Breakfast of Champions
Above the obligatory cups of Turkish/Cypriot coffee, here’s a selection of stuffed pastries from a local bakery for breakfast one morning. My favorites were the smaller ones (the large ones on top were stuffed with spinach and ham/cheese souffle, respectively). From left: a light halloumi/sesame twist, a rugelach-like pastry with dense almond paste, a folded pastry with fluffy whipped feta, and the above-all winner, a savory orange-scented dough stuffed with minced olives.
No trip to Cyprus is complete without souvlaki, aka meat on a stick. Chunks of pork, chicken, or lamb are threaded on a skewer grilled over charcoal, oftentimes outside on the street, so the whole block is perfumed with sweet meaty smoke, and Cypriots are very picky about their souvlaki vendors. Souvlaki is usually served with a pita, raw onion, parsley, tomato, lemon, and pickled green peppers. Yogurt sauce is an occasional accompaniment, but not always.
Sheftalia are juicy little patties of ground pork mixed with grated onion, garlic, parsley, salt, and pepper, then wrapped in caul fat and grilled over charcoal. They can be eaten plain as part of a mixed grill plate with souvlaki or kebabs, or stuffed into a pita, like so. When done right, they’re almost fluffy in texture, tricking you into thinking you’re not eating a ball of pork wrapped in fat.
Mezze (meat edition)
Mezze, which George Demetriades, owner of 7 St. Georges Tavern in Paphos told us derived from the Farsi word meaning “taste,” is a smorgasbord of small dishes, paraded in waves across the table for an epic meal that’s literally impossible to finish. In coastal areas, seafood mezze is popular (more on that in a minute), though inland, typical dishes might include something like this: to start, a green salad with feta, olives, dips like tahini, tzatziki, skordalia (potatoes pureed with garlic), farmer’s cheese, smoked bacon or ham, marinated beets or cauliflower; a second wave of cooked dishes like snails in tomato-onion sauce, herb-laced pork sausages, grilled mushrooms, bulghur or other grains; a meaty section with grilled chicken or pork kebabs, grilled bacon or sausage, braised rabbit in a vinegary sauce, or ground pork nuggets called sheftalia (which will get their own slide in a minute); and a sweet ending with citrus fruit, rosewater-soaked custard with fruits, or halva. Mezze dinners can last up to three hours. “It’s turned into a culture of eating,” says Demetriades. “It’s a very social meal. Eat, drink, talk, relax...or dance on the table, if you feel like it.”
Mezze (fish edition)
On the coasts, particularly around Polis, seafood is king, so mezze becomes distinctly fishy. Dips include pastel-pink taramas (fish roe), and many of the grilled meats are replaced with hyper-fresh octopus, squid, sea bream, snapper, or sea bass, usually simply grilled and served with olive oil, lemon, and parsley. On the flip side, frozen shrimp and fried fake crab fritters were popular additions, along with French fries (or “chips,” as the Brits say) and deep-fried small fish, which we wished had gotten the grill treatment instead.
This traditional dish translates to “stolen meat,” and legend has it that it originated in the 1800s, when Greek hillside rebels stole sheep from their Ottoman foes, then dug a hole, lit a fire, wrapped the meat in carob leaves, and slowly cooked it underground while they continued rebeling. Hours later, the meat—a sort of Hellenic barbacoa—is so tender it literally falls off the bone. Today, the dish is made by cooking lamb shoulder slowly in a sealed clay pot for hours on end, rendering it spoon-tender and ultra-juicy. The marrow in the bone jutting out of the top is just an added bonus. We had kleftiko at Militzis, the same oven-centric taverna that made the excellent moussaka.
Remember earlier when I said this trip was where I encountered the best version of two things I’ve ever had? Well, this was one of them. I rarely order moussaka in the States, because it’s all too often a sloppy, cinnamon-y mess. But at Militzis, a longstanding taverna in Larnaca blessed with a giant indoor-outdoor stone oven, the moussaka is a thing a beauty. My corner piece arrived with a crisp lattice top that gave way to a heady, silky-smooth layer of bechamel, followed by sheets of thinly sliced eggplant, potatoes, and a base of savory ground pork ragu. I could only eat about four bites because it was so outrageously rich, but those four bites were bliss.
