Typical food from North Macedonia and the Balkans
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Food in North Macedonia

Maysie Dee

Contributing writer

Traditional Macedonian cuisine is a happy combination of historic Balkan, Bulgarian, Greek, and Ottoman influences. The result delivers undertones of both Middle Eastern and Mediterranean flavors, with a distinctly Macedonian twist.

The best aspect of Macedonian food is that it’s not gourmet food by any stretch… it is simple, tasty, home-cooking at its finest. Rich, succulent meats (pork, beef, or lamb) plus chicken and fish, grilled or in casseroles, will always appear on the menu, especially in the old-style traditional grill houses, or kafanas

Fresh organic garden veggies, such as cucumbers, eggplant, spinach, tomatoes, and onions make an appearance in many recipes; it’s the ingredients that make the difference! 

Local dairy products, along with spicy condiments featuring a regional variety of red bell peppers, add depth of flavor. Herbs such as parsley, thyme, rosemary, bay leaves, mint, garlic, and black pepper accent main dishes, appetizers, and iconic enormous Macedonian salads.

A regional favorite, Tavče Gravče, or Macedonian bean soup, is consumed at a minimum of once per week in every self-respecting Macedonian household. This satisfying dish can be ordered in any restaurant that serves Macedonian cuisine.

Turkish coffee is the beverage of choice throughout the country, with Turkish black tea a close second. These days, in upscale city center cafes, fancy Italian coffee beverages are also available, along with desserts. 

Wine is mainstream, with many local wineries providing ample options. Traditionally, white wine is a summer selection, with red wine reserved for winters (but both are always available). Local fruit-based homemade brandy, rakija, is also a popular beverage. Beer is a common choice and the selection of imported and local brews is vast.

Freshly baked breads and stuffed veggie or meat hand pies are choice street foods for a quick snack. Macedonian desserts are super-sweet and rich, and appear in roadside walk-up or walk-in bakeries for takeaway. You’ll also find a small selection of homemade desserts on most restaurant menus. 

Meals in Macedonia

Visit any Macedonian city, and you’ll find people out and about in the morning hours by 9am, with many catching a quick bite on their way to work. Walk-up counters offer pastries, croissants, egg/cheese or meat filled breads, and a variety of plain breads and rolls for the breakfast crowd, along with coffee or tea.

At home, breakfast is a simple meal of eggs and bread. Bed and breakfast guesthouses might offer those, along with yogurt and fruit conserves, sliced veggies and cheese, fresh fruit and home-cooked specialities, like burek.

Lunch (referred to as ‘dinner’) is considered the main meal of the day and is taken at around 2pm. The meal is hearty, consisting of appetizers, meat dishes, beans, bread, and dessert. Dinner isn’t dinner unless it starts with a hefty portion of traditional shopska salad, an addicting bowl of chopped fresh veggies topped with tons of shredded cheese.

After an afternoon break (siesta, nap-time, quiet time), supper at home is a lighter meal, consisting of smaller portions of the same/similar dishes. Supper is often eaten cold or at room temperature. Unless a restaurant meal is on the schedule… then copious amounts of food and drink are enjoyed!

Eating out

Depending on where you are, you might enjoy a large Turkish breakfast comprised of an omelet, cheese, tomato slices, cucumber, and some form of meat, at a Turkish restaurant. These are usually located in the bazaar area of a larger city/town, or in the Turkish district. 

Throughout the day, traditional Macedonian restaurants offer up a variety of local dishes. They’re heavy on the meat, but vegetarians can always find several options to enjoy. Locals pride themselves on their delicious renditions of old favorites, with lots of wine and good cheer. 

There are many tiny hole-in-the-wall kafanas to choose from, for cheap and delicious eats. More upscale venues, with indoor and garden seating, also offer live traditional music and entertainment in evenings for a great local experience.

The old bazaar areas of cities in Macedonia are a vibrant realm unto themselves, with Ottoman architectural elements, mosques, tea/Turkish coffee stalls, baklava/sweet shops and handicraft items galore. There, you’ll soak up the culture, with traditional cafes offering local specialties in casual, rustic, authentic environs. 

And, although it’s not traditional, Macedonians love pizza! So, pizza is often on the menu in western-style bistros and pizza restaurants that make some delicious pizza!

