Many years ago, way back in an innocent age when it used to be embarrassing the admit one was a sexual predator and racist, I attended the United Nations Fifth Conference on Women in Beijing, China. This was in an era when the Internet was in it’s infancy, cell phones almost non existent and people had to talk to one another on a land line to get things done like plane reservations. At that time the only thing China was adept at was denying Visas and mowing down peaceful protesters with tanks. While agreeing to host the conference, little else was done to prepare for the thousands of the world’s women who would be coming to network and lobby for the betterment of half of the global population. The utter lack of preparation other than to assemble legions of armed soldiers from around China to monitor the event was evident at the NGO pre-conference, which was held in Hwairo. 50,000 women were pointed to an open field with 10 meter diameter circular slabs of concrete on which we were to hold our different workshops and panels. A day later, we were provided with inflatable tents and fans with generators.
Some women had ridden on trains for weeks to get to the conference. To say we were greeted with a giant foam middle finger is an understatement. What was the women’s response? What did the women who came from every nation on Earth do with the ultimate lemon catapulted in their direction? They decorated the tents with beautiful handcrafts, brought out tea and coffee service, sang, danced and carried on in spite of being literally abandoned in an open field to face 100F+ temperatures with 99.9% humidity. I have carried that image with me these many many years, how it is the women who always try and make everything nicer with their decorations, hand crafts and hospitality, in spite of extremely oppressive external circumstances.
I was thinking of this when I was invited to watch my host mom create Byrek. As the followers of this blog may remember, I live with the Albanian version of the Darlings in a terraced garden on the side of the Castle Mountain in Berat. The garden is a model for urban agriculture in that it maximizes a small plot of land to produce numerous food crops on a vertical plane. One of the more amazing techniques they employ is growing vine crops on a series of ropes, wires and trellises. The ripening (what I have called) “air squash” and the locals call “kungull,” while others might call a fairy pumpkin, are being harvested on a weight basis. This means when the squash is so large that the intricate system of wires, platforms and ropes can no longer support the squash, it is picked and then turned into something delicious.
Since my arrival, one of the great cultural sharings has been through food. My hosts offer me supper and coffee with regional dishes. I cook for them in what I would call a “Californian Albanian fusion” style, meaning I try my best to recreate California cuisine with Albanian ingredients. Somehow I am able to convey the essence of the gastronomy without my beloved Cilantro, various peppers and hot sauces and cheddar cheese, but they are getting the hint. We trade plates, when I cook, I bring them a plate of my creation. I am treated to plates of various Albanian culinary gems left for me on my kitchen counter. Now that the Summer is in full swing, I am also treated to cucumbers, various fruits and of course the kungull. Sara, my host mom, asked me if I was available to watch her make byrek the next day. I eagerly said yes, and asked what time. She said she would be ready at 9 am. I arrived on the dot to witness what can be described as kitchen alchemy, the taking of maybe five ingredients and transforming it into gastronomic gold.
Byrek is a staple of the Albanian table. It is also the go to fast food available on every street corner. During training, volunteers had scouted out the best Byrek stands in Elbasan. Since I am not all that into the know at times, I only found the gem during our last two weeks of training, and I can recommend the cheese and tomato Byrek quite highly, I can tell you where this place is even though I could not tell you the name of the place to save my soul.
The first time I heard the name “Byrek” was during one of my trips to Macedonia. In Skopje, the different bakeries proudly displayed their offerings of either spinach, cheese or meat. I had never seen Byrek in my past trips, and was never exposed to it through my grandmother. We ate “banitza” and it was more like what most people understand as “spanikopita” the famed Greek spinach filo pastry wonder. My grandmother made her banitza with hand rolled filo sheets. Her living room, kitchen and dining room was transformed into a pastry drying rack, with the delicate sheets draping towel lined flat surfaces. Grammie as we called her, filled her banitza with either cheese (cottage and feta) ground meat and onions, spinach and cheese (see previous ingredient list) or apples and raisins. She would either make a tray or roll it up in the style most would recognize as the Austrian Strudel. On New Years, she would bake in silver dollars into her pie, and if you found one in your piece, it would be a lucky year for you.
