Greek Cypriot food and drink is largely identical to Greek food. However, Cypriots themselves consider their cuisine to be far superior and point out differences, both in quality and sometimes in ingredients. So, for example, the Cypriot koupepia (stuffed vine leaves) contain minced meat as well as rice, whereas the Greek equivalent (dolmades) don’t. That said, all the old Greek favourites will be found in most restaurants on the island – moussaka, souvlakia, stifado, kleftiko, sheftalia, keftedes, goubes, godopoulo and above all meze, together with dips such as tzatziki, taramasalata and hummus. if you’re after traditional Greek food, look out for the presence of a large domed oven at the back of the restaurant, and/or a charcoal grill or “souvla”. Fish is often of good quality and freshly caught – you might well be invited into the kitchen to choose from that day’s catch.
The cuisine of north Cyprus is very similar to that of the south – after all, both communities had a shared history before 1974. The only gastronomic effect of the Turkish invasion of 1974 seems to be that international fast-food chains have been replaced by Turkish ones (the absence of McDonald’s, Starbucks and their ilk is particularly noticeable). International wines and beers have been replaced by local or Turkish equivalents, and Greek brands have been replaced by Turkish ones. Ordering food in restaurants and buying it in supermarkets are getting easier as the practice of labelling in English as well as Turkish spreads.
One of the most famous Cypriot products is halloumi, goat-or ewe’s-milk cheese soaked in brine. Rubbery when raw, but lovely when fried or grilled, it has found its way into many Middle Eastern and Mediterranean dishes. Meat products to look out for include lountza, beautifully lean pork fillet, and loukanika, a spicy and very fatty smoked sausage; loukanika is something of an acquired taste – if you cook it in your apartment, you’ll be able to smell it for days.
For street food, you could do worse than tiropittes (flaky pastry cheese pies) spanakopittes (similar, but with spinach), souvlakia wrapped in pitta bread, or corn on the cob.
For those with a sweet tooth there’s daktyla (almond fried pastry), lokmades (fried pastry balls in syrup), loukoumi, known to the rest of the world (to the disgust of Greeks) as Turkish Delight, and so-called spoon sweets such as preserved quince, walnut or orange. Soutzioukos made of grape juice and almonds or walnuts, is supposed to be good for the libido. Cake and ice cream are also very popular – people often go out in the late evening, Italian style, just to visit sacharoplasteia for a wide choice of cakes, or gelato/cafés for ice cream.
Cypriots love their fruit (fresh, dried and preserved), olives and nuts – you’ll find a bewildering variety on sale in any market or greengrocers. Indeed, for visitors in self-catering accommodation, shopping in Cypriot supermarkets, specialist shops and open-air markets is a highlight of their trip.
Breakfast and lunch
In days gone by Cypriots would usually help themselves to leftovers from the previous night before setting off to work. Today, breakfasts differ little from those favoured by the rest of Europe. Most hotels will offer the ubiquitous “continental breakfast” of croissants, bread and preserves, often supplemented with eggs, cheese and cold meats. Most will also put on a traditional “full English”, though any similarities between Cypriot and English bacon are coincidental. Lunch is served in most restaurants between noon and 2.30pm, and can vary from a light snack to a full meal.
Restaurants and eating out
Except for Sundays, when lunch can last most of the afternoon, Cypriots prefer to take their main meal in the evening, when temperatures have fallen to a pleasanter level. And because of the practice of having a siesta, they tend to eat late: restaurants rarely open much before 7pm, and most customers will arrive at any time from 8 or 9pm onwards. Restaurants can get very busy in high season, especially at weekends, so it’s a good idea to make a reservation. Prices vary enormously, but allow for perhaps €40 for meze for two, with a bottle of wine, €50 for a three-course meal with a bottle of wine.
The variety of restaurants in Cyprus has increased exponentially during the last decade or two. Most popular are still the traditional tavernas (still the only option in many rural areas), or the slightly more formal estiadoria. But these have been joined by a host of restaurants offering cuisine from around the world: Italian, French, Chinese, Indian, Japanese, Thai, Lebanese, Arabic, Mexican, Russian and Armenian restaurants can all be found across the island. Fast food and “international cuisine” is ubiquitous, served up not only by the likes of Pizza Hut, McDonald’s and KFC, but by local equivalents – Goody’s, for example – and by the hundreds of restaurants aimed squarely at tourists (often recognizable by the photographs of the food outside). Though Cypriot restaurants are usually locally owned, a recent change has been that serving staff now often hail from Eastern Europe.
Cyprus has a long history of winemaking thanks mainly to its period under Lusignan (originally French Crusaders) rule. The bulk of its wine is produced in Lemesos and Pafos districts by four large wineries (ETKO, KEO, LOEL and SODAP). By far the most famous variety is the sweet dessert wine Commandaria, but a whole range of reds, whites and rosés, varying from very dry to very sweet, can be experienced on the six wine routes assembled by the tourist board. Most wineries have tastings, and you can learn all you need to know about Cypriot wine at the Lemesos Wine Museum.
For those looking for something a little stronger, the famous anise-flavoured ouzo, produced by distilling grape juice, is a popular aperitif, drunk neat and ice cold, or with water and/or ice (which makes the clear liquid turn milky). Stronger still is zivania, distilled from grape skins and local wines (tip: if mosquito bites are keeping you awake, alternately dab zivania on the bites and take a swallow – you’ll be asleep in no time). Cyprus has long been renowned for its inexpensive sherry (many British drinkers of a certain age will have cut their teeth on Cyprus sherry from the local off-licence) and its brandy.
The needs of beer drinkers are met by locally brewed Carlsberg and Keo, though a wide range of imported beers are available in many bars. Fruit juices in Cyprus are good value, as is the local coffee (call it Turkish at your peril) – it is served in tiny cups which are half-full of grounds, and you must specify the degree of sweetness when you order (glyco – sweet, metrio – medium, sketo – unsweetened): sugar cannot be added once it’s made. Ordinary instant coffee is also widely available (called “Nes” after “Nescafé”), and a refreshing variant on a hot day is frappé, or iced coffee (check out wcyprus.com/how-to-make-the-perfect-frappe.html for the lowdown on making your own).