16 April 2012

Head First Into Albania

The best part of the lamb, to an Albanian, is the head. Called kokë qengji, lamb's head is what's served to the guest of honor, or to the most important man at the table. Here, spit roasted alongside golden chickens, the heads spin over charcoal. They are the whole thing, save the ears - eyes, cheek, tongue, teeth, nose, gums, brains and skull. Pinched, drawn out faces and snaggly underbites, wide-set eyes, streamlined noses - they look, in this state, like something aquatic rather than citizens of the pasture.
On our first night in Tirana we first saw them. On our second day we saw more of them and began to be really intrigued. Today, our third in Albania, I decided to try it.
There's a corner of Tirana, on Rruga Shenasi Dishnica and Avni Rustemi Square, where four or five little rotisserie joints crowd together, all selling chicken and lamb heads and not much else. The takeout customers seem to prefer the chicken, but the men (they are all men, as far as we could tell) who sit inside get the kokë qengji. Some of them drink raki with it, some have Korça beer, everyone gets a pile of sliced bread. At the establishment we visited - without an apparent name - the smell of roasting meat wafted in through the open door and a man with one hand served us proudly.
This diner, sitting at one of the four tables, was enthusiastic about having his picture taken.
The central market is just up the street, and here the meat is presented a little more gruesomely. The butcher's hall is small and wasn't very busy when we visited - there were many more people buying vegetables and squatting around the tobacco vendor than in with the meat - but there were plenty of wide, ovine eyes and lolling tongues. We were perplexed by the left-on eyebrows that graced many of the faces. They seemed to have been saved only for comic effect, to give the grimaces a hint of ghastly surprise.
The one-handed proprietor shooed a man away from one of the tables so that we could sit down. At a table across from us, under old pictures of soccer squads and strings of fake peppers, four customers sat with the wreckage of their meals before them. They had picked the bones down to white, crunched up every bit of cartilage and left impressively small piles on their plates. I began to be concerned - how much skill would this dissection take? How does one pick apart a head?
It turns out that it's more a matter of persistence than know-how. There's not a lot of non-bone that can't be eaten, but there's precious little in any one place. My kokë qengji arrived already split in two, which was helpful. Crisped, chewy and greasy, the cheeks were the most accessible - and probably the best - part of the whole endeavor. The brain was curious mostly for its deep lamb flavor - sort of like a very soft piece of liver. Tender, fatty meat hid in the crevices above the palate and behind the eyes. There was firmer stuff (still very succulent) around the back of the jaw. Unfortunately, roasting doesn't seem to treat the tongue well - it was dry and tough.
In all, a very tasty experience. The other patrons seemed pleased with how clean I'd left the skull, which made me proud. The proprietor cheerfully tucked the bill into the bread basket. One kokë qengji, one salad, one large beer and one bottle of water: 580 LEK. I left 700, which is about seven dollars. Not bad for the best part of the lamb.

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