What is the one thing that unifies Cypriots around the world? Alix Norman meets two extraordinary young women who think they have the answer
Ask 100 people what constitutes their ‘Cypriotness’, and you’d get 100 unique answers. You’d probably hear about tradition, about family and language. A few might mention culture or community; others the struggles and strifes of past and present.
But for Natalie Toufexis and Carolina Orphanidou, the answer to that question would be crystal clear. Cypriotness, for them, is all about food: the culinary culture that illustrates our island’s identity; connection through cuisine.
For these two residents of Switzerland, true Cypriotness can be summed up by the flavoursome feasts we share with family, friends, and foreigners…
“Carolina and I are both obsessed with food,” says Limassol-born, Zurich-based Natalie who, at 27, is the younger of the two. “It’s an incredible connector, an identity marker and a way of exploring culture in a very intimate way; a medium that everyone understands, everyone responds to. It’s the best – and most enjoyable – way to build bridges. Food,” she adds, “brings people together.”
Born in Nicosia and currently a resident of Zug, 43-year-old Carolina agrees. “Food is a medium that’s inherent to cultural identity. It’s not just a basic necessity, it’s also a complex web of social, economic, cultural and political factors. It provides us with the opportunity to talk about the big issues of the day.”
To these two then, the notion of Cypriotness begins and ends with food. But, somewhere in the middle, it incorporates a host of other ideas: family, unity, peace, diversity.
“And inclusivity,” says Carolina. “The food of Cyprus embraces and celebrates all the communities of our island, be they Greek Cypriot, Turkish Cypriot, Maronite, Armenian, Latin, or migrants looking to make Cyprus their home…”
Or even, one suspects, those abroad. Because these two culinary talents are bringing the tastes and flavours of their homeland to the people of Europe, using food to introduce the concept of ‘Cypriotness’ to the wider world…
From their first meeting in a Zurich co-working space, the pair found themselves “endlessly analysing and exploring our Cypriotness, comparing notes and delighting others with the dishes and ingredients of our lunches,” explains Carolina.
By September 2022, the duo had decided to host a small pop-up dinner concept called ‘Cypriotness’. “It was,” says Natalie, “a real jump into the deep end! We honestly had no idea if anyone would even be interested in anything we had to say or the food we wanted to cook. We designed a menu, bought the ingredients, prepared the dishes, and convinced 30 people to participate. And we also thought about the message we wanted to convey: the all-important Cypriot values…”
“Growing up,” explains Carolina, whose family hail from Pitsillia, “when someone knocked at the door during meals, my mother would immediately fetch another plate! Even before the door had been opened, the visitor was made to feel welcome. There was always another spot at the table. And that is pure Cypriotness for me. That’s what we wanted to share.”
Natalie, meanwhile, was raised in Cyprus to a Swiss mother and a Cypriot father, and suggests her cultural identity was not so clear. “But that led to endless exploration of what it means to be Cypriot. Being away from the island, I was confronted with claiming my cultural heritage but also simply recreating certain tastes and traditions which would make me feel more at home.”
Together, the two set out to define their Cypriotness through the all-encompassing medium of food. And, building on the success of that first small dinner, they now host immensely successful food events and workshops across Switzerland.
“We’ve had an Easter lunch where we cooked kleftiko,” says Natalie. “Vegan dinners – one of which was part of the Food Zurich Festival, among the biggest celebrations of food in Europe – in which we explain the fasting culture in Cyprus. We’ve held a halloumi-making workshop in cooperation with a local dairy, combining the cheese-making traditions of Switzerland with the flavours and methods we know from Cyprus…”
“Each of our dishes is traditionally Cypriot,” adds Carolina. “But we do allow ourselves creative freedom. We love presenting old, forgotten recipes and ingredients in a contemporary way, using seasonal ingredients. For example, we often serve ice cream for dessert, taking an inherently Cypriot flavour such as tashinopitta and translating it to an ice cream drenched in carob molasses and served on kataifi!”
Flaounes, avgolemoni, koutsia me ta lahana, louvi, koulouri, anari and moungra – all appear on the long, communal tables at the duo’s pop-up events and happenings. And the two have also gained quite a reputation for their own, homemade halloumi: “‘CH-alloumi’ as we call it,” says Natalie. “Because it’s made with Swiss milk!”
Using Swiss produce and honouring local seasonality is a hallmark of Natalie and Carolina’s dishes. “We always start from the seasonal produce,” says Carolina. “And then add inspiration from everyday Cypriot meals, Cypriot celebrations, dishes from various Cypriot communities, and inherently Cypriot moments – like a hot summer night on the veranda enjoying halloumi and watermelon.”
The perfect venture for those abroad who miss the tastes and aromas of their Cypriot homeland, ‘Cypriotness’ is also a striking success with foreigners. Just one year after launch, Natalie and Carolina and are now experiencing sell-out events across Switzerland.
“It still feels amazing every time we post an event and people start reserving spaces or booking tickets!” Natalie enthuses. “In ‘Cypriotness’, we’ve created is a symbol for the exploration and awareness of one’s own cultural background and an interest in understanding and learning about that of others.
“By understanding where we come from, why we eat what we eat, talk in the way that we do, and speak certain languages, we’re contributing to a more open, empathic world; a place in which cultural differences are an advantage rather than something that separates us.”
For these two Cypriots abroad, food is far more than nutrition. “It’s about inclusivity, diversity and sustainability,” she concludes.
“And about commemorating family and togetherness,” adds Carolina. “It’s about building longer tables – tables that include more people. And about sharing our warmth and our welcome with the world. Don’t you think everyone could use a good dose of Cypriotness?”
For more information, visit the Instagram account ‘cypriotness’