One of the best things about Cyprus is its varied and flavoursome cuisine. Cypriots love their food and take it very seriously. Celebrations and family get-togethers are rarely without an army of little plates crowding the long tables: the ubiquitous and irresistible meze.
Year in Food
- Spring (February–April)
A good season for warming kleftiko (oven-baked lamb), while midspring sees the emergence of wild fennel and asparagus, as well as koupepia (meat and fish wrapped in young vine leaves). During Lent, traditional fare includes spanakopita (spinach and egg wrapped in filo pastry); the main dish at Easter is souvla (barbecued meat), along with flaounes (savoury cakes) made with cheese, eggs, spices and herbs.
- Summer (July–September)
Figs, mangoes, peaches, pears, plums: there’s plenty of fresh fruit around, and in September, the Lemesos Wine Festival is an appropriate toast to autumn.
- Autumn & Winter (October–December)
Kick-start this serious foodie season with the Kyrenia Olive Festival, then look for freshly harvested wild mushrooms, artichokes and winter greens. Closer to Christmas, bakeries overflow with kourabies and melomakarona (almond and honey cakes), while on Christmas day, families traditionally make and smoke their own loukanika (sausages made from lamb and pork).
Where to Go
While there’s not much difference between the regions within the Republic and Northern Cyprus, the overall Turkish and Greek influences of the North and South equal plenty of variety.
If you are seeking traditional cuisine anywhere in the country, ensure that a healthy percentage of the restaurant’s customers are locals. For the best seafood and fish, head for the Akamas Peninsula.
The following are available in both the North and South of Cyprus. In the North look for kebapči (small kebab shops), oakbaş (fireside kebab shops) or meyhane (taverns). In the South, seek tavernas with a traditional charcoal grill. Also look for street kiosks – generally more common in Northern Cyprus.
- Haloumi (hellem in Turkish) Goat's- or ewe's-milk cheese, fried or grilled and simply served often with an accompanying small salad.
- Kebab Meat, generally lamb, grilled on a skewer and then served on a plate accompanied by a large salad, dressed with lemon juice.
- Souvlaki Barbecued meat (lamb or pork), stuffed into a pitta or rolled in flatbread.
Republic of Cyprus
- Spanakopita Spinach-filled flaky pie. Available at bakeries, along with tiropittes.
- Souvla Large chunks of meat (usually lamb) cooked on a skewer over a charcoal barbecue.
- Tiropittes Small pies made from filo pastry traditionally stuffed with local anari cheese.
- Charcoal-grilled corn on the cob Sold at street kiosks.
- Lahmacun Crispy, flatbread Turkish pizza topped with minced lamb and fresh parsley.
- Pide Similar to lahmacun but the pastry is more oval in shape and slightly thicker.
- Șiş köfte Barbecued meat on a flat skewer.
Dare to Try
Don’t worry: if you want to play it safe with familiar ingredients, you can in Cyprus. But if you fancy being just a tad bolder, there’s plenty to consider. You could also try Greek or Turkish coffee served sketos (in Greek) or şekersiz (in Turkish), which is without sugar, so very bitter and strong.
- Amelitita hirina vrasta (boiled pig testicles) Cooked with onions and celery and served with a dressing of garlic, cloves, thyme, olive oil and lemon juice.
- Karalous keftedes (fried snail balls) Minced and boiled with chopped onions, potatoes and eggs, then coated in flour and deep-fried.
- Karaolous me pnigouri (snails with bulgur wheat) Boiled snails which are then fried with chopped onions and tomatoes and served on a bed of bulgur wheat.
- Kokorets (offal wrapped in intestines grilled over charcoal) Lamb liver, lungs, heart, spleen, glands – you get the picture – chopped into medium-size pieces, wrapped in intestines and grilled over charcoal for approximately 1½ hours.
- Mialle arnisha vrasta (boiled lambs’ brains) Halved and served with olive oil, chopped parsley, lemon juice and salt.
- Zalatina (jellied pork) Ingredients include one small pig’s head, two pig’s trotters, eight oranges and a few red-hot peppers.
