As a 15-year-old boy, Bledar Kola left his native Albania to enter Italy on a boat, illegally. “I had no plan or script,” Bledar said. “The only thing I knew at that time was that anywhere apart from my homeland was going to be better.”
With no family members at his side, once he made it to southern Italy, he embarked on a journey to the United Kingdom that took several months.
He found a way to reach Milan. Soon he took off again, hidden in a lorry, heading toward France. When the driver discovered him, he ended up in a refugee camp near Calais.
Three months later, Bledar entered the UK clinging to the undercarriage of an 18-wheeler. He was injured—his jacket briefly caught when he dropped himself from the moving vehicle—but he’d made it.
At the time, in 1999, Albania’s economy had been in free fall for nearly a decade and its citizens could not travel to the European Union without proper paperwork. For Bledar, this was the only way to pursue a better future.
His older brother, Nikolin Kola, who had already joined thousands of their countrymen living abroad, was waiting in London.
Bledar found a job washing pots in a restaurant near London. Soon he stepped up to making sandwiches, salads, pommes frites and anything else the chefs assigned him. “I rushed through the dishes to do this part that wasn’t my work,” he said.
Two of the chefs encouraged him, and he managed to obtain some culinary training. Over the next decade, he worked his way up, scoring positions at some of London’s most celebrated restaurants, including Le Gavroche, a famed French restaurant, the first in the UK to earn three Michelin stars. He even did two stints as a stagiaire (an intern) at Noma, the Copenhagen restaurant that World’s 50 Best Restaurants’ annual list has dubbed the best in the world five times.
“How can our food survive if nobody knows how to actually make it?”
Seventeen years later, in 2016, Bledar returned to Albania with a clear objective. He was going to open one of the country’s first gourmet restaurants, Mullixhiu (“the mill” in Albanian, so named because Bledar mills his own wheat).
Working with his brother, Nikolin, who’d moved back to the capital, Tirana, in 2015, Bledar intended to draw on the Eastern European country’s 500-plus years of culinary heritage to reinterpret traditional dishes. Yet, with few recipe books available to guide him, that proved to be challenging. Although he knew his homeland had a long culinary history, Bledar kept coming up empty, a situation chefs and culinary aficionados across Albania discovered in the early 2010s, according to Nutritional and Health Aspects of Food in the Balkans.
Albania’s loss of culinary traditions partially happened because of nearly half a century of communist rule. With government restrictions on consumption of dairy, meat and fat, Albanians often found themselves unable to replicate the dishes that had been passed down through generations, as Albanian American food writer Rose Dosti noted in a 1999 review of one of the first Albanian cookbooks produced in decades.
Albania at a culinary crossroads
With shorelines stretching along the Adriatic and Ionian seas of the Mediterranean and the Albanian Alps (Bjeshkët e Nemuna, or Accursed Mountains) sweeping across its inland terrain, Albania boasts 2.8 million citizens, as per government statistics. They live in a region that has been the crossroads of empires for a millennium.
Albanian cuisine’s Mediterranean roots reach all the way back to the Illyrians, the Iron Age society from whom Albanians are believed to descend, according to The Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Greece and Rome. These tribes herded sheep and became renowned for olive and grape cultivation, still a point of pride today.
Albania’s natural harbors and position on the western Balkan Peninsula offered the shortest overland route to modern-day Istanbul, making it very attractive to foreign powers. Over the centuries, everyone from the Greeks to the Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman empires dominated the region in turn, with each culture toting in ingredients, utensils and recipes that Albanians adopted, according to culinary anthropologist Arsim Canolli, a professor at the University of Prishtina in Kosovo.
The Ottoman Turks had an enormous impact. According to Encyclopedia Britannica, after conquering Albania in the 15th century, the Ottomans ruled for five centuries. They brought a new culture and faith, Islam, which remains a dominant religion in the country. The Ottomans also left their mark on Albanian cuisine. The empire brought Albanians iterations of dishes like shish kebab, moussaka and liberal use of phyllo dough in various recipes, as noted by journalist Nada Dosti.
Canolli suggested that the influences went both ways. “There is an Istanbul-centric image of Albanian cuisine, as if all [that] Albanians were eating during Ottoman rule were meals cooked by the sultan’s chefs,” he said. “The reality was quite the contrary. Culinary historians argue that Ottoman and current Turkish dishes were actually influenced by Balkan nations.”
