I have been lucky enough to travel around the Balkans a lot. It’s not just the region I come from but also a beautiful place, even if often underappreciated as a tourist destination outside of its seaside resorts. It also offers some of the best food you would ever try, and foodies from around the world are yet to discover its wonderful cuisine!
Radostina Georgieva│ firstname.lastname@example.org
A little bit of everything!
Why do I use the term ‘Balkan cuisine’ if the region has so many countries in it? Surely, each one must have its own distinct cuisine? Yes and no. Historically, the area which we now call the Balkan Peninsula has been the path of choice for migrating peoples and expanding empires for millennia. So it’s hardly a surprise that there are so many cultural influences on the national cuisines in the region, from the Mediterranean, Northern Africa or even the Middle East. Add that to the fact that from around the thirteenth century until the second half of the 1900s most of the Balkan countries were within the bounds of the Ottoman Empire and you would understand why determining if a meal was originally Greek, Bulgarian, Serbian or Turkish is close to impossible.
One such example to prove my point is tzatziki. We think of it as something traditionally Greek, but did you know that it is also considered a ‘traditional’ dish in Turkey, Albania, Serbia, Bulgaria and even the Middle East? Add water to tzatziki and you have a refreshing, cold soup popular in the Balkans, Northern Africa and the Middle East. In fact yoghurt is a very significant part of Balkan cuisine, often used as an ingredient in cooking or as a sauce for certain dishes. And it makes perfect sense once you find out that in 1905 it was none other than a Bulgarian physician who identified the bacterium used to produce yoghurt (Lactobacillus bulgaricus). Of course, Bulgarians are very proud of this fact and don’t miss an opportunity to mention it (umm… case in point, I guess…).
Meat Lover’s Dream/Vegetarian’s Nightmare
To say that meat (in all its shapes and forms) plays a big role in Balkan cuisine would be the understatement of the century. For most people, it’s unconceivable to have more than a single meatless dish per day. For my mother (and she is definitely not alone in this), it would be unthinkable to host a dinner party without serving meat (even if it’s my birthday and I’m a vegetarian… That was harsh, Mom!). There is even some sort of commonly-agreed-upon-but-highly-unlikely myth that you can’t sate your appetite unless you consume massive amounts of meat and/or bread.
If you’re a meat lover, however, you would love Serbian cuisine whose barbeque is considered by many (including myself in my meat-loving days) to be a culinary revelation. If you do visit Serbi don’t miss it, and definitely try pljeskavica: the local version of a hamburger. If you ask me what makes Serbian barbeque so good, I couldn’t answer. There’s no secret sauce or other secrets as far as I know. Unless… Unless there is some sort of national conspiracy going on. Either way we might never know…
The absolute must-have food, if you visit any of the Balkan countries, are the breads and savoury filo pastries on offer. In Bulgaria, the most popular one is banitsa. If you visit the beautiful Sarajevo, don’t miss their famous burek, offered with a variety of fillings: meat, cheese, spinach or even potatoes. This is fast food – Balkan style!
(Sometimes Guilty) Pleasures
There is so much more I’d like to tell you. I haven’t even started talking about Turkish deserts, generously drowned in sugar syrup, or the simple but delicious salads covered in grated snow-white cheese. I guess we’ll have to leave all of that for some other time. You should definitely come to visit though. We’ll have some wine under the vines (or maybe even some rakia, if you’re the adventurous type) and talk about football and politics, since all Balkan people know everything there is to know on these topics.
No matter what you know or you think you know about Balkan people, the only way to truly understand them is by sharing their food. And don’t worry, they will invite you. They are hospitable, warm and passionate. Sometimes too passionate for their own good in fact, but it’s this passion that defines their love, their life, their music and their food!
*A ‘summarised’ spelling of the common greeting “welcome”, which in this form should be understood in all Balkan Slavic languages.
Radostina Georgieva, Contributing writer
Radostina is from Bulgaria and has a BA degree in English Literature. Her home university is Uppsala and she spent a semester in Strasbourg. She is interested in Minority Studies and as a self-professed nerd her absolutely favourite things in the world are Doctor Who and Game of Thrones. She is currently doing her internship at the office of the “Plovdiv 2019” foundation, working on her home town’s application for European Capital of Culture.