Macedonian food is one of the least known of all the Balkan foods. The country is one of the least visited and receives far fewer tourists than neighbouring Croatia, Montenegro or Albania (a popular beach destination in the Balkans) but is a hidden gem in the region.
Like in most countries, Macedonian cuisine owes its traditions to the country’s geography and history, as well as the many civilisations that inhabited the land.
You will find a similar love for cheese, bread and sweets that is common of any country that was under the Ottoman influence, such as the other ones in the region or even the food in Azerbaijan. Greek’s proximity, the past Arabic influences and Austrian rule have also left a mark.
Macedonia enjoys green pastures, a low population density, with lots of arable land, and temperate weather in which grapes thrive. Lake Ohrid and other bodies of water and rivers, provide the country with a source of freshwater fish.
Most of the food in Macedonia feels homemade and fine-dining restaurants are non-existent, even in the capital. Instead, hearty, slow-cooked stews, grilled protein, lots of vegetables and carbs fill the diet.
Food is often served in the vessel in which it was prepared, clay pots and casseroles are common, and intended to be shared.
Macedonian foods – Snacks and starters
Macedonian food has a large selection of snacks, starters and cold dishes that can make up an entire meal and are pretty filling.
Cold cuts, cheese and breads/pastries fill the menus’ starter pages with delicious and inviting options.
Ajvar (red pepper spread)
Like in Montenegro and in Albania, Ajvar is a very popular Balkan spread made with roasted red peppers that are then mashed to make a dip. It is usually served with bread or as part of an appetizer plate and it is absolutely delicious.
I was first acquainted with ajvar at Aman Sveti Stefan in Montenegro and was very pleased to see it on menus across Macedonia.
Sarma (stuffed cabbage rolls)
Sarma is another typical Macedonian food that is commonly found in the eastern Mediterranean shores, from Lebanon to Sicily. Made with minced meat, rice and spices that are then wrapped with cabbage, these lovely rolls are a great and filling appetiser.
In the Middle East, sarma is usually made with vine leaves and even in Macedonia, the dish was commonly translated as stuffed vine leaves but was then served with cabbage leaves. Either way, it is great.
Burek and Zelnik (stuffed phyllo pastry)
Burek is one of the most typical Balkan foods you can find for sale across all countries both in restaurant menus as well as in bakeries.
This omnipresent cheese-stuffed phyllo pastry is a fantastic starter, afternoon snack I often resorted to in Tirana, or even a breakfast item.
Zelnik is another traditional Macedonian food you will often see in menus. It may seem that it is the same as burek but instead of being filled with cheese, zelnik is filled with spinach or cabbage in honor of its name which actually means cabbage in Macedonian.
Pita (stuffed pastry)
Not to be confused with the bread used to make sandwiches that you can find in Albania or Greece, Macedonian Pita may seem like another phyllo pastry stuffed Macedonian food, because it is, but it is usually rolled and cooked in a spiral shape then sliced as if it was a cake.
Polneti piperki (stuffed peppers and courgette)
This was one of my most favorite Macedonian foods. When I was there, the peppers in season where the long and thin yellow-green type, which were stuffed with minced meat and then cooked in the oven. You can also find stuffed courgettes if you want to enjoy a bit of variation.
Pindjur (roasted vegetable spread)
Similar to Ajvar, Pindjur is a roasted vegetable spread that is typical of Macedonian cuisine. It is usually made with roasted peppers, onions, tomatoes and aubergines and it is really good and best enjoyed with some cheese (feta or halloumi type) and bread.
Mekici (fried dough)
Breakfast in Macedonia is not made of the usual big anglo-saxon breakfasts or the sweet continental version but consists of cheeses, cold cuts, breads and a type of fried and hollow dough that is enjoyed with brined cheese and honey or jam, just like I had at my traditional hotel in Berat, Albania.
This Macedonian food consists of cornmeal that is cooked to be creamy, as if it was oatmeal or mashed potato, and then served with sprinkled feta cheese. It makes for a great starter, or a filling side dish to a grilled meat dish and it is quite filling.
