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Just back from a visit to Bosnia & Hercegovina, one of the former states that comprised Yugoslavia, and a place steeped in history. Not only did the first world war start here, triggered by the assassination of Austro-Hungarian heir to the throne, Franz Ferdinand, but more recently Bosnia suffered the scourge of a horrible regional war that took place scarcely 20 years ago (1992-96). I’m happy to report, however, that the Bosnians have turned a page on this dark period in their history, and Sarajevo, is as lively, thriving, and picturesque as any European capital. In fact, the natural beauty of the Balkans provides an amazing backdrop as the city’s red-tiled rooves spread out like flowers from a central swathe of valley carved out by the Miljacka River. The city center is laid out along this east-west axis, where you can travel from the rustic, old city, or Baščaršija, founded by the Ottomans in the 15th century, to the new modern Sarajevo City mall recently built by the Saudis. Along the way you’ll pass grandiose Austro-Hungarian buildings as well as plenty of historic Orthodox Churches, Synagogues and Mosques, which speak to the multi-cultural identity of this city.

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The Sebilj is a pseudo-Ottoman style wooden fountain in the centre of Baščaršija square.

Such multiculturalism boded well for the dining prospects, I assumed, and having been to the region before, I was aware of the distinctly Turkish influence on the food here. So I prepared for this trip by reveling in a superb Turkish meal at Cazbar, a local restaurant here in Baltimore, to familiarize myself with the dishes I might find in Bosnia. But that turned out to be wishful thinking. Although I found the food in Bosnia to be generally good, it was uniformly lacking in the spice department.  I certainly didn’t expect something on par with a Sri Lankan curry, but Bosnian food just did not display the same Turkish flair for making simple ingredients pop with flavor. If something beyond salt and pepper was used at all, it was most likely paprika as well as certain herbs like rosemary and parsley. On a positive note, however, the meat, dairy, and produce there are local and largely organic, and taste like they’re supposed to taste. Mad cow disease was unheard of in this beef-eating mecca, and the cows you come across on local farms look happy and healthy, as do the ubiquitos sheep. Even the lamb, another popular menu item, is top-notch, lacking the gaminess usually associated with this meat.

My first meal here, at a quaint, farm-like restaurant in the hills above the city, was undoubtedly the best because it offered a sprawling introduction to the local favorites I would be enjoying during my stay. Like most of my meals in Bosnia, the experience of eating is one that is shared with friends, and involves many courses served over the course of several hours–lubricated, of course, by a smooth vintage from the southern region of Hercegovina.

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The first restaurant I ate at in Bosnia

After entering through wooden gates and walking through a cozy beer garden that overlooked the city’s green hills, we were greeted by the sight of a young lamb roasting on a spit, which I hoped was for dinner.

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young lamb, slow-roasted for 6 hours over hot coals

 

Our hosts, however, joked that the lamb was for dessert, because there was a lot more food which preceded it, including a fresh salad of greens, red onions, tomatoes, and shredded cabbage; a plate of Suho mes0, or aged, smoked beef, thinly sliced, and very similar to Italian bresaola; a variety of cheeses, such as the feta-like Travnicki and Vlasicki; and, of course, Burek, a traditional meat-filled flaky pastry rolled in a spiral, and smaller versions stuffed with either meat, cheese, or spinach called Pita, which is Bosnian for “pie.”

 

salad

salad

Suho meso  & cheeses

Suho meso & cheeses

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Burek

Burek

Pitas

Pitas

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Following these appetizers came the cooked dishes which included dolmas, or stuffed grape leaves; Gulas (goulash), a meat stew with a dollop of sour cream; a dish of meatballs served with rice; and finally, for “dessert,” that mouth-watering roasted lamb.

meatballs with rice

Cufte, or meatballs with rice

dolmas

dolmas, or grape leaves stuffed with ground beef

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

goulash

goulash

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Unfortunately, I had eaten so much of the food preceding it, that I could not do justice to the lamb, but I was lucky to have another shot a few days later. If not for our Bosnian hosts, whose hospitality was tremendous, we would not have even known about a place like this.

Left on my own in the old city, where we stayed, I managed to do OK, however, eating at the oldest Ascinica, or cafeteria-style restaurant, in Sarajevo, known as Ascinica Hadziba Jric F. Namika. Here they offer a variety of dishes on display at the main counter, and you simply point at what you want, and sit down to eat, family style, at one of the long tables. I had a simple lunch of roasted veal, potatoes, and spinach cooked in milk.

Ascinica Hadziba Jric F. Namika

Ascinica Hadziba Jric F. Namika

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Bosnian pita bread or Somun

I should also mention that eating bread with all meals is de riguer. While they have different kinds, the soft and puffy pita-like bread, called Somun, seemed to be the most popular.

