Most Albanians I know are experts at cooking large meals and love entertaining guests in the privacy of their own home. Sometimes people will go out to eat for celebrations, but it is common for families to invite each other into their homes as well. Often times things are served “family style” at restaurants, so people will order a bit of everything and people can pick and choose. It is common to get wine, a salad to start, some side dishes, and a main entrée. This can also hold true for when Albanians are cooking at their homes, although they might cook several different foods and then arrange each plate in a fancy manner for each individual guest. Usually salad and bread are served family style at the home. Don’t forget to wish others ju befte mire (bon apetite) during your meals shared together.
I have always felt that a big part of experiencing and integrating into a culture comes from eating their food. Before Peace Corps I was a vegetarian for six years and I enjoyed being a vegetarian. I liked cooking with tofu and tempeh and eating a variety of fruits and veggies. I decided that in order to fully experience Albania that I would eat anything and everything that has been offered to me here. It has led to quite a few interested experiences for my mouth (and my stomach). Here are some dishes I’ve had in Albania.
Pilaf, also known as rice, is a popular dish in Albania. Many people, especially men, eat pilaf in the morning or afternoon at a Mengjezore. Albanians love to cook pilaf with heaps of butter and usually it is served with a thin meat gravy on top. People will often order pilaf with qofte. Qofte are a kind of sausage, but different than breakfast sausage you’d eat back in the states. Often time qofte is grilled and it definitely pairs well with rice for a mid-day snack.
Pulë me Garniturë
Since I wanted to experience all Albania had to offer, I put my vegetarian ways aside and tried all the meat. In Kavaje there is a small hole in the wall Mengjezore literally a minute walk away from my work and they serve THE BEST fried chicken ever. I usually order it with garniture (garnish), so it will come with a bit of salad and sauce kosi (yogurt sauce).
Fasule is hands down my favorite Albanian dish because it is super simple and it is vegetarian. Fasule literally means beans in Shqip, so you can only imagine what fasule is… You guessed right! It is made with beans. Fasule is a bean soup that often has a tomato and onion base. Sometimes when I have received homemade fasule from my student’s parents, they all know that I am obsessed with fasule, it has other vegetables such as carrots. Over the winter it was pretty cold, so I perfected my fasule recipe… still isn’t quite as good as the Albanian’s recipes though.
Fruta dhe perime
Fruits and vegetables are fresh and plentiful in Albania. I will definitely miss stepping outside of my house and literally not even walking a minute to buy produce that would put Whole Foods to shame. My region, central Albania, is full of fresh produce because we have land perfect for farming and many people in the surrounding villages and areas farm. My host family in the village of Pajove would grow most of their own produce in their own backyard. How’s that for sustainability!
Sheep head is a popular dish for special occasions. Luckily I had some pretty amazing language teachers during our 10-week pre-service training when I initially moved to Albania back in March 2013. Our language teachers cooked me and the other Peace Corps volunteers in my village sheep head for our end of training celebration. It is custom to eat the entire head – brains, eyes, tongue, EVERYTHING. We all had a pretty interesting time tasting all the different parts of the head. My favorite was definitely the tongue.
Since winters can be just down right cold it is no surprise that soup is a popular and relatively cheap dish to make here. Albanians will often make some sort of gjellë with meat for lunch. All soup must be eaten with bread. It is a must. Albanians each bread with everything, which brings me to…
Albania would be the worst place for someone who is trying to live a gluten free lifestyle because bread is everywhere. And bread is delicious. And bread is ridiculously cheap. You can buy an amazing, fresh loaf of bread straight from the oven for less than 50 cents. What a bargain! I have found an amazing bread in Kavaje that is darker and made with sunflower seeds and other magical ingredients.
Spec te mbushura
This is another one of my favorite Albanian dishes, and it is usually vegetarian for all you veggie lovers out there. Stuffed peppers are a classic Albanian side dish. Usually the peppers are baked with tons of olive oil and stuffed with rice and other vegetables. Sometimes they are also stuffed with meat. At many Albanian restaurants they will only serve stuffed peppers if you pre-order them several hours ahead of time because they take a while to prepare.