Note: It seems like the fancier the restaurant (with fine dining and gorgeous views) the slower the service! Mealtime in Macedonia is relaxing, and you will not be served in a hurry, so get into the local vibe and enjoy having a leisurely meal...

Tipping in Macedonian Restaurants

Tipping is not a part of Macedonian culture, so don’t feel obligated to tip a certain percentage, as you might in some western countries. An upscale restaurant may add a service fee to your bill, in which case, nothing more is expected. 

If you want to, leaving coin change or rounding up to the next higher bill is acceptable, but don’t feel like you have to tip.

When in a large group, or if you received extra special service, leaving a little something more is a nicety, but again, not expected in this culture.

Coffee and tea

A bar/cafe in Macedonia is simply that – a place to get a coffee, rakija or a beer, but not food. These tiny cafes are traditional hang-outs for men who sit and drink with their friends. Many are “men-only” by tradition, so have a quick look, and if you need a more inclusive venue, there are plenty of coffee and tea shops around for everyone.

As is the case throughout the Balkans, drinking coffee is firmly rooted in Macedonian culture. The country has a long history of imbibing Turkish coffee, a thick, sludgy intense espresso-strong drink. It’s made on the stove top, in a traditional copper vessel called an ibrik. Turkish coffee is usually sweetened with sugar and spices. Today, most Macedonians make coffee at home, but they also meet friends at a cafe or restaurant for a cup.

Unlike Albania, where one should allow at least an hour to have a coffee, in Macedonia, we noticed a difference. It’s true that elderly men will often sit and chat for hours at a cafe, while slowly sipping a coffee with a side of rakija and a glass of water. But younger generation Macedonians will meet even for a just few minutes, to share a coffee-fueled conversation.

Many times we saw someone enter a restaurant or cafe during work hours, and quickly order coffee, to be joined in a short time by a friend or colleague. Within a only few minutes of lively discussion, they finished their coffees and were up, hugging and going their separate ways… but always taking time for a coffee!

Macedonian Teas

With their past steeped in Ottoman history, Macedonians are still fond of strong black tea as a daily beverage. Sipping herbal teas has also been a favorite over the ages, with chamomile, rosemary, basil, yellow wort, sage and thyme regularly enjoyed. 

Sideritis, (ironwort or mountain tea) which grows on towering mountain slopes, is still used by traditional Macedonians as a well-trusted remedy for immunity against colds and flu.

What to eat in Macedonia

Macedonian cuisine revolves around a variety of grilled meats for which there really are no recipes; just be prepared for succulent cuts of meat, rich with juices and flavor. Additionally, there are several traditional recipes that accompany the meats. Here are some that you must try while in the country: 

Ćebapi - These tasty little bits of spiced ground beef, lamb, and pork are formed into little sausage shapes and either grilled or pan-fried. In restaurants, they come in absolutely huge portions, so be prepared to eat a lot, or share with a friend. Similar recipes are found in Bosnia, Greece and Montenegro among other countries in the region.

Tavče Gravče – The ubiquitous traditional Macedonian bean soup, is so named because it is traditionally cooked on a tava (Greek for skillet), then baked in a clay pot for additional flavor. The recipe features white beans (Tetovo beans are the favored within Macedonia, but any white bean will do), flavored with onions, spices, parsley, garlic, peppers, cilantro, and a few other goodies. 

Ajvar – Probably the most famous of several scrumptious Macedonian red pepper-based spreads, this mixture comprises roasted red peppers peeled and mashed into oblivion, then mixed on a stove-top with vinegar, salt and a pinch of sugar, for a rich, creamy and delicious paste, perfect for spreading on bread and eaten alongside a steaming bowl of Tavče Gravče (above).

Shopska Salad – When you see photos of Macedonian cuisine, you’ll inevitably see something that looks like a mountain of grated cheese in a bowl. This is actually Shopska salad, a mixture of garden fresh tomatoes, cucumbers, red onions, scallions, and peppers. The mass of chopped veggies is then topped with a towering pile of cheese, the preferred being sirine, a type of sheep’s milk feta

Unlike salads you might be used to, the dressing for shopska is simply olive oil… the fresh ingredients and salty cheese shine on their own.

Pindjur – Another popular red pepper spread, pinjur is a grilled or roasted red pepper, onion, eggplant, and tomato dish. The grilled veggies are then lightly mashed and cooked with olive oil, and salted to taste. Pindjur is most often served with bread (even for breakfast), although it’s perfect alongside potatoes, too. 

