Meze: The Cypriot Meal With Nothing On The Menu

November 5th, 2021
Meze: The Cypriot Meal With Nothing On The Menu

We’ve just sat down to eat, and I’m really confused.

In every way but one, this is what I was hoping for. It’s my first visit to a Cypriot restaurant since I was living here as a kid thirty years previously, and my friend has picked well: a softly-lit place, bright colours softened with muted lighting, big well-worn tables and a creaking floorboard or two. 

It’s our first visit to Limassol, the city that sprawls just north of the British RAF base where we’re staying. Ever since I arrived, we’ve kept within the walls of the base, and technically, we’ve been in Britain the whole time (RAF Akrotiri is a Sovereign Base Area, considered part of the United Kingdom since 1960). Within the base, you can find RAF troops reading British newspapers, shopping for goods imported from the UK, maybe playing a bit of cricket here and there - doing all the things you’d see at an airbase in England, Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland. To say this is surreal when you know the British Isles is over 2,000 miles away is understating it.

I’ve been enjoying my time here - particularly the walks south of the base, onto the British-owned peninsula that gives the base its name, a place of rocky coves great for swimming, sleepy afternoons in the sunshine and spectacular sunsets that never seem to end. 

Protaras, Fig tree bay, Cyprus

Protaras, Fig tree bay, Cyprus

But I’ve also been restless. I came here to see Cyprus. I don’t want to instantly know how things work! I’m yearning for that mild fish-out-of-water feeling that makes travel so novel and exciting - and all my childhood memories are bubbling up, haunting me with flavours I can almost taste, the hubbub of spoken Greek I can almost understand…

Now I’ve found that other Cyprus, I’m perplexed. Where’s the menu?

Everything else is here, including the bread. That’s one of the great things about eating out in the Mediterranean: the perpetual presence of bread. If it’s not on the table when you arrive, it should be there within 60 seconds of you sitting down. Bread here seems to be treated as an inalienable human right, unlike in England where it’s something you have to order separately and usually arrives cold and maybe a bit limp, slathered in cheap margerine. But the stuff here? It’s sensual overload. You smell it before you see it.

The olive oil’s certainly ere. And the big bottle of water. We should be good to go. Except - what are we eating?

I ask where the menu is - and my friend’s brother (an RAF officer) gives me a knowing look, as if to say Ah, I too remember feeling like that at first. He grins at me.

“It’s not that kind of place, Mike.”

Not what kind of place? A place that serves food? What’s going on?

Then the first course arrives, in a flurry of tins plates smoothly slid onto our table by a waiter, who I presume is also the owner since I haven’t seen anyone else yet. There are olives, tahini (made from sesame seeds, with a similar mouth-stickifying feel to peanut butter, only much more so), tiny collections of salady bits and a couple of dishes of yoghurt. This is the starter, then! But how did we order it?

Dolmades

Dolmades

We peck at these dishes until they’re gone - at which point they’re replaced with identical-sized plates filled with different food. This time it’s the turn of the vegetables. I don’t know the Cypriot Greek name of anything here except the dolmades (vine leaves stuffed with olive-oily rice, tangy with lemon juice). 

But I haven’t seen any meat yet, so I’m confused about where we actually are in the meal. And again - who ordered? Did my friend ring ahead, so we’re having a pre-arranged set menu of his choosing?

A few more rounds of dishes follow, each coming in as soon as the previous one is exhausted. Is it my imagination or are they getting heavier & richer? Vegetables give way to egg, then sausages. It’s been maybe an hour now, and we’re still eating. I’m not complaining, but...

At last, something that looks like a main course, even if it’s still in tiny (but utterly delicious) portions that are gone in no time (because, delicious). I’m told a thick beef stew is called stifado, and another lamb dish with meat so tender it shreds itself in your mouth is kleftiko. There’s the fried squeaky cheese called halloumi (which I already know and love, so it’s a very welcome sight) and soft feta, and tomatoes of a colour I’m not sure I’ve seen outside of unrealistic advertising before, and…

And it just keeps coming. 

beef stifado

beef stifado

But here’s the thing: the time is flying. When the portions are this tiny, it’s hard to get so wrapped up in the eating of them that you forget your surroundings. Your mouth is only occasionally full. So we’ve been talking the whole time. It’s the first time we’ve all had the chance to talk like this - during a daily activity that I normally associate with silence, and even grim determination to get the job done in the least amount of time. 

Yet here, it’s been hours and we’re still not done, and it just doesn’t matter. In fact it’s rather lovely. Better, even? Is this a nice way to eat or what?

At last, I’m slowing. Eight courses is approaching my limit. Did everyone else order dessert? It turns out they have no idea - not because they’ve forgotten, but because they’re not meant to know.

What we’ve been eating is a specific type of meze, the tapas-like tradition of serving a long series of small portions that you’ll find across the Eastern Mediterranean, Western Asia, the Balkans and parts of North Africa. (In ancient Persian, maza means “to taste” - hence the modern term, derived via Turkish.)

In some places it’s meant to give the palate something to do in the absence of alcoholic beverages (primarily in Muslim countries), and it’s often a replacement for a starter. Here, though, it’s the full meal. A meal of non-courses that add up to something unique and special. It’s like an all-you-can-eat buffet, except the table comes to you, and you’ve been gifted with some kind of sense of proportion regarding what you eat, foisted upon you by the meal’s method of delivery.

Sea restaurant in Cyprus

Sea restaurant in Cyprus

The way this taverna works is simple. You come in, you sit down, and then you eat what you’re served, whatever that may turn out to be. It’ll be based on whatever is available to the chef that day, meaning a reliance on seasonal and local produce. Since every meal will be the same, it’ll be made in large portions, which makes great sense from a food business perspective. And it’ll be a string of tiny surprises for everyone who sits down to eat. 

If there is anything not to love here, I’m definitely not seeing it.

When we’re done, we rise unsteadily to our feet (turns out that all those tiny dishes really add up when they hit your stomach), pay for the meal and head out into the warm Cypriot night. But we’re still talking. It’s felt like a really nice chat which just so happened to involve really great food (which became part of the conversation). It feels like we’ve got all this the right way round for a change - a sensible, more convivial shift in our dining priorities... 

Do Cypriots do this all the time? Of course not. Globalisation, and it’s a lot of effort, and so on. But it’s a reminder of how good dinnertime can be, if someone puts the effort into the right places, and we’re wise to trust our mealtimes to their skill at using food to bring us together in a deeper, more interesting way. There are lessons to learn here. Things to talk more about. 

What we clearly need is another meal, exactly like (but delightfully different to) this one…

Same again tomorrow?

If you want to experience Cyprus for yourself, join Wheel & Anchor for its first Cyprus LiveAways programme in March of next year - full details here.

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