Cyprus is known as the island of love, thanks to the ancient Greek myth of the love goddess Aphrodite miraculously rising from the warm Mediterranean waters – could that be why Cypriots simply love to eat? Similar to the Arab world, hospitality is second nature in Cyprus – the locals are generous and welcoming, ever ready to offer international visitors a meal in their own home with recipes passed down through the generations.
While Cypriot food is essentially Mediterranean with an emphasis on local ingredients, plenty of wild, aromatic herbs, and a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil, it’s important to clarify that many dishes differ to those of Greece, though a slight influence of Middle Eastern cuisine does shine through. Many a doctor has boasted of the virtues of a Med diet; a wealth of grains and pulses, sun-ripened fresh fruit and vegetables (citrus fruit, grapes, melons and potatoes are major exports), freshly caught high-protein fish, lean meat and poultry and olive oil are not only healthy but deliciously appetising.
No visit to Cyprus would be complete without ordering ‘mezedes’ at a local taverna, and you will stumble upon many. It’s a great way get a good idea of the island’s cuisine on your first night out to help decide which dishes to order for your next meal. Some restaurants specialise in a seafood-only meze perfect for many a pescatorian.
A meze always starts with a traditional Cypriot village salad, toasted pita bread (thicker and puffier than the Arab variety), olives and a number of dips, tahini, taramosalata (fish roe) and tallatouri, more commonly known as tzatziki. It’s then onto some quite quirky dishes, such as octopus in red vino or snails in tomato sauce, moving onto the world-famous halloumi cheese made from sheep or goat’s milk – served grilled or fried. As we come into the summer, you must savour it with refreshing watermelon (often bought off the roadside) – a true breakfast ritual and a must try.
It’s then time for grilled lountza (smoked pork fillet), keftedes (minced meatballs), sheftalia (minced pork sausage), loukanika (marinated pork sausages), and a vast selection of charcoal grilled lamb chops, kebabs, souvla (a larger, chunkier version of the kebab in chicken, lamb or pork) and kleftiko (lamb baked in a clay oven). If you’ve not keeled over by then, a simple fruit platter or traditional preserved and very sweet fruit ‘glyko’ concludes the feast.
The recipes we share with you here are true home-cooked dishes you would most likely experience when invited into a Cypriot family’s home or in some of the authentic tavernas we have reviewed for you. And as they say in Cyprus, kali orexi – bon appétit!
WHERE TO DINE (and, in the odd case, sleep)
In a small village by the name of Kornos, a short 15-minute drive from the capital Nicosia, sits Archontiko Papadopoulou, a renovated mansion dating back to 1897, housing a restaurant and educational centre for Cypriot gastronomy. With spring in full swing and summer looming, now is the perfect time to enjoy dining in the open-air courtyard. Traditional Cypriot touches are evident throughout. For instance, guests are greeted with a few drops of rosewater in an antique silver trinket called hanapi. The menu changes according to seasonality of produce but when we visited, the local delicacy starter of snails in a Commandaria (sweet, velvety Cypriot sherry) and rosemary sauce with caramelised onions tickled our palate. For mains, we recommend the baked lamb dish of tavas that we feature here in our recipes. For dessert, go with a millefeuille with the local powdery soft anari cheese, walnuts and honey – a very light yet delicious end to the meal.
Ayii Anargiri Resort
Since Cyprus’ EU entry eight years ago, agro-tourism has grown in leaps and bounds, and one such beneficiary is Ayii Anargiri. The converted 17th century monastery is now a boutique spa resort set in the hills of Miliou village on the island’s west coast, and a 90-minute drive from the international airport in Larnaca. With 56 rooms, some inside the main building and others as stone chalets scattered amongst the orange groves, Ayii Anargiri has two USPs – its spa that has been pouring healing sulphur spring water for four centuries and, for those after a different kind of pampering, the vino cellar Cava with an a la carte menu of Cypriot and international dishes that it shares with its fine dining restaurant.
It’s a vino and tapas bar in the heart of Nicosia where the cuisine is inspired by master chefs of innovation Ferran Adria and Pierre Gagnaire. Dare we mention molecular gastronomy, or as Ferran would prefer, ‘cutting-edge cuisine’, with bites like halloumi croquettes with a test tube squirt of pomegranate juice.
Pantopolio, Kali Orexi
A white-washed Greek tavern also in Nicosia – trust us, as we mentioned, there are differences between mainland Greek and Cypriot cuisine. You must start with graviera se filo (gruyere cheese pie drizzled with honey), melinzanokeftedes (deep- fried minced aubergine balls) and tirokafteri (spicy fetta dip). For mains, go for the bifteki (beef burger) – this may sound boring, but slice open and out oozes a warm sheep’s milk cheese kefalotiri (similar flavour to Manchego) – and lamb sheftalia, a Greek version of a Cypriot sausage topped with tomatoes and grated halloumi on pita bread.
INFO: +357 22 675151.
To Tavernakitou Pampou and Plaka
This one’s a hugely authentic mezedopolio, a taverna specialising in meze in Nicosia. If in season like now, order the wild asparagus scrambled with eggs. The grilled Cypriot loukanika and sheftalia are also a must try.
INFO: +357 22 781083.
Alternatively, for a similar experience, the local institution of a traditional tavern that has been churning out mezes for donkey’s years goes by the name of Plaka.
INFO: + 357 22 44 6498.