As the official national campaign for promotion of tourism in Macedonia states – “senses are gates of our souls”. And the past month of travelling around Macedonia has been a real treat to all my senses. So many breathtaking cities and natural wonders, lots of great music in restaurants and countless night clubs, so many hugs, kisses and hand shakes from some of the warmest people I’ve met and last but not least, such amazingly delicious and fragrant cuisine!
Bread & Snacks
Almost like Paris, Skopje and Bitola (and any other city in Macedonia for that matter) are scattered with little bakeries, selling all sorts of bite sized breads and snacks, so you do not have to worry about being hungry at any time of the day.
“Varen Gevrek” is a delicious type of bread, which is prepared in two phases after the dough has risen – first the rolls are given a quick cook in boiling salted water, then they are covered in sesame and baked in the oven. The result is more than delicious and if you happen to be strolling down the main street in Bitola (Širok Sokak), make sure to get one filled with olives. Yum!
“Kifli” (bread rolls) are probably one of the most popular Macedonian delicacies and are also one of the dishes I learned to prepare while staying there for three weeks. My boyfriend’s mother kindly shared here recipe for the pretty and delicious little leavened breads with me and guided me through the process of making them. I will be sharing the recipe with you in one of my posts but for now let it be enough to say that these soft leavened cuties also contain a delicious cottage cheese filling. You can of course fill them with white cheese, ham or bacon or make them sweet with a walnut filling for example.
“Lepinja” (flat bread) is a soft, slightly leavened flatbread baked usually from wheat flour. It is used in many Mediterranean, Balkan and Middle Eastern cuisines and resembles other slightly leavened flatbreads such as Iranian nan-e barbari, South Asian flatbreads and Central Asian naan, and pizza crust. Most pita are baked at high temperatures (230 °C), causing the flattened rounds of dough to puff up dramatically. When removed from the oven, the layers of baked dough remain separated inside the deflated pita, which allows the bread to be opened to form a pocket. However, pita is sometimes baked without pockets and is called “pocket-less pita”. They usually use it to make a sandwich with “pljeskavica” or fill it with 5 or 10 “čevapčići” but it also makes for a great side dish to melted cheese or any other delicacies from the oven (see below). In my case, the lepinja was made with spelt flour, again, following the recipe and guidance of my boyfriend’s mother. What more could a foodie and baking enthusiast like me wish for from a travel than to combine it with a few interesting cooking classes, right?
“Piroška” is another one of the many street foods you can get in Macedonia. It’s basically a fried dough pizza like pocket filled with ham and cheese. To get one, take a stroll around Bitola’s old bazaar or pazar and you will find a small shop selling them. But make sure you come in the morning because they are most likely to sell out before afternoon, especially on pazar’s busiest days – Tuesday and Friday.
“Leblebija” (roasted chickpeas) are a very popular snack in Macedonia. Along with roasted peanuts and all sorts of nuts and seeds, you can buy them at almost any street corner and you will definitely run into a lot of people with white paper bags in their hands, snacking on these small nutritious delights. Essentially it is just roasted chickpeas without any added salt which in my opinion makes them much healthier than the usually more popular alternative – salted peanuts. Rich in protein, leblebija is also a good substitute for meat. If you are not really interested in it’s health benefits, that’s just fine. Grab a bottle of beer or a cocktail and a bowl of leblebija and you are guaranteed to have some great time with your friends.
Hardly any Macedonian meal goes by without some sort of “skara”. Pljeskavice, uštipci, kebapi, rolled pork meat… you name it, you got it! Kebapi are grilled minced meat composed into the shape of a sausage. Onions, vegeta (which is a very popular mixture of Macedonian herbs) and paprika are what give this dish its savoury flavour. Kebapi are usually served with freshly baked flatbread and kajmak, most restaurants also serve them with french fries (or boiled potatoes and/or rice if you are at a so-called fancy restaurant).
“Makedonka” is a very popular grilled dish as well. Essentially it’s pljeskavica (minced meat shaped into a patty) but with an added bonus of “kaškavalj” (yellow cheese) in the middle, all nice and melted after a good treatment on the grill. Head out to Vila Gorna Kuka in Slepche for a delicious “makedonka” in a homely restaurant surrounded by trees and decorated with all sorts of traditional old cooking utensils.
