If you think you are a Balkan culinary know it all for loving ćevapi, sarma, burek and kajmak, well the truth is… there is plenty more to discover.
Everybody knows they are great, and with ajvar now present on the supermarket aisles from LA to Dubai, and the increasing number of restaurants serving Serbian fare all around the world: from Kafana in New York, via 21grams in Dubai to Yugo Grill in Shanghai.
If you want to be seen as a real pro in the Balkan-connoisseur circuit you need to step your game up quickly are treat you palate to a wider mix of local specialties and delicacies: from socialist era creations to amazing products of local snout-to-tail eating.
I urge you to try the dishes and products below, which are easily available in Serbia – however please note that I am not trying to claim the Serbian provenance of all of these dishes – many of them are indeed foreign (Austrian, Hungarian, Turkish) origin but are considered part of our culinary patchwork.
With the current popularity of East Asian restaurants in Belgrade, it is funny to think that East Asian food reached Belgrade centuries ago thanks to the Silk road.
The dish in question is mantije – meat filled buns which are a distant relation of Northern Chinese mantou. Which in their heavily altered form arrived to Serbia via Armenians and Turks. Mantije, as eaten in Serbia, and especially Novi Pazar, are less subtle in thaste than their Chinese ancestor, and are often consumed with garlicy yoghurt (another Silk road staple).
Traditional Serbian cheese filo pie, usually made whenever dairy or eggs are going to go off as it can contain any of them, has been a source of controversy both due to the origins of its name and its political connotations.
The etymology of its name is hotly contested: some claim that it comes from the Serbian verb “gibati” (to twist, to fold), while others claim it comes from “gebna” – Egyptian word for cheese. Indeed the world’s oldest cheese and first depictions of cheese making date from Egypt (2000 BC), although it is assumed that cheese making started in Europe with some archaeological evidence from Croatia, Poland and Switzerland. One more outlandish theory about the origin of “gibanica” is that the it is cognate or that it derived from Indian “ghee”.
Even with the name and origin controversy aside, being called “gibaničar“ (gibanica-eater) is politically loaded as it was the slur that the Communist Partisans used for the Royalist Forces / Četniks during WWII. The word was previously used as an insult for free-riders, and was used due to the reluctance of the forces under Mihailović to engage the Nazis. Aleksandar Ranković, a leading Serbian Partisan, told a story about going to meet with Mihailović in 1941 at Ravna Gora mountain where he was jokingly served „gibanica“ by Mihailović who compalined about the name. Besides its loaded political content, gibaničar still has a broader menaing of being slothful and or obsessed with food.
The best place to try gibanica is at somebody’s home and below is a video of me making it.
This wonderful stuffed schnitzel is a favourite in many Belgrade restaurants, and is the local take on Cordon Bleu and Chicken Kiev, only made with pork schnitzel and kajmak. It was first made for Tito by chef Milovan Stojanović in 1956, and named after the Serbian hero and patriarch of the Karađorđević dynasty (which Tito deposed) Đorđe Petrović Karađorđe.
The story goes that Stojanović, while working in Golf restaurant in Košutnjak, was asked by a Radio Belgrade journalist to make Chicken Kiev, however he ran out of chicken and butter so he decided to improvise and used pork and kajmak instead. The guest was happy with the result and it turned out that she was Tamara Broz, Tito’s daughter in law. Maybe because of its instant popularity with the first female to consume it (or, some would say, its cylindrical shape) earnt it a nickname “Girl’s dream”, however Stojanović made it a hit when he displayed it at culinary fairs in Hotel Moskva and Sunce restaurant in Dom Omladine. This led to him being employed at SIV (the Palace of the Yugoslav Execuitve) and as Tito’s chef.
Stojanović went on to try to invent a few more dishes inspired by major personages: Tesla’s beef, Pupin’s medallions, as well as Njeguški steak, which was the only major hit apart from Karađorđeva and which won several awards in late 1980s.
Karađorđeva is pretty much a staple of restaurant menus all over the country, and especially in Belgrade, my favourite is at Madera, where they make it without overly runny kajmak. Stojanović and his son also opened a decent restaurant in Zemun.
Eating and loving pihtije, or pork aspic, is considered as a rite of passage from adolescence to adulthood. Traditionally made of pork cartilage and meat, as well as garlic, they are normally consumed with onions and chilli flakes, ideally inside a smoky kafana like Orašac or Mornar. Despite the fact that they sound somewhat unappetising, they are very healthy.
Vasa Pelagić. the original Serbian health guru from the late 19th century recommended a frequent diet of pihitije, especially for those suffering from gonorrhoea, problems with uterus and general feeling of weakness. On the other hand, Ray Peat, a contemporary food guru also recommends a diet with a lot of cartilage.
They are a great first step into the world of Serbian snout to tail eating, which includes eating intestines, tripe, liver, brains, bone marrow, tongue, and, my favourite, thymus.
Smoki, Serbia’s favourite snack, which turns 50 this year, is made of puffed cornmeal grits and flavoured with peanuts and salt. Often imitated by lesser ex-Yugoslav food companies, it was first made by Štark and tastes a lot like Israeli Bamba and German Erdnussflips.
Despite their great taste, they are the ultimate processed food, initially made in the US as a byproduct of making animal feed. The credit for their discovery in 1932, goes to Edward Wilson, who worked for Flakall Corporation, a Beloit, Wisconsin animal feed manufacturer. Once he made the first grits, he took them home and seasoned them, making the first ancestor of Smoki and Cheetos. Despite the fact that peanuts are an American crop and that their consumption was promoted by the American food companies in the late 19th and 20th century, the Americans mostly like their grits cheese flavoured.
Interestingly, Israeli Bamba, which was launched in 1963, was also initially cheese flavoured, however that turned out to be a flop, and forced the producers to experiment with various flavours. How Smoki exactly came to Serbia and who invented is not widely known, however it was probably inspired by a Štark employee visiting Israel or Germany, as both Osem’s Bamba and Bahlsen’s Erdnussflips predate it.
Moskva šnit (and other Yugoslav cakes)
Although certainly influenced by Habsburg cake culture, Moskva šnit is, like Karađorđe schnitzel, a recent authentic Belgrade addition to Serbia’s culinary scene. This wonderful “torte” with sour cherries and pineapple, was created in Hotel Moskva by pastry chef Anica Džepina in 1974. Although the hotel opened in 1908. the pastry shop was a 1970s addition, and Džepina was tasked with making it a success, which she more than managed.
Anica and her team were trendsetters on the Yugoslav pastry scene as seen in an 1975 article recommending the trendiest cakes for a New Year’s feast. They include new recipes like Triglav (named after Yugoslavia’s and now Slovenia’s highest peak) as well as my childhood favourite, and Austrian traditional Srneća leđa (Doe’s back or Rehrücken torte).
Although Moskva šnit can be found in most cake shops, it is best enjoyed at its grand birthplace, despite the fact that the interior got kitsch-ified during the latest renovation. Triglav and Srneća leđa can still be found in Milica, a time-capsule of a pastry shop at the bottom of Skadarlija.