In a year characterised by lockdowns and staying indoors, there haven’t been many opportunities to travel. So I hope you’ll indulge me if I take you on a journey to one of my favourite places in the eastern Mediterranean.
To get there, you simply need to imagine a rugged landscape of citrus orchards, olive groves and mango plantations, of strawberries and watermelons so sweet and refreshing that they taste like a summer breeze. It is a place where long stretches of golden beach lie next to shimmering turquoise waters; a place so fertile that it claims Aphrodite, goddess of pleasure and procreation, as its emblem. Ancient ruins tell the story of early cities and fig trees carry heavy purple fruit that erupt in jammy stickiness when you tear them open.
I went to Cyprus — in body rather than mind — when crossing borders was as easy as it was unmemorable, as part of the research for my new book Ripe Figs: Recipes and Stories from the Eastern Mediterranean. It was a mission to learn what the food of this small island on the edge of Europe could tell us about the history of migration.
Situated in the most easterly corner of the Mediterranean sea, Cyprus’s position at the nautical crossroads of Europe, the Middle East and North Africa has made it the object of conquest and occupation stretching back three millennia. The Assyrians, ancient Greeks, Egyptians, Persians, Romans, Arabs, Venetians, Ottomans and British — from whom Cyprus gained independence in 1960 — have all laid claim to its verdant land. Their influences emerge most clearly in the island’s food culture, a rich tapestry of melding flavours.
As well as the ubiquitous Mediterranean vegetables and fruits such as tomatoes, aubergines, peppers and potatoes that grow in abundance in the island’s clay-red soil, ingredients like tahini, carob, rosewater and grape molasses are common and are used alongside warming spices such as cumin, cinnamon and coriander, which speak of influence from the east. The north of the island is only 60 miles from Syria and you can taste the proximity of the Levant in the ground sumac that is pounded into grilled lamb kebabs and in the sharp pucker of pomegranate molasses used to dress salads.
Most pleasing to me were adaptations of dishes that I found commonplace in neighbouring countries, but to which Cypriots brought their own touches. This included fakes moutzentra, a stew of sorts made from lentils and rice, which has a close affinity with mujaddara, the Arab lentil and rice pilaf. There was also a soup made from puréed chickpeas, fragrant garlic, sharp lemon and creamy tahini that could be turned into hummus were it not for the addition of chicken broth and a smattering of pul biber red pepper flakes.
In recent years, Cyprus has seen new waves of migration in the form of refugees and migrants who make perilous journeys across choppy waters, fleeing conflict, persecution and economic hardship. The influence of these migrants can be found in bakeries and cafés that have popped up across the island selling za’atar-topped mana’eesh flatbreads and herb-flecked tabbouleh salads.
Despite its long history of migration, today the island itself has a hard border, its culinary treasures sitting against a troubled political backdrop. Since 1974, it has been divided into two halves — the Republic of Cyprus in the south and the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus — with a UN-guarded buffer zone between. Despite border crossings opening up in the Noughties, political divisions remain stark.
On my travels, I cooked and shared meals with Cypriots of all backgrounds, finding commonality in the kitchen. I browsed pantries on both sides of the island filled with the same ingredients, from large tins of extra-virgin olive oil and glass bottles of wine vinegars to jars of orzo pasta and packets of dried bulgur wheat.
I ate meals that were united by thickets of dill and bunches of oregano, with bowls of tangy natural yoghurt always served on the side. There were rectangles of fried halloumi, made from goat’s and ewe’s milk, arguably the island’s most famous export and undoubtedly the world’s favourite squeaky cheese. I admired the Cypriot commitment to incorporating dried mint into almost every dish, whether sprinkled into beef meatballs or used as a stuffing for squares of ravioli and cigarillos of vine leaves.
We shared small plates of mezze in tavernas and meyhanes, tearing open warm pockets of pitta bread to run through bowls of cured fish roe and smoky aubergine dips. I developed a particular affinity for the innumerable ways in which Cypriots can barbecue meat over hot coals and, time and again, I witnessed similarities where man-made borders insist upon difference.
The island of Cyprus serves as a reminder that for as long as humans have existed, we have travelled, and that migration has been an intrinsic part of our species’ pattern of survival. I returned from my travels with a renewed appreciation of how the movement of people, and the wonderful exchange of labour, commodities and culture that comes with it, can enrich almost every aspect of our lives — not least our kitchen tables.
This is the perfect appetiser in my eyes: sweet, salty, crunchy and fried. This recipe is inspired by a dish that I kept returning to at the Loxandra restaurant in Nicosia, Cyprus.
Serves four as part of a mezze
In my many years of eating stuffed vine leaves, this Cypriot version has become a favourite. Don’t be put off by the task of stuffing and rolling: the trick is not to overfill the leaves, but roll them tightly and approach each one with utter confidence. You can find brined vine leaves in just about any Middle Eastern or Mediterranean store.
Serves six as part of a mezze
For the dolma
For the broth
This fresh and light pudding is my adaptation of a traditional Cypriot dessert called charlotta. You can make this gluten-free by skipping the sponge layer — the fruit and rose-scented custard are delicious on their own.
Serves six to eight
For the poached fruit and sponge
For the custard
Yasmin Khan is a cook and travel writer. Her book “Ripe Figs: Recipes and Stories from the Eastern Mediterranean” (Bloomsbury) is out now. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter
Follow on Twitter to find out about our latest stories first