Polenta is easily found across Italy and especially in Sicily, and it is believed to have originated in the north of the country. It was originally made with other grains until corn was brought by Columbus from Mexico where it was a staple food of the Maya.
The addition of feta cheese, and the creamier consistency of Kacamak, make it different, and better, to polenta.
Kifli (stuffed bread rolls)
This croissant-looking bread pastry is usually filled with cheese and sprinkled with sesame seeds and makes for a great Macedonian street snack found at bakeries across the country.
Unlike a croissant, kifli is not flaky nor is it crunchy, but rather softer and crumbly. Kifli is also found in Slovenia, Bulgaria and even Austria and is easily recognizable by the crescent shape.
Shopska (Bulgarian salad)
This ever-present salad is perhaps the most commonly available dish in the entire Balkan region, from Albania to Bulgaria and beyond. It is simple to prepare, it is made with seasonal and fresh ingredients and it is low in calories. In short, it is incredibly healthy.
Shopska salad contains olives, cucumbers, tomatoes, peppers, onions and grated brine cheese, like feta, which makes it look different that the similar Greek salad where the cheese is in cubes and the salad drizzled with oregano.
Macedonians love cheese and this is an ingredient found in many local dishes but perhaps one of the most indulgent ones is baked cheese which is literally that, one or more different kinds of cheese simply baked in the oven on clay plates.
Usually, Macedonian baked cheese recipes mix more than one type and almost always will feature brine cheese and yellow cheese. You will need a lot of bread to eat so much cheese and might go back home with a couple more kilos after the amount of cheese you will eat in Macedonia but it will be well worth it.
As mentioned above, Macedonians love cheese, of all kinds, but white sheep cheese similar to feta is one of the most commonly found. It is eaten for breakfast, grated on top of salads, baked in the oven, fried, as a starter with bread or on top of stews. You can also find cheese platters as dessert.
If you love cheese you will be in heaven in Macedonia.
Perhaps the best way to enjoy all the Macedonian foods is through the mezze appetizers platters which include a variety of cheeses, cold cuts, bread, olives, ajvar and other roasted and pickled vegetables.
These are for sharing and there is no way you will be able to eat them on your own, but they are the best way to have a bit of everything. Typically, almost all the Macedonian foods in this section are included, except for the phyllo pastries and the salad.
Ham and cold cuts
Like in other Balkan countries like Montenegro, Macedonians love to eat cold cuts and especially ham and charcuterie. These are usually served as part of a sharing dish that tends to include some nuts and cheeses.
It is similar to the appetiser plate above but it does not feature vegetables, just cured meats and cheese.
Cheesy French toast
French toast is another great European sweet found in Macedonia but they take it to the next level there with a recipe that includes cheese filling and topping. This is one of the most indulgent and flavorful dishes you will find.
French toast is essentially sliced bread topped with egg and then fried but in Macedonia they fry it with yellow cheese in the middle, and then top it with crumbled feta cheese.
Macedonian food – Main dishes
Aside from starters, Macedonian cuisine has lots of delicious hearty main dishes, especially hot ones, which are perfect for the colder winter months.
Here you will find meats, lamb and pork are common, as well as fresh water fish, from the lakes and the rivers of Macedonia. There are also beans which are filling and healthy.
This unusual type of soup is made with veal and broth but it is usually creamy rather than runny and contains shredded vegetables such as carrot.
We kept seeing it on every menu and decided to try it out. Because the meat is very flavourful, the dish can be quite overpowering depending on how fatty the chosen meat is. You will need some bread for this.
Jufki is a type of pasta that I had the pleasure of seeing being made and enjoying it in Tirana, and which can also be found in menus in Macedonia.
Jufki is made manually, by hand, and the pasta is stretched and hung to dry. It is usually shaped like a flat spaghetti and often served with mushrooms or ajvar, and cheese.
Tavche Gravche (baked beans)
Perhaps considered Macedonia’s national food, Tavche Gravche is a dish made with baked beans, often cooked in a claypot, with tomatoes and onions. The beans used are typically white or brown and are cooked slowly until soft.