Albanians, like other Ottoman-ruled populations, migrated across the empire, he said, bringing their own food practices with them. In addition, Albanians served in high-ranking positions under the Ottomans, importing Albanian food traditions to Istanbul and other major cities of the time, Canolli explained. “It’s right there if you look for it,” he said. “You have Albanian dish names in Turkey today such as Arnavut ciğeri (the name for this spicy fried lamb or veal dish translates to “Albanian liver” in Turkish) and Elbasan tava (known as Tavë kosi in Albania, in Turkish the casserole of roux, yogurt, eggs, lamb and rice is named for the central Albanian town, Elbasan). There was also periphery-center influence.”
Albania remained under Ottoman control until the early 20th century. After independence in 1912, new ideas flowed in, particularly from neighboring Italy.
Separated by just 45 miles across the Strait of Otranto at its narrowest point, Albania and Italy both enjoyed diets that drew heavily on olives, tomato-based sauce (believed to have become part of Italian cuisine in the late 17th century) and pasta in the form of pastice (a baked pasta with feta cheese). The Arbëreshë, Albanian Italians who left for Italy beginning in the 15th century, are also believed to have brought back jufka (an egg-based pasta similar to tagliatelle) and other dishes over time.
However, these new, post-Ottoman influences failed to fundamentally alter how Albanians cooked, according to Canolli. They were simply folded into the food culture that Albanians practiced in their own homes, where foodways were perpetuated and handed down, according to Nutritional and Health Aspects of Food in the Balkans.
The rise of a communist regime in Albania in 1946 marked an abrupt shift in how Albanians ate. In its efforts to make the country self-sufficient, the communist Albanian government canned, rationed and collectivized food, according to a 2001 United Nations Economic Commission for Europe report.
Dosti pointed out that cookbooks became scarce and recipes were lost, and suddenly many Albanians did not have access to the ingredients that shaped regional variations and individual interpretations of recipes. Over more than four decades, food shortages became widespread.
A 1997 NATO report indicated that the fall of communism in 1991 resulted in a surge in unemployment and subsequent emigration. Over the following decade, more than 600,000 Albanians left the country in search of work, according to the Albanian national statistics agency. “We didn’t have any farmers,” Nikolin said. “It was chaos.”
In the following years, Albanians seemed more interested in finally having access to Italian, French or Nordic cuisine, and the drive to revive their own lost traditions was low, according to Rexhep Uka, who served as Albania’s Minister of Agriculture in the early 1990s. Foreign food was deemed richer, newer and more exotic than Albanian recipes. “Albanians have a bit of an inferiority complex,” Uka said. “We always think foods from other countries are better.”
Both during and after communism, the country’s timeless cuisine was scorned, Nikolin said.
Reviving traditional dishes
When Bledar started to move ahead with his plan to open a restaurant upon his return to Tirana, he struggled to learn more about Albanian foods.
Neither he nor Nikolin knew much. By the time Bledar and his brother were growing up in the plains of the Zadrima region in northwestern Albania in the 1980s, local foods bore little resemblance to the more ingredient-rich iterations previous generations had known, Bledar said. Families received wheat bread for three months per year and cornbread for the remaining nine. Because of its scarcity, wheat bread was precious. “We would save anything we didn’t eat, whether it was slices or crumbs,” Nikolin said. “Even old, stale bread was a commodity.”
Some Albanians even credit these bread rations as the inspiration for papare (“unseen”), a dish in which stale hunks of bread are soaked in milk, then fried with gjize, a salted curd cheese, Nikolin said.
Unable to make progress on their own, the Kola brothers began asking around. They needed a gjyshja, an Albanian grandmother, friends suggested, an older person who had the opportunity to learn about Albanian dishes as they’d been served during five centuries of Ottoman rule.
Soon Bledar found his gjyshja, Monda Kalenja. She was a daughter of a military cook, and she’d had access to foods and recipes not available to others during the communist regime. In the kitchen at her side, Beldar began crafting pastas and stews and a plethora of other dishes.
But that was just the beginning. While Bledar worked to learn his own country’s classic plates, Nikolin started finding other recipes, ingredients and cooking techniques that might help his brother glean a better understanding of Albanian food.