Republic of Cyprus
Look for the following traditional dishes on the menu. Some of these may also be included in your meze line-up.
- Dolmades Stuffed vine leaves (other similarly stuffed veggies, including tomatoes, aubergines and marrows, are also popular).
- Guvech A combination of meat (traditionally beef or lamb), courgettes, aubergines, potatoes, garlic and onions.
- Koupepia Meat and rice wrapped in young vine leaves and baked in a tomato sauce.
- Louvia me lahana Greens cooked with black-eyed beans and served with olive oil and fresh lemon juice.
- Melintzanes yiahni Tasty bake of aubergines, garlic and fresh tomatoes.
- Mucendra Side dish that combines lentils with fried onions and rice.
- Ofto A simple meat and vegetable roast.
- Pilaf Cracked wheat steamed with fried onions and chicken stock and served with plain yoghurt; generally accompanied by meat and vegetables.
- Spanakopita Combination of spinach, feta cheese and eggs, wrapped in paper-thin filo pastry.
- Stifado Rich stew made with beef or rabbit and onions, simmered in vinegar and wine.
- Tava Lamb and beef casserole with tomatoes, onions, potatoes and cumin cooked in an earthenware pot.
- Trahana Mixture of cracked wheat and yoghurt; traditionally eaten for breakfast.
- Yemista Courgettes stuffed with rice and meat.
In more touristy resorts such as Kyrenia (Girne), be discerning with your restaurant choice; if you’re opting for seafood, watch the cost: menus in the resorts frequently quote the price in grams.
- Adana kebab Kebab laced with spicy red pepper.
- Adana köfte Spicy, grilled ground veal or lamb patties with parsley, cumin, coriander and onions.
- Dolmades The Turkish variety is meatless, stuffed with rice, currants and pine nuts.
- Kebab Meat (usually lamb, although there are also chicken and fish variations) wrapped in flatbread with salad; often accompanied by ayran, a cool, salty, refreshing yoghurt drink.
- Patlıcan Meatball and aubergine kebab.
- Urfa kebab Kebab with plenty of onions and black pepper.
How to Eat & Drink
When to Eat
Cypriots generally eat three meals daily; dinner is the main meal.
- Breakfast Eaten around 8am; normally a combination of olives, grilled or fresh haloumi, bread and tomatoes and, of course, coffee. It’s a wonderful combination to start your day.
- Lunch Usually eaten at around 2pm or 3pm; meals don’t usually last for more than an hour or so. Sunday lunch is the exception: on both sides of the island, this is when you will find entire families gathering, either at home or in restaurants, and staying for a good three to four hours, eating, drinking and chatting.
- Dinner Generally eaten late, from around 9pm, which is when restaurants start to seriously fill up. This is the meal where the meze is typically served. Always shared between at least two – it’s usually more like 10 – and dishes are passed around vociferously, so don’t be shy to ask if you’re dining with Cypriots and want to try something from the other end of the table.
Where to Eat
The taverna is where Greek Cypriots go to eat whenever they don’t eat at home, and there is one in every Cypriot town and village. A taverna can be a no-frills village eatery, or a more upmarket restaurant with a leaning towards the traditional. The psistaria specialises in souvlaki, while the psarotaverna mainly serves fish.
The kafeneio is central to any self-respecting Greek Cypriot village’s existence. Traditionally, kafeneia serve coffee and snacks of haloumi, tomatoes and olives, and are frequented only by (older) men.
Meyhanes are Turkish taverns where you can enjoy meze, meat, fish and anything else, swilled down with plenty of raki (Turkish aniseed liquor). In the North, a lokanta is an informal restaurant and a restoran is a more upmarket version. Hazir yemek ('ready food') restaurants specialise in dishes that are best eaten earlier in the day when they’re fresh. You’ll see signs for kebapči (kebab shops) and oakbaş (fireside kebab shops) where you can watch your kebab being prepared.
