The French, Italians, and Spanish might get most of the credit when it comes to irresistible European food, but if Cypriot cuisine isn’t on your radar, it’s about to be. Influenced by a diverse mix of cultures, the land, and the sea, Cypriot food culture is a reason as good as any to visit the country and we’re about to delve into it.
The island nation sits in the eastern Mediterranean Sea, just south of Turkey and west of Syria. Cyprus is a sun-soaked, semi-arid country and the most populous European island. The food might be quintessentially Mediterranean and similar to Greek, but the culinary techniques of Cyprus are also infused with Middle Eastern flare, and the island’s own rich history has helped evolved the cuisine over the centuries.
From staple ingredients in the Mediterranean diet to national dishes unique to Cyprus, eating is serious business on this island and our guide explores it all. Let’s get started.
Koupepia and Gemista
If you’re familiar with Cypriot and Greek food, koupepia and gemista should be one of the first dishes that come to mind. Every family in Cyprus has its own recipe that has been passed down through the generations but the basis of this dish is stuffed vine leaves (koupepia) or vegetables (gemista) with a tantalizing mix of mince, rice, tomatoes, onions, and herbs which are then roasted in the oven with douses in olive oil.
The result is an indulgent and warming side dish, often served on mezze boards, that can be enjoyed hot or cold. This dish is easily made vegetarian too and is a product of the fertile Mediterannean lands where seasonal veggies and olive oil thrive. Called dolma in Greece, the origins of this dish go back centuries, with the first example being eggplant stuffed with meat that the Ancient Greeks ate at banquets.
The making and rolling of these stuffed, finger-sized delicacies have become a marker of cultural identity. Dinner time in Cyprus is all about family, but it’s also just as much about the group preparation of food as it is the enjoying of it and koupepia, especially, is a testament to this.
Souvlakia and Sheftalia
The most distinct meat dish in Cypriot food culture has to be this chargrilled kebab. Seared on skewers over a traditional charcoal grill, souvlakia is served with Mediterannean salad in large but thin pitta bread, much flatter than in the Greek version, and generally made in a pocket to contain the ingredients rather than wrapped.
Souvlakia is typically made with pork or chicken and has a fresh, barbeque taste without overpowering sauces and seasonings. This dish is often served with sheftalia, which are spicy sausages parcels ground with herbs and minced pork or lamb before being grilled. The vegetarian alternative combines mushroom and halloumi.
This dish dates back to ancient Greece where lamb was the preferred choice of meat. It has evolved within Cypriot food culture over the centuries and is a staple family meal and street food dish across the nation today.
Kolokouthkia Me Ta Afka
Translating to “courgettes with egg” this simple dish does what it says on the tin. Fried courgettes are mixed with scrambled eggs to form a light side dish, perfect for a mezze, or a healthy breakfast meal that is surprisingly flavorsome.
Some recipes use eggplant too, or as a substitute for courgette, and ingredients are fried simply with extra virgin olive oil. You’ll often find it rustled up in Cypriot homes or served at small, family-run lunch spots in Cyprus.
This is one of the only meat-free soups on the Cypriot menu that comprises many hearty stews. Trachanas is a thick soup traditionally made with dried and cracked wheat and soured goat’s milk making a perfect warming winter dish.
This is another one to be found in traditional, family-owned restaurants and each household will have a different generational recipe. Some variations include pieces of halloumi, added after the stew is cooked, which softens the cheese just enough to achieve that perfect, chewy texture.
If you’re a fan of trachanas, you can buy dry mixes of the ingredients to take home and whip up yourself from most souvenir shops and airports.
Now, this dish certainly isn’t a health-conscious option, but the indulgent sweet snack has a heavenly taste. Loukomades are made from a simple dough, similar to donuts, and fried in balls until golden and crispy but still soft inside. Toppings vary from simple drizzled honey syrup to crushed nuts, sesame seeds, cinnamon, chocolate, and icing sugar.
Typically enjoyed as a summer dessert, a small serving of these donut holes perfectly complements a heavy Cypriot dinner. You’ll find them on restaurant menus and in specialty coffee shops across the country. There’s actually great dispute as to where the dish comes from with Greece, Turkey, and Egypt all having their claim over the light, spongy dessert.
Legend has it, loukomades were served to the winners of the first-ever Olympic Games in Ancient Greece. Called “honey tokens” and offered as awards, the deep-fried dough balls first appear in writing as early as 250 B.C. from the poet Callimachus. This makes them one of the oldest ever recorded desserts in history. All you need to put these together is water, milk, flour, and yeast, although some recipes include sugar and eggs in the dough.
