According to Greek Mythology, the island of Cyprus takes its name from the goddess Aphrodite, which makes the island her own special abode. I have never been to Cyprus, though I have heard of its natural beauty, and I do have a number of Cypriot friends. Toronto has a sizable Cypriot community, and over the years, I have had a chance to learn something about their ways and means. I have also had a chance to sample some of their foods.
There are many similarities between the foods of Greece and Cyprus, but there are notable differences too. At the invitation of the Consul General of the Republic of Cyprus, Mr. Stavros Avgoustides, I had a chance to sample some specialties of that island nation. Last week, I had the pleasure of attending the annual cutting of the Vasilopita at the Cypriot Consulate in Toronto. It was a small, intimate affair which included family members of the consulate staff, the consul general and staff from the nearby Greek Consulate, local community leaders, and last but not least, yours truly.
Mr. Avgoustides was also happy to answer some questions I had prepared for him about Cypriot cuisine. Seems he and I share a common interest in food and uncommon anecdotes which relate to its preparation and consumption. Suffice it to say, I enjoyed our interview, his answers were informative and interesting. He was also kind enough to provide a recipe for Koupepia, a stuffed vine-leaf recipe which is similar to Greek dolmades, yet different and very tasty.
Without further ado, I hope you enjoy my interview on Cypriot cuisine with the Consul General of Cyprus in Toronto, Mr. Stavros Avgoustides:
Q: What would you like my readers to know about Cypriot cuisine?
A: Cypriot cuisine is shaped by the island's Mediterranean climate, its geography, culture and history. It is a unique blend of Greek, African and Middle Eastern dishes.
Q: If there was one dish that you would associate with Cyprus, what would it be?
A: Kolokasi- A root vegetable (colocasia esculent) rather like a sweet potato cooked in a casserole with pork and celery in tomato sauce. They say that Richard the Lionheart had kolokasi at his wedding feast in Limassol in 1191.
I think Cypriot Mezedes is considered the most famous dish or combination of dishes. On Cyprus, Mezedes is a rich selection of appetizers and savouries in up to 20 saucerlike dishes! They include: fresh and pickled vegetables(cucumber and "kapari" - pickled caper stems), "elies tsakistes" ("crushed" green olives with a dressing of lemon, garlic, herbs, coriander seeds and oil), "Lounzta"(smoked and marinated loin of pork) and "Chiromeri" (marinated, smoked and pressed ham), "octapodi krassato"(octopus in red wine), grilled "halloumi" (local cheese made from sheep's milk), "tallatouri" (yogurt with cucumbers, garlic and mint), "melitzanosalata" (aubergines with spices), "tashi" dip (crushed sesame seeds - tahini paste, garlic, lemons and olive oil), "hummus" (made from yellow peas with olive oil and parsley), "Pourgouri Pilafi" (Bulghur - Cracked Wheat Pilaf Prepared from hulled wheat), "Cyprus salad" (a mix of fresh tomatoes, lettuce, coriander leaves, rocket leaves, cabbage, cucumbers, onions and black olives). "Koupes" (cigar shaped wheat cases with meat filling), "Halloumi Cheese Ravioli", "Karaoloi yahni" (snails in tomato sauce), "Tavas"( meat with onions, vegetables and spices, cooked and served in a clay pot), "Afelia" (small pieces of pork cooked in red wine and crushed coriander seeds). "Kleftiko" (lamb baked in a clay oven). "Koupepia" (rice cooked with onions, tomatoes and herbs, then wrapped in vine leaves).
Q: What are your favourite Cypriot recipes (i.e. appetizer, main course, dessert) and do you cook them?
A: Difficult question... Almost all Cypriot recipes are among my favourites. If I am forced to narrow down my choices, they would be as follows. For an appetizer I would prefer to eat Halloumi cheese grilled over a charcoal fire and when at home my mom prepares these Halloumi toasted pita bread sandwiches . As a main course, I would choose barbequed Pork Souvlaki Kebabs and Sheftalia (minced pork in caul fat) served in envelope shaped pita bread. Also, "Moujendra" - lentils and rice (mixed) with fried onions (a must!!!), "Souvla" (large chunks of lamb, flavoured with fresh herbs, threaded onto a spit and grilled over charcoal), and "Ofton Kleftiko" (Lamb in the oven): this dish got its name from the word kleftis (robber), and they say that in the past mountain men would cook their stolen meat in sealed underground ovens. For dessert, "Lokmades" - Cinnamon and Honey Fritters, and "Daktyla" (Almond filled finger shaped pastries).
