The creator of some of the best kebabs in Cyprus has stood behind the skewers for almost 60 years, a time over which he has seen the island change. THEO PANAYIDES gets a taste of history
The definitive guide to Cyprus kebab shops has yet to be published, but the ‘Cypriot and Proud’ website (www.cypriotandproud.com) did a list for Nicosia a couple of years ago – and it’s no surprise that Pambos Tavern in the suburb of Aglandjia landed in the top 10 (“the ‘souvlaki’ were very tasty, salty and soft [and] his ‘sieftalia’ not far behind!” raved the site). The Tavern opened in 1979 and it’s still there – and Pambos Ioannou himself is still there, now 75 years old with a lumpy face, a gruff manner, a few teeth missing and a loud rasp of a voice.
The place seems very old-school. The sign on the pavement outside is battered and broken, its top half sheared off by the wind (they’re getting a new one, he tells me). Inside there are two rooms, the kitchen where Pambos and a helper huddle over hot coals and a larger room laid out with tables and old-fashioned checkered tablecloths. There’s no handy fridge for take-away customers to pick up a soft drink or carton of yoghurt with their kebab. Beer only comes in large bottles, and asking for a small bottle is likely to be met with a grunt. Pambos paces, taking phone calls and turning the skewers, often with a cigarette dangling from his mouth.
Yet appearances can be deceptive. For a start, like it says in the name, Pambos Tavern is a tavern, not just a kebab shop. Over in the larger room he serves a full meze with afelia, meatballs, lamb chops, halloumi, sausages and even little fillet steaks in cream sauce. But there’s more – because Pambos hasn’t just spent his life turning kebab skewers. He also writes poems about “all the suffering in the world” (not rhyming couplets or the doggerel known as tsiattista, he assures me, but actual poems), and hopes to publish a book in the next few months. And he’s also been a fighter, on one occasion coming close – incredibly close – to becoming a murderer, and quite possibly a mass murderer.
“This is my story,” he says simply, with the air of having told it before. He probably has – if not to a newspaper, certainly to colleagues and customers. He’s well-known in the business, and even had a hand (mostly in support of his older brother Thasos) in creating the Hotel and Catering Institute next door to the Philoxenia, obtaining the plot of land on which to build from Makarios himself. The Archbishop isn’t among the famous names whom Pambos has served over the years, but many others appear on that list. Greek composer Mikis Theodorakis, for instance, raising his glass in a photo on the wall of the Tavern with Pambos hovering in the background. Former president Tassos Papadopoulos. Former president Demetris Christofias, who was also “a friend” (I’m tempted to point out that Christofias was everybody’s friend). Dom Mintoff, the Prime Minister of Malta. Katharine, Duchess of Kent. Telly Savalas, a.k.a. Kojak.
Needless to say, the Duchess and Kojak didn’t come to out-of-the-way Aglandjia for a mixed kebab. Their brief association with Pambos dates from the 70s, before he struck out on his own, when he worked as chef in a succession of the glitziest and most popular restaurants in Nicosia – especially De Gourmet, which specialised in “French cuisine”, and the Greek Tavern, a live-music eatery which was packed night after night in the years after independence. “It was making C£700 [a night] in 1969-70,” recalls Pambos wistfully. “I was pulling down a minister’s salary there. So I wouldn’t leave”. A few years earlier, at De Gourmet, he’d been on a monthly salary of C£55 (“teachers were making C£32!”) which today would be the equivalent, he says – in terms of the job market, not just inflation – of around €3,000. He wasn’t even 20 years old.
He’d come a long way since his childhood in the Larnaca village of Tersefanou, the sixth of eight children born to a shepherd. One day, when Pambos was 12 and just out of primary school, the local bus driver picked him up and took him to work in a restaurant, his father having presumably made a deal with his new employer. The place was called Astrapi, a greasy spoon opposite Ayios Lazaros Church in Larnaca. They made bean stews, chops and kebabs at six pennies a pita; on Sundays they opened at 4am, serving tripe soup to hunters before they went out to hunt – and meanwhile Pambos washed dishes, scoured pans and watched attentively. “I was a sharp kid,” he tells me – and his bosses obviously agreed, putting the 12-year-old in charge of the sweet shop opposite the restaurant. He was doing well, for a poor boy with no obvious prospects – yet, after three months, he packed his few belongings in a cloth suitcase, sneaked over to a nearby taxi office and paid the fare to Nicosia, running away without a word to anyone.
But why, when things were going well?
“I wanted…” he replies, trying to find the words: “I wanted to learn.”
The taxi dropped him off in old Nicosia. “I didn’t know anything. I felt like I’d come to Paris.” Actually, coming to the capital made sense – because two of his brothers already lived there, working in restaurants. The boy was ambitious, and got his chance three years later – by which time it was 1955 and he was working as a dishwasher at De Gourmet, where his older brother was one of the chefs. The other chef was emigrating to the UK, and Pambos immediately offered his services as a replacement. The owner was initially sceptical – but the boy had been watching and learning, watching the chefs prepare fish mornay or chicken chasseur and filling pans with sawdust in the afternoons, when the kitchen was empty, so he could practise the wrist movements needed to sauté rice or toss an omelette. He breaks off and grabs a pan to show me the moves, right there in the Tavern, his elderly hands still nimble all these years later.
