Serbia enjoys a bit of a reputation for heavy feasting, especially involving copious amounts of grilled mince meat, and piglets and lambs roasting on spits.
There, however, is another, deeply traditional side to our food, which, although somewhat unfashionable for a few generations, is coming back with the global rise of veganism and fasting and rediscovery of religious fervour in the country.
Traditional Orthodox fasts are almost fully vegan, with the exceptions of fish and sea food and the devout are supposed to not only uphold the Great Lent (48 days before Easter), but also do shorter fasts before Christmas (from 28 November to 6 January), St Peter’s Feast Day in July and the Dormition of the Theotokos in August . On top of that, fasts on Wednesdays and Fridays, of almost every week of the year, are also supposed to be upheld to remember the treachery of Judas and Crucifixion.
There, of course, are additional rules to what food can be consumed during fasts (for example, during Lent, no oils are supposed to be used on weekdays), and, if they are done as part of religious practice, one is supposed to be extra vigilant about abstaining from sinful acts and thoughts, and engaged in prayers and confessions, ideally under the guidance of a priest.
Upholding fasts was a long standing part of Serbian tradition, and was often remarked by foreigners. For example, in his work on the state of 18th century Illyrian (aka Slavic) population of the Empire, Habsburg statesman and diplomat Johann Christoph von Bartenstein remarked that fasting (which took up around half of the year altogether) makes Serbian soldiers cheap to maintain in standing armies, but did not make them any less fierce fighters (actually the opposite was the case, according to him).
I would not be surprised that the devotion to fasting among Serbs, was greatly helped by the fact that the Muslims in the Ottoman empire were fervent in upholding their Ramadan fasting, and that, in the general spirit of religious one-upmanship the Orthodox tried to show that they are no less devout. Then of course, there was the fact that for the many, especially in the harsh regions such as Montenegrin mountains and Dalmatia, famine was common all the way up to 20th century making fasts more a necessity (or rationalisation) than a quirk.
As it often happens, however, greater prosperity had the adverse effect on religious fervour and already by WWII urbane Serbs were less likely to uphold fasts. My great grandmother who was born in 1910 in Novi Sad, but grew up in Rakovica and later lived in Belgrade, for example, maintained that “sin exits through the mouth, but does not enter them (by eating)” and instilled the whole generations of my family with disdain towards fasts and organised religion, and, not unsurprisingly, love of fatty foods and tendency towards obesity. The decline of fasting was further sped up by the general inclement stance of the new post-WWII socialist government towards religion, as well as, boomer fascination with opulence. Fasts were seen as something done by illiterate fanatics who did not want to enjoy the new relative luxuries of SFR Yugoslavia.
Fasting, however, made a comeback as Serbs rediscovered tradition and religion in the turbulent late 1980s and 1990s, as a refuge from the collapse of the Yugoslav worldview. While many in the urbane parts of the country scoff at the practice, food joints across the country became more accommodating to the those in the “fast” lane with more vegan options. The trend was, of course, also helped by the rediscovery of the benefits of restricted eating for both body and mind, as well as the current faddish turn towards plant-based foods.
This makes Belgrade surprisingly great for vegans and vegetarians with an ever-growing number of restaurants that cater to them. Mayka, Savana and Radost are great for those wanting to eat out, while there are now many producers of vegan alternatives: from Komleko for dairy to Vegapčić for ćevapi alternatives. For those wanting to indulge their sweet tooth, Ćao Šećeru is amazing, while Šuma also has a few amazing vegan cakes. For those wanting to cook at home, the best fasting cookbook I read is Svetogorski kuvar (Mount Athos cookbook, sadly only available in Serbian) by father Onufrije, which not only has easy and delicious meal ideas but also tells the story of one of Orthodox Christianity’s holiest sites though its foods.
Although fasts are not supposed to be times for indulging, sometimes, it is necessary to let one’s hair down a little and have a semblance of an indulgent fast food meal. These have been on the rise and this year I could not have made it without the Veggie Vegan pizza from Majstor and Margarita, Salmon sandwich from Mesožder, Beyond Meat burger from Burger House and vegan pies from Ključ. Another honourable mention goes to Vegapčić vegan buger and wrap joint which is conveniently across the street from St Sava’s, for those wanting to have a brief indulgence before or after seeing Belgrade’s most impressive church.