Hello and welcome to the first edition of Comfort Foods!
In the academic arena, Food Studies is an incredibly rich interdisciplinary field which looks to delineate much of the things we’d like to discuss here – predominantly, the relationship between food and culture – while grounding food in its social, political and even scientific context. Our intention here is not to explicitly contribute to this field, but more to generate an archive of people talking about their favourite foods; this space is intended as a site to interrogate the relationship between cuisine and identity but also provides an opportunity to argue why your mum’s rendering of so-and-so dish is the best possible one. Think of this as an outlet for your food-based anecdotes, an opportunity to get nostalgic, and a place to complain about how no restaurant in your ends serves your favourite dish properly or even authentically. To get the ball rolling, and because this segment came out of my own interest in food and identity, I am going to start with my favourite dish.
I come from a Kosovar-Albanian background; my parents left Kosova before I was born, lived in Germany for a few years, then eventually settled in the UK. As my parents are first generation, it’s fair to say my formative years were very much shaped by Kosovar customs, language, and most importantly cuisine. At least 75% of what we ate (and still eat) at home is of Kosovar origin and thus my relationship to the cuisine is inextricably bound up with not just my relationship with the so-called motherland but with my immediate family too. In fact, when I told my parents I was writing this they were very keen to suggest dishes to talk about and came armed with hundreds of insta-worthy food pictures. I’ve attempted to be broadly comprehensive without turning this into an encyclopaedia entry – think of it as a weird convoluted love letter of sorts.
The bulk of Kosovar cuisine is very similar to that of other countries in the Balkans – particularly Albania, as many Kosovans are ethnically Albanian. However, as Kosova is landlocked, it doesn’t have many of the fish-based dishes that Albania and other countries with coastlines do. Instead, the cuisine consists very much of hearty, robust foods such as stews to get you through the cold winter, and there are no qualms about double carbing: nearly all dishes are served with bread. You can expect stewed everything from tomatoes to cabbage; platters of meat and kebabs (qebapa); and pickles, lots of them: peppers, cucumbers, tomatoes, and carrots to name just a few of the vegetables primed for brining. There are also carb-based dishes like pite / byrek which is a filled pastry, mantia, tava, and fli which is just layers and layers of cooked batter, described by Rick Stein as a giant pancake which isn’t entirely accurate but I struggle to come up with an alternative description. And I’m neglecting the wide array of desserts! Albanians are as passionate as the next peoples about their cuisine so to really get a (visual) taste check out the hashtags #kuzhinashqiptare, #gatimetradicionale, and obviously #albanianfood on Instagram.
All of these dishes have a special place in my heart, but there is one dish in particular that trumps everything else: pasul or fasul. It is the dish we probably had most often growing up and my mum still makes it every other Saturday. Pasul is essentially a white kidney bean stew with a base of onions and paprika. As it is a stew, it is always eaten with bread, and served with pickles. My mum cooks it with diced beef, but to really enhance the flavour you can have it with dried beef or suxhuk (Albanian sausage).
I guess people think stews are not en mode and perhaps even slightly parochial, or they just don’t know what joy is, so I’ve often seen pasul take some heat in Balkan food rankings. However, pasul is genuinely a game changer and perfect for the winter – though I will literally eat it at any time of the year without complaint. Now here comes the kicker, I have yet to taste a pasul that is anywhere near as good as my mum’s, which is perfectly seasoned and deliciously thick. Plus, the meat is tender every time! Sometimes, when she has the time, she will also make fresh bread to accompany it. I do not know what more I can do to sell it to you.
When I was doing my undergraduate degree in Birmingham, where unsurprisingly there isn’t a huge diaspora, my mum would make it especially for me on my sporadic trips back home then freeze it so I could take it back with me. Whenever I felt homesick, out of the freezer it would come and because it was so finite it became very precious, and reinforced the sentimental value I had attached to it. Living away from home, even though it was only two hours away on the train, gave me a newfound appreciation for my mum’s cooking and Kosovar / Albanian cuisine more generally, encouraging me to think more deeply about the relationship between homesickness and food.
However, though I have tried making other Albanian staples, I’ve been anxiously putting off making pasul myself and that anxiety extends to creative endeavours. I’ve written poetry and essays about other amazing dishes but pasul, my favourite of them all, somehow resists words, seeming to transcend language and therefore my desperate attempts to render it lyrically. What can you say about a dish that best speaks for itself?
One day I’ll overcome my preciousness about cooking pasul, but in the meantime my mum has given me permission to share her recipe so you can have a go.
Mama Selmani’s Pasul (serves 4 – 6):
500g white kidney beans
One onion, chopped
450g diced beef
Vegeta (vegetable seasoning)
- Rinse the white kidney beans and drain.
- Add 1.5 litres of water to a large pot, then add the beans, one finely chopped onion and 1tbsp of oil and leave on a low to medium heat.
- After the beans have been boiling for an hour, add the meat to the pot. Top the water up if it has reduced, the beans must always be covered.
- Leave on a gentle boil for the next two hours or so, topping up the water as necessary.
- In a frying pan add four tablespoons of oil, half a tablespoon of flour, and one tablespoon of paprika (if you like it spicy you can add dried chili peppers at this stage too) and stir together.
- Once you’ve got a sort of paste, add to the pasul in the pot and stir in until it’s got a lovely burnt orange colour. Add salt and vegeta to taste then leave for a further 2-3 minutes. If it’s not looking as thick as you would like you can repeat steps 5 & 6.
- Serve with bread and pickles.
I understand that many of you won’t be cooking for this many people people so feel free to adjust accordingly. Enjoy and let me know how you get on if you do give it a try!