Think you know the food from Cyprus? Think again.
People pigeonhole the food as being Greek or Turkish, but it is actually more nuanced and diverse, Nick Lazarides tells Food Spark.
“As well as being traditionally Cypriot food, it’s also Eastern Mediterranean, and it’s got influences from lots of food that you can also find in Syria, Lebanon, Egypt as well as Iran and Armenia,” he says.
Lazarides joined the London street-food scene a few years back and is a mainstay of Kerb markets, selling his food under the brand Cyprus Kitchen, after earlier experimenting with the country’s cuisine by hosting supper clubs in London.
His father is Greek-Cypriot, and he says he was inspired to launch Cyprus Kitchen by his family gatherings as a child – where there was the sizzle of grilled meats, soft warm breads and crisp salads – with each dish a traditional recipe passed down through the generations.
Lazarides is part of a small group of emerging operators bringing the food from Cyprus to London.
When Lazarides first hit the street-food scene, he focused on serving sheftalia, a traditional lamb-and pork-sausage that's wrapped in pork fat and cooked over a live fire, but he soon discovered this handmade meal was too time intensive to offer every day.
Now, he offers kleftiko, a slow-roasted pulled lamb dish marinated in spices, herbs, minced onion and garlic and served in pita bread; grilled chicken with paprika, oregano and lemon; aubergine steaks; and a range of salads, including carrot with toasted sesame; pickled red cabbage; a green salad with vine tomatoes and cucumbers; and bulgur wheat with spicy herbs.
But if you’re sitting here thinking that sounds a lot like Greek food, Lazarides insists this isn’t the case.
“Of course there is moussaka and other dishes which are rooted in Greek tradition, but there’s lots of dishes that are different, like a dish called fakhes moutzentra, which is rice and lentils. You don’t really find tahini in Greek cooking but you do in Cyprus. And halloumi is Cypriot; it’s not Greek,” he says.
“Cypriot food is more Middle Eastern I would say and it makes senses. Where we are geographically located we are surrounded by Asia Minor, North Africa and Europe, and if I’m being frank Cyprus has been owned by everyone, so the influences have been so vast across the millennia as we have been touched upon by so many different people.”
Lazarides says the food from Cyprus also has a strong vegetarian influence, with pulses, greens, lentils and rice making up a large amount of dishes, because the country hasn’t been particularly wealthy at times.
He also raves about the Cypriot pita bread, which is big and fluffy, doesn’t full apart – and is more Middle Eastern than Greek.
“The pita takes the juices of anything you put in it like yoghurts, lemon and meat juices, and there are variations in bread in Cyprus as well,” he says.
“A lot of them are harking back to tradition where they are cooked in stone ovens. We have a bread called koulouri which is coated in sesame seeds and it’s fantastic.”
Traditional dishes and speciality sauces
Heading in from the streets, there is St John at Hackney Brewery, which has just launched Ɛlα – a concept using Cypriot culinary heritage to serve up small plates and sharing dishes, centred around a custom-made barbecue. The name Ɛlα translates to ‘hey, come’ in English.
Founder Emilio Stavrou says the concept was inspired by probably the best kebab shop in the world, which is at the end of his grandma’s road in Nicosia, Cyprus.
He aims to “capture the spirit of generosity and hospitality that is such an intrinsic part of Cypriot culture.”
The menu draws on authentic dishes, offering ethically sourced chicken thighs and pork neck, with a strong focus on vegetarian and vegan options. The meat is available as skewers or kebabs with freshly made pita, alongside a selection of speciality sauces and sides such as orzo with anari (pasta with whey cheese) and Cypriot cabbage salad.
A household name?
For Lazarides, he has big dreams for the future of Cypriot food in the UK, and says its similarities to other foods makes it accessible.
"I would love to see it on the map a little bit more. There are dishes that I think are absolutely amazing that I would love to see used in vocabulary in the people here in UK like vindaloo. I would like to see some of the Cypriot dishes as household names,” he says.
So is Sparkie chomping at the bit for Cypriot food?
I think any novel cuisine has potential right now, but for some reason Greek as a whole has never taken off as a major cuisine in the UK, in the same way Indian, Chinese and others have.
While the time is definitely right for those regional cuisines to show up and make a name for themselves, I think we need a little more investment in Greek as a whole before it could really diversify into its regions successfully. But there is absolutely no reason this can’t happen right now.