Despite Ottoman influence that is still evident today and more recent Greek, Italian and Turkish methods, Albanian traditional food remains faithful to ancient origins, as far back as the Illyrians, based on meat, dairy, fruit, legume, nut and vegetable products and in quixotic techniques of food processing and cooking.
Lesley Blanch tells the story of a ‘bandit’ hiding out in the mountains whose favourite food was honeyed potatoes. Simple yet pleasurable, yet only part of the story. Albania has always been famed for its honey and the rural innocence of its produce.
A largely mountainous country, the equal rural-urban split among its three millon population has allowed those traditions to re-emerge in the early decades of the 21st century, so much that Albania is seen as a country with a diverse culinary heritage that should be celebrated and developed.
Meat from unique breeds of calves, goats, lambs and pigs is used in numerous traditional preparations, from gammon to salami, and specifically in the closed-pen and spit-roasting methods of cooking various cuts. Wood-fired ovens remain popular, despite modernity.
Although traditional recipes have survived into the modern era, there is a genuine fear that many recipes have already been lost. Chefs Rajmond Çomanaj and Tefta Pajenga are concerned, to the extent that Çomanaj issued a plea to his country people to look out for old cookbooks and Pajenga highlighted regional traditional recipes on her TV show.
Pajenga said the tendency to combine foreign foods with native foods was a development that could not be stopped. Many recipes now deemed traditional were once foreign. The Ottoman pastries called byrek are a domestic treasure, a street food desired by the young who take great delight in seeing anything, savoury, sour or sweet, put into the filling.
The feta (white cheese) and spinach filling is popular throughout the region because it is traditional to the Balkan region, but it is obvious that the pies made in Albania are unique to their area, like the shapkat of the south, which is made with cornmeal, curd cheese and spinach or leek.
Nowhere is that old Ottoman influence apparent than in the choice of confections, particularly with byrek, hallva and kadaif, and in the use of rice and yoghurt in numerous traditional preparations.
SELECTED INDIGENOUS PRODUCE
Almond + Apple + Apricot + Aubergine / Eggplant + Bay / Laurel + Basil + Bean + Beef + Berry + Cabbage + Carp + Celery + Cherry + Chestnut + Corn / Maize + Dairy + Duck + Eel + Fig + Game + Garlic + Goat / Kid + Goose + Grape + Green Bean + Honey + Lamb + Lemon + Marjoram + Melon / Watermelon + Mint + Mullet + Octopus + Okra + Olive + Onion + Orange + Parsley + Peach + Pear + Perch + Plum + Potato + Poultry (egg and meat) + Pumpkin / Squash + Red Cherry + Red Pepper (paprika) + Rosemary + Sea Bass + Sole + Spinach + Squid / Cuttlefish + Tomato + Trout + Turkey + Veal + Walnut + Wheat + Wild Boar + Wild Plants
SELECTED TRADITIONAL CUISINE
Ajvar red pepper sauce
Ballokume Elbasan cornmeal biscuits
Birjan chicken / lamb and baked rice
Bukë me Miell Misri corn bread
Bukëfiqe dried fig dessert
Burani me Spinaq (dhe Mish) whole rice with spinach
Byrek filled pastry
Byrek me Kos e Djathë të Bardhë white cheese-yoghurt pastry
Byrek me Kungull pumpkin pastry
Byrek me Mish (Mesnik) meat pastry
Byrek me Spinaq spinach pastry
Çervish aromatic sauce with chicken / dumplings
Djath i Bardhë white cheese
Djath Kaçkavall yellow cheese
Fërgesa Tirana Tirana stew
Filetë Pule me Rroshnica chicken with garlic-flavoured dumpling grains
Gjel Deti me Përshesh turkey with bread mash
Gliko Fiku të Egër wild figs in syrup
Gliko Portokalli oranges in syrup
Hallva sweet walnut paste
Hallvasi almond-sesame seed honey paste
Harapash Mëmëlikë lamb liver with cornmeal
Hasude me Arra nut dessert
Japrak stuffed grape / vine leaves
Jufka Dibre me Pulë chicken with Dibra noodles
Jufka Shtepie home-made filo pasta
Kabuni me Rrush të Thatë sweet rice with raisins
