Pite

Pite, byrek, burek, and lakror are just a few names for the Albanian specialty food that I love most. Made from flaky layers of filo filled with crumbled feta cheese and spinach leaves, pite is a comfort food that I remember from when I was still very little and used to be much pickier. At my nana’s house, despite her pleading, I would only eat carbs– bread, plain pasta, petulla (fried dough), and pite. Knowing this, she would always make sure to start making it the morning before my family would come, as it took many hours to prepare. Rolling out the dough into thin sheets, carefully placing them, and adding the layers of cheese and spinach, my nana was an expert cook and she took pride in this. As soon as we walked into the door, she would offer it to us in Albanian and my mom would translate it to me. I would happily accept and she would excitedly cut me a piece and put it on a plate for me. Unable to speak Albanian, I would smile and tell my mom how good it was and my nana would understand. Since we cannot communicate through language, food is what brings us together.

When considering what to prepare for my artifact, pite was naturally my first instinct. Since pite is the type of “stuffed bread” that I connect with on the most personal level, I was excited to dig deeper into its history and make it for the first time ever. In fact, it surprised me that I had never actually thought about its history or bothered to try and make it myself. Pite was always just something that I associated with my nana and I had never seen it anywhere outside of her house and the houses of other Albanian family members. While there are a few Albanian restaurants in the Bronx and Queens, I had never been to any, as they are rare and it felt wrong to eat Albanian food that was not made by my nana. Since food is one of our only ways of bonding, I did not want to let her down by trying pite elsewhere. Plus, making it on my own may have made it feel less special.

However, my second thought was that my sister and cousins have also never made pite. In fact, my aunt and nana are the only people I know who can make it. How would I feel if something happened to my nana and I never bothered to ask her about it? After generations and generations of the recipe being passed down orally, there could be an abrupt end to what links me to my ancestors and heritage. When I looked at it from this perspective, I could not pass up the opportunity to carry on my family’s tradition. I had to learn more about pite and learn to make it and this was the perfect opportunity.

Family

All this talk about pite was partially just an excuse to speak with my mom about her family history. She never really told me all that much other than the very basics, and I needed an excuse to learn more about where I came from to learn more about how it shapes the way my family is today. Consequently, I decided to make my way over to New Jersey to visit her. I do not do this nearly enough even though my house is only about 45 minutes from the NYU campus.

In the summer of 1968, my mother’s family left their home in Macedonia and their plot of land that was theirs for as long as anyone could remember. While they did not have much except for their farm, they had a large plot and were able to live comfortably. Back then, everyone in their community knew each other, neighbors were arranged to marry one another and traditions were very old-fashioned. My grandmother had an arranged marriage with my grandfather and according to my mother, she was treated like a servant by his family. In traditional Albanian families, the wife traditionally moves in with the husband’s family and is expected to cook, clean, and take care of his family. My grandmother was not shy about showing how much she hated it, which alone was enough for her to be considered a kind of feminist in her community. However, she really did and still does love my grandfather, despite the forced nature of their marriage. My grandfather was an extremely hard-working farmer and a generous and kind man. This is why he received a call from a cousin who lived in New York letting him know that he had remembered my grandfather’s kindness and wanted to sponsor his move to the United States.

Tens of thousands of Albanians made the move after WWII, sponsoring one another so that they could rebuild their communities.[1] Macedonia was still recovering from the war, even in the 1960’s, especially in the mountains. Roads needed repair, many did not have phones, and indoor plumbing was a rarity. Many Albanians moved to the Bronx, Queens, and Brooklyn. My grandmother said there was no way he was going to go over alone and leave them, so they packed up and in July of 1968, the entire family (my mother, who was 6 at the time, her older brother, and younger sister) left everything and everyone they had ever known in Macedonia for a better life in New York. Their first New York apartment was in the Lower East Side which was filthy and densely packed at the time–extremely different from living in the mountains of Macedonia on a large farm. During their first week there, my grandmother had gone to open a window and found a man on the fire escape coming to try and rob them. Needless to say, they immediately moved out, going to live in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn on 85th street.

My grandfather became a superintendent in their building in Brooklyn and always kept 2-3 jobs, so he rarely slept. My grandmother took care of the home and her family (which grew by 2) and always had company over. The neighborhood was largely Italian and Jewish– immigrant communities that came to New York in the late-1800’s and early-1900’s.[2] The Albanians were the new immigrants on the block. When I asked my mother about how often she made pite, she told me that she had never made it herself. Occasionally, she would help her mother in the kitchen, but she had never cooked Albanian foods like pite on her own. At first, she told me that it was because she saw how much butter was inside and she was watching her weight, but after probing further, she let me know that it was because she, like many other children in immigrant households, wanted to blend into her community and she was embarrassed by how different she was. Even though the Jews and Italians were relatively new to New York as well, they had already blended in and carved out a niche in Brooklyn, while the Albanians had not yet.

While my mother was rarely in the kitchen, she was always running errands for her family and watching her cousins, since she was the oldest daughter. In the summer, she would bring them all to Brighton Beach and she had fond memories of growing up with so many of her family members. While my family was one of the first of their community to come over to New York, they sponsored many of their family members to do so as well and they all moved to Brooklyn. For those that chose to stay in Macedonia, my grandfather would send over money and he put many of his family members through college. By the 1970’s, my grandfather had started his own roofing business and was doing well for himself.