“Gurmanska Pljeskavica” is another, so called gourmet, variety of the traditional minced meat patty, since yellow cheese and pieces of bacon are added to the mixture before grilling. If you happen to be in Skopje, I suggest trying the one from Skara & Restoran 7 with a side of shopska or mixed salad and some french fries covered with white sheep cheese (an unexpected combination, you might think, but it’s really delicious).
For those of you who are not really into minced meat but would still like something more than just a grilled steak, try the “Rolovana svinjska šnicla”, which is a pork steak rolled around ham and yellow cheese and grilled on the barbecue. I had mine in one of the fancy restaurants in Bitola, Restaurant Belvedere, and I wasn’t dissapointed, although I have to say it wasn’t one of the best grills I’ve had in Bitola. That would, somehow surprisingly, have to be the gurmanska pljeskavica that I’ve had at House of Manaki.
“Ohridska pastrmka” (The Ohrid Trout) is a really delicious endemic species of trout in Lake Ohrid and in its tributaries and outlet, the Black Drin river, in the Republic of Macedonia and Albania. In recent years, extensive fishing has driven the Ohrid trout to the verge of extinction, which is why fishing is now only allowed during certain periods.
It is, in my humble opinion, one of the most delicious fish you can get, so I highly recommend you try it. Make sure you make the time to stop at Rajska dolina (Paradise Valley) on your way to Ohrid or back, since they prepare the most delicious grilled Ohrid Trout you can imagine and their staff is super friendly, bringing the fish to your table so you can choose the perfect one. I recommend you make a reservation, though, since this place is packed, especially on the weekends.
“Riblja čorba” (Fish Soup) is another popular fish dish. In fact so popular, that I often saw people having it for breakfast. Fish soup is not the only soup they eat – veal soup is also very popular, but following a suggestion from our dear friend who took us to Gostilnica Dukat for a late breakfast after a fun night out in Skopje, we went for the fish soup. And it was oh, so delicious!
From the Oven
Many of the traditional dishes in Macedonia are baked in the oven in the so-called “zemljena tava”, lovely hand made and hand decorated clay pots.
“Selsko meso” (Country Meat) is hands down my favorite Macedonian dish I’ve had the opportunity to taste. I was lucky enough not to have it at a restaurant but was served with a delicious homemade meal prepared by my boyfriend’s parents. Here is how Selsko is made: You cook lots (and I mean lots!) of onions and also lots of pork meat, cut into medium sized cubes. You add roasted champignons and dried red peppers to the mix and place everything in the zemljena tava. The mix is then topped with some “kaškavalj” (yellow cheese) and baked in the oven to perfection.
“Tava Makedonska Kuka” is another delicious oven baked dish you can try if you decide to go to Makedonska Kuka restaurant in either Prilep, Ohrid or Skopje. It’s name might bring in a lot of tourists, promising a true Macedonian meal and experience, but that does not influence the quality of their food (well, most of it, for that matter.. I was really disappointed with their “selsko meso” (left picture below) which was nothing in comparison to the one in the picture above). These restaurants are authentic characteristics of the Macedonian spirit and traditions in the catering industry. They are not simply restaurants, but also museums – unique and priceless collections of souvenirs and ornaments, many centuries old, in traditional Macedonian structures which provide for a really nice setting. As for the Tava, it’s similar to selsko meso and it contains pork meat, mushrooms, peppers, onions, special sauce and yellow cheese. Delicious!
“Sirenje vo furna (or topeno sirenje)” (melted cheese) is a simple but very filling dish, which, contrary to other Macedonian dishes which all use white cheese, contains crushed feta cheese. It’s a dish made of a layer of tomato sauce or ketchup, origano, feta cheese, chopped pork neck, roasted champignons and topped with yellow cheese, which are then all grilled in the oven until the cheese melts and the yellow cheese gets a nice brownish burn on top.
“Tavče gravče” is another oven baked delicacy which I’ve had the opportunity to taste at Via Ignatia, a lovely restaurant in Vevchani, with it’s own little ZOO and some breathtaking views of the surrounding mountains and forests. If you are in the neighborhood or are looking for an idea for a day trip from Ohrid, I suggest you stop here for a feast that will satisfy both your tummy and your wallet.