As Macedonia is traditionally a Christian Orthodox country, beans were eaten on Friday when meat was not allowed but they are now available everywhere, all days of the week.
This dish is best enjoyed with bread because the sauce deserves some dipping.
Pastrmajlija (flatbread with meat)
Pastrmajlija is the Macedonian version of pizza. A thicker flatbread topped with cubes of salted and dried lamb or mutton meat and folded in the shape of a boat, this is a delicious and indulgent food that makes for a full meal on its own.
The name of the dish comes from the Macedonian word for salted lamb meat but you can also find Pastrmajlija with other toppings like cheese or vegetables or all.
Turli Tava (meat stew)
This dish comes from the Turkish for mixed dish and is cooked in a clay pot and made with a variety of meat and vegetables stewed for a long time. Usually Turli Tava is made with lamb, chicken or pork or a mixture of all, and vegetables such as potatoes, tomatoes, aubergine and carrots all chopped into cubes.
The dish is then finished off with in the oven to seal the flavors and give the stew a crispy top layer. Obviously, you will want some bread to wipe off the gravy.
Moussaka (baked potato and aubergine)
This traditional Greek dish is also popular in Macedonia and it is as delicious. Made with layers of potatoes, minced meat and aubergines, and then gratined in the oven with bechamel. Moussaka is a sort of aubergine lasagna but better and makes for a very filling Macedonian dish.
Originally brought to the Mediterranean and the Balkans by the Arabs, who had the aubergines, Greece adopted it as a main dish and you can easily find it in Macedonian menus too.
Kebaps, or grilled skewered meat cubes, is one of the most commonly found dishes in the entire Balkan region and in the Middle East. Traditionally made with lamb, chicken and pork can also be found.
The word originated in the Ottoman empire where soldiers would grill whatever meat they had hunted skewered on their swords and over an open fire.
Apart from kebapi, Macedonians love to eat any sort of grilled meats, especially sausages, burger patties or steak. You will find delicious meats everywhere, coming from animals grown in the country.
Cevapi, which is a dish made with grilled minced meat in the shape of a burger pattie, is one of the most popular grilled meat dishes, and easily recognisable in the menu.
Like with the appetiser platters, it is also common to find grilled meat platters, which come in large portions ready to be shared between two or three people.
Grilled meats in Macedonia are served with kaymak, which is a garlic sauce, similar to allioli.
As you may have already realised, Macedonian foods are cooked slowly, and with love, following traditional recipes that are handed down from generation to generation. Stewing Is a popular cooking technique and apart from the bean and mixed meat and vegetable stew discussed before, veal stews are also common.
Macedonia is a landlocked country so it does not have direct access to the sea. However, Ohrid Lake, and other smaller lakes, and many of the country’s rivers, bring about a bounty of fish, most notably the healthy trout as well as carp fish which are commonly eaten grilled or stuffed.
Ohrid trout is an endemic species of fish that is only found in the lake and its tributary rivers. However, most of the fish you’ll eat at restaurants is not wild because the fish is almost extinct in the wild due to overfishing.
The trout is usually eaten whole, grilled, or stuffed with spinach and cheese and cooked in the oven and it is delicious.
Like trout, carp is commonly found in Macedonia’s lakes and rivers and is another oily fish with lots of healthy elements that makes for a great break from the meat.
It is usually served grilled or cooked in the oven and you have to be careful when eating it because it has lots of small bones. The bones are reason enough for a lot of people to avoid ordering carp, too much work removing them, but I found it to be delicious and healthy enough to be worth the extra effort.
Selska Tava (meat and mushroom stew)
Translated as “village pan” this Macedonian dish is the name of a relatively generic meat and mushroom stew cooked slowly, like all the other Macedonian stews, and usually served in a clay pot. As you can imagine, it is as tasty as it sounds.
The recipe for Selska Tava varies from restaurant to restaurant and only maintains the main ingredients. What is added to the stew can be anything, at the whim of the chef, and probably based on his or her mother’s recipe.
This is a hearty and filling dish and, like all the rest, is best accompanied with bread.