Kaçamak cornmeal mash
Kadaif sweet walnut pastries
Kapama me Filetë Viçi beef fillet of Kapama
Kofshë Pule me Tërhan të Ëmbël chicken with wheat grains
Kos me Mjaltë Voskopoje yoghurt with honey Voskopoja
Krap në Tavë carp casserole
Kulaç cheese yoghurt scones
Kulloshtër pasture pie
Mantija meat parcels
Mëlçisë të Skuqur fried liver
Mish i Pjekur në Hell spit-roasted meat
Mish Qengji me Salcë Limoni lamb with lemon sauce
Musaka me Patate potato-meat bake
Paçe lamb’s head soup
Patate të Pjekura baked potatoes
Patate të Mjaltit honey potatoes
Patëllxhanë të Mbushur stuffed aubergine with cheese topping
Pelte me Mjaltë e Arra jelly with honey and nuts
Petanik të Korça bean pie of Korça
Petulla fried dough balls / pancakes
Pispili me Presh cornmeal-leek pie
Pispili me Spinaq cornmeal-spinach pie
Pogaçe Vakti yoghurt breads
Pulë me Arra chicken with nut sauce
Pulë me Qull chicken cooked in cornmeal-garlic sauce
Qahitë të Çamëria layered buttered pastries of Çamëria
Qeshqek me Pulë cracked wheat risotto with chicken
Qingj në Hell skewered lamb
Qofte me Oriz-Qifqi Gjirokastre egg-rice balls
Qumështor me Miell Misri cornmeal-milk pie
Raki grape / plum liqueur
Revani Berati me Miell Misri corn meal dessert of Berat
Shapkat cornmeal, white cheese and leek / spinach pie
Shurupi i Thanës red cherry syrup
Speca të Mbushura stuffed peppers
Sultjash rice pudding
Supë me Qofte meatballs in soup
Supë Pule me Arra chicken and walnut soup
Tasqebap fried beef
Tavë Dheu beef casserole of Tirana
Tavë Dheu Pikante spicy sausage casserole with olives and peppers
Tavë Korani (koran) trout casserole
Tavë Kosi lamb and yoghurt casserole
Tavë me Kumbulla Shahine lamb with plums
Tavë me Mish Qengji dhe Qumësht lamb and milk casserole
Tavë me Pllaqi e Mish Viçi bean and beef casserole
Tavë me Speca dhe Patëllxhanë aubergine and peppers casserole
Tavë me Speca të Mbushur stuffed peppers casserole
Të Brëndshme të Qengji fried lamb offal
Trahana sun-dried fermented wheat and sour milk / yoghurt
Turli meat and / or vegetable stew
ÇERVISHTraditionally this sauce is made with trahana powder, from fermented young wheat and sour milk or yoghurt, and can also be made with cornmeal or white wheat flour but each reacts differently. The trahana and wheat flours produce a sauce, the cornmeal produces a mash. The choice is left to the cook. Usually chicken is cooked in a sauce, while meatballs made with beef are cooked with the cornmeal to produce a mash.
aromatic sauce with chicken / dumplings
- 1.5 kg chicken legs and thighs, separated
- 45 ml olive oil
- 5 g black pepper
- 5 g salt
- Oil, for greasing
Season the chicken pieces. Heat the oil in a large saucepan and fry, in batches, the legs and thighs until they are thoroughly browned. Place the chicken in a greased baking tray.
- 500 g beef mince
- 100 g cornmeal, fine ground
- 1 egg
- 45 g butter
- 5 g black pepper
- 5 g salt
Combine the minced meat with the seasonings, add the cornmeal, knead until the fat starts to separate and then add the egg to form a loose dough. Shape into 50 g balls. Heat the butter and gently brown the meatballs. Place the meatballs in a greased baking tray.
- 300 ml butter / sour cream
- 150 g trahana powder / cornmeal, ground fine
- 150 ml water
- 10 garlic cloves, crushed
- 45 ml apple cider vinegar
- 30 ml olive oil
- 10 g black pepper
- 10 g red pepper flakes
- 5 g salt
Prepare the chicken or meatballs. Preheat oven to 180ºC. Heat the olive oil in a large saucepan, add the trahana or cornmeal and stir, using a wooden spoon, until the mixture takes on some colour. Add the garlic, cook for a few minutes. Turn heat to low, stir in the vinegar and gradually add the butter or sour cream. If using cornmeal add sufficient water to form a sauce, a little less for the trahana. Season with the black pepper, red pepper flakes and salt. Bring the heat up but do not boil. Pour the sauce into the baking tray with the chicken or meatballs. Bake for 40 minutes.
