Ex-Yugoslavia is the new booming European destination hitting the headlines of travel websites. The Balkan countries, which take their name from the Balkan mountains, may not boast the great cultural heritage and the stunning views of Western Europe, but brandish what they are the best at – their traditional hospitality and the excellent food. Our Serbia correspondent, Anna Rostokina lays out a rich buffet of Balkan delights.
The oriental cuisine in the east and the fine central European specialties in the west, the organic vegetables and the delicious lovely home-made groceries in the north and the seafood with a Mediterranean flair in the south – food from the Balkan region is as diverse as its snow-covered mountains, vast valleys, great rivers, lakes and the Adriatic coast. Not only are the goodies fresh and delicious, but the people here truly know how to enjoy food – and they are eager to share their skill.
Balkan cuisine is naturally eclectic because the region has experienced so many influences throughout the ages. From ancient Romans who started olive oil production to the Ottoman Turks in the Middle ages and finally the Italian and German influences have made their cuisines and gastronomic customs more sophisticated. However, the true spirit of the Balkans is in their mountains.
The food is simple but it will warm up your stomach and your heart.
Meat is the main ingredient: grilled, baked or smoked.
In Christian countries they mainly eat pork, while Muslims prefer beef. There are about half a dozen meat specialties known under the common title of “roštilj” or “skara,” which comes from the name of the specific type of grill on which these meals are prepared. The most popular one, called ćevap (derived from the Turkish kebab), has quite a peculiar geography. Several Balkan cities compete for the title of the Balkan ćevap capital.
When in the southern Serbian town of Leskovac, be prepared for the ultimate gourmet experience called “the Leskovac train” – a course of five different meat specialties that waiters bring in one after another, which in a way reminds one of train coaches.
In Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina, try local ćevaps, served in a bun, with a hearty lot of sliced chopped onions and a spoonful of kajmak, a traditional dairy product. Baščaršija, the old Turkish bazaar in the city serves the best experience.
Banja Luka, in the north of Bosnia and Herzegovina, has its own distinctive cevap variety mainly known for its shape: several kebabs stick together to form small rectangular portions of meat.
Another traditional Balkan specialty is roasted meat. No Balkan festivity is complete without roasted pork, lamb or beef. The carcass of the animal is seasoned with salt and roasted whole on a spit, then cut into small pieces. Unlike roasts in other cultures, in the Balkans this type of meat is often eaten cold, which is understandable because no good celebration lasts for less than two days.
The most authentic vegetarian Balkan dish are baked beans.
It is such a basic meal that when Serbs want to say that something is simple they call it “as simple as beans.” This dish comes under a number of different names depending on the country but the essence is the same: white beans cooked with onions and then oven-baked in a ceramic pot with an appropriate seasoning. What gives them their remarkable taste is the red pepper. Red bell peppers are the main ingredient of ajvar, a popular relish eaten either as a side dish or a sauce. Besides roasted pepper, it may contain eggplants, garlic and chili peppers.
Then there are the pies. Made of delicate paper-thin dough, layered with different fillings, crunchy on the outside and juicy inside, they are the typical Balkan breakfast, complete with yoghurt or sour milk. The most common filling is minced meat or cheese. Such pies are called burek.
Other popular varieties are include potatoes, spinach, mushrooms, cabbage and pumpkin. There are also sweet pies filled with cherries, apples, plums, walnuts, etc. Probably the most sophisticated of all is the branded Slovenian pastry prekmurska gibanica, or Prekmurian cake, which contains ricotta, apples, walnuts, raisins and poppy seeds. As far as pastry is concerned, I cannot skip the Macedonian pastrmajlija. An oval-shaped bread and meat pie which originally comes from Turkish cuisine, it is a great oriental pizza alternative, simple but rich and tasty.
The mountainous parts of the Balkans are home to delicious cheese and dairy products. One of the most widely-appreciated cheeses comes from the Croatian island of Pag, where sheep feed on sage, which gives the milk a specific taste. One more dairy must-try is kajmak, a milk product with creamy texture and a tender, slightly salty taste. It is used as a surplus ingredient in many Balkan dishes, from cornmeal to grilled meat.
On the Adriatic coast, in Montenegro and Croatia, they often put an extra touch on the local cheeses by keeping them in olive oil, often with herbs, to give them a delicate taste. There is plenty of excellent fresh seafood too. When in Slovenia, Croatia and Montenegro, don’t miss the local smoked ham called pršut – is said to be the best starter (alongside with cheese and olives) to go with the local red wines.
If you are keen on dessert wines, make sure to try bermet, the much-appraised specialty of northern Serbia’s Fruška Gora wine region. It owes its intricate taste to the maceration of 20 different herbs and spices and the recipe is held in secret by a handful of local families.
However it is not the wines that tell the most about the Balkans but the traditional strong spirits commonly called rakija, a brandymade from fruit such as grapes, plums, pears, apples and quince. Some rare varieties include raspberry and mulberry, but the truly traditional rakija flavors are plum and grape.
A tour around the cuisines of Ex-Yugoslavia would be incomplete without an insight into the Balkan “dolce vita”: the exciting blend of oriental and European desserts. The old school sweet shops in the southeast of the Balkans feature traditional Turkish pastry soaked in honey or sugar syrup, usually eaten with a cup of strong coffee or a glass of boza, a flour-based drink with a rather unusual taste.
The most celebrated sweet is probably the baklava, which can have as many as 70 layers of filo pastry filled with chopped nuts, raisins or cherries. In the west and the north of the Balkans, where the local cuisines have been influenced by those of Austria and Hungary, you will find a wide range of strudels, rolled cakes and kuchen. My favourite dessert from this part of Europe are the sweet plum dumplings, which are surprisingly delicious for something so simple.