Rustic and delicious, brush up on your knowledge of Albanian cuisine
From meltingly soft, spit-roasted lamb to giant pancakes with tasty cream cheese layers, Albania is home to some of most amazing rustic dishes in Europe and is fast becoming a foodie hotspot. Prepare to feel hungry. Very hungry indeed …
Just where is Albania?
It's here – bordering Montenegro, Kosovo and Macedonia in the north as well as Greece in the south. Albania has a vast stretch of coastline along its western side, which means lots of fresh fish and seafood, while inland it's both mountainous and agricultural.
What are the influences in Albanian food?
As you might have guessed, Albanian food is rich in Mediterranean ingredients such as olive oil, tomatoes and peppers. As it was ruled by the Ottomans for around 500 years there are also Turkish influences such as kafe turke (a thick, sweet coffee made in little copper pots and served in tiny cups). Albania borders with Greece in the south so you'll also find Greek-style salads and a local white cheese very similar to feta.
Essential ingredients in Albanian cooking are:
Olive oil: produced locally and absolutely fantastic.
Fresh seasonal vegetables: lots of Albanians have small plots of land where they grow their own fruit and veg, so in other words everything is organic without the need to label it so.
Meat and offal: though mainly eaten on feast days (about 60% of the country adheres to Islam), in restaurants you'll always find barbecued meats such as baby goat on the menu. Offal is a delicacy and you can even order a sheep's head James Bond-style with eyes included. In fact, pace koke is a sheep's head soup often eaten for breakfast – makes a change from cornflakes.
And for vegetarians and vegans?
Fruit and vegetables in Albania are some of the best in the world. Tomatoes taste of tomatoes, peaches are sublime and you can buy carrier bags of fresh figs for 50p.
That said, Albanians are resolute carnivores and if you're staying with an Albanian family you'll struggle to convince them you're happy to go without. They'll probably offer you their portion, too.
You'll fall in love with …
The homemade staples. Stay with most Albanian families and you'll find they churn their own butter (which tastes incredible), make their own yogurt, bake fresh bread in the home everyday and buy milk and cheese from the neighbour. It's the good life.
And the Albanian dishes to try?
Embrace Albanian food without leaving the country by feasting your eyes on these dishes …
Pule me jufka
Essentially translated as chicken with 'jufka' (a local pasta that tastes similar to orzo) this hearty dish is comfort food at its best. Jufka is spread out in a baking dish and topped with boiled chicken then covered with the homemade chicken stock. Pop the whole thing in the oven until the jufka is tender and just use spaghetti or linguine if you don't have jufka … which let's face it is most likely.
Originating from northern Albania, Flija is a type of giant pancake eaten with yogurt, pickled vegetables, honey or jam. It consists of many pancake layers cooked on top of one another, with melted cream cheese layers in-between, made in an enormous pan over hot coals. As it's most often cooked outside, you'll likely see the local farmers eating it to keep them going between shepherding their livestock across the mountains.
A combination of soft cheese, peppers and lamb, Tavë dheu is baked in a clay dish and arrives on the table piping hot and bubbling away. Once the bubbles subside, tuck in with freshly baked bread and relish the simplicity of this national classic.
Made with plums, grapes or even blackberries, you'll be offered raki by friendly Albanians left, right and centre. It's strong and it burns … but after a few shots you'll be convinced you can speak Albanian like the locals. In fact, raki is so integral to everyday life that some Albanians start the day with a shot to get the blood pumping. It definitely does that.
Literally meaning 'sugar money', all you need to make this traditional biscuity treat is butter, flour, sugar and egg. Simple yet delicious.
Fried onions are mixed with egg and cheese then baked to make this comfort food classic. Pieces of meat, liver or peppers are sometimes added to make this dish more substantial.
Pule me arra
Chicken baked with crushed nuts (often walnuts which grow in abundance in Albania) is a good alternative to your usual Sunday lunch if you're fed up with ordinary roast chicken.
A dish of baked lamb and yogurt this is the equivalent of our shepherd's pie: comforting, filling and something Albanians grew up on. Tuck into meltingly soft slow cooked lamb and rice covered with a layer of garlicky baked yogurt. Oooh.
Beans is the staple of every family meal in Albania and one reason why their food can be considered reasonably healthy. They are often grown on their own land, collected then boiled with onion and water to create a delicious stock. Pastirma (salted lamb) is sometimes added to the beans during the winter for extra flavour and if you're lucky you'll get a fried egg on top.
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