Hello and welcome to my Balkan Kitchen!
My name is Irina. I was born in Skopje, in what is now North Macedonia (but was then part of Yugoslavia). We moved to Kuwait in the late 1980s and I mostly grew up there with a brief interruption because of the Gulf War. I came to the UK to study and fell in love with London where I still live.
The idea of the Balkan Kitchen was born over nine years ago after my grandmother passed away suddenly. I found myself looking through her old cookbooks and recipe notes trying to cling on to every memory of her I could. In one particular cookbook (the “Great National Cookbook of Yugoslavia” from 1956) I found a recipe next to which she had written my date of birth and how she had prepared it for guests celebrating my arrival in the world. She loved life, and for her, food, so lovingly prepared by her for everyone she loved, was key to life and love.
The cookbook itself records the type of food eaten across the newly formed Yugoslavia. For me, it seemed to wonderfully capture the spirit of optimism in Yugoslavia at the time through the medium of food. Here was one way that the people of Yugoslavia could celebrate each other and embrace their unique culture and identity.
Churchill once said that the Balkans is the powder keg of Europe. The Balkans are truly the crossroads of history, where East meets West, the intersection between the Ottoman Empire and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Unsurprisingly Balkan food has strong influences from and similarities with the Levant, central and western Europe and from further afield, to Persia and India but there is always something uniquely Balkan about it. History (and yes, sometimes very turbulent history) permeates every aspect of the Balkans, but one thing is constant and continues to unify Balkan people despite “history” – our love of good food. Food has perhaps been the most important way of preserving the incredibly diverse and rich cultural heritage of the region.
What if I set out to do what that 1956 cookbook wanted to achieve? To explore and celebrate the incredible history, cultural heritage and wealth of the Balkans through a medium that unites people most of all, not just in the Balkans, but the world: FOOD.
So here I am, channelling a very long line of amazing women in my family with a talent for beautiful food – my mother, my grandmother and great-grandmother to start with. This is a personal project, a journey of exploring the food of the Balkans from a small South London kitchen. Journeying with me are stories, memories, inherited cookbooks and recipes scribbled in old notebooks and spare bits of paper. My hope is that through this journey I can begin to understand, even a little, why so much of the Balkan identity is about preparing food with love for the people we love, and through this capturing the soul and essence of a part of the world I love. And perhaps also make you fall just a little bit in love with Balkan food.