Eating in Cyprus is serious business – you’ll rarely spot Cypriots gathered around a table without a couple of plates to snack on. With a rich history and a location that crosses three continents, the island has seen a variety of influences, all of which add to the local gastronomy.
Being so close to the Middle East has definitely had an impact on the island’s cuisine, as many dishes are similar to those in the region. Flavours are also shared between Cyprus and Turkey, but the island’s cuisine is closest to the refreshing Greek gastronomy. Here are some unique foods that you have to try.
Halloumi is probably Cyprus’ most famous product, with its popularity extending to many countries throughout Europe and the Middle East. Distinguishable by its mild salty flavour and rubbery texture, the delicacy has become a favourite for chefs across the globe, appearing in dishes as diverse as lamb roast and halloumi fries.
The cheese is produced by combining a mixture of goat’s and sheep milk, before being set with rennet. This is an unusual practice due to the absence of acid-producing bacteria in any part of the process, a standard for most dairy products. Halloumi’s high melting point means it can be easily fried or grilled, or served cold alongside freshly sliced watermelon; the perfect summer dinner.
Koupepia (stuffed vine leaves) and gemista
The Cypriot variety of the dolma uses minced meat, rice, onions, tomatoes and a mixture of herbs. This filling is then carefully wrapped in fresh vine leaves. A village favorite, this dish can be found commonly throughout Greece, Turkey and the Middle East. Koupepia are usually made in large batches and can be frozen to be enjoyed at a later time – the dish is in every Cypriot grandmother’s menu. The stuffing of vegetables, called gemista, is a Cypriot tradition which extends beyond vine leaves, with peppers, tomatoes, onions, courgettes and even courgette flowers often being cooked in this manner.
Souvlakia and sheftalia
A spin-off from the famous Greek dish, the Cypriot-style souvlaki consists of small chunks of charcoal-grilled meat on a skewer, and a large amount of fresh salad filling. It’s a very popular meal, as many locals catch up over a pitta of souvlakia. The pitta bread used is thinner and larger than the Greek version, and usually contains a pocket to hold the ingredients, rather than wrapping the filling in the Greek way.
The meat is commonly pork or chicken and can be accompanied by sheftalia. These are spiced sausage parcels with herbs, minced pork or lamb that are grilled. Alternatively, there are vegetarian options too, with mushroom and halloumi.
Similar in look to souvlaki but different in taste is souvla, comprising large chunks of meat slow-cooked on a large skewer over a charcoal barbeque, called foukou in Greek. The meat is neck and shoulder of either pork, lamb, or chicken. This food is seen as the king of meat dishes in Cypriot cuisine, as it’s very common that a group of friends gather to cook souvla, while drinking beer, snacking and chatting as it takes a good hour or two. It’s a popular meal eaten on Easter Sunday to celebrate the end of fasting and can be accompanied with a range of other dishes, usually potatoes and salads.
Kolokouthkia me ta afka (courgettes with eggs)
This dish often comes along with a dozen other mezze dishes, and consists of fried courgettes with scrambled eggs, sprinkled with salt. Most traditional eateries and restaurants serve this, and it’s considered to be a very simple and typically Cypriot dish to accompany any other main.
Makaronia tou fournou
Popularly known in Greece as pastitsio, the Cypriot version differs for its use of cheese, which is no other than halloumi, sprinkled with dry mint. Large pasta tubes, béchamel sauce and a tomato-y minced pork are the main ingredients used. Thin curls of cheese are often sprinkled on the top to give it a crispy crunch. The dish is usually prepared in a large oven pan. When served as a main dish, this Cypriot delicacy usually comes with a side of salad.
Ttavas means “clay pot”, referring to the receptacle in which it is customary to prepare and serve this traditional meal. Chunks of lamb, rice, vegetables and potatoes are cooked together in the pot, along with cumin which gives it a tangy flavour. Its origin can be traced back to Lefkara village, a place that holds a lot of cultural heritage due to its internationally-recognised lace.
This dish comes with a fascinating back story. Kleftiko gets its name from the word “stolen”, as historically people would steal meat and bury it to be slow-cooked in covered holes in the ground, so that no smoke would give away the location of the thieves. Today, it’s cooked in traditional round, white ovens for many hours, flavoured with bay leaves, oregano and red wine. The dish is accompanied by soft oven potatoes or bulgar wheat cooked in an onion and tomato sauce. Have it with a side of yoghurt to refresh each bite.
Another hearty meat dish that’s a favourite in Cyprus is the moist stifado, prepared with onions and drenched in red wine. Beef is usually cooked alongside cinnamon sticks and cloves that give it a sweet kick. It is believed that the Venetians brought the recipe over and Cypriots added tomatoes in the 16th century when the fruit reached Europe. Stifado is cooked for several hours and is served with rice or bulgur (pilaf).
Originating from southeast Asia and Malaysia, this vegetable grows in Cyprus as the Colocasia Esculanta variety. Diners must tread carefully, however: eating it kolokasi in its raw form can be poisonous. Nonetheless, it’s a very popular food across the island, especially during the winter as it’s a thick and substantial vegetable. Cut in small chunks, the vegetable is cooked in a tomato sauce with onions, herbs and chicken. Some like to replace chicken with pork.
A staple in every Cypriot kitchen, this simple and healthy dish mainly consists of black eyed beans, and is served with boiled courgettes or Swiss chard, oil, salt and lemon. The beans are low in fat while being high in carbohydrates and protein. When growing they are extremely drought tolerant, meaning they can survive even in the extreme heat of the scorching Cyprus summers. Tuna, cucumber and tomato are often served as fresh and flavuorful side plates with louvi. Many households have beans on Mondays and Tuesdays, a cultural and religious trait passed down through generations.
Koubes originate from the Levant region, and are basically a torpedo-shaped croquette. The outer shell is made of bulgur and encases a filling of minced meat infused with middle-eastern spices. These tasty bites are served with lemon wedges, with the zingy zest of the fruit really bringing out the filling flavour. Koubes can be purchased in bakeries throughout the island.
This thick soup is another dish that vegetarians can enjoy among the island’s traditionally meat-heavy cuisine. It’s made with dried cracked wheat and soured goat’s milk, and is the perfect winter meal. It’s common to add pieces of halloumi to the soup once it’s cooked, which softens the cheese and makes it even more chewy. For big fans, trachanas is sold dry so you can take it away and make it whenever you wish – talk about a different souvenir.
Loukoumades are made by deep frying dough balls, soaking them in honey and then coating them generously in crushed nuts, sesame seeds, cinnamon. Often referred to as honey doughnuts, these sweet treats have a light and spongy texture and are best enjoyed under the shade of a village tree in the heat of a balmy Cypriot summer. Available in specialty coffee shops throughout the country, the dessert is so delicious it has sparked great dispute as to where it actually originates from – Greece, Turkey and Egypt all adamantly lay claim to the dish.
Glyko tou koutaliou
Most lunch meals end with a glyko tou koutalou, which literally translates to “spoon sweets” due to the fact that they are the size of a teaspoon. These sweets are made from all kinds of fruit, vegetables and even nuts, that are boiled and then sugared to create the distinctive syrup they are stored in. Local favourites are the walnut, the watermelon and the cherry varieties, which are usually enjoyed with a Cypriot coffee and a glass of water.
Words by Christopher Agathangelou and Eleni Philippou
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