Nana and Baba

While my grandfather was out working, my grandmother stayed at home, entertaining guests, cooking, and cleaning. Whenever she had company over, she would make pite. When her sister came over from Macedonia, she would make it even more often, as they would cook it together. It was something for them to do while they spoke about anything and everything. Since pite took hours to make, it was not an everyday thing, but my grandmother did cook every day. Their staples were kos (yogurt), grosh (white bean soup), oriz (rice), and jufka (pasta). In addition, pite was also made when they would go over to someone else’s house, when someone had a baby, and for many other celebrations. Since my mother’s family did not drink (they practiced Islam), they did not bring over wine, just food. Bringing over pite was a signifier of how much you cared for the recipient, since it was so time intensive, while bringing over sweet desserts such as baklava or sheqerpare (cookies in syrup) symbolized wishing someone a long happy life.

After learning more about my family’s connection to pite, I decided to explore its history. The origins of pite start in an area now known as Turkey. The first iteration of pite was known as borek and was made from boiled dough filled with feta cheese, parsley, and oil scattered between the layers, then brushed with butter and cooked in a masonry oven.[3] Today, it is known as one of the most significant and ancient elements of Turkish cuisine, being first invented by the Turks of Central Asia before their westward migration to Anatolia, starting in the 11th century.3 The word comes from the Turkic root bur- (to twist).[4]

The history of pite in Albania starts later, in the 14th century. Between 1362 and 1389, Ottoman Sultan Murad I took over the area known as the Balkans, including Albania, and it came under the rule of the Ottoman Empire.[5] During this time, the Ottoman Turks adopted some of the culture of the lands they conquered as well as spread some of their culture to these lands, including religion (Islam), food, music, and more. One of the foods that Albania adopted from the Turks was borek, which Albanians made their own and called pite, meaning “noon meal” or “lunch” in Proto-Albanian.[6]

In Albania, pite was generally made with spinach and cheese (djathe), as spinach was plentifully grown in the fertile climate of central Albania and djathe was made from the milk from sheep of southern Albania.[7] While I knew that I could not procure Albanian spinach and djathe for my artifact, I wanted it to be as authentic as I could make it, so I decided I would go to Staten Island to my nana’s house and learn how to make it directly from her. However, I was unable to do this, as my cousin’s engagement party was the week of my dinner party and my grandmother was helping her get everything ready. So, I had to settle for calling my mom, who was already with my grandmother, to have her translate some directions to me.

I found a YouTube video tutorial online and sent it over to my mom and asked her to show it to my grandmother. She had a lot to say! My nana told me (through my mom) that the the lady in the tutorial was being stingy with the spinach– “add more to yours,” she said in Albanian. “This lady is adding raw onions to her pite. Never use raw onions,” that’s a no-no in Albanian cooking. “Sauté them first. Make sure you buy good quality feta. Nana will make pite for you. Come to nana’s house.” As tempting as that was, I knew I had to make it for myself. It was a challenge, and I love challenges. Plus, I needed to carry on the tradition, and I knew she would not want me to help her out with it, even if I could come over before the dinner party.

I found a good Greek specialty store in Midtown called Blue Olive Market, and I went over to buy some “good quality feta,” filo dough, and Greek yogurt. Then, I got my spinach, butter, onion, eggs, and oil at Fairway in Kips Bay and made my way back home in East Village. What a schlep! I definitely should have planned to get these ingredients earlier, but I left it for the day of. Whatever I made on my first try was going to have to do, as I only had time to make it once before the dinner party.

Back at home, I preheated the oven and started to chop the spinach. Washing and chopping spinach is surprisingly difficult because you need so much of it to make so little in a cooked dish and colanders and cutting boards are only so big. I am sure my nana could have done it in a quarter of the time it took me. After this, I greased my baking dish and added two layers of filo dough. On top of this, I added a mixture of egg, butter, and Greek yogurt to act as the glue that holds the layers together. Then, I added another layer of filo and crumbled feta and spinach on top. Then, I repeated this process about three or four times. My nana makes her dough and rolls it out herself into thin layers, but filo would have to do for me, as this is the process that makes it so infamously long and arduous.

My Pite

I put the pite in the oven for about 40 minutes at 400, and voila, my first pite was finished! I will be honest– I made two so that I could try it out before the dinner party and confirm that it was edible. I had my roommates try it out and they really liked it! When I tried a piece, the taste brought back great memories of my nana and my family, so I knew it was ready to bring over to the dinner party. Since the dinner party ran longer than I expected (I was having so much fun I lost track of time), I was still there when my mother came to pick me up to bring me home for my cousin’s engagement party. There was still a piece of pite left, so I nervously offered it to her. When she told me it was good, I finally knew I had accomplished my goal. I did right by my family name!

 


 

[1] Thernstrom, Stephan (1980). Harvard encyclopedia of American ethnic groups. p. 24. Retrieved 2016-04-14.

[2] David Scharfenberg (2006-08-20). “An Old Neighborhood Grows Up Again”. The New York Times.

[3] Algar, Ayla Esen (1985). “The Complete Book of Turkish Cooking”. ISBN 0-7103-0334-3.

[4] Ahmet Toprak. “Articles on Turkish language”. Retrieved 2016-04-14.

[5] Somel, Selcuk Aksin (2010). The A to Z of the Ottoman Empire. Scarecrow Press, Inc. p. 179. ISBN 978-0-8108-7579-1.

[6] A Concise Historical Grammar of the Albanian Language, V.Orel, Koninklijke Brill, Leiden 2000, p.327

[7] Darlene. “Bryek Me Spinaq- Albanian Spinach Pie – International Cuisine.” International Cuisine, 07 May 2014. Web. 14 Apr. 2016.