Louvi is a healthy black eye pea salad, cooked with silverbeet (chard), boiled courgettes, oil, salt, and lemon and is low in fact but rich in other nutrients. Louvi is effortlessly light and typically served on Mondays and Tuesdays in Cypriot households as a cultural and religious tradition.
Black eyes peas are very drought intolerant meaning they can survive even the hottest Cypriot summers and the dish has existed for centuries as a quintessential peasant meal. You’ll often find louvi served up alongside other colorful side plates of tuna, cucumber, and fresh tomato.
Stifado is a hearty Cypriot favorite that is stewed for hours in a single pot and served with rice, bulgur, or even macaroni. This thick soup is prepared with beef, pork, or rabbit and plenty of little onions, cooked whole with a tomato base and dousings of red wine.
It’s thought that the Venetians bought the recipe for stifado over to Cyprus in the 16th-century, where the tomato was added. The rich and hearty meal is not dissimilar to a French beef bourguignon in taste and is a winter staple in Cyprus.
Another meaty stew, kleftiko, has an even more fascinating origin story than stifado. Kleftiko gets its name from a word meaning “stolen” in English and historically, this peasant dish was made from looted meat that thieves would cook in covered holes below ground as to not give away their location.
Today, kleftiko is cooked in a round, white oven, and the lamb or beef is flavored with bay leaves, oregano, and red wine. Usually accompanied by oven-roasted potatoes or bulgar wheat and cooked in an onion and tomato sauce, kleftiko can be eaten as a winter warmer or with a side of yogurt as a refreshing summer dinner.
Meaning “clay pot”, the word ttavas refers to the dish in which this Cypriot meal is cooked and served. Combining chunks of lamb, vegetables, rice, and potatoes, ttavas is flavored with cumin to give it a distinctive tangy flavor. This is a typical village meal but can also be served with mezze.
Ttavas is closely tied to Cypriot village life and the cultural identity of Lefkara village in particular. Its origins are traced back here and the picturesque colorful streets will come to most Cypriot’s minds when conjuring ttavas.
There are chicken and pork variations of this dish but they’re less traditional. Ttavas are often served as a Sunday meal and can be slow-cooked for hours.
Makaronia Tou Fournou
This isn’t the first time macaroni appears on this list, and although the pasta might be more commonly associated with Italy, it is actually widely used in Cypriot cooking. This dish, with a variation known as pastitsio in Greece, has a unique take in Cypriot cooking with its use of halloumi cheese which is sprinkled with dry mint before topping off the pasta bake.
Cypriot makaronia tou fournou (oven-baked macaroni) also combines the large pasta tubes with bechamel sauce and tomato-based minced meat, which are topped with thin curls of cheese before being baked to give it both a melty and crispy finish.
Sitting somewhere between a moussaka and lasagna, makaronia tou fournou can be found on most Cypriot restaurant menus as a main dish that is served with a side of salad.
Originating from the Levant region, koubes are torpedo-shaped croquettes with an outer shell of bulgar and a filling of minced meat ground with middle-eastern spices. Usually served with a squeeze of lemon, the zingy zest of the Mediterannean fruit helps bring out the rich flavor and tangy meat of the filling.
Koubes can be found in bakeries all across the island and are also served as appetizers in restaurants, part of mezze boards and as street food. The most popular vegetarian variation is made with mushrooms and is a beloved snack to eat during religious fasting periods.
What is a traditional Cypriot breakfast?
A typical breakfast in Cyprus usually includes fresh figs, cucumber, grilled halloumi or Anari cheese, and boiled eggs. It might sound like a Greek salad to some, but these fresh Mediterannean ingredients are enjoyed at all times of day in Cyprus, and having them sauteéd together is not uncommon either. Breakfast is easily made vegetarian, but some might serve Cypriot sausage, known as loukanika, as a morning snack which is made from smoked pork tenderloin.
What is Cyprus famous for?
Cyprus is an arid Mediterannean island and the most populous in Europe. Steeped in history, it is renowned for its picturesque villages, lively beach resorts, the vibrant Limassol carnival, wreck diving (specifically the Zenobia wreck), and halloumi cheese, of course. Cypriot culture is among the oldest in the Med and the island has been under Assyrian, Egyptian, Persian, Greek, and Roman rule, which have all left a lasting impact on Cypriot food culture.
What is the difference between Greek and Cypriot food?
The Greek and Cypriot favor a lot of the same ingredients, with typical Mediterranean vegetables, mince, and rice being a big part of both diets. However, where Greeks use a lot of dill, Cypriots prefer mint and parsley. Lamb is also a staple meat in Greek cuisine but Cypriot food culture relies heavily on pork. Turkish Cypriots also use a lot of mint and parsley, but tend to prefer lamb and beef over pork.