hummus (chick pea paste), tahini (sesame seed paste), olives and fried halloumi (goat or sheeps milk cheese – delicious and very salty). However, to be on the safe side, make sure you ask for the vegetarian meze – most restaurants will be happy to oblige.
Salads Salads are available all year round and are usually a wonderful combination of what is freshest and in season at the time. Forget tasteless iceberg lettuce, you can find all sorts of wonderful greens in your salad, such as rokka (rocket), pickled capers (the whole plant, including the thorns), koliandros (coriander), maindanos (parsley), gramb (cabbage) and thismos (mint).
Beans Bean dishes are a delicious, hearty alternative to meat and can be found in most restaurants. Fava beans are pureed into a delicious soup called louvia. This should not be confused with another popular type of bean, the louvia, or black eyed bean. The general term for dishes made with beans or pulses is ospria.
Trakhanas A dish that is eaten especially in winter and is much more delicious than it sounds! It is a soup made of grain soaked in yoghurt.
Yemista These are stuffed vegetables, or vine leaves (koupepia). Most commonly you can find peppers, tomatoes, onions, courgettes or courgette flowers stuffed with tomatoes, rice and herbs. Vegetarians need to make sure that they do not contain another common ingredient – minced meat.
Fruit Cyprus has a well-deserved reputation for delicious and varied fruit. The long growing season means that many varieties appear well before they normally do in the rest of Europe. In addition most of the fruit is grown locally and is truly seasonal – although you may not be able to find oranges all year round, when they are in season, they are extremely delicious. The ‘fruit year’ starts in spring with strawberries, medlars and loquats. Then come apricots, watermelons, dessert melons, plums and cherries. Later in the summer you can find prickly pears (worth the effort once you get to the fruit!) and grapes, or the less than perfect skins of the oranges – these are often signs of the fruit that tastes best.