As I said before, if not for our local hosts, we would not have eaten at so many great spots in the city. On of my favorites was a place called Kibe Mahala, which is known for its amazing view.

the view from Kibe Mahala

the view from Kibe Mahala

After eating there, I can tell you that the food ain’t too shabby either. We had a variety of dishes, which provided a showcase of Bosnian comfort food.

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Kljukuša, basically a large, baked potato pancake

 

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meat ravioli topped with sour cream

 

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a goulash of meat and mushrooms in a sour cream sauce

 

There's that roasted lamb again....Mmmmmm

And, once again, that killer roasted lamb….Yummmmmm!

After such a huge and luxurious meal in the middle of the day (along with plenty of local wine), it was time for some Bosnian coffee–similar to Turkish coffee–which is boiled in a small pot with sugar.

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Every country has a national dish or specialty that you absolutely have to try, and in Bosnia, that dish is Cevapcici, which are grilled meat kebabs (usually a mixture of ground beef and lamb) served on a pita with chopped raw onions and sometimes sour cream. I was dying to douse mine with hot sauce, but when I asked for some I got a small container of sweet ketchup laced with paprika. So much for spicing things up!

cevapcici

cevapcici

My wife, who is Palestinian, was excited to try the stuffed zucchini, which is a dish she makes as well, but the spicing again, was much milder than what she is used to.

Stuffed zucchini

Stuffed zucchini in a light paprika sauce

She also tried the traditional stuffed grape leaves and Sogan dolma, or whole onions stuffed with meat, but this dish, though served in a cool vessel,  seemed to lack even salt.

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Meat–especially beef and lamb–is the order of the day here, while pork is rare in this predominantly Muslim country. But after a few days of being a serious carnivore, I was craving some fish. Luckily the Adriatic sea is not far away, and there is a great seafood restaurant in Sarajevo,  called Tisina. Though the place is tiny, and located amidst some ratty, high rise apartment buildings, they serve up some amazing food. We ate a glorious octopus salad, risotto with squid ink, local brown mussels, which I’ve never had before, and, of course, the catch of the day, prepared very simply with olive oil, salt, and lemon.

Octopus salad

Octopus salad

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Risotto with squid ink

brown mussels from the Adriatic

brown mussels from the Adriatic

catch of the day

catch of the day…

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…grilled and served with some local greens and potatoes

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Visiting a real local food market is a must when traveling anywhere, and I stumbled on Sarajevo’s open-air produce market, while wandering out of the old city. Here, I found such typical ingredients as tomatoes, potatoes, onions, garlic, bell peppers, paprika, cabbage, artichokes, mushrooms, spinach, lettuce, dried and fresh beans, plums, and apples. There was also a good deal of citrus fruits and bananas, which I assume are imported. 

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Almost directly across the street from this open-air market is a large hall that houses the meat and cheese market–probably one of the cleanest of its kind I’ve ever seen. This is where you can get that smoked and aged beef that Bosnians love so much as well as a variety of cheeses.

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Inside the meat market

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Sudzuk

Sudzuk, a beef sausage

Suho meso, dry-aged and smoked beef

Suho meso, dry-aged and smoked beef

one of the many fresh cheeses available

one of the many fresh cheeses available

Outside the market were some older ladies selling herbs, but unfortunately due to the language barrier I was unable to identify exactly what they were.

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Sarajevo, if you recall, played host to the 1984 Winter Olympics, and I could not leave the city without checking out the main Olympic park located in the nearby hills of Jahorina. I was very surprised to discover, however, that this winter was one of the country’s mildest in recent history with only one snowfall (global warming is truly global). As a result the usually busy ski slopes were mostly green. We did, however, console ourselves with a hearty lunch of venison goulash at one of the local chalets, Rajska Vrata.

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the meal must begin with smoked meats, cheeses, and bread

the meal must begin with smoked meats, cheeses, and bread

Venison goulash with a conrmeal mash

Venison goulash with a conrmeal mash

If they had not told me the dish was venison (or “Bambi’s mother” as our Bosnian friend Amir described it), I could have sworn it was beef, because it lacked any hint of the gaminess I usually associate with deer. It was cooked with tiny wild blueberries, and served with some blackberry jam on the side, which went very well with the tender meat. Eating beside a round fireplace in the center of the room, made the meal complete.

