When I signed up for the Peace Corps, I figured that I’d lose weight over the 27 months from being more active and eating less processed food. Little did I know that Kosovars love feeding their guests as much as possible.
Not wanting to appear ungrateful or rude, I find myself attempting to eat most of what I am served. It adds up.
Allow me to present some observations about food in Kosovo, and then you might understand why I may actually get gain weight while serving in the Peace Corps:
1. Must Love Bread
I was not prepared for how much Kosovars love bread. I am eating more bread than ever before. Someone who is gluten-free would probably not survive in Kosovo.
All of the traditional dishes here seem to involve a derivative of bread (pita, flija, byrek, etc.) The people here are quite inventive when it comes to all that they can create out of flour and water.
For lunch for the first week my host mother would give me a bunch of food, plus an entire loaf of bread. Then at dinner she would hand me half of a loaf, along with the main course, salad, etc. By now I have convinced her to only give me half a loaf for lunch and a quarter loaf for dinner, but it is still far more bread than anyone should consume in a day.
I have also learned that napkins and silverware are unnecessary as long as you have bread. When eating, if your hands get dirty, you simply grab a loaf of bread and wipe your hands on that. Need to scoop up your food but don’t have a spoon or fork? A handful of bread should do the trick!
You can tell that people here love their bread because the way they ask “Are you hungry?” is literally, “Do you want bread?” (This caused some confusion for me during the first few days.) My family tells me that it is time to eat dinner by saying, “Come eat bread!”
I don’t know how people here stay so thin with such a carb-heavy diet.
2. Three Spoonfuls of Sugar
There is way more sugar in the Kosovar diet than I would have anticipated. People love to offer guests Coke, sugary fruit juices, and of course coffee or tea. But each cup of coffee or tea is not complete without three spoonfuls of sugar.
If you say that you do not want sugar in your tea or coffee, people look at you like you are crazy. They ask, “Are you sure?!” If you insist that you do not want sugar they say, “Ok, fine” and then put a spoonful in while you are not looking.
My host family also keeps trying to give me chocolate in the morning. Most families do not really eat breakfast here. Instead they just have a cup of tea or Turkish coffee in the morning, sometimes with a little sugary snack. For my host family that means chocolate. Some days it is chocolate cookies. Other days it is a very small piece of chocolate cake. Sometimes it is just a couple squares of straight-up chocolate.
I don’t know if this is a common thing in Kosovo or if they just assume that the fatty Americans like eating chocolate first thing in the morning.
3. Endless Cucumbers and Peppers
Almost all of the families here have a small farm with fresh fruits and vegetables. But the two things that we have the most of are cucumbers and peppers. We eat them with every meal. For a snack my host mom tries to feed me an entire cucumber. If I refuse the cucumber, I’m usually offered a loaf of bread. So I’ve learned to love cucumbers.
4. “No thank you” is interpreted as “Ok, sure!”
Warning: Do not clear your plate, because your host mother will immediately refill it. If you say “no thanks” to anything, your host mother will insist that you need more food. If you hold your ground she will become offended and say “Why do you always say no?!”
You also do not want to get too full from dinner, because immediately after dinner you will be offered tea, coffee, crackers, and a bunch of fruit. After this evening tea time with family and neighbors, your family will probably offer you something else, like ice cream. Every night my host parents ask if I want ice cream. Every night I say no. Repeatedly. Every night they still go to the nearest gas station and buy me ice cream. By that point I usually feel to guilty to refuse.
Side note: Just as I was writing this post (after the nightly ice cream ritual) my mom walked up to me three times to give me food. First a bowl of watermelon, then a bowl of pretzels, and then two hard-boiled eggs.
The upside to all of this is that the food is quite delicious. I am being spoiled with fresh fruits and vegetables, which is a nice change from Alaska. The strawberries, cherries, peaches, and nectarines are the best I’ve ever had. (But for some reason apples here are awful.)
I am also walking a lot, which may counteract some of the excessive eating. My host family lives just outside of town, so it takes between 40 minutes and an hour to walk to training sessions each morning.
Well, time to go to bread. Oops, I mean bed.