13 May 2012

Shredded, Chopped, Delivered, They're Yours

We sat down to our very first lunch in Macedonia, on the waterfront in Ohrid, and ordered a "Macedonia salad."  It arrived bright red with specs of yellow, like an abstract tribute to the Macedonian flag.  Crisp bell pepper mixed with ripe tomato, throughout was sprinkled diced onion, garlic, parsley and the yellow pepper seeds that had been dislodged and set free to roam.  It was wonderful.  We never saw this salad again.  According to the googlepedia, "Macedonia salad" is diced fruit salad popular in Spain, France and Romania.  Good thing that didn't show up (though, pepper and tomato are botanic fruits).
If any salad earns the title of "Macedonia," it is without a doubt the shopska salata.  Definitely the national salad, as far as I can tell it is the most ordered and served dish in the country.  By itself, next to plates of grilled meat, it was right there alongside the salt and pepper shakers atop every table.  When I sounded the name out (written as Шопска салата) I figured it meant "chopped salad," but the name actually comes from the Shopi people who originate from the region in which Serbia, Macedonia and Bulgaria meet.  It starts of chopped - tomato, cucumber, sometimes pepper and onion - and is then covered, smothered, buried by grated sirene cheese.  Vegetables in disguise, it is usually topped with a single olive.  The first time I saw one, I thought it was a sundae. It's amazing that the cheese is so finely grated, it's basically feta.  I can't call it that, though.  While Greece may not be able to stop people from using the name "Macedonia," they certainly have legal claim to the term "Feta."
Shopska salata is sort of like a Greek salad recipe that's been fed through a paper shredder and Macedonian ordever salads are like Turkish meze that took a long soak in the Mediterranean. The term 'meze' is also used for these dips and spreads.  This pinwheel platter had all the usual suspects: clotted cream with diced pepper (kajmak), pindzur, ajvar, yogurt, white beans and herbed olives.  Yogurt, pepper, tomato, eggplant, garlic, parsley, cucumber, cheese and olives - you'd be amazed at how many combinations, uncooked, cooked, slow-cooked, can develop over centuries in a country with good taste.
The beginning and end of all ordevers is ajvar - the ritualistically made red pepper paste that Milka made "too much" of.  Its younger, fresher, relishy sibling is pindzur and taratur is its complement.  The recipe for taratur, like the other spreads, is different from place to place and kitchen to kitchen.  Traditionally, it's made with "soured milk," but we had sour cream and yogurt varieties.  With cucumber, garlic, lemon and herbs, it's almost a dead ringer for Greece's tzatziki - but the crushed walnuts on top brings in the earthier Ottoman influence.
The green markets in Macedonia have every fruit and vegetable imaginable (within the limitations of climate, of course) but every market goer leaves with the same three shapes weighing down their green plastic bag.  Cucumber. Tomato. Onion.  It's something we're getting very used to in this part of the world.  Refreshingly, in Macedonia, restaurants stray from the formula a bit. Mešana salata or 'mixed salad' quickly became our ruffage of choice.  Ironically, the mix was always served unmixed - a circle of colorful wedges like an edible Simon device.  Cabbage, cucumber, carrot, beet and tomato, served shredded, raw and sweet.
Traveling to Eastern Macedonia, the mixed salad went a little crazy.  There was more of an everything but the (plant next to the) kitchen sink, approach.  Here, a thick slice of sirene cheese would be thrown in, some small boiled potatoes, a few slivers of fried zucchini, a hard boiled egg.  Ordering a mešana salata went from a foolproof plan to surprise-surprise.  At the end of two weeks in any country, a change-up is welcome.  Macedonia just pulled one more trick out of its bag at the last moment to make sure we remembered its salads lovingly.  And we will.

This post stands in for a Macedonian Food post or a Things Macedonian People Like post.  For more about the cuisine, check out our Macedonian Home Cooking post and, while you're at it, here's something they really like.

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