When summer temperatures climb well above 100 degrees in Cyprus, the grilling begins.
On this small island in the eastern Mediterranean, cooking moves outside in the warm weather to wood-fired clay ovens and charcoal grills. When Stelios Papageorgiou and his wife Dora grew up in northern Cyprus in the 1960s, summer meals often came from the grill—especially on weekends, when their fathers grilled kebabs (souvla) and meatballs (sheftalia) outdoors.
Those traditions live on in Cyprus today, with halloumi (a brined cheese made with sheep and/or goat's milk), koupepia (stuffed grape leaves), salads, and pickles round out the grilled meal. "In summer everybody makes souvla," Stelios says. "When you go to visit a friend, souvla, koupepia, sheftalia, and halloumi are always on the table."
Stelios, 55, and Dora, 53, are the longtime owners of Zenon Taverna,* a Greek-Cypriot restaurant in Astoria, Queens—a neighborhood that's home to a famously large community of immigrants from the Greek mainland and neighboring islands. There you can get your very own taste of the Cypriot grilling tradition, souvla and all.
* Stelios and his family fled Cyprus following the 1974 Turkish invasion. Listen to how he became a chef in the U.S. in his own words.
To see just what goes into these specialties, we spent a morning in the kitchen with the Papageorgious and their daughter Elena to see how it's all done. Working in a New York kitchen has its drawbacks—limited grill space means they have to par-cook some dishes under a broiler and finish them on the grill for char—but their recipes haven't changed much from what they learned years ago.
Both seafood and lamb make appearances in Cypriot grilling, but mostly for special occasions; pork is the country's mainstay meat (though notably not among the north's Muslim-Turkish population).
Lountza is a Cypriot pork delicacy that's usually prepared in specialty shops, but when the Papageorgious couldn't find any they decided to make their own. First they marinate pork tenderloin in dry red wine, coriander seeds, salt, and pepper for ten days so it takes on a slightly cured ham-like texture. Then they smoke the meat in an oven.
In Cyprus, dense slices of savory lountza are pressed into panino-like sandwiches with salty halloumi, tomato, and cucumber—a popular beach snack. At Zenon Taverna the dish comes deconstructed: lountza and halloumi get browned under a broiler (a time-saving necessity in a busy kitchen with a small grill) and then lightly charred on the grill. They're plated simply with a sprinkling of fresh lemon juice.
Loukaniko, a fragrant pork sausage, also starts with a cure. Fattier cuts of pork are marinated with red wine, coriander, salt, pepper, and fragrant schinus seeds (from a Cypriot pepper tree), which the Papageorgious bring back from their annual trips to Cyprus. Then they trim the excess fat, grind the meat, and stuff it into pork intestine casings.
As with the lountza, the loukaniko is first cooked under a broiler and then charred quickly on the grill and cut into bit-size pieces as an appetizer. The coarsely ground sausage is fairly lean, all the better to let the bold flavors of the marinade come through. Loukaniko's flavor varies from home to home—some are all about chunks of leek, others about orange peel—but the Papageorgious' sausage keeps coriander front and center, crushed seeds included.
Then there's sheftalia: ground pork, fresh parsley, onion, and breadcrumbs (to absorb some of the fat) mixed into elongated meatballs and wrapped in caul fat. These are grilled all the way through on the grill until the caul fat is well browned and crunchy. They're topped with lemon juice and stuffed into a pita with parsley, tomato, cucumber, onion, and dabs of piccalilli, tahina, or tzatziki.
Ground pork also makes an appearance in traditional Cypriot koupepia. (In health-conscious America, the Papageorgious have learned to make their stuffed grape leaves with ground chicken, as shown here.) First the ground pork is lightly sautéed with onions. Then comes cooked rice, dried mint, parsley, tomato paste, and lemon juice. The mixture is rolled into grape leaves and boiled for 45 minutes, then served warm, with a spritz of fresh lemon juice.
In Cyprus, small portions of these dishes—called meze—are eaten with salads, olives, pickles, and dips as part of long, leisurely meals. These meals, shared with friends and family, wind on into summer nights, served course by course over five or six hours.
"Meze is one of the most important things in Cyprus," Stelios says. "When we meet the family we have the meze. It's a lot of food. You have to sit there for hours, talking and eating and drinking."
So What Is Cypriot Food?
Located at the confluence of trade routes connecting Europe, Asia, and Africa, Cyprus has been influenced by centuries of traders and invaders from France, Italy, Greece, Turkey, the Middle East, and Britain.
"All those cultures passed through [Cyprus]," says Elena, 27. "We got the best of the food," Stelios adds. (You can listen to him wax rhapsodic about his country's food here.)
He's joking, but those diverse influences are apparent in Cypriot cooking, where Middle Eastern and Mediterranean flavors are seamlessly mingled.
Cyprus is closer to Lebanon, Syria, and Turkey than it is to Greece. But Greek-Cypriots, like the Papageorgious, have deep cultural and culinary ties to Greece, dating back to Alexander the Greatís conquests.
Still, food in Cyprus is distinct. While Greek cooks generally favor dill and tomato sauces, Cypriot dishes are lighter and brighter, seasoned with mint, cumin, coriander, thyme, bay leaves, and even curry powder. (The ground spice blend, sourced from an Indian grocery, livens up the Papageorgious' moussaka and several meat sauces at Zenon Taverna.)
Greeks usually grill their meat whole, but Cypriots prefer to chop lamb and pork into smaller pieces (called souvla) and slowly cook them over moderate heat for juicier end results. Curing meat in wine is also a Cypriot specialty. And when it comes to sweets, Cypriots prefer fragrant rose water, while Greeks typically favor honey.
Lemon juice and vinegar also impart sharp, tangy flavors to many Cypriot dishes. Take tzatziki—yogurt blended with shredded cucumber and garlic, a Greek standard. Rather than adding dill (as Greeks sometimes do), the Papageorgious spike theirs with vinegar and mint, giving it a refreshing, acidic bite.
Olives and pickled vegetables are also beloved in Cyprus. Piccalilli, a vinegary, mustardy minced vegetable relish with roots in British India (the Brits also occupied Cyprus during the 19th and 20th centuries), is always on the table with grilled meats, and earthy-sour pickled caper leaves are often tossed in with summer salads.
For more intel, be sure to check out the best things we ate in Cyprus.
About the authors: Anne Noyes Saini edits economics books and covers food culture and immigration in NYC. She has contributed to Narratively, The New York Times, and WNYC-FM, and is features editor of Real Cheap Eats. Follow her on Twitter @CitySpoonful.
Mark Rinaldi writes about global cuisine and culture over at his blog, Cooked Earth, where he is cooking and documenting a meal from every country on Earth, alphabetically. He likes hot chilies, cold beer, and death metal.