Learning to Taverna With Simon Majumdar

“. . .there is only one way to really enjoy food the truly local way, and that is at a traditional taverna.”

Many people in the United States might struggle if they were asked to find the island of Cyprus on the map. While it has been a vacation staple for the British for generations and more recently began housing a sizable retirement community from Russia, it has never been a “go- to” American vacation destination.

That’s a great shame because this beautiful eastern Mediterranean island, with a little over one million people in population, has a great deal to offer those who choose to visit. It’s an island that presents a wide variety of stunning geographical landscapes from the popular beaches of Limassol and Paphos, to the mountains of Troodos where some of its best wines originate — it has a history that dates to times before records were kept. And, its strategically important location means that its past includes occupations by Ancient Greeks, Romans, Knights Templar, the Ottomans and the British, all of whom have left their mark on the country and its people. In the case of the most recent invasion by Turkey, this mark is even fresher and has resulted in an island that lives under a peaceful, if uneasy, stalemate between the internationally recognized Republic of Cyprus and the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. It also has, in its capital city of Nicosia (or Lefkosia, the ancient name to which it has reverted), a town that surprises in its ability to combine the island’s 4500-year history with thriving modernity and a very European approach to life.

And, of course, most important of all to me, visiting Cyprus gives one the opportunity to interact with its extraordinarily hospitable people, and to sample a cuisine that has been influenced by so many, but particularly the Greeks, over the centuries. If the bigger cities of Cyprus offer a wide range of international dining options, for the Cypriots themselves, there is only one way to enjoy food the truly local way, and that is at a traditional taverna. As we were to find out on our visit, the Cypriots take their taverna-ing (is that a word? It is now) very seriously indeed. The notion of driving across the entire island to visit their taverna of choice is a common one, and when they do arrive, there are a series of unwritten, but universally understood rules about the range of dishes that should be presented for the meal to be “proper.”

My wife and I experienced just how important such matters were after a visit to the factory of Zorbas, Cyprus’ most famous bakery situated about a one-hour drive south of the capital. We had already been filled to capacity with a tasting of their huge range of bread and cakes, including an introduction to Tahinopita, a sweet pie filled with sesame paste, when our hosts announced that it was now time for lunch. They said this with such intention that any thoughts of politely refusing on the basis of already being on the point of exploding were pushed to one side, and we bundled into a number of cars. We formed a small convoy and headed towards the prosperous village of Athienou.

A short time later, we pulled up in front of a sizable taverna called Tamblios, which was apparently one of the most popular on the island and always packed to capacity at weekends. On this quiet weekday lunchtime, we had the place to ourselves and had the chance to look around the kitchens before lunch. A domed clay oven featured prominently in a small courtyard in which, we were told, some of our dishes had been prepared. Inside, over a large grill, kebabs and Cypriot sausages leaked meat juices over sizzling coals.

By the time we reached our table, bread and olive oil had already been set out. After a few minutes, dishes of food began to arrive on the table in rapid procession and seemingly without anyone placing an order. It started simply with the arrival of the sort of Meze dishes that might be familiar to anyone acquainted with Greek cuisine; green olives flecked with salt and laced with garlic and crushed coriander seed, salads of lettuce, cucumber and tomatoes, bowls of house-made yogurt and slabs of grilled Halloumi cheese, arguably Cyprus’ most well-known contribution to world cuisine. Then, matters began to get even more serious, as more food was squeezed onto the table, including Keftedes pork meatballs with cinnamon, Sheftalia sausages of minced lamb, wrapped in a casing of caul fat and grilled over charcoal, and the pork kebabs we had seen being grilled in the kitchen as we arrived.

This would be the point that any right-minded person might wipe their brow and tell the kitchen that we were sated. However, one of our hosts made it quite clear, as he passed me a plate piled high with fried potatoes, that we were only just getting started. He spoke the truth as the owners reappeared carrying trays weighed down with our main courses. Stifado, another dish of Greek origin, had cuts of beef slow cooked in the clay oven with onions and tomatoes until they become so tender they break apart when you look at them. Makaroni Tou Fournou literally means “macaroni cooked in the oven,” and the heaving baking dish placed in front of me consisted of tubular pasta with layers of ground lamb, béchamel sauce and what appeared to be half the annual cheese production of the island. 

By this point, I was so full that I could barely eat more than a spoonful and was convinced that I had been defeated until the smell of our final dish hit my nostrils. Kleftiko, a dish I have prepared many times but never came close to the deliciousness of what Tamblios offered us, consisted of slow-roasted mutton where chunks of an older sheep had been sealed in a pot and slow roasted in the embers of the clay oven with the addition of little more than a sprinkle of salt and pepper. Even though I was so full, I still managed to eat two big chunks of meat and mop up the remaining juices with a piece of bread. It was one of those bites that lives in the memory long after the meal is over. It was a perfect way to end the meal, even though our hosts looked more than mildly disappointed that we did not want to stay for dessert.

It took me a long nap and about three days after this meal before I was able to declare myself genuinely hungry again. As I said, this Cypriot Taverna-ing is a serious business. However, I am fully prepared to put in the training, if they ever decide to invite me for round two.


Grilled Halloumi with a Simple Greek Salad


Recipe by: Simon Majumdar

Serves 2-4

This beautifully simple salad, using Cyprus’ famous cheese, is the perfect dish for a summer lunchtime. It also makes a great accompaniment to grilled fish or lamb chops.

You’ll Need:

  • 8 oz Halloumi cheese, rinsed and sliced
  • ½ red onion, sliced thinly
  • 4 vine-ripened tomatoes, deseeded and roughly chopped
  • 2 English cucumbers, peeled, deseeded and roughly chopped
  • 20 pitted Kalamata olives, cut in half
  • ¼ cup fresh mint, roughly chopped
  • 1 clove garlic, crushed
  • 1 tbsp white wine vinegar
  • 3 tbsp EVOO
  • 1 pinch salt
  • ¼ tbsp honey
  • ¼ tbsp coriander seeds, crushed
  • ¼ tbsp black peppercorns, crushed
  • 2 tbsp vegetable oil

Directions: 

  1. Combine the tomatoes, cucumber, olives and red onion in a salad bowl.
  2. Place the garlic, olive oil, white wine vinegar, honey, salt, coriander seed and black peppercorns in a small mason jar. Seal and shake to emulsify to a thick salad dressing. Set aside.
  3. Heat the vegetable oil in a cast iron skillet or frying pan and fry the slices of halloumi for around 90 seconds on each side, or until they take on a beautiful golden color.
  4. Remove the halloumi from the pan and drain on kitchen paper. Set aside.
  5. Add the mint to the salad.
  6. Shake the mason jar one more time, and then toss the salad with of much of the dressing as you prefer.
  7. Place on a serving dish and layer the top with the grilled halloumi.
  8. Drizzle with olive oil and serve.

Discover More Adventures By Simon: Armenian Cave Dining, On the Spice Trail in Zanzibar 

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