I asked three different people from three different countries in this area before naming this week whether or not I would cause offence by calling the grouping of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro, Croatia, Serbia and Slovenia “Former Yugoslavia”, or indeed grouping the countries together at all. The responses I got were varying shades of the sentiment that people in that region had been warring and marrying for millennia, and that I had their personal permission to group them together under this name and the optimistic sentiment of peaceful unity. Good enough for me, sorry if you disagree, I promise I mean well. I’m personally familiar with the struggles of this region because I grew up in Australia in the 1990s, during the huge influx of refugees fleeing from the Bosnian War. All of a sudden during my second grade of primary school, five new Bosnian pupils arrived to the 50 student cohort, representing a dramatic change to the school’s composition. These kids struggled initially to speak English, but learned with a heroic speed that is a superpower possessed only by the very young, and soon integrated seamlessly to the generally multicultural milieu of students. It was many years later that I finally grasped the concept of a refugee, as well as coming to understand the full horrors of the Bosnian War and the realities of these students’ experiences – of being suddenly ripped from all that was familiar, leaving behind friends and families and landing in a strange and confusing land, of knowing fear and war and uncertainty so young. When considering this region I therefore inevitably think back to the unnoticed courage of these pupils, who ultimately became my friends, adapting to the Australian way of being with such quiet grace that, in the ignorant innocence of youth, I never suspected that they could be anything other than happy-go-lucky privileged kids, as I was. The Balkans was the first area of Europe in which humans practised agriculture, having spread from the Middle East. This region is commonly known as the crossroad of cultures, where the Latin and Greek elements of the Roman Empire intersected, as well as Islam and Christianity. As such, the cuisine has an incredible fusion of ingredients and flavours from different parts of Europe and the Middle East, creating an identity of its very own. There are fertile plains to the north, the Adriatic Sea to the west, the soaring mountains running parallel to the coast and a huge diversity of influences from neighbouring cuisines, cultures and religions. The Christian Orthodox tradition of periodic vegan fasting throughout many of these countries, as well as the fertile soil and expense of meat, means that there is a larger variety of vegetable dishes than more northerly countries in Eastern Europe. This, combined with the prolific seafood and confluence of cultures, has produced a diverse, colourful and delicious cuisine that has cherry-picked the best elements of its culinary history to surprise and delight visiting travellers.
Cevapi and ajvar
Cevapi are hand-formed sausages without casing made with a mixture of minced meat (often beef and pork), and spiced with garlic, onion and paprika. This dish is thought to have originated in Serbia, but is now served in restaurants and as street food all over the Balkans. Cevapi is related to the Middle Eastern minced meat kebabs grilled on long flat metal skewers, with the name itself stemming from the Arabic “kabāb”, meaning “roasted meat”. The history of cevapi can be traced to the “hajduk” people of Central and SouthEastern Europe between the 1600-1800s, who were semi-nomadic rebel outlaws from the Ottoman Empire. These Robin Hood-like bandits would cook “hajducki cevapi” by grilling meat on skewers over open fires. This was further refined in Leskovac, Serbia, where the pljeskavica (grilled meat-patty) were shaped into sausage-like cylinders, forming the Leskovac cevapi, closely resembling the cevapi of modern times. I think I prefer cevapi over many other sausages and kebabs, for the sheer convenience of not having to fret over casings like other sausages, and not having to mess around with the terribly tricky skewer system. Also, I have a sneaking suspicion that the small-sausage/ large-meatball size of a cevapi is purposefully designed to promote maximal consumption, as they are surely too small to keep close track of eating just one or two, then before you know it you’ve eaten 50 and are groaning in gluttonous agony. Suffice to say that in my experiences of lengthy barbecues hosted by my good friend from Montenegro, the “five to ten” serving size for cevapi on Wikipedia is a gross underestimation. The ethos behind the dish is delightfully practical and “rustic” – form rough sausage shapes with your hands, then grill/fry them and eat. Simple. Wonderful. Delicious. I served the cevapi on flatbread with onions and ajvar. Ajvar is a sauce that is also wide-spread across the Balkans, made primarily of blended roast capsicum. Also often included in the puree is roast eggplant, lemon juice, garlic, olive oil and parsley. Depending on how hot the capsicum variety is, and whether you add extra chilli, ajvar can be made very mild and sweet all the way to extremely spicy. Purportedly in Serbia this dish is called a Serbian salad, which makes me less eager to visit Serbia for fear of experiencing a true salad drought. It is also commonly compared to caviar, frequently called “vegetable caviar” or the like. In fact, the name ajvar actually originates from the Turkish word for caviar, perhaps because of the resemblance to the salty taste and bright red colour. This is a very easy and delicious spread to made, but only if you are in possession of a food processor…
