I’m a month into my time here in Albania, and I am loving it. The beautiful view, the friendliest people…and some amazing food! The quality of food here came as a real shock – as an American, I’ve always heard about how great French or Italian food is, but we never talk about the Balkan countries. In any sense, really, but Albanian food is one we should be discussing.
As background information, you should know that Albanian food is heavily influenced by Italian and Greek culture. I’ve had multiple Albanian people tell me how the Italians have the best food in the world, and as a result, many Italian recipes are incorporated into local diets. On top of that, feta cheese, olives, and other Greek staples are frequent ingredients, due to the two countries sharing the same Mediterranean climate, meaning they both raise similar animals and grow similar produce.
Considering Albania has a long coastline, it’s no surprise fresh seafood is a staple in diets around here. And when I say fresh, I mean fresh. While Southern Italy also had fresh seafood, theirs tasted like it had been caught that morning, and Albania’s fish tastes like it was caught an hour ago. (As a vegetarian, I can’t actually vouch for this – fortunately, M can).
As a vegetarian, I greatly appreciate that Albanians don’t treat meat-free dishes as an afterthought. Everything I’ve had here has been full of flavor and just as complex as M’s options. Since Albania is a generally poor country, many citizens only eat meat a few times a week, so they understand that you don’t have to sacrifice flavor just because you’re not including meat.
For anyone planning on staying a significant amount of time here, I want to share some tips I’ve learned about navigating the food stores. Like other European countries, you have to go to multiple stores to find all the ingredients to make one meal. While there are a few supermarkets (Big Market, Real Market, and Albmarket are some of the ones near me), they mainly have pantry ingredients and a limited frozen section. Even if they do have produce and meat, it’s only a very limited stock and generally not as high-quality as a specialty market.
Regardless, let’s discuss supermarkets first. If you need flour, spreads for toast, vinegar, or cleaning supplies, this is where you’ll want to go. Don’t expect to find peanut butter (at least not for any reasonable price), but you can find a number of familiar American brands of cereal and other ingredients, or at least the Albanian equivalent. I even found whiskey barbecue sauce in the vein of Jack Daniels Barbecue! Also, the supermarket is where you can go for your alcohol needs – they not only have beer and wine, but also raki (the Albanian version of grappa), vodka, tequila, and more.
For meat, you’ll need to go to a butcher. Look for the words mishi fresket on the street sign – it means “fresh meat”. Inside, you’ll see display cases filled with various cuts of meat – and often a few types of cheese. The tender-hearted should also be warned that often, you can see entire animals hanging in the freezers through glass doors – don’t make eye contact. You’ll order by the kilogram for most things, so have a clue how much you want.
derri – pork
pule – chicken
vici – beef
mish vici – veal
qengji – lamb
dhi – goat
Like butcher shops, there are seafood markets on nearly every corner, although I’ve noticed they tend to be about half the size. There, you can buy fish, octopus, shrimp, and mussels, although none of it is completely reliable – your options will depend on what the fisherman have been catching. Fish generally come as the whole fish, so be prepared to debone yourself – no filets like in the States!
One thing to note – seafood in Albania is so fresh that eating it raw is very common. Oysters, tuna, salmon, even shrimp can be eaten crudo. Squeeze a bit of fresh lemon on top and enjoy it!
peshk – fish
karkaleca – shrimp
midhjet – mussels
oktapodi – octopus
kallamar – squid
The people selling produce generally have stands more than full stores. Be forewarned – if something isn’t in season, you can’t find it! I couldn’t get scallions or celery until three days ago. This isn’t necessarily true for Albanian staples – peppers, potatoes, and so on – but the vast majority of offerings changes out with the weather.
Those changing options mean you know just how fresh things are. We picked up some oranges that tasted fresh off the tree, and every time I get bananas, I have to wait another day for them to finish ripening. And, through some Albanian magic, while fresh produce went bad within 48 hours in Italy, I haven’t had anything go bad in Albania. A week after buying, I still have some tomatoes that I never got around to using and they are as fresh as the day I bought them. (I’ve really got to make something with them!)
Don’t miss the chance to stop in an Albanian bakery. There’s at least one on every road here, and they all have different things available. Bread is a staple in Albania, so it’s no surprise to find a wide variety of types of bread, but you’ll also find pastries, from the familiar American-style cakes with buttercream frosting to New York-style (ish) cheesecake, to meringues, cookies, and baklava. After a couple of purchases, you’ll start to learn what bakeries are your favorites – we have one place where we buy bread, another where we get desserts, and a third for seasonal options, like Easter bread.