The Albanian table and agriculture has been influenced by the many invaders to their land. Byrek may be a legacy of Ottoman occupation in that similar dishes are found in Northern Africa and they are called Börek. Some sort of variation on the theme of layers of thin flaky pastry with a variety of available fillings can be found throughout the Balkans. What some would call Greek cuisine, I would say is actually Turkish. Regardless of it’s origins or accurate nomenclature, Byrek is delicious. Byrek is also a symbol of the resilience and constancy of the women of Albania.
When I entered the kitchen of Sara, my host, she had already cooked the kungell from her garden. It was steamed, mashed and seasoned with butter, eggs, milk, a bit of sugar and salt. The dough, known as yufka (we Americans would call this filo,) was prepared into small balls. Sara took the ball of dough, rolled it in corn starch, the magical ingredient that I now know will enable me to actually roll out the pastry without having it stick to the table, and rolled it into a paper thin consistency. Sara would then take each sheet and dry fry them in a large pan she had on her stove, making what looked like to me extremely large thin flour tortillas. I realized that she was making what I have been seeing in the markets in plastic bags, a sort of “instant Burek” stack of the prepared cracker like yufka. She repeated the rolling, frying and stacking into a separate dish until there was only two balls of dough left. One of these, she made into a very large sheet that she placed on a towel on her couch, the other was smaller, which she placed to the side of the larger pastry.
When the “kungullur” or squash Byrek was ready to assemble, Sara rolled the large uncooked pastry sheet on the bottom of a large circular pan. She oiled the pan with a mixture of sunflower and olive oil, and then drizzled oil on top of the sheet. Then the layering magic began; one dry fried layer of pastry, then drizzled oil, then the squash mixture, over and over until everything was used up. The final layer was the smaller raw sheet of pastry, and then the larger bottom layer was rolled up on the sides to complete the construction. Oil was drizzled on top and the creation was popped into the oven, where is expanded into a flaky domed fragrant example of the deliciousness of the Albanian kitchen.
As I watched Sara roll the dough into the corn starch in meticulously equal portions, I noted that she does not use any sort of measuring devices. She patted the dough into small flat circles, then rolling them out on a kitchen table dusted with corn starch and a dowel with almost machine like precision. I wondered how many thousands of times she completed this ritual. As Sara is a grandmother, she had endured the aftermath of World War II and the subsequent entire generation of communist oppression. She also lived through the fall of communism and the resulting turmoil that accompanied that transition.
Sara’s hands create the most amazing dishes, her hands keep a spotlessly clean home. She gardens and tends the many plants that make up the lushness of the terraced levels. Her children and grandchildren are quite successful people. The resulting Byrek that we all enjoyed later that afternoon was incredible. Knowing it had come from her garden, and the organic flour she told me was the best for making Byrek, I think influenced my experience. My lack of sophisticated language skills keeps us from having more complex conversations, but the food speaks for itself.
Sara is like those women I witnessed at the UN Conference. In spite of being given very difficult circumstances, they all make life more pretty and delicious. During the years of great oppression under the dictatorship, Albanian women continued to love their families, grow and make food, keep their homes immaculate, and make countless Byreks. While I enjoy the Byrek from the local bakeries and fast food establishments, there is something intangible yet present when the Byrek is made from garden fresh ingredients and by hands that have shaped and rolled the dough for decades. It just tastes different, and is more satisfying. As Albanians become more educated and two salaries are needed to keep the family budget in tact, one of the casualties of this modernization is less time for cooking. As television and exposure to all that entails, markets and tastes are moving towards prepared and pre packaged foods. The younger generation understandably is moving away from the cooking traditions of prior years, mainly due to lack of time. As I watched Sara make her work of art, I wondered if such a tradition would continue.
As I forced myself to eat Sara’s “air squash” Byrek slowly, as it was melt in your mouth delicious, I said a prayer that such traditions survive in the transforming modernization of Albania.
Some wonderful websites for learning more about Albanian food:
My Albanian Food http://www.myalbanianfood.com/visit-albania/
Traditional Albania Food https://sites.google.com/site/albaninanfood/home/flija/albanian-burek
Must try Albanian foods https://www.goatsontheroad.com/10-must-try-albanian-foods/
Must try Albanian foods https://www.goatsontheroad.com/10-must-try-albanian-foods/