Made with toothsome bulghur and tender bits of vermicelli, this simple-looking side side packed a surprising amount of nutty flavor. It’s served with a ceramic tub of thick, tangy village yogurt, which we were instructed to mix in to the pilaf one spoonful at a time.
Octopus is all too often a disappointment at Greek restaurants here in New York (though if you have local favorites, by all means...say the word), but in Cyprus, where the cephalopods suction happily all over the island’s craggy shores, every chef worth his salt knows how to treat them. Usually, that means braising the tentacles to get them nice and tender, then quickly grilling them over high heat to get a crackly crust on the outer suckers. (Popular folklore perpetuates the image of fisherman pounding octopus against rocks on the shore to tenderize them, though I never saw it.) Slicked with olive oil, seasoned with salt and pepper, and grilled is my preparation of choice, though stifado, in which octopus is braised in red wine with onions and spices, is a close runner-up.
If there’s one thing I never got sick of, it’s halloumi, a semi-hard unripened goat-sheep cheese that’s the national pride of Cyprus. Blessed with an above-average melting point, halloumi can be sliced and fried or grilled without browning or dripping, and eaten with everything from bread to watermelon to smoked ham to nothing but my greedy fingers. Fresh halloumi is squeaky and mild, while aged halloumi, kept in its own brine, is drier and sharply salty. I ate it every single day and miss it terribly.
Halloumi up close and personal
One of the best days of the trip was our visit with Elena to a family-run goat farm in Droushia, a small village famed for its halloumi. Here, the farmer shows us how to check for quality in fresh slices of halloumi: there should be ripple-like tears, but not clean breaks, in a piece that you bend.
Spinach pies are fairly common in Cyprus, but this one, snagged fresh out of the oven at a small bakery in Nicosia/Lefkosia, takes the proverbial cake. The filling was a rich mix of spinach, feta, eggs, and onion, and the phyllo shell had a beautiful burnished top and tender soft folds within. Swoon.
In the mountains of Troodoos, we foraged for wild greens with our host Androula. Along the pathways we stopped to gather tiny, tender cloves of wild spinach, so swollen they almost felt like succulents. We also raided a freshwater stream for a cache of watercress that looked like geraniums. More on what we did them in the next slide.
With the cress, we left it raw and made a quick and easy salad with tomatoes and feta dressed in olive oil and lemon juice. The spinach we cooked down in olive oil with salt until it lost any lingering stringiness, then we scrambled in four neon-yolked eggs for a quick few minutes until they set. Topped with a pinch of crumbled feta, this simple dish is my fantasy breakfast every day, although in Cyprus, it’s eaten less in the morning and more for lunch, or, occasionally, as part of mezze.
Upon first glance, perhaps not the most thrilling of choices. But the citrus in Cyprus is on another level. Orange and lemon trees pop up like weeds, and their fruits—particularly this small, ultra-juicy Satsuma-esque variety—are some of the sweetest I’ve ever tasted.
Lahmachan (left) and Khachapuri
Avo’s Armenian Food is something of an institution in Nicosia/Lefkosia, a former hole-in-the-wall that recently revamped its storefront on a busy pedestrian thoroughfare. (Lines are literally out the door in the later parts of the evening.) Lahmachan (or lahmajoun) is a sort of thin, umami-heavy Armenian pizza, topped with finely minced beef (on Turkish variants, usually lamb) mixed with tomatoes, onions, and parsley. Served with fresh lemon and bundles of parsley, it scores highly on the fun-to-eat-with-your-hands scale. We also spied plenty of lamachan in Turkish north Cyprus.
A Turkish dish found almost exclusively in the north, pide is like a brawnier cousin to lahmachan. An oblong base is filled with any number of things, ranging from cheese to ground meat, encased in a chewy, slightly puffy dough. This one had a little bit of everything—meat, cheese, eggs, and veggies—sprinkled inside.
Bread is a staple in Cyprus, moreso than the pitas or flatbreads I erroneously assumed I’d encounter. This particular loaf is the speciality of the Troodoos Mountain region, and I carried it around the country with me like some sort of edible stuffed animal (until I, ahem...ate it all). Laced with a subtle honey flavor and topped with sesame seeds, this dense, chewy loaf was the ideal vehicle for all kinds of dips, spreads, cheeses, meats, and more. I can’t find its Greek name now and I regret that oversight enormously.
