Written by Kaltrina Bylykbashi: @kbylyk
I first started writing about food from Kosovo, now considered Europe’s youngest country, as a response to a simple question put to me since I arrived in the UK in 1995: “What’s the food like?” Before the country gained independence in 2008, and the wider world had any knowledge of Kosovo or what people belonged there, it seemed to be the easiest way for my friends and acquaintances to work out what region of the world I belonged to.
Like most Kosovars in the UK, I used to answer something along the lines of “kind of like Turkish or Italian, or Greek, but also not”. The sheer number of Italian, Greek and Turkish food spots in London run by Kosovars and Albanians alike (92% of the population of Kosovo identify as ethnic Albanian) is a testament to this. We've found it easier to translate the dishes we ate in the context of other countries' cuisines, rather than attempting to introduce a whole new identity to the world.
This can present the impression that Kosovars and ethnic Albanian people do not have an authentic food identity of our own. Cultures used to having dominant narratives will be more inclined to see it this way. Even in Kosovo, anthropologist Arsim Canolli, in his UCL doctorate thesis Behind Open Doors: Restaurants and Food Culture in Kosova, found that Kosovar cuisine is still firmly “under construction” and going through a process of re-traditionalisation since the war of 1999 upended the daily routines and traditions of the territory.
All things considered, it appears that Kosovars, myself included, have trouble defining what is authentically ours. Often presenting our food with a list of caveats, obfuscations and justifications as to why dishes are the same as elsewhere, but also different. As a writer, I know myself that the definition of any dish we have comes with a long list of explanations.
"...maybe it’s time to start describing what Kosovar food is, rather than what it’s like, or who influenced it and when."
There is some valid cause for this. Kosovo has fallen at the hands of dramatically changing empires – from being an extension of the Roman Empire, to being presided over by the Ottoman Empire, to more recently being split out from Albania and turned into a province of former Yugoslavia. With this range of influences, and its unique positioning in the world as a gateway between the East and West, Kosovo has an incredibly complex history that is not a cut and dry single identity.
Here’s the conclusion I’ve come to recently – maybe it’s time to start describing what Kosovar food is, rather than what it’s like, or who influenced it and when. What Kosovar food is to me, is what my family have been cooking for generations: stuffed peppers; pickled cabbage, green tomatoes and peppers; stuffed vine leaves; paprika bean soup; spinach, pumpkin and onion pie; grilled beef sausages; beef stew; cabbage stew; yoghurt bread; cornbread; beef and egg omelette; savoury layered pancakes; red pepper dip; grilled peppers; minced beef pastry parcels; and feta-like white cheese. Some of these things may very well be a lot like other cuisines, but it doesn’t make them any less ours.
So what is authentic food when the lines are redrawn? It’s simply what people from that region have been eating for generations. It may well be that one family’s authentic recipes from that region are different from another’s, or may be the same from one border to another, but if you identify as being from a country and your family has been eating the same thing for generations, then that’s as authentic as it gets as far as I’m concerned. No matter where you’re from, or where you reside, in the world.
As a British-Kosovar, I will be practising my own version of authentic cuisine by recreating my mother’s recipes, even if she does now put turmeric in her pasul (paprika bean soup), red Sainsbury’s bell peppers for her speca te’mbushur (stuffed peppers) and brown flour in her fli (savoury layered pancake) as a result of migrating to multicultural London.
My Recipe for Fli
A dish that is quintessentially British-Kosovar-Albanian, with no strings attached:
What you need:
Around 1litre cold water
Salt (one handful)
Around 1kg plain flour
500g Greek Yoghurt
1 egg yolk
1 tablespoons of an oil of your choice
A relatively deep and heavy bottomed oven tray or pie tray
Your flour mix should be just a little bit more watery than a standard pancake mix. Add equal parts water and flour until you get the right consistency removing all lumps – add more flour if it needs thickening. For this step, don’t worry too much about exact measurements and pay more attention to texture which should be runny, but not watery.
For your cream mix, add your yoghurt, egg yolks and oil, again lightly swirling the ingredients together.
Heat your oven to 200 degrees celsius and lightly warm your pan.
Once your pan is warm, start by adding a light layer of the cream mixture at the bottom of the pan and spread all over.
Your second layer should be made with the flour mix. Here you create equal vertical strips along the pan with a ladle, leaving equal alternate gaps between each strip. Then pop into the oven until the ingredients become golden brown (2-3 minutes).
Follow by removing from the oven and using a brush or back of a spoon to rub the cream mixture over the entire area of the pan (both battered and non-battered). Then add another layer of the flour mix on the alternate gaps you created and pop back into the oven until golden brown.
Repeat steps 6 and 7 until you have filled your tray to the top.
Kaltrina (she/her) is a writer-editor who was born in Prishtina, Kosovo and moved to the UK in the lead up to the Kosovo war in 1999. Having noticed a gap in travel and food reporting to the Balkans, she has been writing pieces to inform people about the region and has been published in Eater, Cool Hunting and Calvert Journal.
Her piece was originally published in our 6th issue, on Authenticity in food. Pick up your own copy of the magazine here: