Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Eat, eat, it will do you good!

My father-in-law (his picture is a couple of posts back) owned a restaurant when he was younger, and each and every time I sat down at his table, he would say to his family and guests, “Eat, eat, it will do you good!” When I married into an Albanian family (and, yes, it’s true that you marry the whole family), I had no idea of the taste treats that awaited me. The other day, I was commenting to Pat (an Arkansas stamper) about some Albanian dishes, and I decided to expand the comments into a whole post.

For those who are geographically challenged, Albania is a small country northwest of Greece and due east of the heel of Italy’s boot, across the Adriatic Sea. For those who have no interest in Greece or Italy, let alone the Adriatic Sea, my condolences. I will keep you in my prayers.

Some Albanian dishes are similar to Italian ones, some are similar to Greek ones, and some are completely and uniquely Albanian.

The secret of Mrs. Rhymeswithplague’s mother's spaghetti sauce was that she put chicken thighs, drumsticks, and breasts -– skin, bones, and all -- into it. Her mother also made kos (homemade yogurt), byrek (the Albanian equivalent of Greek spanakopita, a spinach pie that includes feta cheese and eggs and sauteed onions in layers of homemade phyllo dough), and -- my personal favorite -- avgolemono (a wonderful creamy egg lemon soup, also Greek, into which some people also add chicken).

Mrs. Rhymeswithplague makes some of the the world’s best avgolemono (ahv-go-LEM-uh-no) and byrek (byoo-REK), if I do say so myself. The creamy soup is difficult to make because, she says, it’s very easy for the eggs to curdle if you don’t drizzle the soup into the egg mixture properly and then you wind up with Chinese egg-drop soup on your hands instead. She doesn’t make kos -- she prefers to buy yogurt from the supermarket -- but she has made a tavë (TAH-va), which is okra, tomatoes, green peppers, eggplant, and onions baked in a pan. If one desires, it can also include potatoes and chunks of beef. Scrumptious! One of Mrs. Rhymeswithplague’s childhood favorites was a mixture of kos, dill, cucumbers, and garlic that one dipped into with pita bread. I’m also told that when guests came to one’s home, one was expected to offer them a spoonful of jelly and a small amount of whiskey.

I did a little research using an English-Albanian online dictionary and discovered that byrek means “pie” and tavë means “pan.” So much for exotic-sounding names.

Some other words and phrases one might hear around an Albanian dinner table include:

Pi ujë (pee wee), drink water
Bukë (book), bread
Qumështe (KYOO-mesht), milk
Do bukë? (dough BOOK?), do you want bread?

and after the meal:

Barku me cep (BAR-koo mih SEP-uh), my belly has corners (the Albanian equivalent of “I’m stuffed” or “I’m full” or “I couldn’t possibly eat another bite.” In Korea, I’m told, to show one’s gratitude for a meal, one belches loudly.)

Here, in my opinion, are the three most important Albanian phrases to know, so that someone (one’s spouse, for instance) can send you a private message when other people are within earshot:

3. Do veç nevojtora? (dough VETCH nuh-vy-TAW-duh?), do you have to go to the bathroom?

2. Shumë para (shoom puh-RAH), too expensive.

and, as David Letterman would say, the number-one most important Albanian phrase to know:

1. Hapi syri, mbylla gojë (oppy SOODY, BYOO-leh GOY), open your eyes and shut your mouth.

Of one thing I am sure: I ate, and ate, and it did me a world of good.


  1. Fascinating! My grandfather (father's mother) was Hungarian, my grandmother Lithuanian, whereas my mother's parents were from Lancashire, England. But the only Hungarian my grandfather was ever taught was "I do not like you, Grandma" to say to her when she visited. People do strange things to children. Off to practise my Albanian now.

  2. Thanks for the info on Albania. About all I knew of it came from reading (a murder mystery, natch!) The Unexpected Mrs. Pollifax by Dorothy Gilman. If your lady wife has not already read the Mrs. Pollifax series, she might find them quite entertaining.

    I didn't have a father-in-law saying "eat, eat" but somehow over the past 50+ years I have managed to add quite a few pounds to my frame. I *do* love good-tasting food, whatever its ethnic background may be.

    To my knowledge, I don't have any exotic blood flowing in my veins, and wasn't exposed to any 'spoken-at-home' language other than English. My forebearers were English, Welsh, Scot, German and, my daddy told me a teeny wee bit of Native American Cherokee (from the mid-1800's).

    A belated thanks for your response re: the meatballs.

  3. Oh, yum. You've made me hungry, and I just finished supper.

    The tavë sounds like something my Afghan friends used to serve me.

    This was very interesting. Thank you.

  4. Two questions for you Dad...the "kos" and dill, cucumbers, and that similar to the Greek tsatziki dip we get at the Lbanese/Greek restaurant in Homewood? forgot to mention the Albanian word that Granddad always taught his grandchildren when he wanted to irritate Grandmom...;-)

    Good post...brings back good memories!! Love you both!