Mmmmmmmm, I love byrek. And so do most other Americans that I know. I’ve mentioned this amazing gift of food before in my blog. Byrek is made all over the country and it is a flaky pastry made with phylo dough. It is usually made with different kinds of fillings such as spinach (especially during the winter months when it is fresh), tomatoes and onions, meat, or gjize (a crumbly Albanian cheese). Byrek is not only found in Albania, but can also be found in different forms throughout the Balkans.
Most people when they think Baklava may think of Turkey, which is a great with amazing Baklava, but Albanians also make a great deal of baklava. Baklava is usually made around New Years Eve and other big holidays. Most families will make baklava in their homes, but you can also find it at grocery stores and pastry shops. I love eating Albanian baklava, but be careful because it might give you a sugar rush. Most baklava I’ve had is covered with homemade sugar-water syrup.
It isn’t right for me to have an Albanian food blog without mentioning potatoes because Albanians eat a lot of potatoes. Potatoes can be found year-round at the markets and they are pretty cheap to buy. Usually potatoes are cooked as fries here and they are often doused with a bunch of olive oil. I had to have a conversation with my host family once about how much olive oil they use when cooking potatoes and cooking pretty much everything actually. We talked about how yes, olive oil is good for you, but only in moderation. If you use a cup of olive oil to cook your potatoes it kind of defeats the purpose.
Tave kosi is a dish that is served on special occasions when Albanians have important people over to their house for dinner. Luckily, I have some amazing students who invite me over to their place for dinner occasionally and her mom has made me this dish. Tave kosi is baked lamp in a special yogurt sauce. To be honest it is not my favorite Albanian dish, but it is widely popular and it is considered an honor to be served.
For some reason I thought pizza would be one of those food items that I would not be able to find in Albania, but alas pizza is abundant in the land of eagles. There is fast food pizza all over the place and some of them even deliver! I have never gotten a pizza delivered because it would literally only take me ten minutes to just walk to the pizza shop myself and order something. Plus we have an amazing pizza joint in Kavaje that I like to go to for the friendly atmosphere and banging vegetarian pizza.
Fruta deti translates directly to “sea fruits,” but it is the term used for ordering seafood. If you are near the sea having some fresh seafood is a must! You can find great calamari, cod, and mussels along the coast. The mussels are especially delectable in Saranda because they farm mussels in that region. When out for a nice seafood dinner in Albania I recommend going all out and ordering an arugula salad, white wine, mussels, calamari, a fish, and even seafood pasta. Since the prices are so cheap here you could have a nice meal for four ordering all that food for under sixty dollars.
Turshi is basically pickled cabbage and is super popular amongst Albanians. You will often see this dish during the winter months when cabbage is cheap and in season. You can also find other pickled vegetables that would fall under the category of turshi. This dish is often accompanied with bread, of course, and/or meat.
Greek salad is a very popular starter dish here because of the access to cheap and delicious produce. This especially holds true for the summer months when you can by a kilo of tomatoes or a kilo of cucumbers for less than fifty cents. Greek salad is usually full of cut up vegetables such as tomatoes, onions, and cucumbers. Along with that there are usually fresh olives and cut up feta cheese. Sometimes you will even get a bit of green lettuce as well, but not always. Salad dressing isn’t really a thing here, so people usually top these salads with a bit of olive oil, vinegar, and salt. Wahlah, the perfect salad.
Most Albanians I talk to think of fast food when they think of America, but Albanians love fast food too (especially the younger generation). Many students grab fast food during their breaks between school or after school for lunch. Sufflaqe is like a gyro. It is served on pita bread with grilled lamb from a rotating skewer, like they serve at the chain gyro restaurant Renzios. Topping the sandwich is usually tomato, onion, lettuce, mayonnaise, mustard, and yogurt sauce.
Ice cream is big in Albania. I mean really big. I mean big enough that people literally eat ice cream for breakfast. It is always time for ice cream in Albania during the summer months. There are numerous ice cream parlors and sweet shops all across every city. Even some nicer coffee shops have ice cream for sale because people like ice cream that much. If you’re looking for some good gelato (maybe even better than some Italian gelato) head down to the Vogla beach boardwalk area in Durres and have some scoops at the shop across from the Wild West Restaurant. I can guarantee it will satisfy your taste buds. Sit-down pastry shops/coffee bars are trending in Albania and recently a new bar in Kavaje opened up at Myrizi. It has a bunch of delicious desserts and an atmosphere for the entire family to enjoy.
JU BEFTE MIRE!!!