Returning to alphabetical order, our next destination was Albania, a country located on the eastern shore of the Adriatic Sea—just above Greece. While examples of Afghan and Malian culture had seemed difficult to find here in Boston, we knew that the city has hosted a substantial Albanian-American population since the early twentieth century.
On Saturday morning, we set out for South Boston to see what we could find. The neighborhood is known mainly for its Irish-American community, and the fact that we were visiting on the day before its annual St Patrick’s Day parade made this especially obvious. Nonetheless, we’d heard that many Albanian immigrants had also put down roots in the area.
Upon reaching South Boston, our first stop was the neighborhood branch of the Boston Public Library, where Jess and I viewed a temporary exhibit called “Boston: The Veteran Capital of the Albanian-Americans.”
The exhibit was small, but it helped us to appreciate the key role that Boston has played in upholding Albanian-American culture on a national level. Among other things, the city is home to St George Cathedral, seat of the Albanian Orthodox Church in America. Because the cathedral is only a few blocks away from the library, we couldn’t resist taking a look.
Before hopping on the red line, we needed to make one final stop: the South Boston Foodie’s, a local market where we hoped to find many of the traditional Albanian ingredients for some recipes that we’d found online. Having picked up spinach, feta cheese, yogurt, filo dough, and more, we returned to Somerville.
For lunch, we baked an Albanian vegetable pie, or Byrek Shqiptar me perime, which featured a spinach and cheese filling tucked within a very flaky crust.
This was the first time that either of us had baked with filo dough, and it took us a while to figure out how to assemble the enormous pie.
We left dinner to the professionals at Vlora, a restaurant in the Back Bay which describes its menu as a mixture of Albanian, Greek, and Italian cuisines. The family that owns the restaurant came to Boston from the port city of Vlorë, Albania, from which the restaurant takes its name. That said, it was difficult to figure out which menu items were most authentically Albanian. Following an appetizer of meatballs stuffed with feta cheese, my lamb kafta gyro seemed to fit the bill:
After enjoying the not-so-traditional appetizer of feta-topped watermelon cubes, Jess ordered a “stoup” containing potatoes, green beans, zucchini, and other Mediterranean vegetables. For dessert, Jess ordered the Albanian kompekai.
Kompekai is a bread pudding containing chocolate, walnut, pistachio, and caramel, served here with whipped cream and powdered sugar. Although the nuts prevented me from ordering the same, I ordered some vanilla ice cream and admired the Albanian delicacy through my camera lens.
After dinner, we rented The Forgiveness of Blood (2011) about a fictional Albanian family’s bitter feud with their neighbors.
I was somewhat astonished to read that because of a strict honor code called the kanun, perhaps as many as 20,000 Albanians currently confine themselves to their homes so as to avoid encountering members of the family with which they are engaged in a blood feud.
The next morning, Jess prepared kabuni, a sweet rice pilaf that some Albanians like to eat for breakfast.
For much of the day we read Lloyd Alexander’s The Illyrian Adventure, a lighthearted novel set in the fictionalized Kingdom of Illyria—its name borrowed from that of the ancient empire whose territory centered on present-day Albania. We helped ourselves to some leftover vegetable pie for lunch.
In the afternoon, we decided to bake some Albanian cookies, or kurabie, made with “Greek” (also Albanian) yoghurt and lemon. They were delicious, though as with the pie we hadn’t expected to bake so many:
Even though Boston is known for supporting a large Albanian population, finding an authentic Albania was more difficult than we had supposed. Many of the recipes that we found seemed inspired by the cuisine of Albania’s influential neighbors, including Greece, Italy, and Turkey. The city’s only public exhibit about its Albanian heritage would be closing at the end of the month. Nevertheless, our exposure to the food and culture of this small Balkan nation showed us a new side of Europe.