  5. oops...that's Lebanese...

  6. I don't know any Afghanis (Ruth) or Lithuanians (Daphne), but I know a whole slew of English, Scot, and German folks (Pat). And we live in "Cherokee" County, Georgia, to boot, where the infamous Trail of Tears began. If you're ever in Cherokee, North Carolina, in the summertime, be sure to see the "Unto These Hills" outdoor drama about the history of the Cherokee Indians. It's worth the trip and you can take in Great Smoky Mountain National Park in the bargain. We do have some Hungarian friends, though, and have known them for nearly 40 years. It surprised me to learn that Buda and Pest were two separate cities originally.

    Angela, your mother says that tzatziki (gyro sauce) differs from the dip she remembers in that tzatziki doesn't have cucumbers in it as far as she knows. And we don't know what word you're referring to that your grandfather taught you --but knowing him, it was probably a body part or a bodily function!

  7. A footnote: All of you know some Albanians. John Belushi of Saturday Night Live fame was Albanian, as is his brother, American comedian Jim Belushi. And Mother Teresa was also Albanian. Her name was originally Agnes Gonxhe Bojaxhiu ("xh" is pronounced in Albanian lika a "j", and "j" is pronounced like a "y".)

  8. My friends live in Gainesville so only about 45 miles from you. I remember once seeing their daughter clogging at the Georgia Mountain Fair in Hiawassee and that was quite an experience for a Brit.

    I even have the drinks mug to prove it !

    No 'foreign' blood in my family but when in America, my accent causes people think I'm Canadian/Australian/Scottish so does that count ?!

  9. The word I was taught by granddad was indeed a bodily function...;-)

    The tzatziki dip at Nabeel's in Homewood, Alabama has dill and cucumbers...maybe that's the Greek/Lebanese way of fixing that particular dip...I thought you had tried it there before.

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  11. Angela, we stand corrected about the tzatziki....

  12. A big rhymeswithplague welcome to Silverback, a first-time commenter from the UK! (For all you Southeastern Conference football fans in the audience, that does not mean the University of Kentucky.)

    Florida is in our family's blood. I met my wife in Orlando; we lived for seven years in Boca Raton in Palm Beach County; and my younger son's family lived in Clearwater for five years. Even now they are preparing to return to the Tampa area after eight years in Atlanta. I have never been to Sebring but about 36 or 37 years ago I spent a day in Avon Park. I will turn the question back to you: does that count?

    I will tell you what I tell all "foreign" visitors to our shores (especially those living here half the year): bring lots of money!

  13. I've given you a blog award, Bob, over at my place. I see you already have this one, but you can get it twice. (I did.)

  14. What interesting information Bob, I'd never have thought that Albanians food would be similar to Italian or Greek, both of which I love I might add. I used to eat tons of Greek food when I worked in Detroit. I guess I always pictured Albanians as more Eastern European than eastern mediterranian in that respect. Thanks for the info. :)

  15. Thank you for your comment on my blog, Bob - just to bring you up to speed, in case I confuse you in future - Emily's our daughter, 19, and only child: Gareth is my son-in-law: we also have a cat called Froggie, three geckos, a lot of crickets which the geckos eat, and five baby Giant African Land Snails. And my father lives in a nursing home, sadly: my mother in a house at the bottom of our garden. Now read on - - and I hope you will!

  16. afeatheradrift, I remember that whereas many American cities have a section called Chinatown, I was surprised to find on a business trip to Detroit that it had a section called Greektown! And the Albanian food seems very Greek to me, what with dolmathes (stuffed grape leaves with lemon sauce), salads with Greek olives and feta cheese, many different dishes made from lamb, and so forth.

    Daphne, I don't think I would fare well having to interact with three geckos, crickets, and five baby Giant African Land Snails. Maybe, just maybe, a cat named Froggie.

    When I was a child there was a radio program called Let's Pretend on Saturday mornings, during which the announcer would always say, "Pluck your magic twanger, Froggie!" to get the drama going -- but I never envisioned Froggie as a cat. The program also included a commercial for Buster Brown shoes, with a little boy saying week after week, "I'm Buster Brown! I live in a shoe! That's my dog, Tige! Look for him in there too!"

    I guess I've wandered off-topic.

  17. Well, now I know roughly twice as much about Albania as I did before! Thanks for those useful phrases - I'm sure they'll come in handy next time I'm in London, where they have quite a large Albanian population in some areas, I'm told!

    Sadly, none of the food you mention would do me the least good, on account of I'm allergic to eggs and I don't like okra. Apart from that, it sounds wonderful!

    Johnn Belushi was Albanian, I believe.

  18. Ah, I see you mention John Belushi further down the comments list! And of course, his brother Jim!