While Serbia and the Balkans come nowhere near Italy in purism about food and food related customs (aka culinary fascism), there are certain things that are not done, and certain other signs that signal to you that you are in the presence of a true gastronomic veteran.
For example, one of the main tells that you are a non-local in Serbia is ordering ajvar in the summer and/or having it as a side with the grill.
On the other hand, enjoying offal and regional dishes such as pihtije (pork aspic), crevca (grilled intestine – goes well with beer) and škembići (stomach) is a sign of seasoned kafana connoisseur. Not only are these delicacies slowly disappearing from the menus, but also need knowledgeable cooks and good ingredients to be tasty, and it is assumed that an enjoyer of offal would know where to eat them.
So if you are bored of ćevapi, pljeskavica and burek, ans want to dive deeper into the Serbian (and regional) cuisine one of the best ways to add some variety and gain kafana cred, is to start eating offal.
Although many new chefs – such as Vanja Puškar and Branko Kisić – are working to integrate and update these old dishes into their high end offering and there is a global (online?, meme?) movement promoting the health benefits of tail to snout eating, such the Liver King, most Serbs are still reluctant to eat offal and go for the more traditional fare.
So, what should you go for?
Although they are technically meat, dishes made of tail (usually cooked), tonque (fried), diaphagm and heart (grilled) are hard to come by and are good first step towards the more exotic cuts. Then come, brizle (thymus) which have a chicken-like taste (of course) but also a very interesting jelly-ish texture.
After that, I would say, come fried brains beef liver (I suggest medium rare) and then then crevca, which, when hot ,are an excellent light snack with beer. Bone marrow is also very tasty and healthy light lunch, especially when put over some good warm bread.
The most fragrant intestine dishes are usually quite heavy and should only be eaten when the weather is cold. Pihtije (pork aspic) with some onion and with a side of sauerkraut are a great light meal in the winter, while if you really want to go all in, get some “gurmanski škembiči” and enjoy the heavily spiced, fatty innards of a stomach. If you want to push the envelope even further, then there are “beli bubrezi” (transalted as white kidneys, but actually a euphemism for testicles) which are famously prepared cooked every September at Gornji Milanovac’s mudijada, but have been served as a crisp-like bar snack for a while at Endorfin.
In order not to have bad experience while expanding your culinary horizons you should know where to go.
Morava’s grill pop-up at Paliluska market does great diaphragm and bone marrow (and occasionally tongue), while Skočić at Bajloni market has very good liver. Orašac is great for brains and intestine, while Stara Srbija does amazing tongue and brizle (they are also very well done at To je to and Kod Ljube). Finally, Mornar is the place to go for great pihtije and škembići. (Of course, consult Karafindl good kafana guide for more great suggestions).
If you are not convinced, then at least try and have some more regional Serbian foods. Instead of a morning burek go for mantije (the first imported dish from China in the Balkan cuisine), cicvara/kačamak (porridge like dishes based on corn, potato and dairy) or priganice/uštipci (fried dough). The letter are best found in the mountains of Monetnegro in places such as Lovački dom Trebaljevo and Maja Karanfil and should be ordered in advance as they take about an hour to make. For mantije you should really go to Novi Pazar, but in Belgrade Ključ does very good ones. Local dairy products and diary-based dishes are unsurprisingly great given Serbia’s many wonderful mountains and hills, as well a long pastrolaist tradition. Belmuž – a soft cheese and flour dish from Svrljig (and general south-eastern Serbia), grilled Miroč cheese (basically Serbian halloumi) and đubek from Pirot are stand outs and should be sampled whenever you have the chance. Then, in the area around Guča, you have to have svadbarski kupus (wedding cabbage, sauerkraut and meat dish) even if it is peak of the summer and all the fat in the dish will make you feel like you are having a stroke.
Vojvodina also has some great cheeses (Mokrin and Čurug, especially), but its ethnic mix also allows you to try some great Hungarian and Slovak dishes. Fish-paprikaš in any csarda in the area around Apatin is amazing, while now there is finally a bakery dedicated to Slovak dumplings – nadlacke – in Stara Pazova.
Finally, in terms of desserts, the seasoned kafana goers will judge a place by its orasnice (very good in Nova Tiha Noć) – a walnut and egg white biscuit-like sweet. Other traditional options are mostly influenced by Turkey and the Middle east. There is tufahija – boiled apple in syrup stuffed with walnuts – and then there are syrup-soaked tulumbe and urmašice (great in Čubura). In more traditional, old school dessert shops, like Zlata, Pelivan or DJ you can also find many “šam”-based (egg whites and sugar paste, which is basically more runny meringue/shaum) sweets, which come from Germany: such as šamrolna, šampita and Indiijaner.
If you have some (or all) of these you will certainly be able to one up any Balkan food enthusiast, who is still probably stuck talking about the awesomeness of ajvar and burek, and may even be granted the greatest kafana honour of them all: an invitation to the table of the kafana-fiends and treated with vinjak.