Don’t miss the pastanes (patisseries) selling sugary treats, such as kiru (biscuits), cakes and sweet, sweet baklava. Beware of the difference between pasta (pastry) and makarna (noodles).
Don’t miss the fabulous juice bars. Mango, papaya, strawberry, guava: endless combinations are whizzed up on the spot and packed full of all those five-a-day fresh-fruit essentials, at a very reasonable price.
If you are after something stronger, locals drink at bars and generally accompany their meal with locally produced wine. Cyprus produces a wide range of red, white and rosé wines, as well as a famous sweet dessert wine, Commandaria. Spirits are also popular, particularly the famous anise-laced ouzo and the stronger grape-based zivania.
The most popular cocktail is Cypriot brandy sour, often cited as being the national drink and with a somewhat bizarre history. Apparently the young (and Muslim) King Farouk of Egypt, who frequented the Forest Park Hotel in Platres, used to drink this as it resembled iced tea; the mix is slightly different to the brandy sour norm.
Beer drinkers normally go for the inexpensive local brew Keo, although imported beers are also available, as well as the Yorkshire-style bitters produced by the craft brewery, Aphrodite’s Rock Brewery.
Tap water is safe to drink and can be requested at any restaurant without raising an eyebrow. Locals, however, prefer the bottled variety as the water is very hard, which some people believe can lead to kidney stones if drunk to excess. It is advisable to drink bottled water in northern Nicosia.
There are plenty of restaurants that specialise in international dishes. Aside from from the standard gut-busting Brit-style breakfast (supposedly good for hangovers), they can be good options for simple snacks such as filled baked potatoes and toasted sandwiches.
Prepare yourself for an assault by food: a pleasant assault, a sampling of and gorging on around 30 dishes. The small plates may look unthreatening, but they keep on coming, promising a night of indigestion laced with wonderful taste-bud-tantalising memories.
The word meze is short for mezedes ('little delicacies') and is shared by the Greeks and the Turks equally. Meze is almost never served for one: two is the minimum and three’s never a crowd but the beginning of a beautiful feast. Try to dine in a larger group, since sharing meze is as integral to the experience of eating it as the variety of the dishes themselves. All the passing this and passing that and shouting across the table for more tahini or bread is a true bonding experience that Cypriots share many nights a week.
First on the table are shiny olives, a salad and fresh bread, along with tahini, taramasalata, talatouri (tzatziki) and hummus for dipping. Pace yourself, go easy on the bread, suck on an olive or two, and crunch on a salad leaf.
Next are the vegetables. Some are garnished with lemon, some are raw, a few are pickled or served with haloumi. Sausages and Cyprus' own lountza (smoked loin of pork) follow. Again, eat the vegies, sample a coin of sausage and a strip of cheese, but remember, a bite of each will suffice because the biggies are still to come.
The next course is the meat (vegetarians may be able to order vegetarian meze). A meat meze is a parade of lamb, chicken, beef, pork, souvlaki, kleftiko, sheftalia (spiced, grilled sausage), meatballs and smoked meat. If you’re having fish meze, then expect everything from sea bass to red mullet, prawns, octopus and, of course, calamari (squid).
Finally the waiter will bring fresh fruit and pastries. You will doubtless be on your last belt notch by now but, if possible, try some prickly pears – they’re a real delicacy.
The best advice is to be sure not to have any lunch before you go for a meze dinner. Pace yourself and eat slowly and, as with every good meal, a nice wine is recommended, so choose a bottle and kali orexi – bon appétit!
Cyprus has a fine range of eating options, and aside from top-end restaurants, turning up without reservations is generally fine.
- Restaurants Cyprus' restaurants range from tourist-driven (and tourist-priced) serving bland international dishes to top-end establishments with Michelin-star-quality cuisine.
- Tavernas More traditional restaurants serving homestyle Cypriot dishes, generally the only option in rural regions.
- Cafes Increasingly popular upscale cafes where you can find homemade cakes and pastries, as well as light, healthy dishes and salads.
- Hotels Several of the top-end hotels have fine (albeit costly) restaurants which are often open to the public.