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17 Mar 17

Feasting in Kosovo Gives me the Blues

Ervin Qafmolla

Fortunately, the phrase ‘You are what you eat’ does not apply to Kosovo - a land mysteriously short of culinary delights.

Traditional beans and suxhuk dish. Photo: Wikicommons, Ivana Sokolovic

“The horror! The horror!” This was the first line that rushed straight out of my gut when I was first introduced to a traditional Kosovo restaurant.

An as-yet-to-be-written Joseph Conrad novel was being cooked as squeaky animal fat sizzled in the open kitchen.

Slabs of meat, thick slices of bread, cabbage and creamy bovine dishes are the culinary delights that Kosovo usually offers.

Forget Mediterranean-style filled peppers and eggplant, the many types of fergese [Albanian fried cheese or curd], the tiny goats that melt away in an oven of baked yogurt and laurel, the array of terracotta dishes, wild veggies stuffed and cooked in every possible way, and of course the many flavours and spices.

I was born and raised in Tirana, capital of Albania, where dishes and culinary traits from all over the country are gathered in a variety of subtle, dedicated, even maniacal, combinations.

Albania is lucky food-wise, as it has historically borrowed from Ottoman, Greek and Italian gastronomy, domesticized to local tastes and geographical and social circumstances to create a multitude of bastardized Mediterranean dishes.

The use of spices and herbs is kind of a dictatorial discipline. No dish is considered complete or even edible without the correct enrichment of such condiments.

Oregano, basil, rosemary, laurel, sage, parsley, fennel, as well as black, green and red ground pepper are employed accordingly and in the correct measurements to respective dishes.

In Kosovo, most of these have been replaced by the pervasive use of a universal spice, Vegeta, which, according to Wikipedia, is a “condiment that is a mixture primarily of salt with flavour enhancers, spices and various vegetables invented in 1959 by a Croatian scientist Zlata Bartl”.

The result is a pale powder, which locals employ in most dishes, sometimes even fish.

I daydreamed of using a flintlock pistol at point-blank on a Kosovar friend of mine during a summer camp on the Albanian Adriatic coast after he suggested putting this yellow obscenity on a two-kilogram fish we had speared that morning.

I imagined our two silhouettes in the distance by the silent shore, with me lifting the pistol and blasting out his brains in the crimson sunset, then waiting for the waves to cradle his body away to Croatia.

The rest of us discussed enthusiastically any ad-hoc recipe for our game and in the end trusted a local who suggested for that particular fish - I cannot recall the name - that we bake it after having bathed it in a mixture of olive oil and lemon juice and stuffing it with laurel, garlic, wild oregano and a few citrus peels.

The result was enchanting and our Kosovar friend swore never to use Vegeta again, a vow we decided to believe. Thus, his life was spared and he learned to comply with civilised tastes, becoming a great self-taught cook.

To be honest, you may encounter a few horrible dishes in Albania as well.

In the southern highlands, in the region of Vlore-Tepelene, locals brag about a traditional dish, called harapash, an abominable creation of maize flower and sheep intestines.

On the opposite geographical side of Albania, in the mountainous north, one may encounter a local dish consisting of a mix of dried meat and watery cabbage. Its smell is so peculiar that legend says locals used to drive away entire Ottoman armies by releasing the dish’s organic fragrance in the air.

Fli. Photo: Wikicommons| Bujar I Gashi

In the same geographic area people brag about fli, which is basically different layers of dough with lard or butter. It can be tasty, but it is basic food. Fli is a matter of great national pride in Kosovo as well, and a member of one of the two greater families of local cuisine: Dough and Meat.

Dough is represented, apart from bread, with burek and kifle – the latter being a somewhat basic soft roll, which can be salty or sweet. The meat category is divided into two primary subcategories: red meat and white meat. Locals do not refer to them as chicken or cow.

Lamb and goat are not very popular in Kosovo, and its Muslim majority population does not favour pork. But one can find excellent pork in the Serb-majority town of Gracanica, 10 to 15 minutes’ drive from Pristina.

It must be admitted that plain meat in Kosovo is cooked far better and more tastily than in Albania.

Any other compliments for local cuisine? Hm,… not really. There are the Ottoman-borrowed qyfte ([meatballs] and kebabs, of course, but they are nonetheless trivial to the supreme suxhuk experience.

Suxhuk, actually “The suxhuk”, the pride of all Kosovo, which is mainly traditional to Peja and Gjakova, is a local sausage. It has its own variations in other neighbouring countries but is abundantly employed in the Kosovar gastronomy and ways of life.

Basically in any non-fancy restaurant, any specialty of the house will contain suxhuk. At a pizza place in Pristina called Napoli, the special pizza of the house that also bore the name “Napoli” contained suxhuk. I flipped at reading the ingredients on the menu and ordered another suxhuk-free pizza, which was… unimpressive.

