Whenever I hear Balkan food described as drab I feel a twitch of sadness. Balkan cuisine is easily comparable to the highly evolved cuisines of Italy and France. I say this as someone who dedicates a good amount of their time to its research.
Food development in the Balkans was mostly influenced by its location, history and culture. In this, the region isn’t much different from others. Take North America for example, whose dishes are greatly inspired by their immigrant culture(s), or Japan whose geographical position stimulates the use of so much seafood.
The Balkans’ east-meets-west position has attracted many invaders throughout history. The two which have had the most influence on food were the Ottomans and the Austro-Hungarians. Meanwhile, geographical influence in Balkan style and method(s) of cooking came from Eastern European and Mediterranean cuisines. These factors, when combined with a local abundance of fruit, vegetables and livestock, provided for the development of rich and versatile dishes.
The Ottoman touch is evident in pies and syrupy desserts, as well as a now ingrained coffee drinking culture. Balkan pies are made from homemade filo pastry stretched into thin sheets and stuffed with vegetables, meat or a combination of both. Some pies have additional toppings, and can be layered in several ways. You’ll find these pies regionally under the name of burek or pita (pie); except in Bosnia, where burek is always a meat pie, while others have names based on their fillings.
Desserts inherited from the Ottomans include sweets from the baklava family. These sweets are usually made from the same filo used for pies. Many of these desserts have a walnut based stuffing, and are softened with a lemon-infused simple syrup. Whereas in other regions Ottoman inspired desserts use several different nuts, you’ll recognise a Balkan dessert by its devotion to the local walnut.
The Austro-Hungarians brought along their share of pastries and breads, in addition to inspiring a strong cake culture (especially in Slovenia). Regardless of what neighborhood in a random Balkan town you end up in, there will be a bakery nearby. Inside, the shelves are lined with plain or filled kifle (Austrian kipfels or crescent-shaped pastries, thought to be the inspiration for the French croissant), puff pastry sweets, and several kinds of bread. Pastry shops offer different tortes, a type of rich cake whose substantial crust and fillings are both based on eggs, chocolate and ground nuts.
Regional stews like goulash and paprikash also borrow heavily from Germanic and Eastern European cultures. Some type of stew or soup is present at the start of most lunches, the meal generally considered the most important of the day.
Although more vegetarian-friendly than usually anticipated, Balkan food is nevertheless still best known for its plentiful use of meat. At the top of this list are locally raised veal and lamb, with chicken not far behind. Veal is used for the homemade cooking of everything from stews and roasts to grilled sausages (ćevapi), and together with lamb is often barbecued over a pit on most holidays and in many off-road eateries.
The production of high-quality cured meats is big business in the region. Of these, the most popular and most exported is the Dalmatian pršut. This is a kind of prosciutto original to the Adriatic coast that boasts a specific taste attributed to the heavy Adriatic storm bura, whose strong winds assist in the curing process. The Croatian Slavonia and Serbian Vojvodina regions produce excellent spicy kielbasa called kulen, while Bosnia is known for its suho meso, an excellent type of smoked (dried) beef.
The wide presence of livestock also provides several original cheeses, such as soft, young cow cheese, harder Serbian kačkavalj smoked cheese, Croatian Pag Island cheese, Bosnian travnički cheese – similar to feta – as well as the centuries’ old Trappist cheese made by local monks. Kajmak, a type of soft cheese spread similar to clotted cream is probably the favorite dairy product in the region.
Not to be outdone, the Adriatic coast has that Mediterranean touch via incredible seafood consisting of fish and crustaceans and homemade gnocchi and pasta. The best dish along the coast though, is the unforgettable black risotto made from squid ink.
Did I whet your appetite?
Regardless, I have a message for those still believing that Balkan cuisine is tasteless: my friend, you haven’t had a good food guide.
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