You’ve heard of tapas, and you may have even had them in Spain. You’ve certainly ordered appetizers. But in Cyprus people dine in a different kind of way- with the heart and soul. Like the eateries in Greece and Turkey, the tavernas of Cyprus are known for pumping out dozens of these small meze (short for mezedes) for hungry tourists and locals alike.
Meze can range from dips and grilled vegetables to meatballs and fish cakes, each with its own unique flavor and method of preparation. Restaurants put their own spin on these traditional dishes, but what’s always certain is that there won’t be any skimping on portions because they’re HUGE. These small plates of goodness vary all year to incorporate what’s fresh each season- at sea and on land.
You’ll more than likely be served a heaping village salad before your mezes start rolling out. Cypriot salad includes lettuce, tomato, onion, parsley, cucumber and sometimes feta cheese. It’s served before the dishes arrive at the table, but if you want to save room for the good stuff, it’s best to skip your serving of salad. Meze is all about sharing. It’s more of a social event than a plain old meal. They are the kind of meal that bring people together, and that’s why it’s such an integral part of Cypriot culture- at home and in public.
These are several mezes served throughout Cyprus (and yes, I tried every single one of them.) Customers choose either meat or fish meze, depending on the specialty of the restaurant. What’s not always certain is what you’ll get. Many places like to surprise you with what’s been prepared that day, so sit back and enjoy the mouth-watering show.
First the dips- Taramosalata, Tzatziki, Hummus, and Melitzanosalada.
Taramosalata- this is made from tarames roe, vinegar, olive oil and lemon juice. The cured roe is what gives it its pink hue. Taramosalata is pictured second from the left below.
Tzatziki- very well could be nicknamed the “Greek ketchup.” Made with yoghurt, garlic, and cucumber. It’s always served cold and used on bread, meats, or on anything you wish. Tzatziki recipes vary depending on individual tastes, and some may contain dill or mint. Cypriot tzatziki usually has less garlic than its Greek counterpart.
Hummus- an arab-inspired favorite made with chickpeas, garlic and olive oil.
Melitzanosalada- this is usually served cold and features eggplant, vinegar and olive oil as its main ingredients. Melitzanosalada is featured in the far left in the image below.
The pre-show- Grilled Halloumi Cheese, Seftalies, Eggplants, Legumes, Sausages, Small Fried Fish and Calamari, and Koupepia.
Halloumi Cheese- typically made from sheep and goat milk, this cheese is grilled and served hot. With a squeeze of fresh lemon juice, it’s heavenly.
Seftalies- these meatballs steal the show every time. They are made with pork and sometimes veal too. The minced meat is encased in the abdominal lining of a lamb and then grilled. Don’t be put off by the ingredients, these are one of kind and truly scrumptious. They are pictured on the far right in the image below.
Below: eggplant stuffed with minced beef, tomato puree and cheese.
Legumes- lentils with rice, white beans, and black eyed peas are prepared in several ways and are also served as meze or main dishes.
Sausages- the types served vary from place to place. Most are made of pork and smoked, but you’ll also find spicy varieties like the one pictured below.
Fried Fish and Calamari- small fish are fried (and eaten) whole and the calamari is cut into chunks and fried. There’s not shortage of fresh sea critters in Cyprus.
Koupepia- stuffed grape leaves with beef or pork with rice. They can be served cold or hot.
The main attraction- Souvlaki, Grilled Whole Fish, Stews.
Souvlaki- don’t call them kebabs, they are souvlaki! Chunks of pork and chicken skewered and grilled. Cypriot souvlaki is prepared with little to no seasoning while Greek souvlaki is typically marinated and seasoned before being grilled. This is where the tzatziki lathering is appropriate.
Grilled Whole Fish- this is the Pièce de résistance of any decent set of fish meze. You’ll be served the fish with all the bones left inside and it’s your job to fish them out masterfully and enjoy the fresh catch of the day.
Stews- rabbit and beef stews are the most common, but goat and lamb stews are also served throughout the island. Each Cypriot cook has his or her own special stew recipe. The tastiest ones are cooked in clay pots and called Tavas.
So here you’ve got a general idea of what Cypriot meze are made of and in what order they’ll be served to you. The most important things to know are 1. come hungry and 2. plan on staying for awhile. These aren’t quick meals. They are meant to be shared, savored and enjoyed with those close to you, and these things cannot be rushed!
Order a cold KEO Beer or the house wine and get ready to feast on tasty meze dishes AKA Cypriot soul food.
I would like to give a very special thanks to my sponsor, ScotteVest Travel Clothing. I want to also give thanks to Patrick from Naturally Cyprus, the Larnaka Tourism Board, and the Amorgos Boutique Hotel in Larnaka.