One of the best ways to get to know the culture and customs of the Balkan nations is to sample some of the typical and traditional foods and drinks that comprise Balkan cuisine. It can be easy to initially assume that Balkan food will be the same from country to country, or it will be similar to that of other Central or Eastern European fare. However, Balkan cuisine is actually fairly diverse and each country does have its own regional specialities.
For instance, if you are travelling along the Croatian coast, you are going to experience a vastly different set of local specialities than you will in central Serbia. While you will see a difference in offerings from Slovenia to Montenegro to Bosnia & Herzegovina, there are certain dishes and specialities that can be found where you find yourself in this incredible and diverse region.
So what is Balkan food? Well, to generalise, it is a hearty and meat-heavy cuisine with a large communal aspect involved. While the Balkans certainly isn’t the ideal region to travel for vegetarians or vegans if you want to sample local Balkan food, it is sure to delight carnivores and barbecue fans alike. So if you want to dive into Balkan culture through its food, make sure to try these essential dishes.
Balkan Cuisine: Coffee, Pastries & Condiments
While still possessing Slavic roots, food and drink in the Balkans is also heavily influenced by the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian occupations.
If you are in the central Balkans where there was a long-standing Ottoman occupation, you will find a prevalence of Turkish-style coffee. Bosnia & Herzegovina is particularly proud of this tradition and the best place to try this style of coffee is there, where it is called Bosnian coffee.
The coffee is ground ultra-fine, mixed with water, and heated in a small pot directly on the stovetop. It is then poured, grounds and all, into a small cup. The fine grounds settle at the bottom and produce a strong and wonderful cup of coffee! The preparation differs slightly from what is traditionally done in Turkey as it is not customary to add sugar while brewing the coffee, but to dip a sugar cube in as desired while drinking.
You can find this style of coffee all over the central Balkans, but if you want to learn about how to properly drink it with a true coffee aficionado, then make sure to head to Cafe de Alma in the lovely and historic city of Mostar, Bosnia & Herzegovina!
If you’re craving some Turkish-style coffee at home then check out this stainless steel pot and Turkish coffee set!
Alongside a coffee, if you want a typical Balkan breakfast, lunch or snack, you cannot go wrong with Burek! Burek is a kind of pie made with phyllo and a number of different fillings — generally potatoes, cheese, spinach, or some kind of meat (typically pork, beef, or lamb). It is available at every bakery throughout the region always at an extremely affordable price. Michael and I ate burek for breakfast nearly every day during our time in the Balkans, and it was always delicious.
It is worth noting that while in most Balkan countries, burek refers to all pies regardless of filling, in Bosnia it is only called burek if it is filled with meat.
Kajmak & Ajvar
Other customary breakfasts include toast, a feta-like cheese, cured meats, cucumbers, tomatoes, and various spreads — like kajmak and ajvar.
Kajmak is something like clotted cream, but slightly fermented so it has a more pungent taste. Ajvar is a relish made from red bell peppers, garlic, and sometimes chilli and eggplant. It is absolutely delicious, I could eat it straight from the jar! Both condiments are also not exclusive to breakfast and you will often see them on the table at any meal. Thankfully even after you come home from the Balkans, you can buy ajvar online!
Balkan Cuisine: Main Dishes
Balkan cuisine is fairly meat-heavy and it can be difficult to eat like a local if you are a vegetarian. However, there are some dishes that aren’t completely meat-centric.
Perhaps the most prevalent dish throughout the Balkans is ćevapi. Considered to be the national dish of Serbia, ćevapi are a sort of small, caseless sausage comprised of minced meats that are then grilled. You are typically served 5 – 10 of the sausages along with diced onions, kajmak, yoghurt, and a pita-like bread.
Balkan people absolutely love ćevapi and it is one of the foods that is most recommended to eat by locals. You will find it on just about every menu in a traditional eatery and there are numerous fast food shops that churn out the signature dish, as well.
All in all, no visit to the Balkans is complete without eating ćevapi at least once.
Another common dish is pljeskavica, which is essentially a Balkan twist on the hamburger and is more or less like a flattened, round version of ćevapi. It is a patty made with a mixture of meats such as pork (although this is unlikely in Bosnia), beef, lamb and onions.
It is grilled and served with yet more onions, kajmak and sometimes a chilli sauce. There are some fast food places where you can get this on bread, however, in most traditional restaurants you will just get the meat to eat with a knife and fork.
A popular variation is šar pljeskavica where the meat is stuffed with cheese and is absolutely delicious but maybe one to avoid if you’re on a diet!
Stuffed vegetables are also very common in the Balkan cuisine, notably punjene paprike (peppers stuffed with meat, onions, and rice), stuffed cabbage or grape leaves, stuffed eggplant (aubergine) and punjene tikvice (stuffed zucchini).
If you are planning on visiting coastal Croatia or Montenegro on your Balkan trip, then you are going to love all of the delicious seafood offerings on each restaurant menu. While you will certainly be able to find many of the aforementioned grilled meat dishes, coastal Balkan cuisine does have a heavy reliance on the fruits of the Adriatic.
You will find fishes like sea bream, sea bass and tuna. For appetisers, you also can indulge on marinated or salt-cured anchovies. Octopus and squid are also prevalent and you can find it both fried, grilled, or stewed.
There is also an abundance of shellfish — most commonly prawns, clams, and mussels. The most common way to prepare these is “buzarra style,” which is steamed in a white wine and garlic sauce, thickened with bread crumbs and flavoured with parsley.
If you order a whole fish in the coastal Balkans, expect to receive it with a side of potatoes and chard stewed together and sometimes a garlic and parsley sauce to drizzle over it. It is also commonplace to drizzle some delicious, locally-produced olive oil over freshly grilled or fried fish.
If you fall in love with some of these dishes, then why not try recreating them at home with this Balkan cookbook?
Balkan Cuisine: Drink
Last, but arguably most importantly, you can’t have an article about Balkan cuisine without mentioning rakija. Rakija is essentially the Balkan form of schnapps, a fruit brandy most commonly made with plums, but can be made from nearly any fruit under the sun.
Most homes will make it themselves, but it is also available to purchase in supermarkets and liquor stores throughout. Homemade rakija can be quite strong (upwards of 60% alcohol by volume!) and there is a protocol to drinking it!
Balkan cuisine is full of hearty and delicious fare that is sure to satiate you throughout your trip. Though there are certainly some regional specialities, there are also favourites and strongholds that can be found throughout the entire region and are very much worth sampling while visiting the Balkans.
What are your thoughts on Balkan cuisine? Have you sampled it? What’s your favourite dish? Leave a comment below!