You won’t see many McDonalds’ or KFC’s in Macedonia and I don’t see the big food industry enterprises interested in spreading their slimy tentacles over the beautiful unspoiled lands anytime soon. Thanks God! The food in Macedonia is very raw, natural, clean, vegetarian and healthy freaks friendly and super tasty!
What do you need to know about Macedonian food before you start exploring it? The most important thing is actually the very eating culture. All countries of the eastern and south-eastern Europe share similar food culture. Being from Poland, I do know something about it. We, Slavians, have always preferred to eat at home. The popularity of eating out just now start developing in Poland and Czech republic and we still have so much to learn about restaurant business.
During communism the life was a bit more easy going as it is now, the families were usually fitting the traditional model with mum staying at home and cooking lovely dinners. Grand parents had gardens or allotments and grew food. Our societies were not very diverse so we didn’t really have opportunities to taste foods from other countries - we didn’t have oriental restaurants. The restaurants were usually serving national cuisine anyhow - so why would you eat out if your mum cooks the same things better? The restaurant existed mostly for those who travelled around. We didn’t have such a profession as ‘Chef’ - we only had ‘cooks’, and the job was hardly ever seen as a career path or job for passionate and creative people. We didn’t know many of the foreign fruit or veg, we did know some spices but not all of them. Our pallets were very ‘domesticated’ and hardly ever tolerated new things. We have always eaten a lot of meat and dairy.
So, if you are looking for a great fine dining experience - go somewhere else. In Macedonia food is simple and this is what you should seek for - local restaurants serving traditional food made in simpliest possible way. You will see that menus in those restaurants are very similar to each other, serving the selection of typical Macedonian dishes. You would normally few regular sections ont the menu - salads, cold appetisers, hot appetisers, main courses (sometimes with a separate selection of dishes from the grill) and desserts. There is usually a decent selection of wines as well.
Street food is quite exciting in Macedonia as well, however you will rarely see the typical street food stalls. It will be either small pastry shops, mostly opened quite long, or small fast food type restaurants.
water, earth, air and fire
We have started our journey in Ohrid, a city on a lake which is the second deepest, and aged over 3 million years - one of the oldest in Europe. The lake’s aquatic ecosystem is mirroring the one of lakes Baikal, Tikikaka and Tanganyika. The water is crystal clear and visibility reaches 23 meters! Guess what does that mean for foodies? Yes - the best fresh water fish I had in ages!!! The most famous type is the Ohrid Trout - it is a magnificent huge fish with dark pink flesh, very similar in flavour to salmon and grows up to 17kg! Unfortunately the species is now endangered and the Macedonian government has completely banned the commercial fishing. Unfortunately Lake Ohrid lays partially in Albania, which does not share the passion for preserving the fossil fish population. You can see Ohrid trout on the menus in all local restaurants. Last year they have fished 80 tones of it! One of the local skippers said the albanians still are using dynomite for fishing it! i know that commercial farms exist around the area and some restaurants serve the farmed fish, but I didn’t want to risk it and decided not to try it after all. The rainbow trout, or the other famous local species - Mavrovo trout are also very tasty.
I didn’t feel like I lost on anything though. The lake is so rich in other kind of fish that I didn’t even have enough meals to taste them all. The definite winner was the Ohrid Karp - another monstrosity! The carp is a bottom feeder and usually the taste of it can be a bit watery and muddy. Not at Ohrid though! The carp there is best I have ever had, meaty and very sweet. I have also tasted the tiny fish called Plasica - they were very similar to white bait, naturally a bit sweeter though. A great beer snack that was. The slightly bigger was Blasica, you would usually get two for your main meal. This fish is probably least tasty of all Ohrid ones, but still very nice and juicy. Be careful with loads of tiny fish bones though. Last, there was quite a lot of different dishes made with eel. And that again, did not disappoint. The eel I have tasted was served in super tasty veg stew, cooked in traditional Macedonian earth ware.
So that was the water. But earth gives in Macedonia even more! I have been strolling through and exploring food markets in every town I have visited. The all markets looked very similar, but how great it was to see only local products, only grown by local farmers, and only seasonal. It is autumn now, so not surprisingly, what I mostly saw was tones of different peppers, pumpkins, leeks, apples, cabbages, aubergines, onions and garlic. Also - a lot of pickles and jarred relishes - speciality of Macedonian cuisine. What I have loved the most, however was the culture of growing food everywhere! In Ohrid, you can see all of the beautiful iconic houses with some sort of fruit growing in front and back gardens. Figs, kiwis, passion fruits, quince, apples, cherries, peaches - you name it! The best food experience in Macedonia by far was a short visit to Villa Dihovo - a small agricultural farm on the edge of Pelister national park. The Villa usually provides accommodation and food for those visiting the park, I have called them up to arrange a short dinner. And I was not disappointed - all served on the night was home made, including the freshly churred butter, the sirenje, cheese curd, sausages, bread, rakija and wine. The owner was the most genuine and humble person and I definitely recommend anyone to say at his house.
Earth does not only give Macedonia its superb produce, but it also makes it famous earthware. Any souvernir shop sells the light brown earthware pots, and firstly you would think they are decorative only. Very soon you will realise that the pots are actually used by everyone and everywhere, as stews are really big in this country.