Tavče gravče is a dish prepared with fresh beans and is considered a national dish of Macedonia. According to Wikipedia, this is how it’s prepared: The beans are cleaned and then soaked in cold water for 3 hours to become soft. After that they are boiled in a pot. After first boiling, the water is thrown out and replaced with fresh water. Then the onion and the red pepper are added. Apart in a pan, an onion together with the black pepper are fried. When the beans are boiled, they are put in earthenware together with the onion and the red pepper and stirred well. Afterwards, a lid is put on the earthenware and the dish is cooked in an oven at 220 °C. During the baking, the beans are cooked carefully so that they do not become dry.
“Gomleze” (Macedonia Pie) is a dish typical for the Ohrid region. To simplify, a layer of slightly thicker crepes-like batter is baked under a baking lid so that it only cooks from the top. Once the layer is almost baked through, it is topped with some oil and then another layer of the batter is added. The process is then repeated until all the batter is used and the top layer is slightly brown.
“Zelnik” is a phyllo stuffed pastry, usually stuffed with cabbage (which is where it gets it’s name from) but in a more delicious alternative it is stuffed with cooked leeks (it can also be stuffed with spinach, minced meat or cottage cheese). With a side of yogurt or kefir, it makes for a delicious dinner or snack. My cooking-class-enriched travel to Macedonia also consisted of making some leek stuffed zelnik. First we made the phyllo pastry from spelt flour (which luckily, following my boyfriend’s recommendation, I brought with me, since you can’t get it in Macedonia) from scratch, rolled it into two thin sheets and then filled it with cooked leeks. A half an hour later, this delicious creation came out of the oven and made for a perfect dinner.
“Maznik” (in the right picture below) is another entree or side dish found in most Macedonian restaurants. Maznik can be made by rolling (suchenje) or pulling (tegnenje) the dough, which is then filled with white or feta cheese. Traditionally maznik is made every “Suro”, for the “Old New Year” celebrated on 14 January (following the Julian calendar). A gold coin (wrapped in foil) is placed into the dough and baked. Each family member is then cut a slice of maznik, the tray is spun three times and the person that finds the coin has a full year of ‘good luck’.
“Shopska and mixed salad” are probably the two most popular salads in Macedonia, at least they were for us. We seem to have substituted the apple in the famous saying with a shopska or mixed salad since we literally had at least one a day. Shopska salad contains of tomatoes, cucumbers, onions, white cheese and sometimes peppers. It is topped with salt and olive oil but never vinegar. Mixed salads usually contain grated carrots, red beets, cabbage, cucumbers, tomatoes and sometimes green lettuce.
“Taratur” is made with garlic, soured milk, cucumber, sunflower oil and salt. It is garnished with dill and served either room temperature or chilled. It can also be served as soup if the cucumbers are finely chopped and more milk is added.
“Peceni piperki” (grilled peppers) and “suvi piperki” (dried red peppers) and any other kind of peppers for that matter are all very popular in Macedonia. Macedonians are said to be really big peppers consumers but I guess I am more Macedonian that a Macedonian since I couldn’t have enough of the grilled peppers, as well as the dried peppers (which are used more as spices) and homemade “ajvar”, a blend consisting of roasted red bell peppers, eggplants, paprika and garlic.
It’s Coffee Time All the Time
Macedonia is a coffee country. Everyone drinks it, so for someone like me, who never drinks coffee, it was quite a challenge to find something to order while in a cafe. Drinking coffee is a big part of socializing so I decided to give it a try. I ended up mostly drinking cold Nescafe (see below), usually with hazelnut or vanilla flavor, but from time to time I treated myself to my favorite coffee (and at the same time dessert) I came across in Cafe Pajton, Bitola – Creme Espresso. I don’t really know what it is made of, but it tastes heavenly, something between a coffee flavored ice cream and coffee flavored whipped cream. Heaven, I tell you!
“Nescafe ladno” (cold Nescafe) seems to be the most popular kind of coffee in Macedonia. You can see people drinking it at any time of the day, even at 11 p.m. I guess Macedonians drink so much coffee that they are almost immune to it and a Nescafe in the evening won’t prevent them from sleeping. The other option is, that nightlife in Macedonia is so much fun that no-one even wants to go to sleep. Either way, Nescafe ladno is a cold coffee with a delicious foam on top, which is made by whipping water, Nescafe and sugar with a special electric mixer. You then simply add water and/or milk and your drink is served. Perfect for a hot Macedonian summer!
