Expedition To Albania I: So Balkan, Yet So Unique

Albania is a study in similarities and differences – nowhere more so than in its cuisine. Strongly influenced by its neighbours – Serbia, Macedonia and Greece – its own traditions and preferences shine through. And its mountains-to-sea geography ensures tremendous variety…

Tavë Mishi - © nomadparadise.comTavë Mishi: A gala Grilled Meat Platter enjoyed by Albanians on special occasions…

You’d be excused for thinking that Albanian cuisine is a lot like that of its neighbours, Croatia, Montenegro and Greece, with whom it shares the eastern coast of the Adriatic Sea. But you’d be wrong. While there are some similarities in ingredient preferences and cooking styles – many contributed by the Ottomans when they occupied most of the area between the Adriatic and the Black Sea – Albanian dishes have a unique character. There’s a lot more to Albanian cuisine than the ubiquitous Qofte (Lamb Meatballs) and Sarme (Cabbage Rolls).

If you are a vegetarian, take note: There are not a lot of dishes on the Albanian national menu that don’t feature meat of one kind o another. On the other hand, the country’s rich soils and temperate climate produce a wide variety of colourful, tasty veggies and pulses.

Thecrazytourist.com offers a clear, concise picture of what you’ll find in an Albanian market: “Meat and vegetables are the staple, along with heavy stews, pickled cabbage, feta cheese, breads, rice, and smoked meat. The most popular veg grown are eggplants, peppers, tomatoes, cucumbers, olives (which accompany most meals), and legumes. Very Mediterranean indeed!”

Albanian cuisine can be divided into three regional identities.

In the north, they use a lot of corn, in both sweet and savoury dishes. Casseroles are common, with an emphasis on veggies. You’ll find the usual chicken and lamb dishes along with a selection of fresh water fish specialties, sourced from the region’s many lakes and rivers. Northern Albanians don’t discriminate on starches: They’re equally in love with rice and noodles. And there are always lots of potatoes available.

Central Albanian cuisine features a selection of poultry including chicken, turkey, goose and duck. The Albanians also harvest a bounty of saltwater fish from the Adriatic. Central Albania is the home of what many consider Albania’s national dish, Tavë Kosi – a simple casserole of chicken or lamb cooked in yogurt.

Southern Albanian cooking placed a heavier emphasis on beef and dairy products. It’s there that Albanians make their beloved hard and soft cheese and a variety of fermented products such as yogurt and Kefir. The Greek influence is strong here: olive and citrus groves are common.

On the menu today

Tavë Kosi: Though native to central Albania, the dish is enjoyed over a wide swathe of the Balkans, and usually called Elbasan Tava, for the town where it originated. Yogurt, rice and eggs are blended to make a sort of custard, and poured over shreds or chunks of boneless chicken or lamb. The dish is baked until the top turns golden brown and crispy.

Fërgës: ‘Summer Stew’, is one of the most popular dishes in all corners of Albania. In its simplest form, Fërgës is just tomato sauce, cottage cheese, sweet peppers, and garlic, simmered together until it becomes a thick stew.

Fërgës Tirane - tasteatlas.com

This version, with the notable addition of paprika, is associated with Triana, the capital, but there’s also a version that incorporates liver. This is peasant food; not commonly seen on the menu at ‘better’ Albanian restaurants.

Byrek: Albanian Pies. These hand pies are a staple of Albanian life. You could call them street food, except that they’re actually sold at Pie Shops found in every town and city street. They’re cousins to Greek Spanakopita.

Byrek - © rosacooking.com

They are the national grab-and-go snack, and can even constitute a complete quick lunch. The crust is phyllo pastry and common filings include meat, spinach with feta cheese, onions with tomatoes, or plain cottage cheese. Yes, this is the Albanian version of a dish enjoyed across the Balkans. But the Albanian version is unique.

Speca te Mbushur me Oriz: Stuffed Sweet Peppers. Another pan-Balkan favourite, but especially beloved in Albania’s countryside. Fillings feature lamb, tomatoes and rice. Traditional condiments include thick yogurt, feta cheese and Dhalle (see ‘Beverages’, tomorrow). Speca te Mbushur me Salce Kosi – Peppers Stuffed with Sour Cream – is equally popular.

Peshk dhe Perime ne Tave: Baked Fish and Vegetables. The fish (often an Ocean Perch) is gutted via the belly. The head, tail and skin are left on, and the bones are left in.

Peshk dhe Perime ne Tave - © meshije.com

The fish is then drizzled with olive oil and baked in a casserole dish with an array of chunked summer veggies such as eggplant, zucchini and sweet peppers, and any other veggie you have on hand that strikes your fancy. The only flavourings are Salt and Pepper and a lemon wedge.

Jani me Fasule: White Bean Soup. This dish is made by every Albanian home cook and may be considered the national soup. It’s cheap, filling and tasty.

Jani Mi Fasule - © mediterraneanlatinloveaffair.com

Lamb chunks, tomato sauce and onions are simmered in a lamb broth with white beans until the beans are soft. Traditional sides include pickled veggies and Greek-style yogurt.

Tavë Mishi: Mixed Meats and Potatoes. A big favourite at suppers where many are dining, and at family special occasion tables, Tavë Mishi is a platter of grilled sausages, meatballs, lamb chops and chicken, served with boiled potatoes and summer veggies (tomatoes, eggplant, zucchini, peppers, etc.). (See featured photo, above).

Tarator: Cucumber and Yogurt Soup. This cold starter is simply yogurt, cucumber, cold water and salt. It’s a fairly thick concoction usually served in a bowl, before or with meat dishes such as Tavë Mishi. Enhancements may include fresh dill, garlic and olive oil. (See photo, top of page.)

That ought to hold you until breakfast!

Tomorrow, we’ll survey Albania’s Breads, Sweets and Beverages. Again, some will be familiar from our tours of other Balkan states. Others will be all-Albanian!

~ Maggie J.