Without a doubt, pepper is the number one product of which Macedonians can truly be proud of. After my first market I have quickly realised they have many different types and must have their own kinds. And I couldn’t have been more right! The typical Macedonian peppers are - Blaga - really hot one, roga - horn shaped sweet flavoured, rezha - the one with growth stripes on it - sweet yet very spicy, and finally - ‘bukovo pepper’ which grows only in the village of Bukovo, not far from Bitola. Bukovo is definitely the most unique, the highest in quality and most interesting in flavour, generally sweet but with a nice sharp finish. It’s usually used dried as meat and soup seasoning. Macedonians use peppers everywhere, they dry quite a lot of them too and you can see big colourful chains of whole dried peppers on sale on every other market stall. There is quite a lot of different pepper powders as well, and the aroma of the spice is unforgettable.
So that was earth and air, so now - the fire! Not only they do like slightly spicy food, as you could deduct from the mentioned hot peppers, but they love ‘burning’ some of their foods before eating. Barbecue is very popular all around the country. The most known dishes, such as ajvar or malidzano are made with peppers and aubergines roasted over open fire so their skin is literally burned and the flavours of vegetable very smokey. Also the most popular street food are made with open fire - pizza and kebapi.
Macedonia has been under Ottomans quite a few times throughout the course of its history. They tried their best to convert the people to Islam. They succeeded amongst Albanians, however Christianity was too deeply rooted in Macedonian’s culture for them to abandon it. What the turks did manage to inject in locals, was some of their food habits.
The first thing you see on Macedonian streets is the pastry. As I have mentioned earlier, Macedonia has a very strong and big pastry culture. There is a 24h operating pattiserrie on almost every corner in Skopje, and the local specialities are eaten for breakfast, lunch, dinner and as a midnight snack on a night out. Their pastry, however are mostly savoury. The most popular is their own version of Turkish Borek, here called ‘burek’. Traditionally prepared with either white cheese, spinach or meat. They also have borrowed the traditional turkish pizza recipe, twisted it a bit and called it partmajlija. The dish became so popular that people of small town of Stip has created a national festival devoted to it.
Other big thing is Kebapi. Not only you can find the typical big meaty cones of turkish doner turning in many window shops, the minted lamb mince kebabs on many menus, but Macedonians have come up with their mini version. Other name of this most popular Skopje’s fast food is ‘kebapcici’, which literally means ‘small kebabs. You will see many small corner restaurants with grill in exhibition window, behind there would normally be a chef cooking hundreds of those little meat cigars. The usual serving is 8 to 12 of them!
Macedonians have also showed great appreciation to the ottomans’ coffee and sweets. There is literally thousands of coffee shops everywhere you go in Macedonia. They all have huge outdoor areas, and they clearly are one of most important places for social gatherings. The central located coffee shops are always busy, people seem taking the short coffee breaks during the day very seriously. All throughout the balkans coffee is prepared in Turskish style. The finely ground grains are boiled usually with sugar in the small copper or enamel coffee pots and served with a little sweet. Wherever you go in Balkans, they will however call the style with the name of their country, so obviously if you wanted to order the traditional turkish coffee you would need to ask for Macedonian style one. As a usual petit four you will get small turkish delight, and don’t be surprised to see baklava on nearly all menus. There are turkish sweets corners - the best one we found in Old Bazar in Skopje. Old lady was selling hand made baklava, her own version of it made with walnuts she called Angela Merkel, and those little and big churros like sweets literally soaked in sugar sirup.
One thing that is not entirely clear when travelling in Macedonia is the origin of the dishes they claim as their own… Quite many of them are actually very common throughout ex Yugoslavian countries. The famous Ajvar for example is also claimed by Serbians. ‘Sarma’ - the delicious small rolls filled with mixed rice and meat, wrapped in either cabbage or wine leaves, are also quite common across all balkan and slavic countries. Other dish, which is proudly claimed by Macedonians, Bulgarians and Serbians is shopska salad. It is very simple salad, made with big chunks of tomato, cucumber, onions and peppers, topped with grated sirenje (white brine cheese, similar to feta). Salads in fact are a very popular thing and there are many of them served in every restaurant. Macedonians usually start every meal with a salad. They do have their very own one as well. The Shepherds’ salad is made with tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, parsley, onions, eggs, sirenje, kashkval (yellow, mellow semi hard cheese), ham and mushrooms.
There is however a bean stew, again very popular as a fast food sold from the small restaurants serving kebapci. It’s called Tavce Gravce and it is made with butter beans, powdered sweet peppers, butter onions and olive oil. Everyone has their own secret ingredeint they add to it. The beans cooked at earlier mentioned Villa Dihovo was made with mint!
Lastly I want to drop few lines on Macedonian meat. Similarly to its veggies and fruit, the quality is great. Most of the meat still comes from small farms and bred in traditional ways. All across balkans there are plenty of interesting ways of cook offal. One of the most impressive dishes was Kukurek, made with lamb intestines and lamb shank - strong in flavour and very rich. The most amazing though is game. Macedonia is a country of vast areas of unspoiled nature, mountains covered with hectares of wild forests. There is plenty of wild animals living freely and game meat is quite common. You shouldn’t have issues with finding roe deer, fallow deer, wild boar, rabbit or hare - so don’t hesitate asking around and you will surly come across some tasty meals.
Now, back in London, I will start experimenting with the recipes gathered on my beautiful journey to the country of Alexander. I will post the best of them. And soon, I will also write about probably most significant thing about Macedonia - its wine!