While foreign rule and power struggles often brought havoc to the Balkan peoples, it also left behind a diverse cuisine in which various influences merge and make the best use of the region’s fertile lands.
While some regional specialities do not cross borders, the limits between the national cuisines in the Balkans tend to be blurry, with many nations enjoying same foods, albeit claiming them exclusively as their own!
Still, a glance at the history behind some the regions’ favourite dishes more often than not reveals a tradition of cultural exchange that the Balkan peoples had, and still have, between each other as well as with the wider world.
Peppers arrived in the Balkans with the Ottomans and quickly became a staple of the local cuisine. The crowning jewel of pepper appreciation in the Balkans and Central Europe is ajvar, the beloved spread (sometimes classed as salad), based on peppers and tomatoes.
The history of this beloved dish is murky, but one clue about how it came to be popular is in its name. Interestingly, ajvar shares its etymology with “caviar”, which itself comes from havyar, a Turkish word for salted roe. One theory posits that, a long time ago, when Danube sturgeons swam all the way up to Belgrade, sturgeon roe was a popular dish in Serbian homes. But at some point, sturgeon caviar production declined, leaving cooks scrambling to find a substitute, which made them turn to (or according to some versions, create) the pepper-based spread.
However to claim that ajvar is Serbian is to reignite a bitter feud between Balkan countries about its origins, which started when a Slovenian company tried to patent it in Germany in the late-1990s. While it probably will never be established where first ajvar was created, the most renowned ajvar-producing regions are southern Serbia and Macedonia. In southern Serbia, there is even a village, Donja Lokosnica, whose speciality is cultivation of longish, meaty peppers, which are said to yield the best ajvar.
There is little doubt that burek, the Balkans’ favourite layered pie and hangover cure, is a direct descendant of the boreks perfected by the Ottomans in Istanbul and spread throughout the Mediterranean. But some speculate that it has an even more ancient origin. According to these sources, borek is an Ottoman update of the Ancient Roman placenta pie, which was made using layers of tracta (a Roman version of filo pastry), and a mix of cheese and honey.
While in contemporary Turkey borek covers a whole range of dishes based on filo pastry, in the Balkans there is constant simmering tension between predominantly Bosnian “meat-burek-exclusivists”, who insist that burek is only really made with meat, and “burek-inclusivists” in Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia, and Croatia, who apply the name to all of varieties of the dish, which range from plain to recently concocted pizza-burek.
In Serbia, the most common variety of is round, served either plain, with cheese or meat, and can be traced to the southern city of Nis, where it dates back at least to 1498. It is most commonly eaten for breakfast, bought from a local bakery, and washed down with local, runny variety of yoghurt.
So tight is Serbia’s connection with the pig that its close cousin, the wild boar, made it onto modern Serbia’s first coat-of-arms, seen on the flag of the First Serbian Uprising of 1804. The country’s close relationship with these smart, chubby animals started after the Ottoman conquest for economic reasons. Due to the Islamic prohibition on pork, which Muslims consider unclean, the Ottomans could not tax or take pigs from farmers, prompting Christian Serbs to devote themselves to swine-herding. With time, Serbs started exporting pork to the Habsburg lands across the Danube and the Sava, and some of the richest Serbs at the time were swine merchants.
According to one story, the leader of the First Serbian Uprising against the Ottomans and father of the Karadjordjevic dynasty, Karadjrodje Petrovic, had his first brush with the Ottomans when some of them attacked the pigs he was herding. Prince Milos Obrenovic, the first ruler of autonomous Serbia, was a swine merchant.
Pork’s pivotal role in Serbian history continued into 20th century. The Serbian-Habsburg trade war of 1906-1908 is called the Pig War because Austro-Hungarian Empire unsuccessfully imposed tariffs on Serbia’s pork, the country’s main export, to quell Serbia’s rise.
Needless to say, pork’s political importance in Serbia is matched by its culinary importance. Firstly, it is enjoyed in the variety of cured meats served in the country, from spicy kulen sausage to local prosciuttos. Then, of course, there are cvarci, delicious nuggets of fried pork lard, which are enjoyed as a snack. Finally, of course, whole pork roast is the indispensable centrepiece of all feasts in Serbia, especially at Christmas. Making a good pork roast is considered a great skill and is a permanent topic of debates among Serbian foodies as to which restaurant does it best: Stari Hrast in Arandjelovac is a strong contender, and so is Uzelac, in Belgrade.
Sarma, or cabbage stuffed with rice and meat, is a truly international dish and is proof of early globalisation during the Ottoman times. Its varieties, under different names and various ingredients, are enjoyed from the Caucasus to Sweden, to where the dish Kåldolmar was brought after King Charles XII, an Ottoman ally, spent time in Moldova in the 18th Century.
In Serbia, Croatia and Bosnia, sarma (from the Turkish “roll”) is typically wrapped in pickled cabbage, which is traditionally more acidic than German sauerkraut, and is enjoyed at weddings, New Year parties and slavas, or family patron saint’s days. Even in Serbia, there are other versions of sarma. Some wrap the rice and meat mix in dock leaves, called zelje, a type of leafy green enjoyed in the Balkans, while others substitute meat with walnuts to make it vegan and thus edible during the long Orthodox Church fasts. In Croatia, sarma, until now reserved for sit-down meals, has received a fast-food iteration as sarma-sandwich, a hit at Zagreb’s Christmas market.
Delicious milky sponge cake coated in caramel, trilece or trileqe is most commonly associated with Albania and Kosovo in the Balkans. While some source its history to a mix of cow, goat and buffalo milk in medieval Albania, another version tells a story of globalisation and interconnectedness in forging local recipes and even traditions.
Again, the clue is in the etymology. Trilece is suspected to be an Albanised version of tres leches (“three milks”), a similar dessert, popular in Latin America, and especially Mexico. This dessert’s history is a proof of the power of early iterations of corporate marketing. The recipe for trifle-like, milk infused dessert was apparently popularised across the Latin American countries when Nestlé in the early 20th century put it on the side of their condensed milk cans, to boost their consumption. According to some, the cake made its way to Albania with the popularity of Latin American TV soap operas, which prompted Albanians to reverse-engineer the recipe and eventually make it one of favourite Albanian desserts and spread it further. These days, trilece’s popularity is increasing in Serbia as well, thanks to the large number of Albanians and Goranis who own cake shops around the country.
A version of this article appeared in Belgrade Insight newspaper.