It has also been called “the next Greece” and “the next Croatia”, and is fast becoming the hottest travel destination for young Brits searching for stunning, unexplored landscapes. It also offers an exciting festival scene and thrillingly cheap beer. The average pint is: (look away now, Londoners) a mere £1.50.
In fact, from 2010 to 2019, the number of tourists visiting the Balkan country tripled every year, peaking at 3.3 million, with 120,000 of those visitors coming from the UK. But what you might not know about the most hyped holiday location of 2023 is that the cuisine is also worth boarding a flight for.
Despite writing about food for a living, I knew nothing about the county’s gastronomy until, on a trip to the southern coast of the country last year, I met and fell in love with an Albanian. Since then, I’ve travelled around much of the country — and neighbouring Kosovo, also populated by Albanians — and have been introduced to, and eaten, a lot of incredible traditional dishes. In fact, when people ask me what I like most about the country, my answer is always: the food.
These are my suggestions for the foods to seek out on your next visit to “the Caribbean of Europe”.
I cannot stress enough: Flija is the best thing ever. Found in the north of Albania but mainly in Kosovo, flija or fli takes everything that’s great about a French crêpe and multiplies it.
Thin layers of pancake are built up in a distinctive sun-ray-like pattern (which ultimately results in more crispy bits) and are cooked slowly in an enormous pan under the residual heat of a lid that’s been heated over flames. It’s cooked outside and is an absolute labour of love, taking several hours from start to finish. Recipes vary but normally between each layer is a drizzle of a slightly tangy, yoghurty-cheese, which adds so much flavour.
The finished result is truly something to behold. The edge of the huge circular pancake-cake is burnished with delectable crunchy, blackened bits and cutting an (always-generous) slice reveals its many impressive layers.
You eat it with your hands, tearing it apart and enjoying the pleasing combo of soft, hot, crispy, carby goodness with a delicious sour hint from the soft cheese. I’ve heard that some people drizzle it with honey to make it sweet but I love it in its original savoury form.
Many traditional restaurants will have little bites of fli on the menu, while some allow you to order a whole one — which I’d advise if you have multiple mouths to eat it. I got one for my birthday, and it was 100 times better than any cake I’ve ever had.
Burek is a super popular and inexpensive snack in Albania and Kosovo, found in differing forms.
It’s essentially a filo pastry pie that can be rolled into a spiral shape, layered flat and cut into huge wedge slices. It’s also made in thin cigar-like strips that are cut into bite-size pieces. However it’s prepared, think: flaky, golden layers of paper-thin pastry with intensely tasty fillings.
The main fillings are cheese (almost like a feta), spinach and a flavoursome, slightly spiced minced beef, but some places also do it with potato or pumpkin which gives it a sweet edge.
I love to dunk the hot savoury pastries in cooling yoghurt or wash them down with an ayran, a popular salty and sometimes fizzy yoghurt drink, kind of like kefir but more refreshing.
You can find the cheap, moreish and filling snack in bakeries all over Albania and Kosovo.
Soak something in syrup and you’re unlikely to get any complaints but this famous Albanian dessert, known as sheqerpare, is especially delicious. It originates from Turkey but has been fully adopted by the Albanians who sell them in bakeries, restaurants and supermarkets all over the country.
It’s a short, buttery biscuit soaked in sweet syrup resulting in a moist and moreish dessert. Recipes vary regionally (vanilla can be added to the syrup and almonds or walnuts to the top of the cookie), but whatever way you try them, they’re stupendously nice.
It’s not the only syrup-soaked Turkish dessert you’ll find in Albania. There’s also top quality baklava and kadaif — a shredded filo dessert with walnuts and lemon.
Tavë kosi and other lamb dishes
Lamb is a popular meat in Albania due to the abundant amount of sheep on the hills, and it is cooked excellently. I ate a fantastic lamb orzotto dish in the south of Albania — a deep, umami ‘risotto’ made with orzo, with a meltingly soft piece of lamb on top of the savoury, brothy pasta. Pure Heaven.
It’s also integral to the traditional recipe of tavë kosi, for which the meat and some rice are placed in a dish with a yogurt mixture that, when baked in the oven, sets in a way reminiscent of the Greek dish moussaka. It’s rich, decadent and garlicky with nutmeg, oregano and parsley running through the creamy mixture.
Speaking of meat, qofte,or little minced-beef meatballs, are a must-try in Albania. Occasionally made with lamb, they’re irregularly shaped, have subtle spices running through them, and are either fried or baked.
Served with a big salad, pickles and yoghurt they’re some of the best meatballs I’ve ever eaten and, once again, won’t set you back a lot of money. The perfect, quality fast-food and great with a briny, pickled hot pepper.
Fresh fish with super salads
Thanks to its nearly 300 miles of coastline, you can eat plenty of fresh fish in Albania. Simply grilled so the skin goes crispy and the flesh remains moist and flakey, all you need is a squeeze of lemon. I’ve also eaten excellent ceviche in Albania along with great squid and other seafood.
To accompany your seafood, try a fresh salad . They’re always high quality in Albania. Greek salads are very popular due to the sweetness of the tomatoes and onions in the Balkans, but you can also find some more unusual recipes.
In a seaside town called Himare, an orange, black olive and onion salad is the local speciality due to an abundance of both orange and olive trees. It’s drizzled in delicious local olive oil and a sprinkling of dried oregano, and is sweet and savoury at the same time. I couldn’t get enough of this refreshing, exciting salad when I was there recently, much to the locals’ delight. Definitely one to try.
Move over hummus, a new dip is in town and it’s crazily addictive. Albanian fergese is a delicious blend of roasted red peppers, cooked tomatoes, yogurt and a type of salty cheese similar to feta. This is then mixed with a roux until combined, and baked in the oven. It results in this warm, thick, full-flavoured dip, which is perfect for scooping up with bread, eating with grilled meat or alongside fresh, seasonal vegetables.
Petulla, or dough balls
Are there any two better words? Albanian petulla are little balls of yeasted dough which are deep fried in oil until perfectly golden. Brilliant for breakfast, or just for a 10 out of 10 snack, they can be enjoyed with jam, honey, chocolate spread or, my favourite, with little pieces of local feta-like cheese and a drizzle of honey for a salty-sweet delight.
Grilled green peppers in sour cream
In Albania, they know how to cook peppers. Pointy, long green peppers are common though you can get sweeter red and yellow ones. One of my favourite ways they are prepared is when the skins are blackened, removed and the peppers gently fried in oil to create the softest, slightly bitter, sweet and salty taste.
It’s also common to see them cooked in a type of sour cream and cheese sauce known as speca me maze. The sauce is great for bread-dunking and the peppers are perfectly cooked. You can also get it with a traditional sausage instead of peppers.
I’d like to take a moment to congratulate Albania on its coffee game. Espresso is just as good as it is in Italy, consistent in quality, and very reasonably priced. You cannot go wrong unless you order a cappuccino, which was once served to me as espresso with a topping of whipped cream — no bad thing but not what I had in mind.
With parts of the country having quite a large Italian influence, you can also rely on other Italian dishes to be of a good quality, including gelato, pasta and risotto. Some of the best vongole and puttanesca I’ve ever eaten has been in Albania.
While talking about coffee, I should also note that tea in parts of Albania and especially in Kosovo is very good. Sometimes known as ‘Russian tea’ or ‘Turkish tea’, it’s served black and in small measures in distinctive little clear glasses. A big spoon of sugar is often added (you have to say if you don’t want this), which makes it especially easy to knock back one, two or even five in a row.