Pambos got the job, becoming a chef in his mid-teens. That was a different time, of course. Most people didn’t go out much – certainly not to a place like De Gourmet, with its fancy foreign dishes. “Restaurants like that depended on British customers. Cypriots, unfortunately, didn’t know how to eat French cuisine. Except maybe your boss,” he adds with a chuckle – meaning Iacovos Iacovides, founder and former editor of this very paper (newspapermen always tend to be bon viveurs). De Gourmet was actually a special case, the dozen hotel rooms above the restaurant housing the British Intelligence Service, presumably incognito. Spies were often to be seen having coffee and cocktails on the balcony – and the new Chief Justice also ate dinner there, making him a target for EOKA.
By this time, the fight against the British was well underway – and Pambos was involved from the beginning. He was, and is, a nationalist. “I love Greece,” he tells me earnestly. “It gave the world civilisation, but now it’s sold out. Greece gave light, and now it’s been blinded.” At 15 he did three months in jail for organising protests, placed on bread and water after trying to escape. He recalls fleeting memories of prison – staying up all night singing defiant patriotic songs with the other prisoners, or walking in the exercise yard and the warden looking down from above, yelling ‘Faster!’. After his release he went back to the restaurant – which was when his EOKA superiors ordered him to place a time-bomb under the Chief Justice’s table (“table No. 5”), timed to explode at 9pm while he was having his dinner.
Pambos went to the village of Alambra (a kiosk there served as EOKA headquarters) and got the bomb. He waited till the restaurant closed at 3pm, then began nailing the device under the table – but was spotted by the restaurant’s cashier, who firmly (and quite bravely) objected. “He says to me, ‘You’re not putting that thing there, it’ll destroy us’ – and it’s true, it would’ve destroyed us. So he made me take it off”.
The boy called for a taxi (“those big Chevrolets, they’re before your time”), nudging the bomb discreetly under the driver’s seat so he could plead ignorance if the British stopped them, and took the device back to Alambra – but there was a problem. The timer had already been activated, and EOKA didn’t have a bomb-disposal expert. Take it to a cave, the teenager was told, “and try to remove the mechanism yourself”. Unsurprisingly, this DIY approach didn’t work (it’s a wonder he didn’t blow himself up), so he just left it in a cave where the Skali Cultural Centre now stands; the bomb exploded that night, scattering shrapnel over a wide area – and would probably have destroyed the whole building, had it exploded in the restaurant as planned. Pambos looks sombre as he recalls how close he came to committing an atrocity, though not especially guilt-ridden: it was, after all, in a good cause – and he also made amends by saving the life of the cashier, successfully pleading for him not to be executed when the guerrillas came calling.
It’s a story from another time – and that’s what one senses in talking to Pambos Ioannou, a succession of fleeting glimpses from another Cyprus. Those big Chevrolets. The ‘Trio Bel Canto’ and their live music show. The Nicosia Tavern, which he opened just before the invasion – he did finally leave the Greek Tavern, despite that “minister’s salary” – and closed just after the death of Makarios. He belongs to a generation who did well in Cyprus: his dad was a shepherd, he himself is a cook, but his four children (two sons, two daughters) ended up in more genteel professions – one son with an accounting firm, the other at a pharmaceutical company, one daughter working in a co-op, the other at the Ministry of Education – and most of his eight grandchildren are studying things like biology and architecture. None of them cook kebabs for a living.
Nonetheless, he says, “I won’t sell the shop. Someone from my family has to take over”. He still shops for meat every day, checks that it comes from a female animal, cuts it up himself – making sure the chunks are no more than 1.5 centimetres long – takes out the sinews, then marinates in oil, salt, pepper, lemon and oregano for five hours till it’s ready for the skewer. “Unfortunately, most kebab-shop owners aren’t professionals,” he says, the gruff manner returning. Most of them don’t even cut the meat up, they just let the butcher do it. “That’s unacceptable, in my opinion.”
I don’t know if Pambos is a ‘nice guy’. I suspect he must’ve been a terror in the kitchen, back when the great and good of Nicosia lined up for his food. And of course (like all poets) he’s quite fiery. “I was a rebel,” he affirms. “I don’t stand for injustice, or shackles.” He talks heatedly about French cartoonists and Charlie Hebdo, and recalls his own time in the trenches – not just EOKA but also 1963, when he fought in Paphos during the intercommunal strife. “I volunteered,” he says grimly. “Went to Paphos and saw the things I saw, then I came back. Then they tried to involve me again, and I said [shakes head] ‘Thank you very much’.”
What did he see?
“Killings.” A pause. “From our side, too. Mistakes. We killed – not me personally – unarmed civilians. That’s a mistake.”
Does he regret it sometimes? Spending his whole life in front of ovens and hot coals – a man of his drive and energy? “You’ve got to spend it somewhere,” he shrugs. All in all, it’s been a good life. He’s been married to the same woman for 55 years (she spent 23 of those years helping out at the Tavern, cooking the meat), “educated my children at universities”, and now has the great joy of watching his grandchildren grow up. Meanwhile it’s 6.15, almost time for customers to start arriving; he shakes my hand, and goes back to turning his skewers. “So that’s the story of my life, my friend – and I only hope it ends smoothly. And may our Cyprus find its freedom!” All this, and a top-10 kebab too.