Making Byrek With Tefta

Making Byrek With Tefta


One of the most exciting aspects of being a missionary is immersing yourself into the culture of the people. Since arriving in Albania, I have learned a lot about the Albanian culture. I love to cook and I have tried a lot of new foods since coming to Albania three months ago.

Join me on a three part journey with Tefta, as I share with you one of the most traditional Albanian dishes, byrek.

Tefta with StephanosI fondly remember Presbytera Renee sharing her memories of being a missionary in Albania. She often spoke of a woman named Tefta. “Tefta was like a grandmother to Stephanos and Nicole when we were in Albania. Tefta is one of the most faithful and devout Orthodox Christians. Tefta makes the most delicious homemade glyco, byrek and mulled wine.” Tefta, Tefta, Tefta. I often wondered, will I ever meet this woman named Tefta? Would I ever have the blessing of hearing about Tefta’s life of living in hiding as an Orthodox Christian? Would I ever be in the kitchen with her and learn how to make these traditional Albanian dishes?

We arrived in Albania on Holy Tuesday evening. On Holy Wednesday, we went to Pre-Sanctified Liturgy at the Annunciation Church in Tirana. Upon leaving the compound of the Church, from down the street, Stephanos saw a familiar face. It was Tefta, his Albanian grandmother. She has the most beautiful eyes, shining bright with the light of Christ. Her hair is wavy and silver in color. She has a very joyful smile. Tefta was in tears as she grabbed Stephanos’ face. She hugged him tight and kissed his forehead. She could not believe how big he had gotten. The last time she saw him was in 1998, when he was 12 years old. Stephanos immediately turned to me and introduced me to Tefta. The first thing I said was “Tefta, can you come over to our apartment and teach me how to make byrek?”

Fast forward three weeks and we welcomed Tefta into our house on Thursday morning. We made a quick stop at the local market to get some of the ingredients and came home to begin our byrek making. Byrek (pronounced burek) is the Albanian variation of tiropita/spanakopita. The biggest difference is that the byrek is prepared in a big pan, not made into individual small triangles. It can have a variety of fillings, but most traditional types in Albania are cheese, onions and tomatoes, or spinach.

byrekI have to admit I was quite nervous to learn how to make byrek. I really enjoy cooking, but I felt very intimidated to be learning from such a knowledgeable woman. I learned a few days after Tefta came over that the act of a woman learning how to make byrek is a sort of “coming of age” in Albania. A close friend here told me that when a man is going to be married to a woman, one of the first questions that is asked by his parents is: “can she make byrek?”

The recipe for byrek that Tefta taught me was specific to the region of Albania that her family comes from (the village of Erseka near Mt. Gramoz, in the South). Making byrek is very labor intensive. It is not meant to be rushed and made very quickly. It takes time and there is a lot of love put into making the dish.

In the next blog post, I will share the recipe for byrek, by Tefta. I hope you can come on this journey of making a traditional Albanian dish.

About author

Stephanos and Alexandria Ritsi

Stephanos Ritsi, son of Father Martin & Presvytera Renee, grew up in the mission fields of Kenya and Albania for ten years. Upon arriving back in the United States the Ritsi family moved to Saint Augustine, Florida. Stephanos attended high school in Saint Augustine. He then got his Bachelors degree in Political Science from the University of Florida (Go Gators). In 2006, Stephanos went on a Short Term Missions team to Kenya. On this trip he realized that he was called to become a long term missionary. He applied to Holy Cross School of Theology to prepare himself for missionary service and recently graduated with a Masters of Divinity and a certificate from the Boston Theological Institute in Missions and Ecumenism.

Alexandria Ritsi, daughter of Louis and Valerie Polychronopoulos, grew up in a south suburb of Chicago and attended Sts. Constantine and Helen Greek Orthodox Church in Palos Hills. She has lived in Chicago all of her life and was very active in her Church community and youth groups. Growing up, Alexandria knew she wanted to serve the Church and be a teacher. Alexandria went to Hellenic College and while a student there, learned about the missionary ethos of the Orthodox Church. Through experience in Mission Classes offered at Hellenic College, Alexandria realized her vocation in becoming a missionary.

Stephanos and Alexandria met at Holy Cross/Hellenic College in 2008. They were very active in teaching Sunday School and leading retreats serving at Fr. Luke Veronis' Parish of Sts. Constantine and Helen in Webster, Massachusetts.

Together Stephanos and Alexandria have traveled to Kenya on OCMC missions teams in 2010 and 2011 to help prepare themselves to become missionaries.

Stephanos and Alexandria were engaged in Yosemite, California in 2009 and married in Saint Augustine, Florida in 2010. They look forward to many years serving our Lord and Savior in the Mission Field of Albania.

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