Flash back to communism

The other day I was having coffee with my counterpart and her mom when the topic of communism came up. Don’t ask me how, I couldn’t even begin to explain the twists and turns our conversations take. You all know how it is. Regardless, I left that coffee in complete disbelief. I’ve heard so many different stories about communism and Albania during the 50 year rule of Enver Hoxha (dictator from 1944 until his death in 1985) that I didn’t think anything could phase me. It kind of felt like high school history lessons about the Holocaust in which I’m just too far removed to understand the reality and too jaded or desensitized by History Channel specials. But what really got to me was hearing stories of the day-to-day life of Albanian citizens, who I know so well today. Putting a face and a name to the facts makes all the difference in the world.

The fact that they all survived this harsh communist dictatorship and are thriving today continuously astounds me. And makes me a little more sympathetic to the cultural nuances and oddities that confound me. It really does make me appreciate the struggles of these people and this country and cut them a little slack instead of jumping to conclusions and judging to quickly about why some people call them a “backwards country” or a “developing nation.” These are some of the strongest people I’ve ever met. True survivors.

Back then, families had rations for everything. The state decided how much they should eat and when. My counterpart’s mom told me this story-

She remembers waiting in line starting at 3am to get a loaf of bread and a carton of milk once a week, because if she got in line just 30 minutes later everything would be gone by the time it was her turn. That’s how desperate they were for food. So she waited. And waited. And waited. Each week she was given a ration of 10 eggs to feed her family of four. She would divide the eggs into the yolks and the whites so she could give her kids the yolks and her husband the whites. And she went without. Once a month she’d get a ratio for 100 g of coffee (just to think that I drink that in a few days probably), 1 kilo of meat, and  1 kilo of cheese if she could manage to find a store that carried it. And that was it.

She jokes that we Albanians “looked like we were living in Ethiopia or something” compared to what you see today. Everyone was skin and bones because there wasn’t enough to go around. Imagine a government starving its own people. For 50 years. The government decided when they would eat, what they would eat, and how much. It decided where the would work, when, and with what salary. It decided where they would live and what they could decorate their house with. She laughed to herself and she describe the couch in her living room. Every single person across the entire nation had the same couch. The same rug. The same table. The same chairs. They were given them by the government without a choice and without options.

It’s stories like this that give me so much respect for all the old men and women walking the streets of Albania with their heads held high. They still dress in the traditional clothes and they often still go to work the same way they did under communism. What else can they do? They don’t know anything else.

So I’ll be damned if I judge them ever again for being stuck in their ways or overly traditional and difficult to work with. They’re strict for a reason. They question my intentions for a reason. They are protective of their families and their traditions for a reason.

There are very few places left in the world where you can talk to people from each generation who have suffered through such a communist dictatorship and come out the other side. So stop and listen to their stories before it’s too late and the memories are gone. They have  a lot to tell. And we have a lot to learn.

“It’s not better. It’s not worse. It’s just different.”

Fresh is best

I’m quite a foodie, so I hate to admit this, but I’m not going to lie…when I lived in the U.S. I always thought that parsley was just garnish. Whenever I saw “fresh parsley” in a recipe I usually just skipped it and left it out. It doesn’t add anything, right? I thought it was just a pretty green thing that sat next to your food on the plate.

Boy was I wrong. Living in Albania I’m surrounded by so much fresh food. It’s insane. The little old ladies sitting on the sidewalk selling vegetables have so many things I’ve never seen or heard of before. Okay probably because half of them are weeds and grasses that we don’t eat in the U.S., but still. My curiosity always gets the best of me.

So the other day, my little vegetable man didn’t have change for my 200 leke bill so he gave me a bundle of fresh parsley instead (this is a pretty standard occurrence  but it works out in the end because if one day I don’t have exact change either he just gives it to me for free). At first I was kind of annoyed, thinking what can I do with parsley?! But how I supposed to know that in hindsight, this moment would be life changing?

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So I took my parsley home begrudgingly and decided to look up some of those old recipes with parsley that I’d left out in the past and gave them a second try. Waist not. And what did I discover? Ooohhh myy good. Parsley has a flavor! And it’s delicious. Go figure. And it honest to god makes a huge difference in the flavor profile and the palette. I was trying to make before. How would’ve thought. Lesson learned- don’t question the recipe.

My first try was with curried cauliflower and lentils. I added some homemade yogurt and fresh parsley on top this time. I’m telling you, don’t skip it! Spend the extra 10 cents and get the fresh parsley (well that how much mine costs here at least). I promise you won’t regret it. The parsley completely changes this dish. It adds a level of freshness that’s indescribable. The curry is pretty spicy so the yogurt helps add a cooling effect and the parsley has a little bit to it that cuts through the spice and brings out the flavor of the veggies. Incredible.

