“You need to understand that everything in Serbia revolves around food,” my host-mother told me as I accepted a third helping—sans protest—of her delicious Sarma (mince-meat wrapped and cooked in cabbage leaves). “It doesn’t matter what is happening, food is always in the center!”
My three months in the Balkans have adequately communicated that whatever the occasion is, it absolutely relies on the presence of food and drink. For the Balkans in general, food is the conversation and substance of life.*
NEVER SAY NO
Serbian cooks spare no oil, sugar, butter or any other traditionally “fattening” but flavor-intensifying measures when preparing their daily goods. In fact, a typical response to any complaining about gaining weight while in Serbia would probably be met with the common phrase “poprevila si se” which literally translates to “you fixed yourself”—as in gaining weight is always an improvement to one’s profile.
It is also customary that, especially as a guest, your host will continue filling your plate despite even the most adamant of protest. While you are expected to admit defeat (because you literally won’t be able to eat any more)—i.e. “ne mogu” (I can’t)— it is downright rude and devastating to your hosts to refuse. Just. Keep. Eating.
DAY IN THE LIFE
Serbians generally begin their day later than the average American or western European, so breakfast is a light affair: Coffee, perhaps a pastry from the local pekara (bakery), etc.
But, Serbs do not generally grab their coffee to go. Like the rest of Europe, cafes dominate the social space in the Balkans (village or city, it doesn’t matter), and sitting down for a cup and conversation are both a leisurely and necessary experience. Cafes—which do not include Starbucks—tend to fill up in the afternoon and evening when families, friends, couples and etc. gather for conversations that can last upwards of two hours.
After their morning and coffee rituals, Serbians eat “lunch” which is usually served in the late afternoon or early evening. This is the main meal of the day and can be a sumptuous affair, involving a variety of traditional dishes. A host might offer you supa (soup) first, then salad and a main dish. And at my host family’s, we always like to have “something sweet” after.
Some also eat dinner later, some not. But because of the nightlife scene that is virtually always active (all night, all year), you can eat any time. Open late food stands or pizzerias feed you at night, and bakeries open early in the morning. Belgrade is always awake and never hungry.
If you’re a proper Serb, you probably have these things on hand:
#1 – Hleb (bread)
This is bought fresh at the pekara every day from the local pekera – another centerpiece of Serbian food culture – and it is served with basically everything. At meal times, the bread goes to the side of the plate on the table, never on your plate.
#2 – Rakija
This often homemade brandy-type alcohol is Serbia’s national drink. It is usually made out of fruits (plum is most common, opt for cherry if you want something sweeter) although I’ve heard honey makes an exceptional version. Rakija is also the main ingredient in a variety of Serbian home remedies.
#3 – Kafa (coffee)
Turska Kafa (Turkish coffee) is called different ways depending on where you are. Serbian/Bosnian or domaci (domestic) are all versions, but it is always made the same way—boiled in water over the stovetop, grounds sit at the bottom and must not be drank in any circumstance—and always delivers the same strong flavor.
#4 – Kajmak
The closest I can get to describing Kajmak is a cross between butter and cheese (it’s actually boiled dairy cream). And it’s delightful. Eat with pljeskavica, čevapi, on bread, anything!
#5 – Ajvar
And speaking of spreads, ajvar—a red pepper relish, sometimes with eggplant or garlic—is also absolutely delicious. It packs a multi-layered flavor punch great on sandwiches, on crackers, etc.
#6 – Jogurt (yoghurt)
Jogurt in Serbia is produced slightly thinner…drinkable basically. It is commonly served to balance heavy dishes and strong flavors.
#7 – Plazma
Serbia is crazy about these cookies, which come with or without chocolate, in a variety of shapes and other flavors, etc. You can also get crumbled plazma which is often sprinkled on palacinke (Serbian crepes).
#8 – Eurocrem
Like Nutella (but possibly even more popular here), Eurocrem is the universal go-to sweet spread for Palacinke, hleb, etc. Half of the tub is dark chocolate, the other white chocolate.
There are many good reasons to visit the Balkans, including for the food! Here are some of my recommended culinary experiences:
Out and about in Belgrade, Serbia:
1. Begin your morning with a burek and jogurt at a local pekara (bakery). Burek is filo-dough pasty filled with meat and/or cheese, and it’s to die for.
2. Visit the local pijaca (market) for fresh and delicious fruits, vegetables and a variety of other goods—you’ll never have sweeter jagode (strawberries) or prettier cveče (flowers). Serbia’s agricultural industry is unsubsidized and many pharmaceuticals are banned so market wares are essentially organic.
3. Serbian food stands are incredible. Here you can get pljeskavica, a mince-meat burger in pita bread. Add some onions, tomatoes, kajmak and whatever else captures your fancy.
4. After a long day, particularly after seeing the local nightlife, savor the favorite crepe-style pancake palačinke—sweet or savory. I recommend nutella or eurocrem with bananas or strawberries.
In beautiful Sarajevo, Bosnia and Hercegovina:
1. Go to the Turkish Old Town and sit down for some Turska Kafa* or Čaj (tea). This is usually served with ratluk* (Turkish delight). I recommend having desert along with the drinks. Baklava (filo-dough pastry layered with honey or sugar syrup and walnuts or almonds) is a necessary choice, but Tufahija (baked apple with cinnamon and walnuts) is also excellent.
2. Even Serbians rave that Sarajevo has the best Ćevapčići (mince-meat sausages). These are usually served with kajmak and pita bread.
While visiting baba (grandma) in small-town Smederevo, Serbia:
1. Serbians are natural hosts, and you’ll often be welcomed to their home with a spoonful of slatko, a thin fruit preserve. The flavor is delightful but extremely sweet, so you will also be given a glass of water to help balance the potency.
2. And if you’re lucky, maybe your host—particualry if she is your baba—will send home a jug of zova with you. Zova is a sweet syrup made by boiling elderberry flowers; the syrup is mixed with water to make juice and is my most favorite Serbian drink! And apparently it is also quite healthy, or at least that’s what babas here are always telling you about everything they make…
All images by author unless otherwise noted.
*I live in Serbia, so unless otherwise noted I will use the Serbian variant of names, recipes, and etc. However, to attempt to explain an incredibly complex history of factors that breach into all realms of identity in a far too few sentences—food included—suffice it to say that Serbian/Bosnian/Croatian languages were Serbo-Croat until the breakup of Yugoslavia in the 1990s and that there are several variations in vocabulary and grammar (i.e. dialects) that currently exist (particularly regarding food which is indicative of these very consciously created cultural and political distinctions but which alone would require their very own blog post…or book actually).