The East Balkan Peninsula is my ham-fisted classification of Albania (despite it being situated on the west), Bulgaria, Moldova and Romania. The reason Albania is linked with these other countries and not with its surrounds is that it is not considered as former Yugoslavia, while most of its neighbours are, so culinarily seemed to fit better with this group. Input on better classification methods (without dividing the world into 8000 regions) is always welcome! In order to understand the cuisines of these countries, one must first appreciate their unique global centrality between titans of world power, being situated north of Greece, south and east of Former Yugoslavia, west of the centre of the former Ottoman Empire and Russia/Asia, and east of the Mediterranean and Adriatic Sea. As such, this region has been at the centre of centuries of power struggles between countries, cultures and empires, ultimately becoming a melting pot of Mediterranean, Slavic and Middle Eastern influences, changing dramatically over history depending on the preferences, culture and religious dietary restrictions of the incumbent rulers. Examples of the latter include a rise of non-pork meat dishes during various periods influenced by Islam, and a great variety of vegan dishes that arose because of the still-practiced periodic veganism as a form of religious fasting during holy periods of the Romanian Orthodox calendar. This tendency towards a vegan dishes, combined with fertile land and a temperate climate, means that the cuisine of this region is surprisingly vegetable-focused, and the food is therefore often as healthy and nutritious as it is delicious!
Tave kosi with perime ne zgare
Tave kosi hails from Albania, where it is widely considered to be the national dish. It is a casserole (tave) of slow cooked chunks of lamb, combined with garlic, oregano and rice, with a topping of plain yoghurt, traditionally made from goat or sheep milk (kosi) mixed with beaten eggs and a roux (butter and flour) to form a thick creamy layer that transforms into a fluffy savoury custard after cooking in the oven. I came to think of it as an Eastern European (and potatoless) shepherd’s pie and, being a great lover of shepherd’s pies, was shocked to find I might even prefer this version. One of my greatest revelations in the course of this cooking adventure has been just how well lamb combined with rice – there’s something undeniably magical about how the fat of the lamb is absorbed perfectly by the grains. Adding a baked yoghurt custard element to this combination only improves it, and I will certainly be replicating this meal subsequently. The history of tave kosi can be traced back to the 1400s, when Memed the Conquerer, an Ottoman Sultan, staged an unsuccessful siege in what was to become the Albanian city of Elbasan. During this time, the Sultan reportedly discovered this casserole, as the local cooks, not wanting to waste food during the precarious period, served the yoghurt that had been the marinade for the meat baked on top. This act of practicality was greatly appreciated by the Sultan, who helped to spread the dish across Albania, as its lamb base ideally suited the Islamic dietary restrictions forbidding pork. Even in modern times, the casserole is also sometimes called “tave Elbasani” – meaning the casserole from Elbasan. Along with the tave kosi I served perime ne zgare, which as far as I can discern means “vegetables we barbecue”. Being situated on relatively fertile land in a temperate climate, Albania, and much of the other Balkan countries, are fortunate to have a long history of abundant vegetables, and there are innumerate varieties, combinations and preparations of vegetables that accompany almost every meal. Perime ne zgare is one of the simplest of these preparations, allowing the flavour of wonderful fresh vegetables to shine through after a brief grilling with a little oil and seasoning. Sometimes the simplest of cooking techniques really are the best!
Tochitură Moldova and sarmale
Tochitură is said (mostly by Romanians) to be a Romanian stew, made from meat such as beef and pork, slow cooked most commonly in a tomato-based sauce, albeit purportedly most traditionally without tomatoes. Tochitură Moldova is the Moldavian version of this stew (with a Transylvanian “tochitura ardelenească” also in existence), commonly served with a fried egg, a salty white sheep’s cheese and mămăligă. Mămăligă is a polenta-like porridge made by simmering yellow cornmeal, water and salt. It can be cooked to a thick slop consistency, or until it sets into a bread-like brick that is cut into slices and eaten by hand. The dish arose as a cheap staple carbohydrate that peasants would eat in place of bread, with origins in the pulmentum of ancient Rome, which was a porridge made from millet flour before the introduction of corn to Europe in the 1500s. Mămăligă is popular throughout Romania and Moldova, although there are versions called by different names speckled across Europe, Africa and The Americas. Also often served with mămăligă (although not commonly along with tochitură as well) is sarmale, which are the Romanian/Moldovan versions of ground meat and rice stuffed into cabbage rolls that are omnipresent from north to south of Eastern Europe and Western Asia. The name and dish is influenced by the Turkish “sarma”, which stems from the work “sarmak” meaning “to wrap”, describing varied fillings encased by vegetable leaves. In Romania and Moldova sarmale are a must at celebratory events, including Christmas and New Year’s Eve. You may be able to just see my little sarmale, which I cooked in a tomato-based sauce, peeking out from under the egg in my photo.
