When we heard the first explosion through an open bedroom window, my wife and I thought it might be thunder. This occurred the day of our arrival. Soon afterward military helicopters buzzed precariously low overhead, and every now and then a jet fighter would crack the silence of the city -- and be gone.
"The terrorists must be busy today," our friend Lidija said. "Don't worry, you'll get used to it."
We never would during our monthlong stay in pre-WTC Macedonia.
A look at Macedonia
I couldn't help but be concerned that my stock had dropped at New Times when the editor first suggested I head toward Skopje to scope out the restaurant scene there. I should note this was in August, before an uneasy truce was signed between the Albanian Muslims and Macedonian Slavs. Well, all right, that's not exactly how I ended up in a country on the cusp of civil war. Truth is, my wife befriended a clique of Macedonians when they all lived in London during the early Nineties, and over the years we've returned a number of times to visit them in the homeland to which they've returned. Our prior visit was in 1999, just after NATO had stopped the strafing of Belgrade. This time around it was even less desirable to be an American in Macedonia. For reasons too complex to skim over in a food column, the populace here believes the United States and NATO bear at least partial responsibility for their nation's unstable situation. Still, even with the frenzy of political turmoil swirling about and a tension in the air as palpable as the aroma of boiled cabbages, my wife and I never missed a meal.
Macedonia's national menu is a savvy hodgepodge of neighboring culinary influences from Greece, Romania, Hungary, Austria, Italy, and Turkey. The cuisine's appeal derives from a plethora of fresh-from-the-farm fruits and vegetables, standouts including strawberries, peaches, watermelons, eggplants, potatoes, and arguably the best tomatoes in the world. Some of the fare claims a hearty Eastern European heritage, like stuffed peppers (polneti piperki), stuffed cabbage (sarma), and a number of savory goulashes and stews. Other dishes take their cues from the Middle East, such as burek (phyllo pies layered with cheese, spinach, or beef), which often are eaten with yogurt for breakfast; and shopska, an oliveless variation on Greek salad with diced tomatoes, cucumbers, and peppers lightly tossed with olive oil and topped with a snowy mound of finely shredded feta cheese.
Makedonska (Macedonian) salad is the same as shopska, except the peppers are first roasted and peeled. That differentiation was pointed out to me by Klime Kovaceski, who serves the former as the house salad at his Crystal Café in Miami Beach. Kovaceski was born and raised in Ohrid, Macedonia, a beautiful resort town built on the shores of one of the world's oldest and deepest lakes. The trout (pastrmka) from Lake Ohrid are a regionally renowned gastronomic specialty, and Klime is quick to reel off a traditional trout preparation: "First you clean the fish through the gills, which means you can grill the fish whole, allowing the moisture to stay inside during cooking. After grilling you open the fish up, remove the bones, and fill with a combination of slow-cooked onions, peppers, tomatoes, and paprika."
Klime has more up his sleeve than just cooking: He was the original guitarist for the Macedonian band Anastasia. Nowadays the group is big in the Balkans, and it achieved notice in America and Western Europe for providing the soundtrack for 1994's Academy Award-winning foreign film, Before the Rain. Goran Trajkoski is the lead singer of Anastasia, which performs sort of a Gothic-Slavic-Orthodox-Christian-electronic music. Klime put us in contact with Goran some years ago, and we get together whenever we visit. This past trip he painstakingly prepared the vegetable spread pinjur for us, a process that consists of charring and peeling eggplant and red peppers and then hand-mashing them with tomatoes, walnuts, garlic, tahini, chilis, and olive oil. Pinjur can be enjoyed either as an addition to a light main dish or as a starter with bread, feta cheese, hard-boiled eggs, and various other spread-friendly foods. You can purchase a jar locally at European Homemade Sausage in Hollywood (1428 S. Federal Hwy.; 954-927-4455).
Lunch takes place between 3:00 and 4:00 in the afternoon, and serves as the main meal of the day. Goran brought us and our dear friend Lidija Dimova to lunch at Ljuc, a restaurant in the capital of Skopje. During our walk there, he apologized for the way the place would look; Goran knows I write about food, and, as he explained, this was not a hip or ritzy room. I loved the way it looked, containing as it did a pure food-lover's minimalism: wood-paneled walls, tables, chairs, and a smoky grill covered in sizzling meats.
As the owner of the Abakus Translation Company, Lidija is in contact with all sorts of political birds who've flown into the country during recent years and is known for having her finger on the pulse of what's going on. One thing going on was that "American consultant jokes" were circulating the city. We prodded Lidija into telling one, and reluctantly she did: "An American consultant in Macedonia decides to take his jeep into the countryside for a relaxing drive during his day off. He comes across a shepherd and, just for the fun of it, asks: If I can guess the exact number of sheep in your herd, can I take one?' The old shepherd, figuring he'll never guess correctly, tells him: Sure, go ahead.'"
The joke was interrupted by a sizable salad platter dressed with white slabs of oil-drizzled feta cheese, black olives, red onions, green peppers, ripe wedges of tomatoes, and cucumbers so green they looked as though they'd been dyed for St. Patrick's Day. There also were three "cream salads," puréed dips of garlic-imbued sour cream or sour milk (a cross between sour cream and buttermilk), to which a main flavor is added -- respectively, on this occasion, cucumber, roasted red peppers, and eggplant. A few of the dishes were accented with chopped parsley -- not surprising, as the nation is named after this herb, which is called makedon.
"So the consultant pulls out his laptop, takes a seat in the shade, and, after a couple hours of computing, comes up with a figure. You've got 1154 sheep,' he tells the shepherd.
"That's exactly right,' replies the surprised old man. Go ahead and take one.'
"As the consultant places the animal in his jeep, the shepherd asks whether, just for the fairness of it, he could now make a deal with the consultant. If I guess your occupation, you give me my animal back.' Why not? thought the consultant, so he told the shepherd to go ahead."
A giant plate of assorted grilled meats hit the table like a judge's gavel -- a loud bang followed by reverent silence. The platter was piled high with slices of calves' liver; lamb shish kebabs (shashleek); pork chops (kremenadli); breaded pork schnitzel (veshalici); small sausages made from beef, lamb, and pork (kebapchina); and the same sausage meat formed into a patty with onions (pleskavica). We topped things off with Macedonia's national bean dish, tavce gravce, a casserole of white beans cooked in meat bouillon with onions, red peppers, paprika, fresh beef, and smoked pork bones.
Goran and I had started off by drinking rakija, an intensely alcohol-fumed plum brandy customarily consumed during the salad course. We switched to beer for the meats. Ordering beer was one thing I felt comfortable doing in this country, partly because I'd picked up the subtle nuances between the two local brews (Skopsko, made in Skopje, and the newer Dab beer from Prespa) but mostly because they're both easy to pronounce.
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"The shepherd takes barely a moment to guess the occupation: You're an American consultant.'
"Why that's right -- how'd you ever figure it out?'
"You're just like all the others. You come to our land without being asked, you charge us for information we already know, and you don't have a clue as to what you're doing. Now can I have my dog back?'"
Perhaps it bears repeating that this lunch took place before the attacks on the United States. But I've thought of the joke since that time, and about how the laughs it elicits among those in the Balkans underscore the difficulty of defining our proper role in a turbulent and resentful world -- a task that might be more complicated than even the direst scenarios being dished by our dourest talking heads.