WESTERN BALKANS – COVID-19 has ruined most of our 2020 travel plans and life has been a bit duller than usual. But that’s on us. We could find a way to travel even though we are at home. Fortunately, I did, so let me share with you how I got to be all over the Balkans in my kitchen.
With the stress of being all day at home, not being able to meet your friends, and the cherry on top of school, we haven’t been in our best condition this year. I, personally, missed being out and traveling. Being able to see and experience new things brings power and joy in our lives and we have all felt its absence so I thought and found my way out.
As one of the main and most loved traveling activities is eating why not travel through taste?! I googled and contacted some new friends and decided to connect and travel within the Western Balkans by cooking a traditional meal each day. To make it more real, I also watched some videos online to complete “the pandemic travel experience”. Now it’s time to share this experience with the world so… let’s dig in!!!
1. I began it all with my dear neighbor North Macedonia
After looking around I decided to try stuffed peppers the Macedonian way. Stuffed Peppers are a dish all people from the Balkans eat, but each has its way of preparing them so I took my grandma and went to the kitchen to start cooking. As we were following the recipe she was telling me how the dish is very similar to how her grandma cooked it back in the days. “It’s quite the same but we use fewer spices and more fresh greens like basil and parsley.” As we put the dish in the oven we sat and enjoyed some videos from North Macedonia. When the cooking was done we called everyone and gathered around the table to enjoy our first destination of the Balkan taste trip. North Macedonia is a magical place, so near and with so many things in common with us but yet we are so different. Same dishes but different tastes and feelings but yet both amazingly good. The dish ended up beautiful and very delicious. Can’t wait to try it in a real North Macedonian household.
2. Next up was our brotherly Kosovo*
It was harder to choose a dish from Kosovo as I knew and loved so many I didn’t know which would be the best. In the end, I went basic and chose flija, one of my personal favourites. As I’ve been in Kosovo many times and have tried flija even from the hands of our dear grandmas I did not need much imagination here. My grandma, the best cook I know, came along again to help me. We started in the morning and spent the whole day in the kitchen cooking and re-experiencing our past Kosovo trips. Preparing flija was very challenging and we couldn’t bake it traditionally as we didn’t have saç but my grandma tried her best to recreate it. In the end, the table gathered the whole family once again and we all enjoyed the exquisite taste of flija while planning the next trip to Kosovo.
3. From Kosovo, we flew to Serbia next.
It was time for stuffed cabbage. For this dish, I decided to go on my own in the kitchen. I grabbed all the ingredients and lost no time. It was a dish I had seen and eaten many times and in many different Balkan places but I had never tried it the Serbian way so I was very excited. To accompany me as I was lonely, I put on some Serbian music and continued following the recipe step by step. It was easy and didn’t take me long to cook so I had plenty of time before lunch. I decided to watch a movie so I started googling and watching different trailers to choose the best. As I was about to start “Tito and me”, my parents came home and it was lunchtime. I served lunch and we decided on enjoying the movie together while eating. The stuffed cabbages came out great and very distinct and the movie was a must, no wonder every article recommended it.
4. Bosnia and Herzegovina amazed me.
Their dish was so delicious and familiar that I plan on keeping it on my table forever. It was another burek day so I could not do this by myself. This time my grandma, who came to help, was very set on teaching me how to open burek layers. A terrible task she put on herself as I failed, miserably. Creating the stuffing was very simple so I left her on the layers and continued preparing the minced meat with onions and beaten eggs. We put the burek on the stove and saw a Blagaj Tekija travel film and my grandparents showed me pictures they had taken on their trip to Mostar last year. Time passed beautifully with Bosnian beauties and the burek was soon ready so we all gathered once again around the table to enjoy.
5. Our last trip before returning home was to Montenegro.
Our dear old northern friend gave us the winterish dish we all love, Kačamak. It warmed my hands while cooking and healed my flu while eating. It had been a long week full of traveling and learning new things about the Balkans so Kačamak gave me comfort and relaxation. It was easy to make and extremely delicious. It reminded me of the Italian polenta but it had a more eastern taste. For this part of the trip, I opened my own photo archives and went through old trips. I have been to Montenegro more than once in different periods of my life so it was really nice reliving all those trips. During my Budva trip, I was around 14 years old and I remember being amazed by the old town in Kotor which should be on everyone’s travel list. Next, I went to Kolašin as my high school graduation trip. While watching the photos and remembering all the memories we created, I felt sad for the time gone as well as the fact no camera could ever have captured the scenery I had seen in person. Montenegro is a great place for every season and Kačamak was the great food for a throwback. It was the perfect way to end my taste trip.
6. And after traveling around the Balkans for a week it was now time to return back home, to Albania.
It was again hard to choose so we left it in the hands of my mum. We woke up to the best breakfast of all, the Albanian way of starting the day, Trahanah. My mum had woken up early to prepare it and maybe it was because I had been all over the Balkans for a week, but I had never had better Trahanah in my life. For lunch, we went a bit simple and had fërgesë with some boiled vegetables. We also prepared Revani, a traditional dessert that is liked and prepared in every Balkan place. It was a perfect ending and the best way to be welcomed home, warm and sweet just like the dishes we ate.
After this trip, I have to say that I saw, tasted, and learned a lot. It was a one-of-a-kind experience but it still can never replace the feeling of really seeing and stepping into a new country. For now, this will do but this pandemic really needs to go so we all can have a on hand Balkans trip. Wear a mask dear readers. WE NEED TO TRAVEL AGAIN!
Author: Kiara Manja
This story was produced during the three-month Program for Students of Journalism in the Western Balkans within the framework of the advocacy project “A Better Region Starts with Youth” implemented by RYCO with the support of the Federal Republic of Germany. All journalists’ work is their own and the content of any given article does not represent the opinion of RYCO, and RYCO cannot guarantee the validity and the accuracy of the information that these stories contain.
*This designation is without prejudice to positions on status and is in line with UNSCR 1244 and the ICJ Opinion on the Kosovo Declaration of Independence.