I was pleasantly surprised to find that the food in Albania is really very good. I think I just assumed it would be like other Balkan countries and very meat orientated. The variety of dishes and abundance of fresh produce meant plenty of opportunities to try something different at every meal.
Albanian food is quite diverse, with plenty of influence from its neighbours. With the regional foods largely split between the north, the central region and then the south, as we travelled through the country, we were able to taste many of these dishes.
The north – experiences a good climate which ensures a variety of fresh fruit and vegetables as well as corn. Traditional dishes in this area typically include meat and vegetables in dishes similar to casseroles. There are also many rivers and lakes which encourage the cooking of fresh fish such as carp.
The central region – many vegetables grow in the nourishing soil. Poultry is common here, with fish appearing along the Adriatic coast as well as dishes with yoghurt.
The south – more dairy products are available in this area as it’s where most of the cattle is reared. Hard and soft cheese is common, along with olives and citrus trees as the climate is warmer.
You might be glad to hear that animal organs are popular around a great deal of the country, but fortunately these dishes aren’t going to appear unless you specifically order them; as they’re considered an acquired taste.
So what are the typical must try Albanian food you should try when you visit? Here are my favourites:
Typically from Elbasan (near Tirana) but served all over the country. This dish consists of oven baked lamb, egg and yoghurt. Also sometimes created with veal.
A lovely wintery dish, it’s a bit like a deep quiche on top but once you get through the fluffiness it’s more like shepherds pie.
Roasted over an open fire, quite a treat if you can get it. There are plenty of other goat dishes on offer but this was my favourite.
Meat balls which come in a variety of dishes. From the grilled variety to those in rich sauces. All very tasty and easy enough to make. I gave both meat and vegetable alternatives a go when experiencing lunch with a family near Gjirokastër.
Eggplant (Patëllxhan të Mbushur)
Stuffed and roasted was my favourite, but just the availability of deliciously home cooked aubergine (or Eggplant) was enough for me.
Typical pies are known as byrek and not uncommon elsewhere in the Balkans. Involving numerous thin layers of filo pastry, hand rolled and lovingly prepared for hours. Popular fillings are meat, cheese or spinach, or a combination of these.
I really enjoyed making and eating a nettle and cheese filled version. I wasn’t so great at the rolling of the pastry it seems, but that didn’t spoil the taste.
Make sure you order this everywhere you go in Albania as they do vary and they are really very good.
Many are similar to Greek tzatziki with garlic or peppers. The portion sizes are often huge so this is great for sharing.
Oven baked cheese with peppers, tomatoes and onions and often meat. This had to be one of the best dishes, for me, as a cheese lover.
Albania doesn’t seem to have too many desserts, but yoghurt with honey and sometimes nuts as well, is a common dish and a great way to end a meal; before the Raki (see below).
Of course there is a Albania drink that you can’t avoid – Raki (also from Turkey and a number of other countries I believe). However the Albania Raki is usually home distilled.
It takes a while to get used to, but when it’s served at almost every meal you soon become accustomed to a shot or two. The best place to buy it seems to be at the side of a street, unless you know someone local who will offer to get you some ;).
If you haven’t been to Albania you really should plan a visit before it changes. With its beautiful mountain scenery and some of the best beaches in the Mediterranean, it is becoming a more popular destination. However, the food was a highlight from my visit – quite surprising and certainly worth visiting for.