James Beard Publication of the Year 2017

Looking on Brunch and Cultural Identity With Suspicion

Looking on Brunch and Cultural Identity With Suspicion

Koupes in London

I’ve always looked upon brunch with distrust. The prospect of losing one of the day’s meals arouses doubts and misgivings. But my hand was forced by social convention, and so I accepted my friend’s invitation. I’d been asked to bring a dish, and on a typically grey London day, I arrived holding a plate of something far more common to warmer climes.

“What are those you’ve brought?” asked my host.

“They’re called koupes,” I replied. “They’re a savory snack, like a kind of fried meat croquette. They’re very popular in Cyprus.”

“Oh, is your family from Cyprus?” asked someone whose acquaintance I’d just made. I responded in the affirmative, and soon the quasi-meal was under way. Though a little incongruous with the other food at the table, the koupes went down a storm. The golden-brown bulgur wheat and flour carapace has, after an initial crunch, a satisfying give that yields to the umami of a sautéed pork mince and onion filling, brightened by fresh green shreds of parsley and rounded by the warmth of cinnamon. In short, koupes—best fresh but delicious cold—are indulgent, addictive, and gratifying. I urged all the guests, after taking a bite from one end of their pointed cylinders, to hold it vertically and squeeze a few drops of lemon juice onto its exposed contents to enliven them with a citric zing, something I do after every bite.

The guest who’d inquired about my heritage soon reverted the conversation after taking a bite from her koupa, as if the novel experience had conjured new curiosity.

“So, are you Greek or Turkish Cypriot then?” she asked, also wanting to clarify, it seemed, from which community the food she’d just sampled hailed. It’s a question I’ve grown accustomed to, and one that’s almost unavoidable, even from people who aren’t au fait with Cyprus’ complicated history. Cyprus—a unified and independent state from 1960, but for centuries a thriving petri dish of various influences and peoples from across Europe, the Mediterranean, and the Middle East—has been partitioned since 1974, with Turkey still occupying just over a third of the country through the thinly veiled guise of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, a state unrecognized and deemed illegal by international law. While the reasons for this partition are varied, from a macroscopic perspective, the picturesque island’s strategic position in the Eastern Mediterranean made it victim to the realpolitik of far greater powers during the tense, underhand maneuvering of the Cold War.

“Greek Cypriot,” I replied with knee-jerk haste. The speed at which I made clear my heritage on this occasion, and the myopia to which I too was apparently victim, shocked me. The ubiquity of koupes/içli köfte/kibbeh across not only Cyprus, but the whole Middle East, are an example of food exposing the folly of politically enforced differences. It got me thinking about the nature of Cypriot identity today.

The physical partition of the island, effectively separating the two communities, has polarized the beliefs of many, and served to strengthen community-wide characteristics along ethno-cultural lines (Greek or Turkish), even among the diaspora. Consequently, it’s very difficult for someone to fully regard themselves as Cypriot first, and Greek or Turkish second, because there’s a lack of shared physical space in which to allow any nascent sentiments of inclusive nationalism to develop. Concurrently, the partition has facilitated the development of a kind of cultural confusion that exacerbates the problem. Far from Cyprus representing proxy nationalist wrangling between Greece and Turkey, many are fiercely proud of their Cypriot nationality or heritage. It’s puzzlingly common for Greek Cypriots to reject Greece, and yet define their Cypriot character predominantly by its “Greekness.”

People would probably keep quiet at such gatherings if the issue were as infamous as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: not quite a topic for light-hearted conversation. I do, however, feel irked that so many people, even many Cypriots, don’t know or care about what has really unfolded in Cyprus. The occasion illustrated this perfectly: a group in carefree mood waxing lyrical about food from a place they knew so little about.

Thankfully, the conversation bobbed along smoothly in another direction, avoiding the treacherous rapids of the Cyprus issue, but I thought, looking at the final koupa, how tragic it is that the factionalism that has infested Cypriot culture in recent decades has infiltrated as far as the cuisine. I had zealously claimed the dish to my own narrowly defined community, but in truth, strong similarities exist in the food across not only Cyprus, but the wider region, and the homely koupa—in all its differing guises and nomenclature—could well represent a serendipitous metaphor for reconciliation and solidarity.

Instead of coming away with a full stomach and a smile, I left, brow heavy, contemplating on how such an innocent query could touch upon such deep-running issues and have me questioning my own cultural identity. My suspicions regarding brunch, then, were confirmed.

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