Youtuber Dea Manaj opens up about her Albanian heritage and family recipes
By Bethan Kapur
Dea Manaj has a full time marketing job, but when she gets home from work she makes music reaction videos for her channel There You Are that boasts 319K YouTube subscribers. She releases around three videos a week and Saturday, the day that I’m there, is normally her filming day, but she has made time to prepare me two hearty Albanian dishes.
“It isn’t great, I know it’s all about being vegan these days, but meat is a big thing in Albania.” She apologises with a laugh as she uncovers a tray full of peppers stuffed with chicken and rice followed by a collection of glossy filo pastry packages filled with feta cheese and spinach.
“It’s food that warms your heart. If my mum’s on a diet she’ll do brown rice instead of white,” she laughs.
“I’m personally crap at making it which is why it’s overdone, my mum would make this pretty often. Probably at least once a week but we’re not always at home.”
She describes Albanian cuisine as a mix between Italian, Greek and Turkish. “We aren’t as keen on spices. It’s mainly just salt, pepper and about the quality of the food.”
Manaj’s stuffed peppers are also seasoned with oregano, parsley, cayenne pepper and a dash of paprika, but she tends to use slightly more spices than her Albanian family back home. She attributes this difference to Britain’s multicultural influence.
To her, Britain is a place where spices are in abundance and when I ask what her favourite British dish is she initially wants to say curry.
“I love spicy food and I think that’s more because I’ve lived here. If I lived in Albania I might not like it as much because I wouldn’t have been used to it.”
Manaj left Albania when she was five, but two years ago she lived there with her cousin for two months and she remembers them having different opinions about how to stock the kitchen cupboards: “When I came I went straight to the supermarket to find something spicy. She was like what do you need these for?”
Both of Manaj’s parents are Albanian, she lives in London and yet most of her YouTube followers come from North Africa as many of her videos are reviews of North African music. There’s an element of the chicken and the egg to this: she explored the music further because it became clear at the start that many of her followers wanted her to.
“A lot of the artists I was reviewing were North African and they were very patriotic so they would say in the comments, ‘I love your videos, from Algeria’, ‘I love your videos, from Morocco’. You follow what follows you, so if they like what I’m doing I’ll try to see how that goes.”
“My first video was clickbait,” she doesn’t hesitate to share. “A hot fresh new music video had just been taken down so I posted a random video with the same title and thumbnail.” Within minutes she had 2K views and within that hour she released her second video, a reaction video, in line with what her channel provides today. “That’s how it started and I thought hey let’s seize the popularity.”
“Boredom made me start, I think when you’re in our generation you always think what if I could.”
The clickbait video may have been a cunning move but that doesn’t mean that Manaj always knew how to monetise her channel effectively. Her followers brought it to her attention that swearing was getting her content marked down so she started bleeping it out. But she isn’t prepared to change how she talks: “I swear a lot naturally. I don’t want to make family videos. No, that’s not me.”
Going back to Albania
Last year Manaj went back to Albania four times. She mainly visits to see family, but in the summer she also attended a week-long festival where she stayed in a beach-side apartment with her sister.
When she visits her family they get together to drink wine that her grandparents have made at their warehouse: “We’ll go there and have red dry wine. I’ve never squashed the grapes but my auntie will make sure they have about ten bottles for when we visit and we’ll sit there and drink it with fresh olives that my Nan has prepared.”
Manaj talks me through the process of preparing olives, you have to let them drench for a month in salty water before they develop any taste. Then she describes the smell of fresh milk that will whet her appetite when she enters her grandma’s house: “My Nan lives in town but the villagers will bring her unpasteurised milk and she’ll boil it and drench it out. It’s all really fresh.”
She says one thing that you can’t find here that she loves to eat in Albania is big sweet juicy figs: “Whenever I go back my Nan will buy a hundred figs and my dad and I will sit there and eat a tonne.”
It’s not just the fresh ingredients that makes the food special. Preparing food together can be a week-long experience for Manaj’s family. At New Year they make baklava, a popular dessert consisting of sweet sticky pastry and cashew nuts. “My house would become a machine for a week cracking nuts and my mum would get the pastries, lay them out and stack them up.
“We take New Year as our Christmas. Although we’re a Muslim majority country, Albanians are very atheist. We will do all the Christmas traditions, turkey stuffing, rice and baklava is the dessert every family would make.”
Being together is a big aspect of Manaj’s life in Albania. Although she left when she was five and can barely remember before then, one big change she recalls was how quiet it was to move to a house with only her sister and parents. “We used to live in a house with ten people, grandparents, my uncle and his two kids, when we left and there were four of us we’d never done it before. “
“I don’t know why we lived in a ten person house, all of us could have moved out. We just wanted to be close to each other for some reason.”
They may not live together anymore, but Manaj and her family won’t hesitate to ask her grandma whenever they need help with an Albanian recipe: “We’ll get her on Skype when we want to make chicken soup and she’ll get so excited she’s like ‘Yes my kids are learning from me’.”
Having thousands of YouTube subscribers is impressive, but being able to call your Albanian grandma whenever you need cooking advice is perhaps the best reason to use the Internet.