Cyprus is a land of contrasts: jaw dropping beauty next to the rough reality of territorial disputes. But no matter whether Turkish or Greek, food traditions are a vital part of family, identity and pride.

Jen Rose Smith
February 24, 2020
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Niki Psarias is tapping into food traditions to host delicious meals and bring all Cypriots to the table.
Pascale Bouzon

Spring cloudbursts wrap the island of Cyprus in fleeting green, softening the country's rocky cliffs, which climb high from the easternmost corner of the Mediterranean Sea. As the skies clear, residents venture out onto the cobbled streets of the capital, Nicosia, a maze of zigzag lanes framed by ancient stone fortifications. Inside the walls, pedestrians pass a jumble of elegant mosques, Byzantine churches and shuttered homes spanning centuries of history. They sip coffee at café tables alongside an obvious reminder of the country's struggles: a trail of soaked sandbags and rusting barbed wire that splits the tiny nation in two.

Nicosia, the capital of Cyprus
Boris SV/Getty Images

That line mirrors the longstanding rift between the island's Greek- and Turkish-speaking communities. When Cyprus declared independence from British rule in 1960, violence flared as the country settled into a power-sharing government between the Greek majority and Turkish minority. U.N. peace-keepers arrived in 1964, but clashes continued through another fraught decade. In the summer of 1974, the Greek military backed a government coup and troops from Turkey invaded the north days later. The Turkish forces never left, occupying one-third of the island, and decades later, Cyprus remains divided.

Niki Psarias is striving to bridge that divide. In December 2017, she started Border Kitchen, a series of events that bring islanders together for an evening of food and conversation. At the first gathering, guests pulled open the door to the Powerhouse Restaurant in Nicosia and were met with the aroma of fresh lemons, dried oregano and slow-cooked lamb. Tea lights flickered in the corners near jars overflowing with pink-and-white bougainvillea. The crowd of strangers settled in around long, communal tables and started passing plates of black-eyed peas with wilted greens (pictured above), slivers of fresh halloumi cheese and dips aromatic with garlic.

Illustration by Heather Gatley

Psarias wasn't alive in 1974, but war shaped her life all the same. Her Greek Cypriot family were refugees of the conflict, with her grandparents fleeing their homes in the north of the island. Her family later settled in London, where Psarias was born and grew up. To her Cyprus meant sunny summer vacations and the bright flavors of the country's cuisine, but it was also the source of her family's profound sense of sadness and loss.

Her family history in part spurred her into a career working for international humanitarian aid groups. In the evenings, Psarias would unwind by cooking, sometimes re-creating dishes from her childhood vacations. Then in 2014, as part of her work for a peace-building organization, she began planning dinners that featured the cuisines of countries that have experienced conflict, such as Sri Lanka, Colombia and Myanmar.

Those events sparked powerful dialogues about peace. Psarias thought: Why not bring this to Cyprus? So she reached out to chefs from both sides of the island and Border Kitchen was born. From the beginning, cooking proved a powerful connection—when the chefs sat down to plan a menu, they were surprised by how many similarities there were between their two cultures. "We don't share the same religion or the same language," says Munevver Gurel, a Border Kitchen chef from the Turkish side of the island, "but the ingredients and the cooking techniques are the same."

"Food brings people together," says Psarias. "We feel happy, and that helps us to be more open to new ideas." That idea resonated for Marina Kyriakou, a Greek Cypriot who attended the inaugural Border Kitchen dinner. Kyriakou was 20 years old before she ventured across the U.N.-patrolled buffer zone. "I learned to live in a country that wasn't whole," she says. "My perspective back then was 'I have no idea what is there and I'm not curious about it.' " Meeting fellow islanders at the Border Kitchen dinner helped fire her interest in Turkish Cypriot culture, and she now makes regular trips into the northern part of the island.

After a lifetime abroad, Psarias now has a base in Nicosia and splits her time between London and Cyprus so she can continue working for peace on the island and building Border Kitchen. And at a moment when disputes are simmering across the globe, she believes that the simple pleasures of cooking and conversation are essential tools for every culture with healing to do. "It's a way for us to share part of ourselves with each other," Psarias says. "Food can get you to a table—and a table is where dialogue begins."

Cypriot Recipes to Try

Related: Browse more authentic Mediterranean recipes.

When in Cyprus

Stay: Get relief from the Mediterranean heat in the whitewashed courtyard of the Cypriot Swallow Boutique Hotel. The historic home in north Nicosia has been renovated into a three-room guesthouse.

Sip tiny cups of thick Cypriot coffee while people-watching on your private balcony at 3 Rooms Boutique Hotel, inside the -medieval Venetian walls of Nicosia's historic center.

Eat: Colorful volumes line the walls of north Nicosia's Rüstem Kitabevi, where set menus feature homey Turkish-Cypriot fare in a dining room above an iconic book-store.

Located within the buffer zone, The Home Café serves fair-trade coffee alongside slices of sweet and savory cakes and organic salads dressed with island-made olive oil.

Do: Soak and scrub like a Sultan then indulge in a massage or full-body clay mask in the gorgeous Hamam Omerye, a Turkish bath inside Greek-speaking Nicosia. hamamomerye.com

Hike to the hilltop Buffavento Castle in northern Cyprus, an ancient fortress that has views stretching from the Kyrenia Mountains to turquoise bays and sandy beaches.

Jen Rose Smith spent three months in Cyprus last year, where she learned that she loves Commandaria wine and green walnuts in syrup.

This story originally appeared in EatingWell Magazine March 2020.