TEXT: MARILENA JOANNIDES
PHOTOGRAPHY: GEORGE PANTAZIS for Marilena Joannides' book "Cyprus food treasures".
In Cyprus of the past, there was no room for culinary luxuries; the primary concern of people was to feed their families with whatever little they had. Meat only made its grand appearance during festive periods and special occasions – for example, every time the Cypriots opened their home to relatives and guests. The rest of the time people would gather anything that nature had to offer, and through imaginative methods and great mastery, they would create humble delicacies which over time became the tradition. Nowadays, this tradition is evolving and taking the form of gastronomy. We have selected some representative dishes –mostly summer ones– that can either be considered as trademarks or reflect the main features of the traditional cuisine of the island.
The balance of flavors
Simple, yet at the same time intense flavors are the main characteristic of Cypriot cuisine, which distinguish it from the cuisines of its neighbouring countries. In the same way that Cyprus geographically connects East and West, so does Cypriot cuisine harmoniously link Europe and Asia. Take, for example, the traditional souvlaki with pita bread. The Cypriot pita somewhat resembles the ones from the East, without actually being oriental or arabic; the Cypriot charcoal-grilled souvlaki is found somewhere between western plain grilled meat and the more elaborate oriental version, usually marinated, whereas the addition of a simple parsley, tomato and cucumber salad turns the dish into a delicious and complete meal.
Ever since ancient times, the island of Aphrodite has been famous for its various breads, wheat being the main staple of the local diet. In Cyprus, traditional bread is prepared using local stonemill-ground flour, well-kneaded with sourdough, water and salt, and baked in a wood-fired oven. Traditional pasta –for example the “hondrofides” or the handmade macaroni with “skilintzi” (juncus maritimus)– boiled in water or chicken broth, served with grated haloumi or anari cheese and flavored with mint, create a simple yet delicious dish. The wheat derivative known as “pourgouri”, can be quickly and effortlessly converted into a delicious and nutritious dish. “Pourgouri” is also used as the primary ingredient for making “trahanas”, while cooked as “pilafi”, it traditionally served as the par-excellence meal of the harvest.
Cypriot cuisine is based on seasonal ingredients brought to prominence through simple preparation methods. The result? Simplicity of flavors and resplendently aromatic palatal experiences which stand proudly on their own, such as: Cypriot salad with purslane and wild caper leaves; the famed Cypriot potatoes, fried or as a casserole with summer tomatoes or even oven-baked; fresh black-eyed beans (“louvi”) boiled with marrow, served with fresh lemon juice and olive oil; green beans, aubergines, kohlrabi, lentils, yellow split peas and so many other vegetarian delicacies with legumes and vegetables.
The Mediterranean on our plate!
Seafood and fish could not be absent from the traditional cuisine of the island. Octopus stew (“kathisto”), cuttlefish cooked with lemon juice or grilled, fried or stuffed squid, parrotfish cooked with tomatoes (“yiahni”), grouper cooked with onions “stifado” and an abundance of other Mediterranean fishes that can be enjoyed either pan-fried or grilled.
Traditional wine-cured and smoked sausages and “lountza”, as well as a number of meat dishes, hold a special place on the Cypriot table: clean, rustic tastes, but not at all overwhelming. Pride of place goes to “koupepia” (stuffed vine leaves), stuffed courgette blossoms or marrow, the Cypriot “pastitsio” or “oven macaroni” with minced pork and dry anari cheese, without tomato, just flavored with parsley, onion and black pepper, as well as the very special meatballs of Cyprus. In addition, the Lefkara “tava”, the traditional “afelia”, which are mentioned in a local medieval folk song, the “ofto” with lamb or goat, the origins of which can be traced back to ancient Greece and the Homeric epics, and of course the Cypriot “koupes”, indicating possibly a Phoenician influence.
The unique, national cheese of the island, haloumi, is traditionally made from goat or sheep’s milk, its final distinctive folding made in order to embrace the fresh mint – the emblematic herb of Cypriot cuisine. Haloumi cheese is a relatively white cheese with distinctive taste and texture, due to a specific and unique production technique. The earliest historical reference to haloumi cheese is found in a Venetian document from 1554 AD, penned by Leonardo Dona, who later became a Doge.
As far as local desserts are concerned, let’s start with the traditional and handmade “pasteli” made from carobs, still produced in the old-fashioned way, and as a result included in the Ark of Taste catalogue of the Slow Food International organization. Furthermore, grape-products such as “palouzes” and “soutzoukos” are a must to try. In addition, one should get a taste of sugar-preserved fruits such as walnut, watermelon, bergamot and cherry. We must also note the extraordinarily simple and vegan Cypriot “mahalepi” –served with rose water and rose cordial– as well as the very special and raw almond sweets of Cyprus. One of course cannot ignore the most typical festival sweets, the crisp doughnuts known as “loukoumades” and the “shamishi”. Last but by no means least, the sweet “ladies’ fingers” and the “pishies”, as well as the honey-pies (“diplopites”), the “pourekia” with anari cheese and icing sugar, the rice pudding with cinnamon and the Cypriot “shamali”.
All of them pure flavors, self-standing tastes of Cyprus!