Q: What are some characteristically Cypriot ingredients and flavourings? Are there any specialty products that are uniquely Cypriot in origin?I’d like to thank the Consul General for taking the time to answer my questions. As mentioned, he was also kind enough to provide a recipe for Koupepia, which are a Cypriot version of stuffed vine leaves (Dolmades). I reproduce the recipe just as he provided it:
A: The main ingredients used in Cypriot cuisine are lamb, chicken, fish, vegetables, fruit, yogurt, cheese and of course different spices: coriander seeds, oregano, thyme, cinnamon, pepper, caraway, parsley and garlic. Halloumi cheese originates from Cyprus. It is often served as a starter, grilled or fried (in slices as part of a cooked breakfast), in salads, and stuffed inside ravioli.
Q: Tell us about some noteworthy grape varietals which are unique to Cyprus and are used in wine/spirit production?
A: Wine has been produced on Cyprus for thousands of years – there’s proof of Cypriot winemaking dating back to 2000BC. It is believed that Cyprus was one of the first countries to cultivate the vine and lay out vineyards. One of the best known and oldest wines is "Commandaria", a sweet dessert port-like wine made from the grape varieties Xynisteri and Mavro. One of the legends says that Richard the Lion Heart conquered the island especially for "Commandaria" and proclaimed it "the wine of kings and the king of wines." It is also used for Holy Communion in the Greek Orthodox Church.
Q: Do you have any anecdotes relating to Cypriot cuisine or food customs which stand out in your mind?
A: Cypriots eat a lot, especially during Christmas and Easter. I remember there was a year that over 1000 people visited the hospital emergency department suffering from stomach complaints caused by overeating. It’s now a national pastime exacerbated over any holiday period, and especially at Easter.
½kg (1lb.) of fresh vine leaves. (See note on vine leaves*).
½kg (1lb.) of fresh minced beef or pork, a mixture of both also works very well.
½ cup or 90g long grain white rice (this is a matter of preference, some people prefer more rice some less)
Some Dried mint about ½ - 1 tablespoon
1 medium onion finely chopped
1 tin chopped tomatoes (fresh are better if you can get them)
1 tablespoon tomato puree
Juice of ½ lemon
Season with salt, pepper, and a pinch of ground cinnamon (not too much of this)
Preparing the vine leaves:
If you are using fresh vine leaves, wash them and place in a large bowl and pour boiling water over them to cover, leave to stand until they change colour then remove them from the water. Allow to cool before using. If you are using packed vine leaves just wash them to remove the brine. For frozen vine leaves allow to defrost normally or just defrost in cold water.
Preparing the filling:
Fry the onion in a little olive oil, till golden, add the tomato and fry till reduced to a sauce, allow to cool. Put the mince into a bowl and add the rice, dried mint and seasoning. Add the sauce and lemon juice. Mix together till everything is evenly distributed.
Filling the Koupepia:
Take a vine leaf and place with the top side (shiny) facing downwards and the inside (veined) facing upwards. Place about a tablespoon of the mixture on the leaf near the stem part of the leaf. Fold the sides of the leaf inwards and the bottom part up, then roll up tightly into a cylindrical shape (make sure there is not too much mixture in the leaf, this comes with trial and error). Continue to do this until all the mixture has been used up. Place the rolled vine leaves in a large saucepan making sure to pack tightly. It's best to start on the outside edges of the saucepan and work in. Once the koupepia are in the saucepan, cover them with a plate (the plate should be big enough to hold them all in place so that they do not escape when boiling). Add water to the saucepan to come up just above the plate. Put saucepan on to boil and once it has started to boil, bring down to simmer. Cook for 20 minutes. Remove from heat and allow to cool for about 10 minutes before serving.
Koupepia can be served hot or cold, and garnished with some fresh lemon wedges. They are also lovely served with a salad. The best salad to serve them with is Glistiria which is another name for purslane (which is something like a sweet watercress). Glistiria is added to tomato and cucumber with some dried mint, oil and vinegar. The mint in the salad really compliments the koupepia.
*Note on vine leaves: If you cannot find vine leaves for this recipe, Swiss chard leaves work very well, just wash and blanch them and use in the same way as vine leaves. If you are lucky enough to find fresh vine leaves, all the better, otherwise you can use preserved vine leaves, they come in brine or in vacuum packed bottles. If you have fresh vine leaves and you want to preserve them, the easiest way is to just blanch them, allow them to cool then pack the required amount in cling film or cellophane. Some people just pack them fresh without blanching them. Both methods work. If you find you have vine leaves left over after making the koupepia just wrap them in cling film and freeze them, they are OK to re-freeze. Finally, with fresh vine leaves you need to remove the stalks before filling.
Once more, I wish to thank Mr. Avgoustides, Consul General of the Republic of Cyprus, for his invitation, the interview, and his recipe for Koupepia.
Kali Orexi! (Bon Appetit!),
Greek Food Recipes and Reflections
Copyright © 2008, Sam Sotiropoulos. All Rights Reserved.