Family flavours: Katerina Nitsou on North Macedonian cuisine
The chef and food writer, who was born in Canada and now lives in Australia, compiles a collection of recipes and stories as a love letter to her North Macedonian heritage.
What are your memories of the food you grew up with?
Macedonian food was all I grew up eating, so the memories run deep. What instantly comes to mind are the filled, savoury pastries, like bourek and banitsa, or the fresh bread my baba (grandmother) used to make.
I think about the turshija (pickled vegetables) my uncle made, and the different meze (starters) my mother set out before guests would arrive. I also remember the pileshki gradi (fried chicken cutlets) my aunt would make at every picnic; we’d have them in poupchina (homemade bread rolls) with ajvar (roasted red pepper spread) and cheese. Most nostalgic is the aroma of either zelka mangia (cabbage stew) or gravche supa (bean soup), which my mother or father would make regularly.
How did your grandfather influence you?
My maternal grandfather, Methody, emigrated to Canada in 1930. It was a tough time, during the Great Depression, but he built a successful restaurant in downtown Toronto, serving a diner-style menu with some Macedonian home cooking. He retired from the restaurant before I was born, but he still cooked for us often when I was growing up. His influence wasn’t so much the recipes themselves, but the time and patience he took to make a dish the best it could be. Many of the meat dishes in the book are inspired by him.
How would you describe Macedonian cuisine?
It’s simple, rustic and honest, and celebrates the freshest, seasonal ingredients. It isn’t overly complicated or technical. Overall, Macedonian food is just about breaking bread — simple, delicious recipes, best enjoyed in good company.
What are some of the key ingredients used?
Different regions are, of course, known for different ingredients. North Macedonia, and the land surrounding the villages or towns Macedonians inhabit, is ideal for agriculture. Ingredients such as peppers, aubergines, leeks, garlic, pumpkins, figs, cherries, grapes and tea are all common. Freshwater fish, pork, poultry, lamb and beef are the main animal proteins used. Macedonian cuisine was also influenced by the centuries of trade that brought ingredients like rice and spices from the Orient, and citrus and olives from the Mediterranean.
Which dishes from the book best encapsulate Macedonian food culture?
The national dish is a delicious baked bean concoction called tavche gravche. It’s traditionally cooked in clay pots and served as an accompaniment to a variety of meat dishes, but it’s also lovely on its own with fresh bread, feta cheese and olives. Piperki (fire-roasted peppers) also capture the essence of the cuisine — they’re served at almost every meal. Macedonian street and cafe culture is important, too. Pastrmajlija, a meat and egg ‘pizza’ that’s sometimes shaped like a boat, is a common late-night snack.
How did you go about developing the recipes?
When I first started to map out the framework of the book, I began with a few-dozen recipes that were family staples growing up. Many of these dishes, I’d only learned to make by eye, so I started by documenting the quantities and methods. My mother and aunt were a big source of guidance as well.
What inspired you to write this book?
The initial inspiration to write the book just came to me one morning. My husband Oliver [a cinematographer and photographer] and I were on a family holiday in Hawaii, and I said to him with no rhyme or reason, “If I wrote a Macedonian cookbook, would you do the pictures for me?” I felt a strong urge to create a book that could represent the food of my upbringing. It took us years to complete. Testing and re-testing, photographing and re-photographing and then endless editing. I loved exploring the history and stories of the past to gain insight into the way food was prepared and the role it played in both day-to-day and special occasions. I felt deeply connected to my ancestry just by preparing the food I knew they’d prepared for centuries.
Published in Issue 13 (autumn 2021) of National Geographic Traveller Food
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