Given that much of former Yugoslavia borders the Adriatic coast, there is a wealth of seafood-based meals on offer along the coastline, notably several delectable mixed seafood stews as well as simple dishes of steamed mussels. For my pick of seafood meals in the area I’ve chosen crni rižot, which literally means “black risotto” in Croatian. The black of this dish comes from the addition of cuttlefish ink, which is used all across the Mediterranean to flavour risottos, and which I happily found sold in a neat little jar, precluding the necessity of milking hundreds of cuttlefish… Crni rižot likely became popular in Croatia due to strong Venetian presence along the Dalmatian coast since the 14th century, bringing with them the concept of “risotto Nero di seppa”, a black risotto considered a a regional speciality in Venice. Apart from the cuttlefish ink, the recipe for this risotto is very basic, made by sautéing finely chopped onion and garlic in oil or butter, then adding the rice, then white wine, then gradually adding stock. I served it with some simply fried squid on top, although the inclusion of any seafood is common. Before tasting this dish I had never tasted anything flavoured with cuttlefish ink, so was curious about whether it had much of a taste at all, or whether it was primarily used for the dramatic colouration. To my delight, the cuttlefish ink imparted an incredible rich, savoury and fishy flavour to the risotto that made it seem somehow more dense than normal seafood preparations – and certainly gave the impression of a more complex recipe and more skilled cook than was actually the case. This may be due to the high levels of glutamic acid and iron in cuttlefish ink, which would increase the umami elements of the flavour profile and sings in a glorious symphony with the fats from the butter, simple carbohydrates of the rice, and the sugars and acidity of the white wine. A wide variety of animals from the class Cephalopoda (in the Phylum Mollusca), including squid and cuttlefish, use ink as an escape mechanism, which they release from sacs station between the gills to temporarily blind and confuse potential predators. Cephalopods literally means “head feet”, referring to the ring of tentacles that circles the head of these creatures. Modern humans predominantly use cephalopod ink in food, although it was once used as writing ink for pens and quills, giving rise to the word “sepia”, originally the Greek name for cuttlefish, which became used to refer to a brown colour resembling the dark brown of cuttlefish ink. There is also a growing body of research studies investigating the potential of cephalopod ink to help fight diseases from HIV and other retroviral infections to cancer. There’s no evidence yet to suggest that the oral consumption of squid ink could help these ailments in any way, but by all means feel free to use the slim possibility as an excuse to cook and eat troughfuls of this delicious substance, I certainly will! One side effect of eating this dish is certain, however: it will turn your mouth black and clumsy dining will ruin any light coloured clothing you are wearing – don’t say I didn’t warn you…
Punjena paprika and tavče gravče
Punjena paprika, meaning stuffed capsicums in Bosnia, Serbia and Croatia, is a dish known over broad expanses of Europe under different names, such as polneti piperki in Macedonia and polnjena paprika in Slovenia. I’m not sure why it’s so popular – perhaps the perfect one-per-person size of capsicums, as well as their bright colours, hollow interiors and structural stability has repeatedly drawn cooks to stuff them over the centuries. I used three different colours of capsicums, because I love the bright happy contrast they provide. I found out recently that the three capsicum colours are actually just different stages of ripeness of the same type of capsicum – green being least ripe, yellow medium and red most. This makes perfect sense when you think about it – green capsicums being least sweet and red most, and also why the yellow ones are often the most expensive, as they would be the hardest to catch at the right colour. Stuffed capsicums were always my Dad’s favourite of Mum’s tried and true recipes, so we ate them quite a lot growing up, particularly in winter when they would be especially warming. I filled my capsicums with a mixture of pork and beef mince, rice, raw egg to bind and spices such as paprika, onion, garlic and dried herbs. I stuffed the mixture into the hollowed-out capsicums and then placed their little lids back on top before packing them into a saucepan with tomato puree to cook slowly. Tavče gravče, meaning “beans in a pan” is one of my favourite dish names so far. I have absolutely no idea how it’s pronounced, or whether the two words actually rhyme, but it sounds like something out of a Dr. Seuss book. It’s primarily a Macedonian dish (although also popular in some surrounding countries, for instance in Serbia and Bosnia under the guise of “Prebanac”), with a base of white beans, flavoured with onion, garlic, capsicum, paprika, chilli and coriander. The mixture is baked in the oven, and offers a great new variation on the classic “baked beans” that I am familiar with. In particular, these beans have a unique taste among the universe of baked beans because they don’t have a tomato base, and the addition of chilli gives a particularly satisfying kick. I’m a big fan of chilli for breakfast to really get you raring for the day ahead, so I think this would be a great exotic addition to a family brunch!
Purica s mlincima
Purica s mlincima means roast turkey and mlinci: a traditional pairing, especially in northwestern Croatia, with other fowl-and-mlinci versions popular in Serbia and Slovenia, especially at Christmas time. The turkey (I chose legs) is roasted fairly plainly, with salt and oil or butter, and the meat was thought to be introduced to Croatia by members of the Order of Saint Paul the First Hermit, a Hungarian monastic order. Mlinci are made by making a pasta-like dough with flour, water, eggs, oil and salt, trolling it into a thin sheet, then baking this sheet in the oven until starting to colour and become crispy. This sheet is then broken up into rough pieces, which are covered with boiling salted water for a few minutes to soften. The mlinci are then strained, resulting in a novel (for me) texture of “pasta” that is satisfyingly chewy and soft all at once. Importantly, the mlinci is finally combined with the drippings of the turkey, which, in my humble opinion, is nothing short of genius, as the remaining porosity of the mlinci absorbs the wonderful cooking juices of the turkey and creates the comforting flavours of gravy in a solid form. It only occurred to me afterwards that mlinci is part of an international group of ingenious carbohydrate vehicles to soak up roast juices, with the esteemed bedfellows of Yorkshire pudding, mashed potato and bread rolls. This is one of those simple meals that make me question the effort and complexity of other recipes: why complicate things when you can have the perfection of roasted meat and starch!?