The first ever TV chef in Albania, Tefta Pajenga argues that modern Albanian cuisine has become a combination of the traditional and other contemporary culinary elements. “Various kinds of food and spices have been “borrowed” from abroad and become part of the Albanian menu today, because they were well adapted and liked by Albanians,” she said in an interview with Southeast Europe: People and Culture.
How would you characterize traditional Albanian cuisine?
Albania like other countries has its own cooking traditions. The daily expression we often hear “Urdhëroni tryeza është gati” or “Urnoni sofra është gati” (Please, come and join us, food is served) confirms this. It is the geographical position of our country which determines its mild climate and Mediterranean influences through the centuries.
Give us some examples of typical traditional dishes which might interest foreigners?
Among many, traditional foods, I can mention “Maza of Vermosh” (kind of polenta made up of soft cheese, butter, maze flour); Carp fish of Shkodra, “Fërgesa” of Middle Albania, ballokume of Elbasan (a big pastry made of maize flour and butter), “petanik” of Korça (pie with dry beans); “qifqi” (rice with eggs, mint and pepper) and pepek (a special dessert prepared with soft cheese) of Gjirokastra; “qingj në hell” (skewered lamb), typical of Labëria area-south of Albania or the famous “qahitë” of Çamëria (a sort of pie made up of pastry layers and plenty of butter.
What is specific about Albanian cuisine?
Albania is a Balkan country, a European country. As such, there are similarities between Albanian food and the food you find more generally in the region. For example I can mention polenta which is a food that you can find widely in the Balkans or in Europe. But we also have our traditional polenta called “Harapash i Tepelenës” which is made with the insides of a lamb, and which differs from the polenta cooked elsewhere in the region.
Or the different types of pies. The similar recipes are due to significant occupations and big movements of people in the region. With the passing of years, some of the new foreign recipes became traditional Albanian ones, because they were liked by the people, their ingredients were easily found in Albania and because the cooking method was easy to learn and adapt.
We are living in a world where people prefer new tastes in food. Do you think that a “battle” is on in Albania between traditional and modern food?
Foreign influences have had an impact on our cooking traditions, of course. Moreover, the emigration of Albanians to various countries has given them the chance to get to know various food cultures, and naturally they have brought them home. Once they returned from emigration, they served such food to their own families or in the restaurants they have opened. For instance pastas or pizzas, spices such as coriander etc. The tendency to retain traditions in our cuisine and combine them with contemporary external culinary elements is evident. I would not like to call it a “battle” because I see it as a development, and no one can stop it.
Are there distinct methods of cooking Albanian food?
We have special recipes and cooking methods. For example, Elbasan locals cook ballokume, their special dessert, in a big copper casserole, using a wooden spoon, whose stick is about one meter long. They maintain that such way of cooking gives this dessert its real taste. Bukëfiqe is another dessert, which is traditional in south Albania, and is made of figs. The figs are moulded into a sort of dough, which gets dried and then it is cut into pieces. I can also mention “shapkat or pispili”, a traditional pie of south Albania.
I have tried to make the traditional recipes of various regions and make them known all over the country via my TV programme, Villa 24 in News 24. Today, though typical dishes might be characteristic of one region only, they are cooked everywhere in the country. I am also trying to introduce new spices that can be easily found in Albania and which go very well in Albanian traditional food.