Imagine the scent of fresh garlic, tender pieces of lamb, lightly marinated in dried oregano, topped off with yogurt all baked in one dish! This Albanian tavë kosi is comfort food through and through.
What is tavë kosi?
Many Albanians refer to tavë kosi as a comfort food. The soft, tender lamb baked with rice, oregano and garlic underneath a layer of yogurt combined with eggs and rice has the most amazing aroma.
It looks impressive when cooking too – the top rises up above the pot then as it cools, it sinks to create an impressive golden delight, kind of like a soufflé.
Delicious recipes are bound to come from a country situated in the middle of some of the oldest major culinary influences, and the history of the dish is as rich as the taste itself.
Albania has been sandwiched between ancient superpowers like the Greeks, the Romans, the Ottomans and many more in between. Despite all these influences, the cuisine still relies very much on what is locally available within its national borders.
Even as a “melting pot” of influences, local Albanian dishes, especially those made with the freshest local ingredients, are still very distinguishable from the rest.
What is the history of tave kosi?
The history of this dish is said to go back to 1452 when Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II was staking a siege of Kruja, where Albanian leader Skanderbeg was holding out Ottoman advances to the west.
While occupying Elbasan, Mehmet enjoyed a particular casserole-style dish made of lamb and kos, a type of yogurt made from either goat or ewe’s milk. It is rumored that the local cooks were marinating lamb meat in yogurt to serve the sultan during the siege.
Instead of throwing the spiced yogurt away, the cooks were using the leftover grilled lamb and yogurt to create a casserole known nowadays as the famous Albanian tavë kosi.
The ubiquity of the recipe eventually spread, and soon tave kosi – also known as tave elbasani, or the “casserole of Elbasan” – became the unofficial national dish of Albania and even back into Turkey and other major parts of the Ottoman Empire
This military camp eventually became the city of Elbasan, which would eventually develop into an important hub of economic and cultural activity during Ottoman rule in later centuries.
It is also said that this dish was served to Ismail Qemali during his visit to Vlora when he was heading to declare Albania’s Independence in 1912. Not only is this lamb yogurt casserole delicious and traditional but also historic for Albanians.
What is a casserole?
Tave kosi is a comfort dish, but it is also a timeless one pot dish or basically a yogurt casserole. A casserole is a large, deep pan used both in the oven and as a serving vessel. The word is also used for the food cooked and served in such a vessel, and if so, the cookware itself is called a “casserole dish” or “casserole pan”.
Baked dishes have existed for thousands of years. Early casserole recipes consisted of rice that was pounded, pressed, and filled with a savory mixture of meats such as chicken or sweetmeats. Sometime around the 1870s, the term casserole seems to have slipped into its current sense.
As a result of being “passed around” from one Empire to the next, there have been many different influences overall on Albanian cuisine, particularly those with a Mediterranean flair.
With the ancient Greeks came the olive and abundant use of olive oil. From the Romans came the increased use of fresh herbs like oregano, mint, basil and others common in the Mediterranean diet.
There is also a strong Turkish influence on Albanian food as well. Because of the Ottoman presence from the late 15th century up until the early 20th, Albanian customs had to adjust according to the Islamic traditions of its occupying rulers.
Lamb, therefore became the staple meat in the cuisine in lieu of the forbidden pork, and Turkish dishes like borek or dolma and sweets like baklava are equally popular in Albania as they are in Turkey.
How to make tavë kosi
The word tave in Albanian translates into English as “casserole”, and kos refers to the yogurt made from goat milk. Therefore, tavë kosi is a yogurt-based casserole dish.
Most meals in Albania consist of meat and some vegetables. Tave kosi definitely includes the requirement of meat. Add a little aromatics, ingredients like garlic and oregano and you have a wonderful one pot wonder dish.
To make tavë kosi, it is important to have the lamb turn out tender. One way to ensure this is to purchase an organic cut of meat, which contains no additives or antibiotics and therefore the meat breaks down more easily.
You can also pre-bake the lamb before topping it with yogurt also will ensure your lamb is tender. An added benefit of pre-baking or cooking the lamb is to have the juices from the lamb to make the roux or cook the rice in. This will ensure the flavor of the lamb permeates every part of the dish.
The yogurt topping creates a golden, soufflé like crust that rises above the edges of the dish while baking and deflates when removed from the oven. What an impressive dish when complete yet simple to prepare.
- 3 lb boneless lamb shoulder , cut into 2-inch cubes
- 9 tablespoons butter
- 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
- ½ cup water
- 3 cloves garlic , finely chopped
- ⅓ cup long grain white rice
- 1 tablespoon oregano
- ½ cup flour
- 20 oz. yogurt
- 5 eggs
- Heat 2 tablespoons of butter and the oil in a large skillet over medium heat.
- When the mixture is hot but not smoking, add the lamb and mix well.
- Cook, stirring regularly for 5 minutes or until the meat is golden brown.
- Add garlic and cook, stirring for 2 minutes, then add water.
- Bring to a boil and cook over low heat for 1 hour 30 minutes.
- Season with salt and pepper.
- Remove the lamb and reserve.
Pour the rice and the oregano in ⅔ cup (160 ml) of the broth obtained and cook according to the package instructions. Reserve the rest of the broth.
Preheat the oven to 350 F (180 C).
- Melt 6 tablespoons of butter in a saucepan.
- Add the flour to obtain a roux, then add a large ladle of reserved broth. Mix well.
- Remove from heat and let cool.
- Whisk the eggs for 1 minute then add the yogurt and whisk for 2 minutes.
- Add the broth and butter mixture and mix vigorously with a whisk until smooth.
- Add the cooled rice and season with salt and pepper.
- Spread the pieces of lamb at the bottom of a large baking dish, pour the egg mixture, sprinkle with the remaining butter, diced.
- Bake for 40 minutes.
- Serve immediately.