Buying Dairy Products
Dairy products and eggs fall into a grey area. They can actually be found at any of the above options – but you never know what you’re going to find. One supermarket only has feta, while another has fifteen different options, and I’ve had the same results at meat stores. Seafood markets either won’t have cheese at all, or seem to only have feta, and some of the vegetable stands have eggs, while others don’t. Basically, as you go from store to store, just keep an eye out for any dairy, eggs, or spice products, because you’re just going to stumble across them. You can also buy fresh butter by weight in some of these places.
Pazari I Ri
I’m covering the New Bazaar, Pazari I Ri, as a separate option because it’s pretty unique. A city square lined by shops, you can actually do all of your shopping here if you want. You’ll find vendors selling olive oil in rinsed-out iced tea bottles here, next to stands where men gesture towards their various fruits that are still in the harvesting baskets, next to a woman selling beautiful hand-painted ceramic bowls. In the shops, you can buy meat, seafood, cheese, and more, including pet food by weight (which you can even add other ingredients to, like dried corn).
I haven’t had a chance to try every restaurant in Tirana yet, much less other cities, but I’ve already found a few favorites. First of all, one of our favorite dishes is sufflaqe, an Albanian take on Greek souvlaki. French fries, vegetables, and grilled meat are wrapped in a pita and topped with sauce – and it’s ridiculously good. My favorite comes from a hole-in-the-wall joint on Rruga Don Bosko, but we’ve learned that it all comes down to personal preference so try a couple of different places to find your favorite.
As for restaurants, M’s absolute favorite is Fish Time, a seafood restaurant on Rruga Don Bosko. I will admit their green salad there is phenomenal (who would have thought lettuce could be that good?), and their vegetarian options are fine. However, according to my resident seafood expert, it’s their midhje sotte (daily mussels) and their tava karkalec (shrimp casserole) in a red sauce. While this is clearly a mid-to-higher end restaurant, for two people eating until stuffed, you can expect to spend less than $20 USD – and that includes the wine.
My favorite restaurant is Pjerino on Rruga Hafiz Ibrahim Dalliu. Their pene 4 djatha (4-cheese penne) is like a cross between alfredo and macaroni and cheese – but so much more flavorful. I could taste the fresh gorgonzola in the sauce and it was cooked to perfection. I’m also a fan of Il Gusto on Rruga Reshit Petrela – their spinach-truffle risotto is out of this world! M enjoys their grilled sea bass – however, we both agree their salads leave something to be desired.
Missing American food, we’ve tried a few of the more International restaurants – unfortunately, we haven’t had much luck there. Spaghetti Western and Tony’s are fine, but not great. Serendipity, serving Mexican food, has an amazing Mexican salad, but everything else we’ve tried is lacking the punch I’m looking for.
In contrast to Southern Italy, most restaurants in Tirana deliver – the perfect option for rainy days when I don’t want to go out and I don’t want to cook. That said, it’s taken some time to navigate the delivery process. Since Albania doesn’t really have street addresses – at least not reliably – it’s a challenge, even more so because the road on which we live doesn’t have a name. Instead, you send the restaurant a dropped pin on Google Maps, and then when they get close, they call to have you guide them to where you are. Again, since my road doesn’t have a name, I just meet them half a block away at the nearest named intersection. In the end, it works out, because I can stop at the convenience store on the way back for drinks. You can also have food delivered to pretty much any bar or coffee shop – a lovely option if you want to have food from across town, and enjoy a drink while you wait.
I’ve debated discussing this, because I’d hate for people to rely on this or to take advantage, but I’m going to write about it anyway. As I said in my first post on Albania, this country has some of the friendliest people I’ve ever met. This extends even to restaurants and cafes. Every restaurant that I’ve been to more than once has given me something free. A free glass of wine while I wait for take-away, free dessert for us to try some Albanian sweet (fresh lemon sorbet? Yes please!), or in one case, a kilo of mussels in garlic sauce! If you’re nice and friendly to the servers and chef, they want you to try other things – and I must say, they haven’t steered us wrong yet! As a sales tactic, it works – I’ve gone back and ordered something because it was so amazing.
On top of that, if you aren’t sure what to order, just ask for recommendations. Not only can your server steer you in the right direction (and they’re happy to), you may even be given something not on the menu – and that’s where some of the real jewels lie. With ingredients being so fresh and so different day-to-day, chefs may have everything they need to make a truly transcendent dish just for you.
When you visit Albania, make sure you plan on just eating your way through the country. Albanian food ranks as some of the best I’ve ever had, due to fresh ingredients, bold flavors, and some creativity. If you’re a foodie, add Albania to your can’t-miss list!