Macedonian food – Desserts and sweets
Like many other Blkan countries, Macedonia has fabulous honey and a sweet tooth to match so desserts can sometimes be far too rich for me. However, a bite or two, accompanied by a glass of rakija or a cup of strong tea, is the best way to end a meal.
Palacinki is literally like a crepe, perhaps slightly fluffier, and filled with chocolate sauce, honey, jam and rolled then topped with sugar. This is a dish that is not found in other parts of the Balkans but which was brought to the country when Macedonia was part of the Austrian Empire, and originated in the north of France.
The crepes are eaten at breakfast but also as desserts. Typically, they have a sweet filling, but can also be eaten savoury with an egg or spinach filling.
These vanilla cookies are eaten both at breakfast as well as with tea and are very similar to the Argentinian alfajores, crumbling and sometimes eaten in pairs with jam in the middle and topped with caster sugar.
Tulumbi (fried dough soaked in syrup)
Tulumbi is a dessert that resembles many Indian and Bangladeshi sweets. These small elongated pieces of fried dough shaped similarly to a churro but much shorter, are then soaked in syrup and end up being really sweet.
They are served dry, not in syrup like the Indian variety, and on their own.
Rice pudding is perhaps one of the most common desserts of all time eaten from Mexico to Bangladesh, and in many countries in between, including Macedonia.
This simple dish of boiled rice with milk, sugar and cinnamon is popular for a reason. It is relatively easy to prepare and a people pleaser. In Spain it is available in supermarket fridges.
It is a cheese-filled sweet pastry that can be crunchy when it is made with fried noodles or mushy when it is made with semolina dough. The pastry is then soaked in syrup and topped with crushed nuts, usually pistacchio.
The resulting dessert can be really really sweet and is only for those with the biggest cravings. It is believed that the sweet was eaten before dawn, during Ramadan, to stave off hunger during the fasting hours of the day and I can testify to its filling powers.
Baklava is a traditional Turkish dessert that is found across the Middle East and Balkan region with small variations on fillings, shape and sweetness. While its origins can be traced back to the Assyrians, it was the Ottoman Empire which spread it and perfected it.
This dessert is made with layers of phyllo pastry alternated between crushed nuts, typically walnuts, then soaked in syrup and baked in the oven.
Baklava make an appearance in menus from Persia to Italy, but each country has its own variation. Some use rose water, others use syrup or honey, some fill the pastry with pistachio, others with walnuts. Some shape them like diamonds, others bake them in cake shape, taller and served sliced.
But regardless of where you are and what recipe you find, all Baklava have something in common: they are incredibly sweet, rich and filling and require a good cup of strong tea or coffee to go along with them.
In Macedonia, baklava are not the sweetest. They are usually drenched in syrup, but not too much, and shaped like a cake that is sliced.
This Macedonian cake is a bit like baklava or rice pudding, you can find it in many countries, from the depths of Latin America (Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, Argentina where it is called Tres leches) to the Balkans.
It is widely believed that the cake’s popularity was spread thanks to Nestle, who was one of the first companies to manufacture and pack canned milk in the 19th century. To promote its use, they would print recipes on the label, and they once used trilece cake.
As the milk was very popular in Central and Latin America, the cake became a staple across the continent. How the cake spread to the Eastern parts of Europe, the Balkans and Turkey is not clear, but seems to be a more recent phenomenon that actually originated in Albanian menus.
As the name indicates, it is made with three kinds of milk, evaporated, condensed and regular milk, and it consists of a simple sponge cake soaked, then filled and topped with each of the milks and cream.
The resulting cake depends on who made it because there are as many recipes as there are chefs, but it will almost always be moist and delicious.
Lokum (Turkish delight)
This eminently Turkish sweet that is ever present in the streets of any country that fell under the influence of the Ottoman Empire is as soft as it is delicate. Turkish delight comes in bright pink, yellow and green colors dusted in opaque fine sugar that looks like powder and sometimes wrapped around nuts.
