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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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: