Published on September 9th, 2014 | by Faye Penfold0
Fried cheese, grilled meat and cabbage: the delights of Balkan cuisine
Whenever you’re travelling in a foreign country, especially outside major cities and tourist zones, navigating your way through a restaurant menu can be a minefield, with everything apart from French fries and unknown quantity.
Throw in the completely alien Cyrillic script and you’ll have an idea of just how daunting a Balkan menu can be. However, rather than retreat to the nearest McDonalds or pizza outlet, try to persevere as, when the dishes finally arrive, you’ll be treated to a feast fit for a king, or a very hungry tourist at least.
To help you through the maze that is Balkan cuisine, here’s a quick guide to help you tell your ćevapčići from your goulash.
In many parts of the Balkans, a meal isn’t considered complete unless there’s meat involved, with many restaurants simply not comprehending the idea of a meatless dish.
Though some restaurants, especially in tourist hotspots, will serve complete meals, in most cases traditional establishments – or ‘Kafanas’ – will list each element of a meal separately. Portions are normally big and plates are designed to be shared, so if you order a portion of sausages, steak or chicken don’t be surprised if you’re served enough to feed an army.
If you like Turkish koftas, try ordering some ćevapčići. These small, spiced, sausage-shaped delights are great with salad or as part of a larger meat feast.
Another favourite is Karadjordjeva, a rolled, breaded pork or veal cutlet stuffed with cheese and fried. Normally served with tartar sauce, this dish may not be healthy, but is delicious.
Goulash, or Gulaš, dishes and stews are also very popular and make for a fantastic hearty meal in the depths of a Balkan winter.
Luckily for any vegetarians out there, the Balkan countries love their salad so it’s easy to build a meal that doesn’t revolve around meat
One of the most popular in the region is Šopska salad. Made by mixing tomatoes, onion, cucumber and white cheese, this tasty salad can be found across the Balkans and is great as a light lunch or as part of a feast
Another delicious salad of the region is Kupus. Though it may not sound too appetising, this shredded cabbage salad, dressed with salt and white wine vinegar is tasty and refreshing, the perfect choice for washing down all that rich meat.
To complete your authentic Balkan feast, you’ll need to order at least a few side dishes, and this is where things can get really tasty.
If you’re looking for a potato dish, opting for boiled potatoes with local cheese is always a good option. Normally listed as Krompir sa Kajmak, this dish is great either by itself or as an accompaniment.
Cheese also features heavily on most Balkan menus and another delicious dish is Pohovani kackavalj, slices of deep friend, breaded cheese served with tartar sauce.
In some restaurants and cafes you’ll also find a few pastries on the menu, with Zeljanica (spinach and feta pie) and Gibanica (feta pie) generally the most common
Though most diners in the Balkans will have either wine or beer to accompany their meal, no real feast is complete without a few shots of Rakija, a type of fruit brandy that will knock your socks off
As every self-respecting Balkan household makes their own rakija, the quality and strength of the tipple varies a lot, but in general it’s somewhere around 40-60% Vol.
If you’re eating in a traditional restaurant don’t be surprised if you’re offered a shot at the beginning and the end of your meal. Though an acquired taste, if you get a good rakija it can be delicious, helping you digest your dinner and get the night off to a great start. In many cases, locals will also drink rakija at breakfast and dinner, so if you’re up early, you may well see café patrons knocking back a shot of two before they head off to work.
Though Balkan food is on the whole delicious and sweet pastries in bakery are fantastic, the region’s puddings can often be a bit of a let down.
Luckily, you’re generally so full from the proceeding plates of meat, salad, cheese and potatoes that normally just a rakija will suffice. If you do fancy something sweet after your meal, one of the most common puddings is Palačinke, a type of crepe usually filled with chocolate or jam.
In more southern regions of Bulgaria and Macedonia, you’ll also find Baklava in many restaurants and cafes as well as a range of cakes, ice cream and fresh fruit.
So if you’re bored of Italian, non-plussed with French or unexcited by Indian, why not give Balkan cuisine a try and experience a taste sensation you’ll never forget.