Pastry chef Alida Malushi moved to New Jersey 30 years ago, but when she closes her eyes and photos the wood-burning stove in her family’s house in Kosovo, where she grew up, she can be able to aloof smell the buttery, golden burek coils her grandmother made every Sunday. “My strongest memories are of her natty, thinly stretched phyllo dough and seasonal ingredients take care of stinging anger peeking out from inner,” she says. “It modified into once the final comfort meals.”
Malushi and I are chatting in a Google doc (she’s exhausting of hearing this day, so phone calls will be sophisticated) but her love of meals and residential rises off the camouflage camouflage take care of steam as she tells me about Balkan Bites, the frozen burek company she launched here within the U.S. with her niece, Ariana Tolka, in 2019. Their flaky, portable pastries come stuffed with a range of ingredients—take care of crimson meat laced with caramelized onions; fluffy potato; and candy Nutella (a taste that makes my inner child squeal)—and are traditionally enjoyed at any time of day. “The dough recipe and hundreds of the recipes for the fillings beget been passed down from my grandmother, to my mom, to me, and now to my niece,” says Malushi. “I take care of all of them, but my popular to for the time being is spinach and cheese.”
Malushi is ethnically Albanian, but modified into once born and raised in Peja, Kosovo (which, by 1963, when she modified into once seven years extinct, had change into an self sustaining, majority Albanian province within the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia). She recalls a serene childhood with of us of many backgrounds and religions living collectively in relative harmony. Though, for the time being, Malushi paid no mind to political tensions anyways—nor did she foresee the war that modified into once brewing within the enviornment. “I excellent wished to play with my guests and flee round open air,” she says. Her father had died in an instant of a heart assault when she modified into once excellent two years extinct, and for the time being it modified into once worn for a widowed better half to are living with her husband’s family. “So my mom, my two siblings, my grandparents, and my aunt and uncle all lived collectively in one house, with my grandmother doing hundreds of the cooking,” Malushi explains. “Food modified into once something to be enjoyed.”
From her grandmother’s backyard, Malushi harvested contemporary tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, spring onions, garlic, spinach, and lettuce—and picked apricots, pears, peaches, quince, and mulberries apt from the trees. “Can you imagine that class? And to mediate we lived in a diminutive city,” she says now. Buzzwords take care of natural and gluten-free and antioxidants didn’t exist in her grandmother’s vernacular. “She excellent followed nature and the seasons. Recipes got with out cooking times and measurements. You learned by doing and nothing modified into once rushed; slack meals modified into once a strategy of lifestyles.”
After the death of President Josip Broz Tito in Might perchance also, 1980, tensions mounted in Yugoslavia that can consequence in its eventual breakup. By the early ’90s, Malushi had graduated with a stage in literature and modified into once working as a reporter within the town of Pristina. She watched as nationalism took again. “[Ethnic] groups begin talking in opposition to each and each numerous and protesting, which proved to be lethal for its broken-down residents who lived aspect by aspect peacefully for many a protracted time,” she says. “Neighbors grew to change into to enemies and you by no approach knew who modified into once listening and would file you to the authorities as a dissident.”
By 1989, Albanians living within the over again Serbian province of Kosovo began protesting for the return of their constitutional autonomy, which had since been stripped by Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic—a longtime opposer of Muslim Albanians’ demographic adjust of the enviornment. When Milosevic’s militia compelled Malushi’s Albanian-flee TV situation to shutter in 1991—a technique for Serbian authorities to “extra censor” the media, says Malushi—she decided to transfer to The US, where she joined her sister and brother (Tolka’s father), who had been each and each living in New Jersey. New within the U.S., out of work, impartial no longer too prolonged ago married, and pregnant, Malushi chanced on her novel occupation within the pages of Gourmand magazine with an ad for the French Culinary Institute in Manhattan. She applied to turn correct into a talented pastry chef, modified into once accredited, and graduated in 1995—happening to work at diversified motels and restaurants sooner than opening her dangle bakery, Iris, in River Edge, New Jersey in 2002.
Nonetheless two years later, her mom, who had additionally since relocated to the U.S., fell in wretched health, so Malushi closed Iris to take care of her till she passed in 2017. It modified into once then that Malushi’s niece, 28 years extinct and dealing on mark partnerships at Charity Water, approached her about discovering out to cook the primitive Albanian foods her aunt and father had eaten as early life in Kosovo. “She [Magbule, Malushi’s mother] modified into once the matriarch of our family,” says Tolka, “and I wished to search out a approach to sustain her recipes.” Malushi hadn’t cooked professionally in over a decade when the 2 began spending their Sundays collectively making baklava, ćevapi, and, obviously, burek. “After we made the burek, I modified into once take care of, ‘Ah, I forgot how moral here’s!’” Tolka says. “We realized there modified into once the truth is none take care of my aunt’s within the marketplace.”
Just a few family tastings later and, one day of a chilly iciness in 2019, the pair decided to begin selling their burek beneath the name Balkan Bites. Tolka managed the alternate, branding, and advertising and marketing, and Malushi developed recipes and oversaw manufacturing. They debuted their contemporary pastries at native markets in New York Metropolis—from the Columbus Circle Vacation Market to the Queens Night Market—where the hot, stuffed phyllo swirls delighted passersby and grew to change into an instant hit.
No subject the deep historical divisions in broken-down Yugoslavia—and plenty attempts, constant with Malushi, to nationalize cuisines after its diversified broken-down territories split within the ’90s—meals remained a connective tissue one day of the Balkan diaspora. “Folks persevered sharing their memories and family recipes thru cooking web sites, TV presentations, and books—telling reports of how of us once lived collectively and shared a frequent lifestyles,” Malushi explains, citing the favored Balkan adage “Manufacture burek no longer war.” “When we had our open air pop-up events in New York, it modified into once gorgeous to behold of us come collectively from numerous nations that had been beforehand at war, talking collectively and bonding over their shared love of burek.”
In early 2020, Tolka and Malushi had plans to turn into wholesale by selling burek to restaurants and coffee shops. “Miniature did we know they had been about to conclude for months due to the COVID-19 lockdowns and open air pop-up markets wouldn’t resume for the leisure of the yr,” Malushi says. “We felt helpless and didn’t know what to enact subsequent.” Then came requests from exact potentialities for shipments, they veritably decided to begin an on-line retailer, which grew to change into into their supreme sales channel.
My first taste of Balkan Bites came from a four-pack of spinach and cheese burek I scarfed down on a chilly, wet, grey day in April. I dropped undoubtedly one of many frozen, naked-having a behold disks on a parchment-lined tray and despatched it correct into a hot oven sooner than going about my alternate. my kitchen modified into once stuffed with the smell of Malushi’s childhood memories—buttery pastry crisping up; cheese softening to a molten, fragrant paste. The phyllo modified into once unimaginably flaky on the open air and warm and stretchy inner, each and each bite oozing with spinach-flecked ricotta and tangy feta. It’s crazy to mediate the burek I modified into once drinking in my upstate New York rental modified into once nearly same to those Malushi ate 60 years ago in Kosovo.
I asked Malushi why, after years of exhausting work, she continues to roll out ample dough—hand-stretched so skinny “that it’s likely you’ll see the table underneath,” as she places it—for 1,500 bureks a week. “It’s a popular pronouncing that an immigrant’s fridge assimilates closing,” she spoke back. “Conserving something that modified into once completed for tons of of years is foremost; it’s a strategy of remembering our past whereas transferring ahead and constructing our future in a novel situation.”