Pork with Kolokasi
Kolokasi is a taro-like tuber that’s been eaten on the island since Roman times. This homey dish, also prepared by Androula, is a stewy mix of cubed pork, kolokasi, onions, and celery cooked in a tomato sauce until everything was soft, tangy, and tender. It might not be the most handsome dish, but it tasted mighty fine, indeed.
The slender baby kolokasi on the right are called “pouelles” and considered something of a delicacy, with a taste akin to artichoke hearts.
Although our host Androula worried that we wouldn’t like the particular taste of this old-school dish, she shouldn’t have worried. Trahana is made by fermenting cracked wheat in sour milk and drying it into small clumps that keep indefinitely. It’s then made into a soup, with the trahana rehydrated in stock until it softens into a tangy porridge, and studded with bits of halloumi cheese, boiled chicken, and/or vegetables. It’s a very rustic dish, rarely served in restaurants, though one nouveau tavern we visited in Nicosia/Lefkosia put a modern spin on trahana by wrapping the cooked grains in phyllo dough and deep-frying them like a Cypriot spring roll.
Much to my surprise, I came across a buzzing Filipino community in Nicosia/Lefkosia. Turns out that there are some 15,000 Pinoys in Cyprus, almost entirely female, who work as domestic caretakers (though the Cyprus’s economy in shambles, the number is steadily dropping—but that’s a story for another time). At the Philippine International Association in Nicosia, we stumbled upon a lively post-Christmas potluck, complete with squid adobo, chicken coconut soup, and pancit palabo (rice noodles smothered in mixed seafood). I wasn’t planning on eating any Asian food during this trip, but I’m definitely glad I did.
In the cool mountains near Troodoos, far from the beaches below, a farmed trout industry thrives, unexpectedly, servicing the immediate area and not much else. One traditional preparation involves almonds and a garlic-butter sauce, though the smoked version I had in Platres was exceptional without all the saucy bells and whistles.
Referred to as “Turkish coffee” in the north and “Cypriot coffee” in the south, but prepared the same way on both sides: by simmering coarsely ground beans with water and a spoonful of sugar (optional), then pouring the whole thing into a tiny cup and letting the grinds settle at the bottom. The finished product is smooth on top, with a syrupy consistency toward the bottom (don’t drink the grinds!), and has the same general effect as an electric shock to your nervous system. There’s a strong coffeehouse culture in small villages around the country, frequented mainly by older men (and me) who linger over cups and snacks for hours at a time.
These dense little honey-walnut cookies are traditionally prepared around Christmastime, and I ate about a bakery’s worth during my stay. The dough is made with semolina, sugar, and olive oil, and after they’re baked, the cookies are dipped in a honey syrup and rolled in chopped walnuts. The texture reminded me slightly of Middle Eastern basboosa, but nuttier, and that’s never a bad thing.
First you take a string and thread a bunch of almonds on it. Then you dip the string in a giant bubbling pot of grape must, flour, and mastic, coating the whole thing so it looks like a giant, waxy sausage. Once cooled, slice that sausage into bite-sized coins that have a chewy texture and fruity taste. That’s soutzoukos for you. You’ll find it, naturally, near the winemaking regions around hilly Omodos.
Saving the best for last. This is the second instance of “the best version of this food I have ever consumed,” at a random bakery on the side of the highway outside of Kyrenia in North Cyprus. The sign had a giant picture of baklava on it, so we pulled over, went in, and faced an entire case of delicate, intricate baklavas in every shape and size—some topped with walnuts, other with neon-green pistachios. We were the first customers of the morning, so all of the pastries were still warm in their circular baking pans. I put together a jewel box of tiny desserts, and sitting in the parking lot, ate what was undoubtedly the best baklava of my life. Each layer of phyllo was distinct, with a lacy, crisp top that gave way to a dense, syrup-soaked lower layer, sandwiched around a dense, nutty filling. The round ones on the right saw that same phyllo/filling combo wrapped in a spiral shape, which tasted the same but was possibly even more fun to eat. The only problem with finding the best baklava of my life is knowing that all others will pale in comparison.