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After a week of eating, mostly heavy, meat-centric meals, when it came to our last meal in Bosnia, we chose to go light. We wandered into a quaint little restaurant in the old city called Dveri, and we were dvery, dvery happy with the light fare of fried sardines and roasted vegetables that we ordered.

an assortment of cheese and roasted vegetables

an assortment of cheese and roasted vegetables

 

fried sardines with a salad

fried sardines with a salad

Sarajevo was yet another eating odyssey. But beyond the food, the hospitality of our Bosnian friends made it a special trip. It helps having friends in foreign lands, to get an inside view of the culture, and to feel less like a tourist than a traveler.

Special Thanks to Aida & Amir and the good people of Sarajevo

 

Here are some of the places where we ate:

 

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Seeing that there is no Sri Lankan restaurant within a 200 miles radius, and Sri Lankan food is probably some of the tastiest to stuff to emerge in popular consciousness in the last few years, I would have thought there would have been a run, no, a sprint, to sign up for the latest Sri Lankan Supper club. After all, I’ve done these Supper clubs all over the country and they’ve always sold out, but for some reason, the home town crowd here in Bmore is a hard sell. The last time I did one locally, I had only 10 guests and I would love to at least surpass that number this time. So if there ANY adventurous foodies out there in the Charm City, stand up and be counted! Here’s what’s in store:

 

Menu

Appetizers

Beef cutlets – deep-fried, breaded croquettes stuffed with beef, potatoes, and spices

Masala Vadai – vegetarian appetizer made with yellow split peas; similar to falafel

Mains

Steamed, fragrant Basmathi rice

Black Pork Curry

Fish Ambul Thiyal – Sour fish curry, a signature Sri Lankan dish

Dahl – red lentils stewed in coconut milk and spices

Mallun – Sauteed greens

French bean curry

Sides

Sri Lankan Salad

Pol Sambol – shredded coconut with chili, lime, and spices

Mango Chutney

Mixed pickle

Papadum

Dessert

Caramel Pudding (Flan)

 

If that’s not enough to grab your attention, in the absence of smellivision, I’m going to have to resort to some good old fashioned food porn.

 https://www.flickr.com/photos/14488284@N08/sets/72157602234867730/

 

Hungry?

Tickets are available here:

http://slsupperclub.ticketleap.com/the-sri-lankan-supper-club—-bmore/

 

See you next Saturday!!

 

SCIENCE OF THE LAMB

Yemeni specialists offer oasis in pastaland

Photo: J.M. Giordano, License: N/A

J.M. GIORDANO

There’s a new kid on the block in Little Italy, and pasta is not what they’re pushing. But the recently opened Yemen Arabian Restaurant (411 S. High St., [410] 385-4900) has lamb down to a science. Whether it comes chopped up as shawarma and rolled in a pita, crammed in chunks on kebabs, or slow-roasted in tender hunks for the house specialty haneez, you really don’t want to miss out.

My first taste of Yemeni food was at a restaurant called Sana’a (named after Yemen’s capital) in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, where they served a whole leg of lamb atop a mound of fragrant basmati rice. That thoroughly authentic, lip-smacking, finger-licking meal set my standard for Yemeni cuisine, which is distinctive among Middle Eastern food, and Yemen Arabian Restaurant upholds that standard quite well.

Take their national dish, salta ($19, $8 for a side), a cross between a soup and stew. The savory base of ground lamb and vegetables is dolloped with a bitter fenugreek foam that tastes like nothing I’ve ever had before. Bolstered by sahawiq, a salsa-like condiment of tomatoes, onions, and cilantro, the dish is oddly addictive scooped up with the thin pita-like bread it is served with, but I could have easily enjoyed it over a bed of rice as well.

The loubia ($18) did come with rice. Though the menu calls it “Yemeni risotto,” it’s actually a hearty stew of lamb chunks, zucchini, tomato, and onions in a peppery, cumin-based sauce that soaks up the rice. They also make this dish with chicken, as they do with many of the other lamb-centric offerings. (Beef is conspicuously absent from the menu, and the only fish offered on the day of our visit was catfish, though they say the fish offerings vary by availability.) The menu also misleads with its description of Yemeni galabah ($18) as a dish of “minced lamb.” I was pleasantly surprised to find a stir-fry of tender strips of meat sautéed with onion, tomato, and cumin—a dish I’m told is traditionally served for breakfast.

If you want to cut to the chase, however, go for the haneez ($18), a generous portion of Chef Hamood’s famous whole-roasted lamb served over rice. Maybe it’s the sheer simplicity that makes this lamb so good—it’s neither fatty nor gamey, and definitely a dish to be revisited. A veteran of establishments in Brooklyn, and Dearborn, Mich., both home to a significant Arab populations, the chef knows his game well, and will even prepare a whole lamb for you on special order.

