It’s no secret I’m crazy about Balkan (especially Bosnian) food and cuisine, but why should you care about it? If you’ve come across this blog randomly you may not be familiar with the Balkan region, let alone its cuisine. You may even wonder whether you should be spending your precious time preparing something unfamiliar. If this describes you then this article will answer some of your questions… it may even surprise you, because you’ve been preparing Balkan food all along.
Let’s start with the Balkans…
The Balkans is a peninsula in Southeast Europe. It’s easy to find – it’s located to the right of “the booth” (Italy), just across the Adriatic. It consists of the countries that back in the day formed the former Yugoslavia, plus a few more. As far as this blog is concerned, we will be talking about the food that encompasses the ex-Yugoslavia region. As I am from Sarajevo, and grew up there before moving to the US as a teenager, a lot of focus will be given to food from Bosnia and Herzegovina. (For the curious ones, Bosnia is smack in the middle of ex-Yu. Btw, I’ll be referring to it as Bosnia for short, so when you see Bosnia think Bosnia and Herzegovina, or B&H).
How similar is food across different Balkan countries?
Very much so. Of course there are regional differences, but for the most part Balkan cuisine consists of similar things across different countries in the area. Some Balkan cuisine basics are the dolmas, or stuffed vegetables (peppers, onions, eggplant, zucchini, even tomatoes). Then there are soups and stews ranging from bosanski lonac (Bosnian pot), all the way to riblja corba (fish soup). The ubiquitous pita or pie is a household staple and it consists of cheese, meat or veggies rolled in dough/ phyllo, and then baked.
In terms of meat, beef is at the top (especially veal), and then chicken. Local lamb is very popular, as well as pork for those who eat it. (Note: if you’re making dinner for someone from the area, ask. Pork can substituted with beef for most recipes.) Although not an everyday meat, sheep also makes an appearance, especially during Bajram (Eid). At last, there are the cured meats such as suho meso or dried beef, and proscioutto. Meat is prepared every which way, especially on the grill, of which cevapcici or grilled meat sausages, are the most popular.
Desserts range from cakes and pastries to syrupy delicacies such as kadaif and baklava.
What about those regional differences?
To answer this let’s start with Balkan geography. The region is blessed with beautiful features. It is crocheted with hills, valleys and mountains, some of which are part of the Dinaric Alps. Rivers abound (such as the Danube for one), while the south is bordered by a gem in the form of Adriatic sea.
As such, you’ll find more seafood delicacies in Croatia and Montenegro, on the coastline. Croatia also boasts some of the best prosciutto in the region, often said to be beaten into perfection by the heavy storms called (sing.) “bura.” People in non-coastal areas eat a heavier diet due to harsher winter conditions so in Bosnia and Serbia you’ll find more meat centric flavors.
Historically Balkans has hosted Greeks and Romans, Illyrians, Ottomans, Austro-Hungarians, and many more civilizations. These historic circumstances allowed Balkan food to develop into a colorful, hearty, cuisine that has adopted all the best flavors, and developed them into something unique yet familiar.
Balkan food is not foreign or new, think of it as your favorite meals with a twist.
Homemade all the way…
Whether they live in a city, town or a village, most people prepare food from scratch. Balkan culinary tradition is such where people are used to eating something homemade. You’ll often hear it said that people need to be “eating something with a spoon,” and fast food for the most part does not allow for that. (Although this too is changing, at least in the “fast food” sense, where now you can grab some pita or sandwiches, on the go easily.)
In the villages people prepare most everything themselves. This includes growing produce, curing meats, and canning vegetables. These traditions are changing slowly as younger generations are moving to cities for jobs. One farmer from Croatia recently expressed this sentiment on the radio when he said “our kids don’t want to be farmers, they want to be managers and directors.”
Meanwhile, in the cities, people buy food at local farmers’ markets (each town has a few). If the situation in the flailing farming industry is not taken care of soon – across the region – we could see a lot of these local delicacies destroyed, and economies that will heavily depend on importing produce and meats they have been growing on their own land for centuries.
Finally, homemade has to do with economic reasons as well. It is more affordable to prepare something at home. Going to restaurants, for most, is kept for special occasions such as birthdays, weddings, and other celebrations.
Reasons why you’ll love Balkan food…
You’re already familiar with Balkan food. It’s basically a nice twist on your old favorites: breads, pastas, pastries, stews, grilled foods, and pies.
It’s easy to make. Trust me! Until a few years ago I couldn’t crack an egg (in my defense, there were no directions on the carton). I threw my first pita dough in the trash (third and fourth too). And for one of our earlier dates, I tricked my fiance by buying already prepared Bosnian food and telling him I made it myself. He still brings this up.
You’re not alone. I’ll guide you step by step. Each recipe on here is thoroughly written, and accompanied by photos. If there is anything you’re confused on, I’m just a click away. More experienced cooks may even be annoyed at the amount of detail in the recipes, but I’d rather you know for sure how to do it, then have to do the guesswork.
It’s affordable. In 2011, it cost an average $35 to go out to dinner in the US for one person. For that amount of money you can cook up a storm.
It uses ingredients you already have. Most of Balkan cuisine can be made with stuff that’s already in your fridge. Got some peppers, rice, ground beef? You’re good to go! Potatoes? Great! Forget the unpronounceable $20 spices you’ll never, ever use again. Ok, you may have to find one. But even that one is not mandatory by any means.
Still in for this adventure? Yes? I invite you to start by looking at the recipes on here. And I solemnly swear you’ll be licking your fingers if you try any of them.
To your success!