MËLÇISË TË SKUQUR
- 500 g lamb liver, cut into 6 cm x 1 cm strips
- 4 tbsp (60 g) white wheat flour
- 60 ml olive oil
- 2 tsp red pepper flakes
- 1 tsp black peppercorns
- 1 tsp salt
- 1 tbsp dried marjoram
Sieve the flour into a large bowl, add marjoram, red pepper flakes and salt. Dredge liver in the flour, shake off excess flour and divide into two batches. Heat a tablespoon of oil in a large frying pan over a high heat. Start frying first batch of liver. After a few minutes, when the liver turns colour, add a tablespoon of oil and fry until the strips are crispy. Remove to a plate lined with paper towels. Repeat with second batch. Serve with onion salad.
MISH ME JAHNIThere are subtle differences between the food cultures of Albania and Kosovo, which are more obvious with dishes that are regarded as traditionally Albanian, stews being among those where the ingredients dictate the content and method. This slow-cooked meat and onion stew is one of them. In Albania it is made with meat (usually lamb), onions, tomatoes, usually in the form of a paste, and a hint of paprika, whereas in Kosovo beef is preferred, red wine will replace tomato pasta and the hand that holds the paprika will have a heavy shake.
sautéed beef / lamb / veal with onions
- 2 kg onions, chopped small
- 2 kg beef / lamb / veal, cut into bite-sized pieces
- 250 ml water
- 90 g butter
- 60 ml red wine / tomato paste
- 45 ml olive oil
- 30 g paprika
- 15 g salt
- 5 g cinnamon, ground
- 3 bay leaves
- Black pepper, pinch
Put the chopped onions into a large bowl, sprinkle with salt, toss and leave covered for an hour. Heat oil in a frying pan, brown meat in batches, place in a large pot with the onions, butter and water. Deglaze the frying pan with wine, add to pot. Bring to a low boil, add bay leaves, cinnamon and half of the paprika. Cover and cook over a low heat for 90 minutes, add remaining paprika, cook for an hour until the meat is tender. Serve with potatoes or with rice.
PETULLAThese delicacies have a schizophrenic existence. They exist as a batter and are fried as pancakes or they exist as a dough and are deep-fried as balls. The ingredients remain the same – flour, milk, yoghurt and sugar usually with an egg. They can be leavened with baking soda or yeast, and they can be unleavened. Butter is used in some versions. Sweet paprika will give a spicy hint. And lemon, as essence and zest, will add a depth of flavour. Vegetables are grated into the mixture and cheese is a popular topping.
fried dough balls / pancakes
- 200 g white wheat flour, t00 (for batter) / 425 g white wheat flour, t00 (for dough)
- 200 ml whole milk, warmed in 30 g vanilla sugar
- 125 g yogurt
- 1 egg, beaten
- 10 g sweet paprika
- 10 g yeast, dissolved in vanilla-milk
- Olive oil, for frying
- Icing sugar, for dusting
Combine the beaten egg and yoghurt, whisk in the yeast mixture and add to flour (for batter or dough). Leave the dough for an hour, the batter for 30 minutes. Add sufficient oil to cover a heavy-based frying pan, make the pancakes to the size of your choice. Cut the dough into 25 g pieces, shape into balls, deep-fry. Serve the pancakes with fruit, honey, jam or jelly, or with a combination. Dust the balls with icing sugar, serve hot.
cornmeal, cheese and leek / spinach pie
- 1.5 litres whole milk
- 1 kg leek, sliced thin / spinach, chopped
- 400 g cornmeal
- 250 g + 60 g white cheese, crumbled
- 1 egg
- 2 scallions / spring onions
- 30 g butter
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 10 g black pepper
- 5 g salt
If making the leek version, simmer the leeks in the milk over a low heat for 15 minutes, drain the milk, leave leeks and milk to cool. Preheat oven to 180ºC. Whisk the egg, oil and milk, add seasonings. Fold in the cornmeal, the leeks or spinach and spring onions, finally the bulk of the cheese. Grease a baking tray with the butter. Spoon mixture into the tray, top with remaining cheese. Bake for 60 minutes.
SECRETS AND SOURCES
Albania Traditional Cuisine from Albania Tourism first appeared in the early years of the 21st century and quickly went through various drafts. Albanian Cooking, published in 1997, is now out of print.
Shije is an interesting portal into Albanian cooking. It features some of the country’s traditional foods with reinterpretations that reflect the diversity of the produce and the imagination of the domestic cook. In 2018 there were 135 variations of traditional recipes. It also features interpretations of recipes from neighbouring countries, and variations of classic traditional cuisine from the world.