For appetizers, the restaurant features traditional Middle Eastern favorites like hummus, lentil soup, and fattoush salad, a mix of fresh tomato, cucumber, lemon, oil, salt and crunchy pita chips, but venture off the eaten path and you will be rewarded. The fasolia, a dish of white navy beans sautéed with onions, tomato, cilantro, and cumin, scooped up with pita, will have you hooked, and the sautéed lamb liver will make you wonder why you hated this organ meat as a kid.

As with many establishments I like, the quality of the décor is inversely proportional to the quality of the food, so don’t expect anything fancy, and go for lunch instead of dinner because you’ll pay roughly half-price for pretty much the same dishes, depending on the sides—though the lamb or chicken shawarma, at $5 and $4 respectively, are always a great buy. And while you might want to skip the sorry iceberg lettuce salad that accompanies each entrée, be sure to try some of the complimentary lamb soup, which is scrumptious. Less than a year after Ozra opened nearby, Yemen Arabian offers a new spin on Middle Eastern food and proves itself another welcome oasis in pastaland.

Yemen Arabian is open every day from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.

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haneez

haneez

lamb shawarma

lamb shawarma

lamb soup

lamb soup

fassoulia

fassoulia

sauteed lamb livers

sauteed lamb livers

salta

salta

roast chicken

roast chicken

salta

loubia


 

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Remember that great squid dish you always order at Thai restaurants? The one with the fiery Thai chilies and the awesome Thai basil. Well, with only a handful of ingredients, this dish is yours to enjoy at home anytime you want. And believe me–the fact that you made this all by yourself is going to make it taste that much better! Feel free to improvise as well. Don’t like red bell peppers or celery? Use whatever vegetables you prefer. The great thing is that previously hard to find ingredients like fish sauce and Thai basil are now available most everywhere.

And do not be intimidated by squid or any other seafood for that matter. Seafood, to me, is the easiest thing to cook because it cooks quickly. There is always the possibility of overcooking squid, which can become quite rubbery and inedible, but sloshing it around a hot wok for a few minutes is not going to accomplish this. The real key to this dish, and most Asian, wok-based cuisine, is prep. Make sure you clean and cut your squid and vegetables beforehand. Measure out your sauces and other ingredients beforehand, and keep them close to the stovetop because once you begin, this dish comes together in the blink of an eye. And it tastes so good, it will also disappear in the blink of an eye.

 

The Recipe

 

1 ½ lbs. fresh squid, cleaned (or 1 lb. frozen)

1 red bell pepper, sliced

2 stalks celery, sliced diagonally

1 ½ tablespoons peanut oil

4 tablespoons coarsely chopped garlic

3 tablespoons finely sliced shallots

2-3 fresh red Thai chilli peppers, chopped

1 tablespoon fish sauce

2 tablespoons oyster sauce

2 teaspoons sugar

handful of Thai basil

 

1.)   To clean the squid: Pull the head and tentacles of the squid away from the body; the guts should come away with them. Then remove the thin purplish skin. Slit the body open and remove and discard the transparent bony section. Wash the body under cold water and cut into thin strips.

2.)   Slice the tentacles off the head, cutting just above the eye (you may also have to remove the polyp, or beak, from the center of the ring of tentacles. Discard the head and reserve the tentacles.

3.)   Heat a wok over high heat until smoking and add oil. Add garlic and stir-fry for 1 minute until lightly browned. Remove with a slotted spoon and drain on paper towel.

4.)   Add the squid and stir-fry for 1 minute until it starts turning opaque.

5.)   Add the shallots chillis, peppers,celery, fish sauce, oyster sauce and sugar and stir-fry for 3 minutes. Toss in the basil and mix well. Remove to serving platter and garnish with fried garlic. Serve with steamed Jasmine rice.

 

Serves 4

 

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Skiz (1)

It was great to see Sri Lanka on CBS’s “The Amazing Race” last night. It showed a peaceful place full of culture, history, and great hospitality, which is the Sri Lanka I know. We have made rapid strides since the end of the 27-year conflict with the LTTE terrorist group in 2009, and the country is finally living up to one of its nicknames as “The Pearl of The Indian Ocean.” Though there is a lot of negative propaganda in the media about holding Sri Lanka responsible for “war crimes,” much of this originates from the governments of Britain and the U.S., who should be the last countries to lecture other sovereign nations about accountability when they have so much innocent blood on their hands in Afghanistan and Iraq. Sri Lanka, in fact, is a model for post-war reconcilation, which this short video underscores. Take a look at it, and hopefully you’ll add Sri Lanka to your list of top destinations because it really is a small piece of paradise.

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