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The wonderful thing about returning to Albania last year after a ten-year absence when only green onions were sold in markets, was to find a thriving, bustling restaurant scene with people actually sitting in cafés munching on pizza or sticking their forks into mounds of spaghetti, heaps of French fries and pick on fish from the oceans and lakes of Albania’s rich marine life. Today, the streets are alive with the smell of food wafting in the air. Tiny storefronts are places to find byrek made into flaky triangle puffs and filled with cheese, spinach and meat. They’re hot from the oven when early morning customers arrive to pick them up by the bagful. It was a pleasure to see a whole lamb on a spit sizzling over flames on the patio of Taverna Argjiro, a restaurant right beside the street. And then there are the still mushrooming pizza and pasta places and Greek fast food stands almost on every street corner.
Mass immigration to Italy and Greece in the early 1990s, set off by 50 years of isolation, inspired today’s cuisine dominated by pizza and pasta and Greek gjiro sandwiches, moussaka and pasticio found in restaurants everywhere you look. Who has the best product is a matter of personal taste, but my taste for Italian pasta leads me to the cheerful, well-managed Casa di Pasta at Taiwan, the huge complex of bars and restaurants in the heart of the city.
Then there are the Albanian specialities that everyone likes plugged into the pizza pasta menus as if they were in harmony. Era, one of the best eateries in Tirana, probably boasts the best and brightest of regional Albanian dishes representing coastal, northern and southern regional specialities. Who would think of ordering melci (calf’s lung), and other offal neither known nor preferred by most foreigners? But there they are along with ferges, the popular Tirana speciality with cheese, eggs and bits of meat or liver and 27 other Albanian specialities including stews originating in Elbasan, meatballs from Korca and, cornmeal spinach mush from Gjirokastra, as well as Mediterranean specialities from Crete and other Greek regions.
Because a large number of produce that ordinarily might be grown in Albania’s temperate plains are imported, Albania, a traditionally agricultural country may be one of the last countries in Europe to have real seasonality in food, causing prices to be high as well. Do such economic disparities and high cost affect the cuisine? One can point to the lack of variety and the tendency to be repetitive in menu choices as concrete evidence of its effect, even while grocery chains such as Conad and Euromax introduced such items as avocado and mango and strawberries to the marketplace, without much effect to the restaurateurs who understandably must watch their profit margin and clientèle who seem satisfied with the familiar items.
Still there’s a bright future for Albanian cuisine now that visas for travel abroad are available to the citizenry¸ promising new ideas, new visions and new products to filter into the society and its cuisine. And who knows – perhaps all that butter and cream will find their way back into the once opulent Albanian cuisine.
Where to eat Albanian
There is no shortage of restaurants serving Albanian specialities throughout Tirana’s bustling restaurant community. Some favourites are Carlsberg, Era, Gurra e Perrise, Juvenilja, Panorama, Taverna Argjiro and Xibraku.
By Rose Dosti