“Tri lece” is a sponge cake—in some recipes, a butter cake—soaked in three kinds of milk: evaporated milk, condensed milk, and heavy cream. When butter is not used, the tri lece is a very light cake, with many air bubbles. This distinct texture is why it does not have a soggy consistency, despite being soaked in a mixture of three types of milk. In Macedonia, Tri lece is topped with a delicious caramel layer.
“Boza” is a popular fermented beverage in Kazakhstan, Turkey, Kyrgyzstan, Albania, Kosovo, Bulgaria, Macedonia, Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina, parts of Romania, Serbia, and Ukraine. It is a malt drink made from maize (corn) and wheat in Albania, fermented wheat in Turkey and wheat or millet in Bulgaria and Romania. It has a thick consistency and a low alcohol content (usually around 1%), and a slightly acidic sweet flavor. In Macedonia boza is much thinner and lighter, and tastes sweeter.
“Baklava” is a rich, sweet pastry made of layers of filo filled with chopped nuts and sweetened and held together with syrup or honey. It is characteristic of the cuisines of the former Ottoman Empire, and is also found in Central and Southwest Asia. Due to a strong Turkish influence, baklava is very popular in Macedonia as well. I learned to make a slightly lighter variation of the traditional walnut baklava – it was filled with sour cherries and only one layer of walnuts. The traditional baklava with many layers of walnuts tends to be much heavier on your stomach.
“Ohrid Cake” is a traditional cake made of different layers of shortcake and walnut, eggs and chocolate mixtures, topped with a cognac glaze and some melted chocolate. If in Ohrid, head to the Belvedere Restaurant (which by the way also serves delicious omelettes to bring you back to life after a night of partying in one of the many Ohrid night clubs and beach bars) to try the delicious Ohrid cake.
Macedonia is also a big wine country. Most wineries are scattered around the Demir Kapija valley. We decided to visit the Popova Kula winery, and apart from the wine, also tasted a dessert trilogy which consisted of “Crna Halva”, Ravanija and Chocolate Cake. Halva is a term that means “desserts” or “sweet” and is used to describe two types of desserts: (a) Flour-based which is slightly gelatinous and made from grain flour, typically semolina. The primary ingredients are clarified butter, flour, and sugar and (b) Nut-butter-based which is crumbly and usually made from tahini (sesame paste) or other nut butters, such as sunflower seed butter. The primary ingredients are nut butter and sugar.
As per wine, my favorite must have been the Classic white Alexandria from the Tikveš winery.
“Ravanija” is a sponge cake which can be made with only white or as a combination of white and brown cake batter (like the one in the picture below) which after baking is generously soaked with a mixture of milk and sugar.
“Macedonian Bajadera” is a delicious version of a better known Kraš Bajadera. It’s produced by Swisslion – Takovo, and it is made of chocolate and hazelnut enriched milk layers, topped with chocolate. It is almost like a bite-sized Eurocrem – a two-colored (brown and white) hazelnut- and vanilla-flavored sweet milk chocolate spread. In my opinion it is better than the original Bajadera. Yum yum!
“Padobranci” are hands down the best dessert I’ve had in Macedonia. To describe them in the easiest way would be to say they are “failed” French Macaroons (since they don’t form the notorious “feet”) with walnuts instead of almonds. But they are far far far from being a failure! The delicious combination of walnuts, egg whites and sugar on the outside and a delicious creamy filling in the inside will take you to heaven. It is hard to find “padobranci” in Macedonia though. To get one, you will have to go to Skopje to the one and only candy shop that sells them – Slatkarnica Rigara – in the streets of old bazaar.
“Lokum” or Turkish delight is a family of confections based on a gel of starch and sugar. Premium varieties consist largely of chopped dates, pistachios, and hazelnuts or walnuts bound by the gel; traditional varieties are mostly gel, generally flavored with rosewater, mastic, Bergamot orange, or lemon. The confection is often packaged and eaten in small cubes dusted with icing sugar, copra, or powdered cream of tartar, to prevent clinging. Due to a big Turkish influence in Macedonia throughout history, lokum is still very popular all across Macedonia. Try the ones from Slatkarnica Rigara!
And this brings us to the end. These are not nearly all the culinary delicacies of Macedonia but I think they are enough to give you the impression of how culinary rich and interesting Macedonia is. Go ahead and taste it yourself!