Traditional Albanian delicacies take hours to prepare, but even in today’s more hectic society, Kosovars are reluctant to let go of them.
In a Kosovar house, visitors are traditionally welcomed by the aroma of doughy, buttery, slow cooked flia, which fills every corner of the house like a warm hug.
That hug has gathered family and friends around the dining table for centuries, giving them a sense of connection and a taste of what it is like to take your time and truly enjoy the little pleasures of life.
There is hardly anything more satisfying than the sight of a classic Albanian dinner: bready baked goods, Sharr cheese, yogurt, bean stew, pite, and village salad.
Not to mention ajvar (super-slow-cooked peppers), pickled peppers, fried peppers, stuffed peppers, cream cheese peppers; basically all manner of other ways of cooking pepper will find their way onto a table.
Homey and delicious as this sounds, the whirlwind of today’s schedules and to-do lists makes it hard for many people to remember when they last gave themselves the luxury of indulging in such an enduring, precious experience.
But, despite the constant threat of disappearing in modern times, Albanian slow food is finding ways to survive, by finding other forms of economization.
US-style fast food has been kept at bay
Jeta Berisha, 29, from Prishtina, says that she adores traditional Albanian food, flia in particular, but her demanding career and hectic daily routine make it almost impossible to find the time to cook at home. Alternatively, she eats out with friends in restaurants that promote local products.
There is a slight possibility that the culture of slow cooked food, what Danes often cozily refer to as the “Hygge food”, belongs to yesteryear in Kosovar homes.
Putting in the four-to-five hours of preparation time that flia requires sounds like a lot of dedication when there are numerous possibilities to eat out or order in – and the added bonus of less dishes to wash.
But not all is lost for the slow food scene in Kosovo. Ironically, and because of the unclear political situation, McDonald’s still hasn’t reached this country, some 70 years later after it first popped up in America and later expanded nearly everywhere on the globe.
Other food chains, KFC and Pizza Hut, for example, have only in recent years started to creep into the corners of Prishtina, Ferizaj, Prizren, and other major cities of Kosovo. However, their initial presence has not significantly influenced the broader dining culture, for now.
What’s more interesting, traditional Albanian slow-cooked food is evolving to people’s busy routines through new delivery channels. Nowadays, nearly every neighborhood features a family kitchen that supplies individual homes, and offers home-cooked meals to the other part of the society on the run.
Some of these families say they deliver between six and ten flias and spinach-and-cottage pites daily. A 28-year-old architect, Vlona Dalipi, from Prishtina, is one of those who supports these families, whenever she craves traditional dishes. She prefers to cook only quicker international dishes herself.
Ancient recipes are passed down the generations
What people choose to eat is also impacted by the media, which has played a crucial role in the spread of the fast-food industry. More often than not, the big fast-food corporations are the ones that can afford the most efficient marketing campaigns.
On the other hand, there is also a plethora of information about nutrition and the value of eating healthy, local, and organic food.
In 1989, Italy created the “Slow Food movement” as an attempt to “prevent the disappearance of local food cultures and traditions, counteract the rise of fast food and fast life, combat people’s dwindling interest in the food they eat, where it comes from and how our food choices affect the world around us”.
Today, the movement is active in 150 countries around the world. Kosova is not part of this movement yet, but still has the time and opportunity to turn slow food into a trend, learning a valuable, non-repeatable lesson from Western countries.
According to the famous British chef Jamie Oliver, the main reason America is battling obesity and other diet related diseases is because younger generations were never taught to cook at home. He says cooking should be taught in schools as a basic skill. No wonder the world still claps for people cooking a meal on Instagram!
The Kosovar education system does not teach cooking in schools. However, there is barely a need. Busy or not, its society seems to have inherited that strong sense of responsibility that comes with collectivism, and with that, dining and cooking together rank as a top priority. Even if they aren’t always cooked at home, traditional dishes migrate from one generation to the next, as a rite of passage.
Rrezarta Reka, 42, a project advisor from Prishtina, says that she is passionate about food: eating it, turning it into meals, sharing it with loved ones. She says her relationship with food was ingrained in her by her mother and grandmother. Growing up, most of her dearest childhood memories were of elaborate lunches and dinners made by her mother for family gatherings, complemented by her grandmother’s pite and sheqerpare.
It appears that interest in home cooked, traditional, and slow meals in Kosovo has never waned. Reka explains: “My family and I enjoy mostly home-made meals. To keep things interesting, typical food is usually a combination of traditional Albanian meals such as beef stew and green peas, with a side dish of buttery mashed potatoes and a bowl of tarator… On cold and rainy days, it is usually a large pot of slow cooked groshë (white beans) and a side of salty cabbage salad…Food isn’t just to satiate hunger but to also enrich us with experience and memories.”
But, with the rapid changes imposed on work-life balances as the country builds itself up during recent decades, the approach to basic cooking styles needed reconsideration. In consequence, many recipes are being adjusted to take no longer than 30 minutes up to an hour to cook.
Slow and healthy is the way to go
A busy lecturer of economics and author of children’s books, Tahire Abazi, 62, from Ferizaj, even now maintains a healthy balance between work and home. She and her family avoid doughy, time-consuming meals and favor slow-cooked food such as chicken and rice, beans, and potatoes dishes.
She reminisces about the times when she and her extended family would gather at her uncle’s place to eat laknur from a sofra while sitting in the ground and sharing a laugh.
The COVID pandemic has triggered a sense of reflection in Kosovo. Not being able to taste and smell the special fragrance of the delicious food hugging the family kitchen has increased people’s urge to eat better, and maybe become experts in culinary arts.
The consumption of slow food is not only healthier, it helps the local economy and serves as a constant reminder that food can transport the most heartwarming kind of love.
A four-season country, Kosovo offers an abundance of fresh fruits and vegetables all year round, resulting in a cross-continental mix of the finest recipes. It would be timely to spread even more awareness of, and take action to preserve and promote, Kosovo’s traditional cuisine.
A traditional receipt of homemade bread, slowly baked in ember. Video courtesy of Arian Mavriqi for Prishtina Insight.
Pritë Bytyçi is a lecturer of Academic Writing and Business English at TEKO, Olten, Switzerland. She finished her masters in Linguistics at the Faculty of Philology, University of Prishtina.