02 March 2012

A-Meze-ing in Cyprus

Meze is an eastern Mediterranean thing, not a Cypriot thing. The word comes from the Persian word for taste, or snack. We had meze in Turkey, we will have it in Greece, it's popular in the Middle East, there are versions as far west as the Balkans. In this part of the sea, the word "meze" is as commonplace as the word "appetizer."
In Cyprus, though, it takes on a whole different meaning - a meze can be a whole meal. We've had half a dozen examples now, and are feeling just as intrigued about the process as we were in the beginning.
But what is meze? Above, part (yes, just part) of a seafood version at Zigiana Taverna in Zygi, on the southern shore.
In most of the meze world, the word refers mainly to a selection of small dishes served as an accompaniment to drinks or a prelude to dinner. Hummus is a common meze dish, as are tahini and babaghanoush. Fried cheeses, fresh cheeses, small salads, olives, anchovies, artichokes, tzatziki or cured meats - just about anything can be considered part of the offering.
Cypriot mezes are interesting for two reasons. First, they are often, in effect, much more than just the small plates - the word connotes a type of meal and a style of eating. Second, the island's unique location brings together a huge range of different cultures.
Cyprus is tucked into such an interesting corner - the most eastern island in the mediterranean it is Greek and Turkish culturally, but with heavy influences from the Levant - the coast of Syria is only sixty miles away, Lebanon is less than a hundred miles distant.
The intriguingly-titled "Syrian-Arab Friendship Club" restaurant in Nicosia features this overwhelming Syrian spread - some of the more interesting plates were the batata maftooteh (top row, second to left; a kind of mashed potato) and the muhammara (bottom row, red: walnut, tomato and pomegranate paste). Near the entrance, a gas-fired oven roared. A man pulled steaming, puffed-up pitas from it with a long peel - baskets of the bread were whisked from table to table. The meal continued with smoky-flavored haloumi breads and grilled, minced chicken loaded with cumin.
Not surprisingly, the northern and southern parts of this divided isle bring different dishes to the table. In North Cyprus, the food is accented by Turkey - the eggplant reigns serenely as the sultan of the kitchen, spice plays its part with conviction and kebab is the inevitable endpoint.
At Niazi's, in Girne (Kyrenia), the "full kebab" meze is probably the most ordered dinner in town. It begins with about eight cold dishes (mostly unremarkable - boiled beets, russian salad, grilled vegetables), transitions to hot meats like pastırma (Turkish pastrami), and ends with as much charcoal-cooked meat as a diner can hold. This is what Cypriot meze is: a full meal, arranged something like a tasting menu, building on itself as it goes.
In the Greek south, the emphasis tends to be on fish first, meat second. Many restaurants, especially along the shore, offer entirely seafood mezes. Popular intermediary dishes include fried crab, cuttlefish, calamari and stewed octopus. Taramosalata, shown above, is a kind of Greek fish-roe spread that appears on a solid majority of platters. Meals usually end with some kind of grilled fish - Rebecca wanted me to mention that it's wise to hold off on the (often) fried stuff in the middle, and guarantee some room for the pièce de résistance.
Cyprus mezes are fun - they take the guesswork out of reading a menu, and you get to try a huge amount of different specialties. Like ordering a chef's menu, one has to release control over the dinner - we went to the same restaurant (6 Brothers) twice in Girne, and had a different meal on the second visit than we did on the first. It's freeing and relaxing. The dishes can be surprising (for example, blurry, at the bottom of this picture, 6 Brother's curried potatoes), and will almost certainly be culturally varied.
Don't feel the need to clean all the plates - almost nobody does. The mark of a good meze, as they say in Nicosia, is when everyone is too full to finish.

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