Maznik or Burek – These filled savory pies come in many forms throughout the region. In Macedonia, they tend to be made in a huge round pan, with layers of stuffed filo dough leaves rolled into a big spiral (think: giant cinnamon roll) and baked, then cut into pie-shaped wedges. Maznik can be stuffed with spinach, leeks, cheese, or meat; all versions are fantastic. 

Throughout the region, maznik is eaten along with a sip-able yogurt drink known as ayran.

Sarma – These tasty stuffed cabbage (or other leafy vegetable) rolls are filled with minced meat (usually beef or lamb) along with rice/bulgur, tomato sauce, and spices. A winter favorite, these little bites are served warm after being baked in an oven. 

Pastrmajlija - Imagine a boat-shaped pizza crust loaded with a massive amount of cubed pork (not just a sprinkling, like on Italian pizzas!) and brushed with olive oil and spices, then baked until the pork is crispy. It’s then covered with an egg wash and returned to the oven until the egg sets. Pastrmajlija is served with a side of pickled peppers and a salad.

Breads and Desserts

Kifli – These flaky and delicious little yeasted bread rolls are filled with feta cheese, then topped with a sprinkle of sesame seeds and baked. You might find these in small crescent shapes or in large round rings at walk-up bakeries – either way, they’re amazing! As a dessert, they might be filled with jam or honey.

Baklava – Originally from the Ottoman Empire, baklava is still a favorite throughout the Balkans. In Macedonia, you’ll find it in almost every bakery, with specialty shops in the Old Bazaars dedicated to this sweet treat of multi-layered filo dough interspersed with nuts and syrup.

Rol Oblanda – This sticky-sweet treat is easy because the large wafer sheets are purchased ready-made, then alternated with dulce-de-leche (caramel) and chocolate filling. When set, the resultant stacks are sliced into rectangular pieces of pure indulgence.

Sutlijaš – This is Macedonian rice pudding, which is thick, rich, and creamy, is sometimes flavored with orange and topped with a sprinkling of cocoa powder, for a contrast of bitter against the sweet pudding.

Mekici – These fried bread dough rounds are everywhere in roadside bakeries. They’re savory, and can be eaten with something salty, like cheese or bacon, or dipped in jam… but you’ll see people munching on them on the streets without any adornment whatsoever; they’re that good!

Ohridska Torta – This multi-layered cake is made from light and airy walnut sponge cake, with rich vanilla custard layers in between. Top that off with a thick chocolate frosting, and you have an unbeatable and beautiful dessert.

Lokum – A sweet dessert that originated in Turkey (more commonly  known as Turkish Delight), lokum is made from starch and sugar. It often includes nuts or dried fruits, such as walnuts, pistachios, and dates. The thick mixture is boiled and left to set, then cut into squares and rolled in powdered sugar.

Kozinjak – This traditional Easter bread is not over the top sweet and is eaten along with the Easter meal. The light and fluffy yeasted bread is lightly flavored with vanilla, braided into a loaf shape, and dusted with sesame seeds. It’s brushed with egg for a shiny brown crust.

Typical costs

  • Pizza in mid-range restaurant – 190–450 MKD (3.08-7.30 EUR)

  • Takeaway baked treat (muffin, kifli) – 16-30 MKD (.50-.80 EUR)

  • Coffee/Cappuccino, in a trendy cafe – 69 - 164 MKD (1.12 - 2.66 EUR)

  • 1kg apples – 70MKD (1.13 EUR)

  • 500 gr local cheese – 330 MKD (5.35 EUR)

  • Bread – 50 MKD (.81 EUR) 

  • Dinner for two in mid-range restaurant – 1425 MKD (22.73 EUR)

  • Grilled chicken lunch for two with beverages in a local kafana - 700 MKD (11.37 EUR)

  • Local beer (500ml) in grocery store – 80 MKD  (1.29 EUR)

  • One beer (500ml) at a local pub – 155 MKD ( 2.51 EUR)

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Maysie Dee

Author - Maysie Dee

Maysie Dee is a freelance writer, content editor, and recipe creator. She and her husband have travelled across the world for decades as natural product consultants, collecting stories along the way.

Last Updated 31 May 2024

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