“How can our food survive if nobody knows how to actually make it?” Nikolin said.
Bledar opened Mullixhiu shortly after he connected with Kalenja. His interpretations of Albanian food have proved to be a hit, garnering his restaurant mentions in reputable publications and a recommendation by World’s 50 Best Restaurants list of new discoveries as the place to go in Albania’s capital. Kalenja is quick to own her influence on the famed chef. “I have been teaching Bledar for years,” Kalenja says. “The only thing I never taught him was [layered pancake-like dish] flija!”
Bledar’s efforts inspired Nikolin. Although he’d spent more than 20 years working in IT, increasingly he devoted weeks at a time to making trips around the country hunting for information about pre-communism Albanian cuisine.
“We gave chefs awareness to go back and revisit Albanian cuisine.”
In 2018, the two brothers started a nonprofit, RRNO, aimed at defining Albania’s cultural food heritage. That same year the nonprofit held an event in Tirana’s pazari (market district) with 12 gjyshet (grandmothers) and 12 chefs, Nikolin said. Within months the event had inspired a television show called 12 Chefs, which ran on Albanian television for two seasons.
“We gave chefs awareness to go back and revisit Albanian cuisine,” Bledar said. “A year later there were five morning TV shows that involved cooking with grandmothers.”
Later in 2018 the two brothers partnered with the Albanian Chef Academy to set up a traditional-food-inspired cooking program. Launched in 2019, they offered students there and at the Instituti Kulinar Royal an extra training module.
The bulk of both schools’ programs is devoted to establishing standard culinary skills needed to work in a restaurant, but for two weeks Bledar arranged to teach each class his approach to traditional food. He also brought in gjyshet to teach students to roll jufka, the ribbonlike pasta of fresh eggs, milk and durum wheat that is dried in the sun.
The school doesn’t lack students. Paula Bardhi is typical of many recent graduates. Like roughly 60% of the culinary institute’s students, she hails from a rural area, in her case Pogradec on the shores of Lake Ohrid near the North Macedonian border.
Bardhi decided to go to culinary school because she was almost certain she would be able to get a job. Bardhi likes Albanian food—her favorite dish is pispili, a crispy cornbread mashed with leeks and goat cheese.
However, most restaurants in Tirana hire culinary school graduates like Bardhi as pizza chefs, sushi rollers and chefs de cuisine (kitchen managers).
Last year at Mullixhiu, Bardhi cooked a variety of recipes Bledar created for his restaurant. He said it’s hard to pick a favorite from his menu, though customers have regularly praised the rosnica. It is a saffron-laced chicken and fried-dough creation inspired by the dish that originated in Përmet, a small town in southern Albania nicknamed the “City of Roses.”
The plates included tave krapi, a baked carp casserole reinvented with sliced radishes for scales, followed by dromsa, a lime-green porridge consisting of clumps of durum and whole wheat seeds that zings with a sour freshness.
"We're trying to create a framework for our food."
Bardhi also worked at Artizani, the bakery Nikolin opened in 2020, learning to make lakror, a meat pie that is an Albanian staple, from two older cooks. This pastry is made of multiple layers of phyllo dough with ground lamb, onions and leeks. Each sheet of dough is oiled and laid according to a specific pattern, according to Kadenja. Due to the complexity, families often make it together, telling each other stories as they add layers to the dish.
Nowadays, Nikolin continues to take regular trips across the country looking for forgotten recipes, ingredients and even grains. He pays farmers to cultivate a particular native corn variety he recently discovered so that he can make boza, a drink of fermented corn meal, to serve at his bakery.
Nikolin says their nonprofit organization plans to develop an app to inform chefs what indigenous ingredients are in season, which farmers to buy from and ways to use each ingredient. “The app will help give young chefs a reference point about Albanian cuisine,” he said. “We don’t want chefs just throwing things together. We’re trying to create a framework for our food.”
More than 20 years after he set out to build a better life in another country, Bledar is grateful that his journey led him back to both his native land and his native food, he said. “At the time, I had no idea or emotion about it,” Bledar recalled. He never imagined anything like this.
He and his brother intend to continue their quest. They have a plan, Bledar noted. Their impact on reviving traditional Albanian cuisine is yet to be seen.