In Pristina, I have eaten the worst pizza of my life, an unparalleled experience even with my “Neapolitan adventure” in the nightmarish town of Cerrik, a shabby, morose municipality in central Albania that can inspire visitors to contemplate suicide.

Olive oil, along with other Mediterranean basics, is as unused in most Kosovo restaurants as it is present in most Albanian ones. Some year ago, Conad supermarket in Pristina, part of the international Italian retail chain – had a big discount on most olive oil brands, including the most acclaimed ones. It has since closed business for good.

The rest of the Kosovar dishes consist of beans and plain-meat goulash, usually accompanied by a “traditional” local salad. The latter consists of a pile of minced cabbage, a single, sad, black olive and a couple of green hot peppers on the side that locals call “feferoni”.

Feferoni, arguably the Slavicized word for Pepperoni, are used as a side addition to any imaginable dish in Kosovo, regardless of whether it is beans or pizza. Only sweets are spared the otherwise unavoidable feferoni experience.

Trilece in the restaurant in Kosovo town of Prizren. Photo: Faith Baily 

Sweets are a different story. From small batch chocolate to first-class baklava and even well-rendered trilece, Kosovars excel in preparing deserts. And that would be the second and the last compliment on their local gastronomy.

Undoubtedly, Pristina has a few fine restaurants providing first-class cuisine, but they are unrepresentative of “traditional Kosovar gastronomy”. I still nurture strong doubts if the latter really exists.

Even the premium eateries fall short of their counterparts in neighbouring Albania. In a highly prized Italian restaurant in Pristina I have had more than a couple of mediocre dishes compared with the same experience in Tirana.

One should mention the fact that there are dozens and dozens of Italian restaurants in Tirana – for instance, in the street “Komuna e Parisit” alone there are at least four.

True, things have also gotten a bit “out of hand” with the Italian cuisine in the capital of Albania, to the point where the mushrooming of these restaurants has created pressure for a rise in quality, a fall in prices and specialisation in regional Italian gastronomic traditions.

Next time you want to eat delicious and very cheap Italian food, you should consider Tirana instead of Rome. This is no exaggeration.

But one must confess that Albania’s culinary evolution is somewhat a recent one. A senior citizen from the coastal city of Durres confessed to me a most peculiar incident back in the days when he was serving prison time during the Italian invasion of Albania in the Second World War.

The well-meaning Italian chef decided to make a treat for the inmates and prepared shrimps and other “frutti di mare” dishes, thus sparking the first and only riot at the prison. “We were furious – the old man recounted laughing – because we thought we were being served insects for lunch”.

That being said, Kosovo is not an isolated culinary misfortune. I have felt a similar, if not worse, disappointment in a fancy “Italian” restaurant in Belgrade. The pasta was watery and the sauce was… well, boring. However, just a block away I had a very good pizza.

What about the rest of traditional Serbian cuisine? The same question may have merit for Montenegro, Macedonia, Bosnia and even Croatia. No offence given, but if taken I would resort to the Italian maxim “tutti i gusti sono gusti” (English: there is no accounting for taste), which may also mean that my taste is awfully impaired and that of everybody else is right.

A couple of these countries love to call themselves “Mediterranean”, which is a joke in itself, considering the weather, the social attitudes, languages and of course, food.

The horde of super-meat, super-cabbage and related atrocities are shared gastronomic traits throughout the northerly part of the region, contained somewhere by the natural barrier of the Albanian Alps. Basically it stands for a clash of culinary civilisations between south and north.

But even this part of the Balkans is still better than further up north or even west. The most awful eating experience I recall was in Hungary. I found the local cuisine hysterically alien with sauces that tasted like earwax. And, during a working visit to Brandenburg, Germany, on insisting on trying a truly traditional dish, I was introduced to a huge boiled chunk of meat without salt, oil or any spices at all. I lost five kilos in weeks. Continental cuisine can be unforgiving.

Apart from the obvious meat, cabbage, potatoes and peppers are the most favoured vegetables in this part of Balkans, followed by tomatoes maybe. But tomatoes and potatoes and peppers come from the Americas, hence the question: What did people eat before the discovery of America?

History says Europe’s culinary past was all cabbage and roots, combined with heavy grains. That past was similar for the near south as well. But, if some of us changed and learned how to eat, the rest did not. How cuisine travelled and twisted and spread through the centuries is a matter of scientific research and one can find plenty of interesting material by surfing the net.

So cheer up my friends from the less tasty parts of the Balkans, as you are not alone in your misery. History is crap, the present may still be raw but your future is there, begging to be ingested.

Just to make you feel better, ignore the overrated maxim, “You are what you eat”, and imagine the ghastly culinary prospect of the Ottomans not having been able to conquer the Balkans.

Talk about it!

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