CHICKEN TIKKA IN TIRANA
By Adam Yamey
Between 1944 and 1990, the tiny Balkan country Albania was governed by a Stalinist dictatorship. During that period, it was more isolated from the outside world than North Korea is today. My Indian wife, Lopa, and I visited the country in June 2016. We were open to surprises, but never imagined that we would discover what I am about to describe, namely some Indian connections.
The small town of Pukë is in the north of the country. Hardly visited by tourists, it is a pleasant place at a high altitude. During our visit there, we entered a small gift shop to buy a notebook. The shop-keeper looked at Lopa, and asked where she was from. When we said India, she pointed at a small television screen beneath the counter. We saw that she was watching something from Bollywood, but with Albanian sub-titles.
Some days later, we were in the coastal city of Vlorë, visiting the house where on the 28th November 1912, the independence of Albania (after about 500 years of Ottoman domination) was declared. We were shown around the building, which is now a museum, by a lady who spoke only Albanian. An Albanian friend translated. As we moved from room to room, we noticed that the lady was becoming more interested in Lopa than the Independence of Albania. She kept touching Lopa and even hugged her from time to time. At the end of the tour, she asked Lopa why she was not wearing something like a sari as the actors in the Bollywood films do on the television shows that she loved. A devotee of Bollywood soap operas, she was thrilled to have a real live Indian in her museum. She told us that Lopa was the first Indian women to visit her museum in the 11 years that she had been working there.
Later, we learnt that Bollywood television soap operas are extremely popular in Albania, especially amongst women viewers. The shows are usually broadcast in the afternoon, so a ‘savvy’ person knows better than to ring an Albanian woman during the hour that such shows are on-air.
Love of Bollywood is not confined to Albanian women. In the southern city of Korçë, we were visiting an old (15th century) mosque, when an elderly man, who was just about to enter to do ‘namaaz’, saw Lopa, and asked if she was Indian. On hearing the answer, he exclaimed: “Rye Kapur”, which was his way of pronouncing Raj Kapoor.
Judging from the excitement that Lopa evoked when meeting Albanians, we guessed that there were probably few or even no Indians in Albania. Our guesswork ended when we met Vijay in the foyer of the National Museum in Albania’s capital Tirana. Vijay, who hails from southern India, lives and works in Albania with his family. He was waiting for his son to return from cricket practice. We were surprised to hear that cricket is being played in a country which has not ‘enjoyed’ the effects of British colonial influence. Vijay told us that not only were ‘ex-pats’ involved in cricket in Tirana, but also Albanians. There is an Englishman who has been training members of Tirana’s rugby club to play cricket. In late June this year, the Albanian team beat the ex-pat’s team by one run.
On the next day, we met Vijay, who teaches computing to Albanians in Albanian, with his family at a café. His wife had specially prepared some Indian snacks for us: chicken tikka and some aloo bhajjis. While we were sitting chatting, another Indian, Vicki, wandered past and joined us. Vicki was working for an Indian mining company, but has recently returned to India having spent a few years in Albania. When we had spent time with our new Indian friends, we got up but before saying farewell, they invited us for lunch the next day.
Apart from having been very fortunate to have ‘bumped’ into Vijay and his family and friends, we were very lucky to have met any Indians at all in Albania. This is because there are currently only about 50 Indians in Albania, and some of them are Mother Teresa nuns.
The following day, we met Vijay and Vicky in the centre of Tirana. A car pulled up, and we all piled in. The car was driven by yet another Indian, Father Oscar who runs Tirana’s large Roman Catholic Don Bosco establishment. He drove us out to Vijay’s flat on the edge of the city. There, we were confronted with a superb warm buffet prepared by Vijay’s wife. As I served myself with chicken biryani, dal, chappatis, channa, and so on, I had to pinch myself to believe that I was not imagining eating home-cooked Indian food in Albania.
PS: Finally, for those with Indian passports who wish to visit Albania, the nearest Albanian embassy to India, we were told by an Albanian diplomat, is in Beijing (China).