The jelly is made with starch, sugar and water and it has a very subtle taste. Having one is not an option, have two with a strong cup of tea at the end of the meal and you will feel satisfied.
The sweet originated in Istanbul at the end of the 18th century and the first confectionist store selling it is still owned and run by the descendents of the inventor.
In Arabic, Lokum is used to heal the throat and it is the local name. However, the sweet is internationally known as Turkish delight when a traveler took some home and did not know how to pronounce the name.
Macedonian wine completely exceeded all my expectations and surprised me with incredible wines, beautiful landscapes and a very rustic and undiscovered tradition.
There are 84 registered wineries in the country producing a total of 120 million liters. This may seem like a lot but it is less than the top-20 wine producing countries. Every region in Macedonia produces wine, but there are three main wine growing regions: Skopje, Lake Ohrid and the Vardar River.
The wine district of Skopje has some of the wineries, namely Kamnik. Tikves, and Veles districts in the Vardar River area, about 45min to an hour’s drive southeast of the capital, is where the majority of the other important wineries are located. Here, you can hop from winery to winery within half an hour.
Lastly, Lake Ohrid also has wine producing regions, growing mostly white wines, and with smaller productions given that the area is dominated by mountains.
A quick look at Vivino will show you most wines from the well established wine cellars have very high ratings. Locally, only Macedonian wines and maybe Kosovar, are offered on menus, and there are few well-known wineries that dominate.
Outside of Macedonia, the wines are rarely found and you can’t even ship a case because this is not available at any of the wineries. It does not help that Macedonia is not part of the EU and the export and customs duties are prohibitive. Sadly, you will have to enjoy the wines locally.
Like in Montenegro, Macedonian wines are made with local grape varieties and some international imports. Red wines dominate the production and Vranac is popular, as it is in Montenegro and Albania. For whites, Temjanika is the most commonly found.
International grape varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc are also used.
The main wineries in Macedonia are Stobi, Tikves (which gets its name from the region itself), Bovin and Kamnik. There are also smaller wineries like Popova Kula, which has lovely rooms attached, or Popov which has an in-house restaurant with great views over the vineyards below.
Like in all other countries in the Balkans, Macedonian food is best paired with rakija, a strong distilled fruit spirit similar to brandy that is drunk with food, as an appetiser while you wait for the food to arrive, at the end of a meal with dessert, or on its own.
It is not uncommon to arrive at a restaurant and be offered a shot of rakija, but don’t be like me and take a big sip, this is really strong stuff with 40% alcohol which should be sipped slowly.
The origin of Rakija is not clear although it seems to have developed and expanded in importance during the Ottoman Empire, with many countries claiming its invention.
However, archeological finds suggest that the drink was available in Bulgaria before the Turkish arrival and it is what made Bulgarians invincible and the conquest of Sofia impossible by the Ottomans in the 14th century.
Rakija is available everywhere in Macedonia and a lot of people make their own at home. Restaurants may also distill their own poison. It makes for a great souvenir to take home too.
As the name indicates, this is the Turkish thicker version of coffee that is commonly available across the Middle East, the Balkans and even across North Africa (Egypt, Sudan). As with most food and drinks, its origins are not 100% clear and there are a few versions.
What we know is that it expanded thanks to the Ottoman Empire and its trading routes and you can today enjoy it in many places from Iran to Sicily. But beware, this is a much stronger version of an espresso, because it is unfiltered.
The coffee is made with very finely ground coffee beans and it is not filtered, so the powder is simply mixed with water and you can expect a sediment at the bottom of the glass or cup.
The coffee is usually brewed in small petal pots which have a long handle, sometimes they are made of brass and have very intricate designs. The coffee is then poured in small glasses or cups and you need to wait for it to settle a bit.
Like every country in the world, Macedonia also has its own beer and in Skopje, an incipient but growing craft beer scene. The most popular local beer is Skopsko which you will find everywhere usually served in bottles.
If you are in Skopje and want to try out some local craft beers, there is a beer garden in the Old Bazaar called Old Town Beer Garden which also has a nice outdoor covered terrace and is one of the most pleasant places to enjoy a drink in the area.
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