This summer of 2015, I went on a short trip (partially solo and partially with a college friend) to South-East Europe touching some of the Balkan countries (Slovenia, Croatia , Bosnia and Herzegovina – parts of the former Yugoslavia) on the way. This gave me an exciting opportunity to taste some of the varied cuisine of the region including a healthy amount of seafood too as we passed through the stunning Adriatic Coast and the Dalmatian region of Croatia. Former Yugoslavia has had its own share of brutal internal conflicts leading to its breakup and one of the worst war scars in relatively recent history.Like its varied ethnicity, its cuisine is also a culinary melting pot.
According to Philip Evans, a British chef : “Balkan cooking is seasonal and sourced from local ingredients .Each country boast of its specialty recipes, but you’ll find similar themes. The Balkans is a fertile region and the dishes are based on fresh produce, though you can’t escape the love of barbecued meat. Ćevapi (or kebabi) are to be found grilled on the street in every city.”
The countries of the former Yugoslavia are mostly overlooked by travelers from India and hence this was a motivation to visit some of them and gain a first-hand experience of the culture, cuisine, nature and architectural marvels of those places.
Slovenia is a pocket-sized country with what seems to be a difficult-to-pronounce name for its capital Ljubljana (somewhat like : Lube-Lee-Yah-Na). However, don’t be fooled by its small size. You’ll fall in love with it and that’s why their Tourism Board pitches their slogan as: ‘I FEEL SLOVENIA’.
Lake Bohinj has been formed from a glacier and abounds with various types of fishes including trout. In terms of popularity, Lake Bled edges out lake Bohinj but the views of the surrounding area from Bohinj are mesmerizing. Obviously, some fresh trout was what we ordered for lunch.
A stylish capital, Ljubljana is known for its Dragon motif .Druga Violina is an interesting restaurant. The guide ‘Ljubljana in Your Pocket (IYP)’ describes it as :
“Druga violina specializes in good locally grown produce, a simple short menu of Slovene classics and a top location in the city’s old town, but there’s a twist in the tale with the ‘other violin’ (as the English translation of the name goes). It’s actually a project for people with disabilities, who produce much of the food on a farmland near Ljubljana and also work as waiting staff in the restaurant itself.”
We had (Idrijski) žlikrofi “which are traditional Slovenian dumplings.They are made from dough with potato filling and are often served either as a side dish to meat or on their own. Žlikrofi were awarded a protected geographical status in 2010, the first Slovene dish to do so.” Another dish we tried was Veal Steak with mushroom sauce accompanied by Štruklji (a traditional Slovene dish, composed of dough and various types of filling. The dish comes in the form of rolls, which can be either cooked or baked, and can have a wide range of fillings – in this case cheese.).
For dessert , we bought Gibanica from a SPAR Hypermarket. “Gibanica is a traditional pastry dish from Serbia popular all over the Balkans. It is usually made with white cheese and eggs. Recipes can range from sweet to savoury and from simple to festive and elaborate multi-layered cakes.A derivative of the Serbian verb gibati, meaning “to fold; sway, swing, rock”, the pastry was mentioned in Serbian linguist Vuk Stefanović Karadžić’s Serbian dictionary in 1818.”
Burek or Börekas Wikipedia describes is “a family of baked filled pastries made of a thin flaky dough known as phyllo (or yufka), found in the cuisines of the former Ottoman Empire. In the Balkans especially Serbia, Macedonia, Croatia and Slovenia, it is made from layers of dough, alternating with layers of other fillings and then topped with a last layer of dough. Traditionally it may be baked with no filling (prazan), with stewed minced meat and onions, or with cheese.”
Owing of the proximity of Austria, the Germanic influence is also visible in menus of Slovenia. Hence, game is also popular here. Though it was not proper game season, we managed to find stag (deer) on the menu in one restaurant for dinner.
Croatia is blessed with a wonderful Mediterranean climate and a breathtaking coastline dotted with thousands of islands (inhabited and uninhabited).
Split has the remains of the Retirement Palace of a Roman Emperor- the Palace of Diocletian.
People are still living regular lives inside the mazes and alleys of the Palace.And on top of it, it is a busy Sea Port and hordes of tourists come strolling by the sea-side promenade in the peak summer time!
Had lunch at the family-run Konoba (Restaurant. literally : Tavern) ‘Marjan” which used to be the birth-house of Emanuel Božidar Vidović ,a famous artist from Split. It was one of the best sea-food we ever had – the fish was sourced from the Ribarnica (Local Fish Market). We feasted on Black cuttlefish risotto, Octopus stew with chickpeas, Grilled sea-food platter ( Sea bass, Prawns, Sardine, Dog Fish, Hay Fish)
We had dinner in Konoba Trattoria near the Temple of Jupiter right inside the complex of the Palace of Diocletian. The lamb was one of the best I had ever tasted – Dalmatinski janjac s gradela (Grilled Dalmatian Lamb). The patron told us that the sheep is sourced from an island nearby and since they feed on the local grass there, it has a very distinctive texture of the meat. Another local specialty which we tried was thePašticada s domaćim njokima ( Stewed beef dish with homemade gnocchi). Gnocchi is a family of thick, soft dumplings.
Dubrovnik like Split has a Roman (Italian) influence. It’s Old Town has become most famous recently for the location of King’s Landing from the famous TV Series : Game of Thrones. We tried a Pizza Dubrovnik with chicken and asked for anchovies toppings. To go with that , we also enjoyed a dish of Lasagna Bolognese.
The town of Ston (in Dubrovnik West coast area) is well known for the long stone walls which surround the city. They are the longest stone city walls in Europe and the second longest in the world behind that one wall in China.
Another highlight of Ston are the Oyster and Mussel farms. Since I never had fresh oysters before, I was really excited and had some of them fresh with some lemon juice squeezed on top of them. It was delicious as Anthony Bourdain would have quipped in his Food travel episodes – “Come to Daddy” !
The Zadar seafront is known for its modern architectural marvels- the Sea Organ (an experimental musical instrument, which plays music by way of sea waves and tubes located underneath a set of large marble steps) and the Monument to the Sun/Sun Salutation (a circle set into the pavement and filled with multilayered glass plates that collect the sun’s energy during the day. It produces a light show from sunset to sunrise that’s meant to simulate the solar system.)
We ordered a dish of the local specialty – Kovaca (Blacksmith fish), followed by some Zadarska Krempita for dessert (a vanilla and custard cream cake) in a nearby bakery.
Bosnia and Herzegovina
This country conjures up images of war and terror, of ethnic cleansing, and of course ‘Balkanization’. I was a small child in school when the former Yugoslavia and the USSR broke apart but those images still seem relatively recent in memory! This is the place where you’ll find lot of Ottoman influence in the culture as well as in the food.
Our restaurant has a nice view of the Old Bridge of Mostar and we could see a Mostari diver diving from the bridge. We ordered a quick lunch of Beef ćevapčići and Beef Pljeskavica served with bread, kajmak (sour cream) and kapula (onion). ćevapčići is a “grilled dish of minced meat, a type of skinless sausage, found traditionally in the countries of southeastern Europe (the Balkans). They are considered a national dish in Bosnia and Herzegovina”. It’s something like a kebab only. Pljeskavica or Pleskavica is a Balkan dish made of various ground meats shaped into a patty”.
Dobar tek !