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Ingredients:

½ cup red lentils, rinsed

1 small onion, chopped

2 teaspoons curry powder, preferably Madras

½ teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon turmeric

½ cup yogurt

½ cup tomato sauce

2 cups water

4 tomatoes, seeded and chopped

1 cup green peas

4 cups cauliflower florets

1 tablespoon canola oil

1 tablespoon cumin seeds

3 cloves garlic, minced

2 teaspoons ginger

¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper

2 tablespoons lemon juice

1 tablespoon fresh parsley

Method:

Combine lentils, onions, curry powder, salt, turmeric and water in a large saucepan over low heat; bring to a simmer. Cover and cook, stirring occasionally, until the lentils are soft and the sauce has thickened, about 45 minutes. Add tomatoes, tomato sauce, yogurt, cauliflower, peas and simmer, covered, until the cauliflower is tender, 8 to 10 minutes longer. Remove from heat. Heat oil in a small skillet over medium-high heat. Add cumin seeds and cook for about 10 seconds. Add garlic and ginger; cook, stirring, until the garlic is lightly browned, about 1 minute. Stir in cayenne and immediately add the oil-spice mixture to the cauliflower mixture. Stir in lemon juice and top with fresh parsley and a dollop of yogurt.

 

My next adventure was with homemade tabouleh. Now this dish is really amazing because fresh parsley is the star, not a topping. So splurge and buy a few bundle of fresh parsley and rock out this recipe. Best lunch I’ve had all spring. It’s so refreshing with lemon squeezed on top and its chock full of fresh veggies. I ate my tabouleh on top of a bed of lettuce, but you can also eat it plan or with pita, tortilla chips, whatever your little heart desires.

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Ingredients:

2 bunches of fresh parsley (1 1/2 cup chopped, with stems discarded)

2 tablespoons of fresh mint, chopped

I medium onion, finely chopped

6 medium tomatoes, diced

1 tablespoon salt

1/2 teaspoon black pepper

1/2 cup bulghur, medium grade

6 tablespoons lemon juice

6 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

Romaine lettuce or grape leaves to line serving bowl (optional)

Method:

 Soak bulghur in cold water for 1 1/2 to 2 hours until soft. Squeeze out excess water from bulghur using hands or paper towel. Combine all ingredients, except for salt, pepper, lemon juice, and olive oil. Line serving bowl with grape leaves or romaine lettuce, and add salad.   Sprinkle olive oil, lemon juice, salt and pepper on top.  Serve immediately or chill in refrigerator for 2 hours before serving.

It’s amazing to me how fresh and delicious produce tastes in Albania. Everything is just a little be sweeter. Maybe it’s the lack of preservatives and the fact that they were grown in my neighbors backyard and didn’t have to be picked unripe, sent on a cargo plane, and sifted through at a warehouse before reaching my plate. Food in Albania is naturally organic, naturally fair trade, and naturally delicious. Never in my life would I think of biting into a fresh lemon but now I eat one at lunch almost everyday. I’m going to miss this when I go back home, that’s for sure.

“It’s not better. It’s not worse. It’s just different.”

When is a cup, not a cup?

Answer- when you’re cooking in Albania.

I’m sure by now, after 15 months of listening to me compare Albania to America, you’ve gotten the message- it’s different here. But this one really hits home for the foodie in me.

I love to cook and I love to bake. But more than that, I love to share the food I make with people. Imagine my surprise to find out that sharing a recipe with an Albanian is just a whole lot harder than it should be. Why’s that? Well, funny you should ask.

Fun fact about Albania. Measuring cups and measure spoons are not used in Albania. As a matter a fact, they are not even sold in stores. I’m lucky enough to live in an apartment that has been passed down by generations of PCVs for 10 years so it’s pretty well stocked with American goodies and cooking supplies. Hence my ignornce on this topic.

In Albania, a teaspoon is literally a spoon used to stir team. And a tablespoon is literally a spoon used at the table.

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And there’s no such thing as half a cup or a quarter of a cup. It’s either a coffee cup (right) or a tea cup (left).

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But this week, when I was meeting with my Change the World group we decided that we should have a bake sale. We want to go to the beach near Shkoder next weekend to clean up all the garbage before tourist season starts as a way to raise awareness about the environment, but a lot of my students aren’t from wealthy families. So why not raise to some money so that we can do activities without having to pay transportation fees from our pockets?! For me, this was the perfect merger of things I love- youth activism, helping the environment, student leadership…and baking!

