View from abroad: Multiculturalism serves dinner
Perhaps one of the perks of living on an island such as Cyprus that has been besieged by everyone – from the Greeks, to the Ottomans, the Venetians and the British – is the great assortment of food available. With the increased "Americanization" of this country, as others have undergone, obviously there are many Mickey D’s or Starbucks found along October 28 Avenue or Ledra Street.
My Cypriot colleagues never hesitate to ask if I would rather go to the local Bennigans for dinner instead of a Syrian restaurant. Travel all the way to Cyprus and eat American food? I think not. Thankfully, Cypriot cuisine has been heavily influenced by the raiders of yester-decades, as well as the immigrants who have settled on the island in the past 20 years, and there are distinct flavors that have evolved as a result of this mixing of cultures.
One in particular is quite addictive: hummus. I know you’re thinking, "How is it possible to be enamored by something as insignificant as the chickpea?" While it’s disheartening to know the chickpea gets little or no recognition in the U.S., it is easily the most well-known ingredient on the island, especially by visitors. A mix of pur’eacute;ed chickpeas (it tastes much better than it sounds, trust me), garlic, lemon juice, and sesame seed paste, hummus is likely the most "glamorous" dish from the Middle East. Every visit to Carrefour turns into an expedition to hunt down that particular brand of hummus, both Americans and Cypriots crowding the wide aisle, each reaching above the others to grab that last tub.
Hummus is also included in practically every full meal in Cyprus, especially the meze. Consisting of more than 20 individual dishes ranging from simple vegetarian dips and sauces to racks of lamb, beef, and chicken, meze is easily the meal that exemplifies the Cypriot way of life – eat a lot, eat for a while, and don’t leave a single crumb. Seriously, having food remaining at the end of the meal is considered an insult to the chef, and the waiters glare if you even consider asking for a to-go box. The meal itself costs about $15 to $20 per person, but is well worth the price.
A traditional meze begins with plates piled high with warm sliced pita bread, surrounded by bowls of chopped and pickled peppers, tzatziki (shredded cucumber and yogurt dip), chunks of halloumi (a goat milk cheese), spiced olives and houmous. While this first set of dishes provides for a decent opening, one can’t fill up on them – there’s more to come. These cold appetizers are followed by hot appetizers, such as halloumi-stuffed ravioli and crushed wheat soup.
Main dishes, the "meat" dishes, are brought out next; keftedes, or fried pork or beef meatballs, moussaka, kleftiko, and calamari are some of the usual suspects. Each is a different type of meat – chicken, beef, pork, or lamb – cooked in a variety of methods. If you still manage to have some room left, desserts and Cypriot coffee close the meze show. Even with desserts, there are the well-known favorites (baklava, anyone?) as well as numerous unfamiliar but equally delicious ones. In particular, almonds are used in nearly every dessert, from dactila (lady fingers) to halvas (semolina sweetened with cream). The strong Cypriot coffee will give you the final caffeine push needed to stay awake after this gastronomic spread.
Living in Cyprus for this semester has continuously reminded me of Houston. Restaurants are both lining every block of the main streets and hidden in the alleyways, making me appreciate having cuisine from this side of the world only a short walk away from my apartment. Sure, French fries comparable to those in Houston are difficult to come by here, thus necessitating a visit to TGI Fridays; however, I have found great happiness in a bowl of hummus.