Albanian Food

 Albania is a long, thin country.  The cuisine changes as one heads south between the Mediterranean and a backcloth of high mountains, from hearty alpine fare in the north to lighter Greek-tinged dishes near the bottom border.  This is a land of charcoal smoke and fishy fry-ups, of many bakeries and ever turning spits – Albanian food is surprising and unique, and the cooks here take a lot of pride in what they cook.
At a shady outdoor table in Gjirokastra, overlooking stone alleys and whitewashed houses, we tucked into a plate of Kujtimi restaurant’s specialty: bretkosë. That’s frog legs, if you’re curious.  It’s a dish that Albanians are crazy about (much more so than the French).  From the window of a speeding furgon we once saw whole frogs roasting over a spinning fire.  The two times we've ordered them, though, they've come lightly breaded and fried.
 A first conversation about Albanian food, though – the first phrase in their culinary vocabulary, perhaps – would be about lamb and about all the ways one can roast it.  Lambs, often whole, rotate lazily on spits in the mountains, on the plains, on the city sidewalks of Tirana and on the beaches of the Riviera.  Lamb organs are just as common - everything from liver to brains to zorrë e mbushur, which I saw translated on one menu as "stuffed gut."  I had an interesting time eating roast lamb's head in the capital, and have had a hard time avoiding it since.  These chunks of melting fat and succulent meat were grilled for me by a dour man over a spitting fire, seasoned lightly and served simply.
 In Tirana’s markets, beside great bins of olives and strings of figs, one can find all manner of pickled vegetables – sometimes simple, sometimes elaborate.  Peppers and beets are popular, as are whole cabbages.  We couldn’t pass up this patëllxhan turshi, or pickled and stuffed eggplant, which was one of the stranger finds.  The skin was still crisp, the flesh tasted mostly of salt, the juices of the eggplant and cabbage had a heady, almost alcoholic burn.
 In fact, vegetables – fresh as well as pickled – are surprisingly abundant here.  Everywhere along the roads and beside bus stops, men and women sell fresh herbs and salad greens, cucumbers and (under-ripe) spring tomatoes.  Salads are blessedly popular, imaginative and usually huge.  Among the most simple and satisfying is the ubiquitous jeshile, a green kind of dill, lettuce and olive mix.
 Our first Albanian byrek (pronounced “burr-eck”) was from a man at a plywood and corrugated tin stand in Tirana.  He sold us our spinach pie with a huge smile – it was delicious on a chilly morning, full of rough-chopped greens and scallions.
Byrek is the local name for börek, which is a staple food in most ex-Ottoman places from Ankara to Athens to Zagreb, so we’ve seen this flaky-crust and oily filling before.  They can be stuffed with cheese, ground meat or greens – something like a flatter, thinner spanakopita (itself a derivative, but don’t tell the Greeks that).  This woman in the south made wonderfully toothsome versions with a firm crust.
A Gjirokastra specialty, these little balls of egg and rice are cooked in special pans, like shallow muffin tins, and taste wonderfully of mint leaves.  They’re called qifqi (“keef-kee”), and the man who made them for us was exceedingly proud, though his wife really did all the cooking.  On a cool night, served beside fried sardines and excellent local wine (a rarity, sadly), they were a perfect, filling starch.
At a table by the sea in sleepy, offseason Himara, I had this pasta dish in the exact way that Albanians like their spaghetti: nearly dry, with only a little olive oil, parsley and spice to highlight the starch.  There was tuna mixed in too, a nod to the water.  They were out of any of the small fish they might have mixed in.
According to tradition, Albanian cuisine is a mix of Greek and Turkish influences – but in practice, it’s Italy that has lent some of the most important flavors.  Under Italian rule for a time in the twentieth century, and only a short boatride away from Puglia, the country soaked up pasta and risotto, proshutë and domate.  Italian dishes are on almost every menu not strictly "traditional."
My favorite meal in Albania was the first one, at Oda restaurant in rainy Tirana.  We drank local beer followed by raki, dried out and warmed up.  This peculiar, transcendent dish was called harapash, but was described in English as "lamb innards with corn starch."  Luckily, it was more of a polenta with liver and - as the waiter hedged - "maybe some spleen."  The corn was light and buttery, the liver was perfectly cooked and tender, the whole thing was fragrant with herbs.  It was a meal that one would have a hard time making up, something that seems both simple and unlikely.  I looked for the dish again but never found it.
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