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This week we also celebrated EU Day (since Albania is desperately trying to get into the EU we have lots of these kinds of holidays), so one of my brilliant students thought it would be cool if we each cooked a dessert from a different country in the EU and sold them in our bake sale. After all, you have to know about the world before you can Change the World. This is why my kids rock, I’m telling you. So their homework was to pick a country, find a recipe, and bring their dessert and the flag of their country to our bake sale. Easy, right? Not so much. Please see the above pictures on the cooking instruments used in this sometimes crazy country.

The conversation went something like this:

Me- “You need to add 2 cups of flour.”

Student A- “Teacher, is it a tea cup or a coffee cup?”

Me- “It’s just a cup. A cup is a cup”

Student A- “Okay, but what kind?”

Me- “Huh?” I don’t understand what’s so confusing about a cup…

Needless to say, after several minutes of sheer confusion, I managed to explain the beauty of standard measurements and came up with loose conversions for each item in the recipes.

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And the next day I was happily surprised by the deliciousness of the desserts we had to offer. Unfortunately, the concept of fundraising and bake sales is still a little for foreign for most Albanians. And the 50 cent price tag was deemed too steep by almost every passerby. But we did manage to raise the equivalent of $30 which will easily get my whole crew to the beach and back for our clean-up day.

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So I think today’s mission of changing the hearts and minds (and tastebuds) of Albanians was a success. And now I know, when an Albanian gives me a recipe always what kind of cup I should use. Because here, a cup isn’t always just a cup.

“It’s not better. It’s not worse. It’s just different.”

Straight from the udder

On May 1st all of Shkoder goes to Velipoja beach. We have the day off for Labor Day and its usually the first hot day of the year, hence the beginning of summer. So in  my best attempt to act Albanian, I followed suit and treked out to the beach, which is about 45 mins from where I live in Shkoder.

The night before I was lucky enough to be invited to join my 2 favorite Albanian families for lunch and general enjoyment on the beach, so how could I say no? And on the way to the beach we stopped at this little place on the side of the road for ice cream, which in and of itself isn’t all that special. But this ice cream in particular got me thinking. So saddle up and get ready for the strange thoughts of a lonely PCV (believe me, your mind would wander and come up with weird ideas too if you were surrounded by people having intense debates in a language that you can’t follow. I’ve gotten pretty good at entertaining myself and having full-blown conversations in my head, let’s just say that).

Ice cream. That’s where it started. And this ice cream in particular.

I forgot to take a picture right away so excuse my half-eaten ice cream-ness

I forgot to take a picture right away so excuse my half-eaten ice cream-ness

This ice cream signifies one of the reasons why I love Albania. Along the road in a small village on the way to  sea, there is this little old lady on the side of the street that has a small stand with a vendor’s umbrella and sign that simply says “Akulloret”. But let me tell you, this is not just any ice cream. Behind her stand is her family’s picturesque little farm with cows, chickens, and rows upon rows of flower fruit trees. So everyone morning she walks down from her farm to her stand on the side of the road and sells this ice cream. And when she runs out, she doesn’t go to Safeway, call the district supply manager, or place an order for another delivery. She goes home, milks her cow, makes more ice cream, walks back to her stand, and continues to stand there in the blazing 110 degree weather selling her ice cream to all the cars that pass by.

And in all honesty, I’ve never tasted ice cream so fresh. Sorry Eddy’s, your Double Churned French Vanilla  has nothing on this. No amount of manufacturing or factory taste-testing can recreate this flavor. Everything in Albania is just so much fresher. And what can I say, fresher is better.

Which quickly brings me to my second point. Here I am eating the best ice cream ever, right? And in 5 secs its gone and my magical experience is over. Why is ice cream in Albania served in such tiny portions?! It should be a crime. You shouldn’t be able to sell the best ice cream ever and not have a “super size me” option. When you get a scoop of ice cream in this wonderful country, it’s literally the size of a tablespoon. You know, like the size that the nutrion facts label says you actually should be eating. Not the American “gotta have it” Cold Stone size that we all know and love. It’s like no one has invented the extra-large in this country yet. Thank you Albania for forcing me to think about just how much junk Americans put into our bodies. And thank you for guilt-tripping me into going on a diet.

But maybe I’ll start it tomorrow. Who actually follows the serving sizes?! I mean, you’re having ice cream. You’ve already blown your diet. Just eat it. And go back for seconds. And I’ve been known to put back entire Ben & Jerry’s cartons over the course of one evening. So don’t judge me when I drive back to the little old lady on the side of the road and ask her for a refill.

“It’s not better. It’s not worse. It’s just different.”