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The chequered past of the Cyprus meze February 12, 2008

Posted by grhomeboy in Food Cyprus, Food Recipes, Greek Food Culture.
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Not known for its refinement or sophistication, Cyprus cuisine is based on the use of fresh, wholesome ingredients. Its flagship is, of course, the meze, which does show subtle differences to those available elsewhere in the region.

When the British arrived in Cyprus in 1878, they expected to find people with a spark of the Turkish fire and a touch of Grecian taste. They were greatly disappointed as Cypriots were neither oriental nor occidental. “Except in name, they are neither Turks nor Greeks; neither are they an amalgam of these two races. Who then are the Cypriots?” asked one perplexed British official in 1879.

Who are the Cypriots really, with a series of conquerors having left their marks behind? Enriched and diversified by the Assyrians, Persians, Greeks, Romans, Byzantine, Lusignan, Venetian, Ottoman and British, Cypriots have a rather unique disposition. The same can be said about Cyprus cuisine. It is an amalgamation of diverse tastes and textures. Cyprus meze reflects food influenced by the full range of different cultures, civilisations and traditions that have occupied the island. Some may argue that it is more closely related to that of Greece. It is true that in recent years, many dishes have been added which predispose the palate to Greek origins – dishes like tirokafteri, saganaki or kolokithokeftedes (spicy cheese, baked feta and courgette balls).

The origins of meze can be traced to the pre-Islamic wine culture of Persia, where the original meze were sweets to counteract the bitter taste of young wine. Among the very few rare early cookbooks, kebabs and stew-like meat are mentioned in one cookbook written in Baghdad in1226. Nowadays, meze is a type of hors d’oeuvre, an appetiser accompanying drinks.

Cyprus cuisine shares much with the other cuisines of the Eastern Mediterranean. For the Arabs, a mazza table can be the entire dinner. In Greece, mezedes or meze platters are almost a kind of institution where diners are encouraged to linger over their meals, and the same applies here. There is an especially strong family resemblance between Greek and Turkish recipes, and it is in no way clear in which direction the influence was strongest. While the Greek cuisine is older, it was also heavily influenced by Persian and Phoenician sources, so it is easy to believe that the central role of lamb, yoghurt, sesame, citrus, flatbreads, and very thin pastries all came from some common central Asian source. Also, meze platters are very similar in concept to the Spanish tapas.

Cyprus’ position at the crossroads of Europe, Africa, and the Middle East has added colourful dimensions that make it different and appetising. Emphasising fresh local ingredients, regional herbs and spices, and in recent years the use of olive oil in cooking, the Cypriot palate is quintessentially Mediterranean in character.

According to Niki Paraskeva, owner of Erinia Tavern, “a meze consists of as many as 30 small plates of food, from savoury dips and vegetables to a wide range of hot, mainly meat, dishes. The restaurant opened in 1934 and the same wholesome, traditional food has been served ever since with very slight variations. “I use the same recipes that my late mother passed on, and I make everything from scratch. I never serve anything that comes ready made in a tub.”

Much more than hors d’oeuvres, the meze often comprises the heart of a meal itself. Some of the dishes you can expect to be served when you ask for a Cyprus meze vary from place to place. Traditionally the appetisers are taramosalata, fish roe blended into a creamy pink dip of pureed potatoes with parsley, lemon juice and finely chopped onion; talatouri, mint and cucumber flavoured yogurt with crushed garlic; tahini, sesame seed paste with lemon juice, garlic and olive oil; horiatiki salata with tomatoes, lettuce, peppers, onion slices, feta cheese, green olives with a dressing made of olive oil, lemon juice, salt and local herbs.

Some common vegetable preparations are boiled potatoes in olive oil and parsley, pickled cauliflower and beets, fried courgette with scrambled egg, fried tomato puree with scrambled egg, kolokasi (a sweet potato-like root vegetable) and wild asparagus with egg when in season.

Other popular choices are koupepia, grape leaves stuffed with minced meat and rice; anthous, rice stuffed pumpkin flowers, when in season, halloumi, a delicious soft cheese, (usually grilled) made from sheep milk and spiced with fresh mint; home-made raviolis and kritharaki, orzo in tomato sauce.

The meat dishes will include loukanika, coriander-seasoned sausages, soaked in red wine and smoked; sheftalia, grilled pork sausage, pork or chicken kebabs, afelia, pork marinated in wine and coriander served with burgoul and stifado, beef or rabbit stew casseroled with wine vinegar, onions and spices. Some places may serve ofto kleftiko, chunks of lamb cooked in a sealed clay oven and seasoned with bay leaves and the traditional souvla, chunks of pork, lamb or chicken cooked on skewers.

A traditional sweet treat is a variety of fruit preserves or fried sweet anari bourekia, a kind of ricotta cheese filling in thin pastry.

Cyprus cuisine is not considered one of the world’s most refined and elegant styles of cooking, nor does it involve sophisticated techniques. There is nothing refined about cooking ofto kleftiko or souvla. Good quality produce and the use of wholesome ingredients which are in season are, however, all important in the local cooking.

Here are two Cypriot traditional recipes > 

Pork Afelia [Serves 4]

1kg pork pieces
1 glass red wine, extra for the marinade
3-4 tbsp coriander, crushed
½ glass vegetable oil

* Marinade pork pieces overnight, in enough red wine to cover the meat and 2 tbsp coriander.
* Add oil in a saucepan and heat up. Fry pork pieces on high heat for a few minutes, turning once or twice. Season well, add the rest of the coriander and stir. Pour in the wine and stir for a few minutes adding some water if needed. Lower the heat to medium and cook until the juices have reduced and the meat is tender.
* Serve with pourgouri (burgoul).

Pourgouri [Serves 6]

½ glass vegetable oil
1 onion, finely chopped
2 fide – fine noodle nests, crushed
2 glasses burgoul
4 glasses water
Salt

* Fry onion in the oil until tender and brown. Add the crushed noodle nests and stir. Add the burgoul and stir more. Pour in the water and season well. Cook on low heat for 15 minutes or until almost all liquid is absorbed. Remove from the heat and place a clean towel over it.

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