Salata de boeuf
If ever there was a confusingly named dish, it’s salata de boeuf. Although Romanian in origin, the “boeuf” part of the name is actually French, translating to “beef”, although it’s more commonly made with chicken, and the “salata” element referring to “salad”, although there isn’t nearly enough green involved to comfortably be called a salad in my opinion. Adding to the confusion, there is actually very little French connection to the recipe, and is more likely to have been influenced by the “Olivier/Russian salad” that originated in Russia, and which is hugely popular across Eastern Europe, the Middle East and South America. In yet another layer of complexity, the eponymous “Olivier” refers to Lucien Olivier, who, despite inventing the salad in Moscow, was actually Belgian. This original recipe is said to have included eccentric ingredients such as caviar, veal tongue and smoked duck, although the exact recipe was a closely-guarded secret, despite an infamous attempted theft by a scurrilous sous-chef. Happily, the preparation of this dish is less messy and confusing than its origin story. The Romanian version is made by combining boiled and cooled cubes of root vegetables (potatoes, carrots etc) with finely chopped onion, celery, pickled vegetables (muraturi), green peas, hard-boiled eggs and chicken, all bonded with a dressing of mayonnaise and mustard. One thing that sets salata de boeuf apart from the other descendants of Olivier salad is the extreme care taken in decoration, which in Romania involves intricate adornment with slices of boiled egg, parsley, roasted capsicum, black olives and pickles. In particular, I seized on this opportunity to use a piping bag, which, being staunchly against making desserts, I don’t get much opportunity to try. I also used this opportunity to make my own mayonnaise, which I had never tried before, but had always heard could be tricky to make as it is an emulsification, which is a term describing the combination of ingredients that do not ordinarily mix easily into a uniform and homogenous mixture, such as oil and water. To achieve an emulsification, one needs an emulsifier, which is a substance with the property of being able to stably facilitate the suspension of tiny droplets of one of the liquids (in this case oil) in the other. Egg yolks, in the case of mayonnaise, are the emulsifier, more specifically the protein lecithin in egg yolks, with mustard being an additional potential emulsifier that is often included in mayonnaise. Keeping the mixture at a low (acidic) pH also helps helps the emulsification process, which explains the addition of lemon juice and/or vinegar in a mayonnaise recipe. The final ingredient (other than salt or garlic if an aioli is desired) is a plain-tasting oil, and lots of it, added to the whisked other ingredients in infinitesimal quantities and with supreme patience. Despite knowing that mayonnaise was fairly calorific, I think that I never quite grasped just how much until making it myself and seeing cups and cups of oil emptying slowly into the mixture. I was surprised to learn that mayonnaise itself was invented relatively recently, in 1756 by a French chef serving the Duc de Richelieu. After running out of cream for his usual egg and cream sauce, the chef substituted with oil and discovered the delectable new substance, naming it after Port Mahon, where the Duc had just won a grand victory against the British. Imagine where we would all be without all of these happy accidents of culinary history!
Banitsa, shopska salad and selski kartofi
Banitsa, deriving from a word meaning “to fold” (and used colloquially to refer to anything literally or conceptually folded) is the Bulgarian take on the many iterations of the grand family of pastries descending from börek, which is thought to have originated in Turkey, but which is now distributed across span Eastern Europe, the Levant, the Mediterranean and Western Asia. It is made by encasing a simple filling of whisked eggs, white cheese, yoghurt and sometimes baking soda (to make the filling extra puffy) in a filo-like dough pastry and baking until golden brown. Pumpkin, spinach , parsley, leeks, or sweet fillings are sometimes added to this simple base to create differently named variants (although, to some extent, you can’t beat a classic!). Being a versatile pastry, banitsa is acceptably eaten either hot or cold, and is popular for breakfast. Banitsa are particularly meaningful to Bulgarians, as they are the vehicle for “kusmeti”, meaning “lucks”, which are traditional lucky charms that are placed inside the pie. This custom occurs mostly around Christmas and New Year’s Eve, and traditionally the kusmeti could include coins or pieces of dogwood branch (symbolising health), but these days more commonly (and perhaps more hygienically) are composed of little written notes folded inside aluminium foil. Once these charms are safely deposited in the pie filling, it is cooked, and each family member takes a piece to discover their fortunes for the coming year, with common predictions including “health”, “wealth” “baby” and “love”. I can just imagine desperate Bulgarian mothers trying to sneak a “baby” fortune into their adult children’s slices of banitsa in a ploy to get some grandchildren coming – after all, sometimes fortunes are self-fulfilling! Although not pictured, I ate my banitsa with the traditional lashings of plain yoghurt, which is critical to Bulgarian cuisine, not least because the country gave its name to “lactobacillus bulgaricus”, one of the main strains of bacteria used worldwide in yoghurt production, after its discovery in the mid 1900s by Bulgarian microbiologist Stamen Grigorov. Shopska salad is another dish whose popularity spans across many countries in the Balkans and Central Europe, combining chopped tomato, cucumber, onions, capsicum, olives, white cheese and parsley, lightly dressed in oil and perhaps a little vinegar. The name comes from “Shopluk”, which describes an area that spans the confluence of Bulgaria, Serbia and Macedona, rendering discernment of country-of-origin a difficult task. Nevertheless, I have chosen to include the salad in a primarily Bulgarian plate because it is known in many countries as “Bulgarian salad” which is a good enough attribution of ownership for me. Also, shopska salad is a national culinary symbol of Bulgaria and is its most recognisable dish, solidifying its rightful inclusion next to the Bulgarian banitsa and selski kartofi. Selski kartofi humbly translates to “villager’s potatoes”, and describes a delicious dish of par-boiled potatoes that are then sliced and fried with pepper, paprika, salt and breadcrumbs. Rustic they may be, but I defy you not to love them more dearly than the finest of fine-dining experiences!