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H - 161 : Cyprus - A Cuisine of Empires


Mezzes - served throughout the Middle East and the Balkans are a prominent dish in Cyprus


Knowing that Cyprus was a vassal to Phoenicia, then part of the Persian Empire, followed by a stint with the Ptolemy (Egypt) before becoming Roman for a millennium and Turkish for half that time lets me assume that its cuisine reflects the culinary heritage of these empires. They all brought soldiers, administrators and bureaucrats to run the island – men and women who arrived with their own culinary traditions. The Greek mariners who visited for buying copper did the same. They brought their cooks along. What better than eating your own food when thousands of miles away from home and being homesick?

 

The First Persian Empire transferred culinary Traditions through the entire known World


The above observations are also true for the Turkish cuisine which I covered in my blog in 2022. In Cyprus, the various culinary influences are even more pronounced given that the island was at the crossroad of so many civilisations. There are so many dishes that it is difficult to make a choice. Am going for the ones where the roots are easiest to understand.


Mezzes can be eaten as Appetiser or as a stand alone Meal - they are always shared

 

Let’s start with Mezze, a dish we find throughout the Middle East and the Balkans. The name is based on the Persian word “Mazzah” which means “unleavened, flat bread”. Indeed, Mezze is usually eaten with a piece of flat bread. The dish cannot be traced to a single region or country. It rather stands for eating appetizers together. Thus, in every region, Mezzes are slightly different, made from different parts. The island of Cyprus contributed Halloumi cheese, made from sheep or goat milk. Iran contributed herbal meatballs and onions. Kibbeh, the cones made from ground meat and bulgur, comes from Lebanon; Hummus, the cooked and crushed chick peas, most likely from Syria. India contributed aubergines and the gherkins. The yoghurt used for gherkin salad comes from the steppes of inner Asia. Mezzes are a truly imperial dish and a culinary memory former empires. Most of them ancient. But after the discovery of the Americas by Spain, tomatoes, peppers and sometimes potatoes found their way into Mezzes too. We should call Mezzes a fusion dish.

 


The next Cypriote dish to talk about is Fasolada, which is also claimed by Greece. It is a hearty bean-based soup – with lots of different ingredients. I would call it a typical left-over dish since you are free to add whatever is left in your grocery basket. Its origins are shrouded in mystery. Apparently, the Athenian King Theseus prepared the dish as sacrifice to Apollo in Delos (we visited in 2022). He was on his way home from Crete where he had killed the Minotaur, the monster terrorising the island. But since they had little left to eat on their boat, they scraped together whatever they found. The Fasolada probably has more humble roots like the famine during World War 2. Meat was unavailable and people had to eat whatever they could find. White beans, olive oil and vegetables was what they had. It did the job. Today, many people add tomatoes – it remains a vegan dish though.


Kleftiko is made with Marinated Lamb, Potatoes, Tomatoes and Onion in Parchment Paper

 

My third dish is Kleftiko, slowly roasted lamb. It has an equally colorful story of origin. Legend has it that Greek bandits fought the Ottoman oppressors in the mountains 500 years ago and stole lambs to survive. The name derives from Klephts which was the name of the Greek independence fighters in the 19th century. The story is claimed by mainland Greece, Crete and Cyprus so there is reason to believe that the story is made up. 500 years ago Greek people battled the Venetians who tried to convert them to Catholicism. They got pretty well along with the Ottomans which left them in peace. Be it as it may, the dish is a slow cooked stew made from lamb, potatoes, hard cheese and fresh herbs. The first step is to marinade the lamb in a dish overnight. Then put potatoes on a parchment paper, add the cheese, add the marinated lamb and top with onions, tomatoes and herbs, wrap and bake for 3 hours in 200 degrees Celsius. The juice from tomatoes and the lamb will season the dish. Top with fresh parsley before serving with Greek Salad. Definitely have to try this.

 

Kleftiko fresh from the Oven in the Parchment Paper


My fourth dish is Sheftali, a minced pork sausage that it best served with warm pita bread, raw onion slices and parsley, sprinkled with fresh lemon juice. Its origin is even more funny than the stories above. It apparently goes back to the 18th century when Cyprus was an Ottoman province. The large majority of the island’s population were Christians who – contrary to the Muslims – were allowed to eat pork. Of course pig population increased – the one thing the Turks would not take away. Also, pigs are leftover eaters and easy to feed. Turks were allowed to cook pork though. A clever guy called Sef Ali (Chef Ali) came up with the sausage to boost his business. Sef Ali became Sheftali. Have no idea whether this is true but love the story. People are geniuses when it comes to making up tales.


Sheftali mixture in a bowl before made into sausages


Anyway, Sheftali is made by mixing the minced pork with glazed onions and fresh parsley. It is seasoned with a bit of salt, pepper and chopped mint leaves. Then formed into the shape of sausages and wrapped with suet, the saturated fat from animal kidneys. Sheftalia is best grilled on a BBQ but not too hot to make sure that the inside is cooked as well,

 

Sheftali fresh from the BBQ sprinkled with Parsley


My last dish for today is Afelia, a stewed pork dish. The name means cooked meat in ancient Greek and gives away the dishes origin. Whilst claimed by Cyprus as a national dish, you find it all over Greece but not in Turkey. No pork for Muslims. The Dish is probably as old as pig farming. We know that Cypriots – as many other people in the Middle East – farmed pigs already 5’000 years ago.



Afelia is often made with potatoes. The pork is marinated overnight. Then seared together with the potatoes in olive oil, before being sautéed in red wine which is seasoned with coriander and black pepper. The dish can be prepared without potatoes and served with separately prepared bulgur wheat. The sautéing of the meat can take up to two hours on low fire. It makes the pork wonderfully tender and does not overcook the potatoes.

 

This is my last dish for today. I find it fascinating to discover the history of a place by the way people eat. Will continue with my research. Stay tuned.

 

 

 

 

 

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