Local cuisine is as mixed as its culture, influenced by its colourful history under this rule and that. It shares this characteristic with its ex-Yugoslav neighbors, and many dishes here are eaten in Serbia and Croatia as well, which is why I like to shy away from epithets like “Bosnian” cuisine. For the sake of this article, I will consider it as such, but please note that you will find many of these foods across the Balkans (and beyond).
Bosnian food is heavy on the meat (mostly veal and lamb) and seasonal vegetables and fruits. For the most part, it is mildly seasoned with salt, pepper, and generous heapings of Vegeta (not the Dragonball Z character, but a mix of salt, spices, and dried vegetables that is very popular all over the region). Paprika also rears its head once in a while as part of a roux for various thick soups, but stronger spices are mostly reserved for the more adventurous cooks.
When it comes to meat, spit-roasted lamb or pork and ćevapi are kings. Consequently, they’re some of my favorite foods. One of the best places for the lamb is on the way to the coastat the Zdrava Voda restaurant in Jablanica. It’s not a place for vegetarians/vegans (or anyone with a weak constitution for that matter) as daily there are at least 10 lambs slowly roasting over hot coals not even two meters away from diners. They’re cooked whole, heads intact, and practically every part of it can be eaten. Some people find the head to be the most delicious part, a delicacy I still haven’t had the stomach for. As for ćevapi (small minced meat skinless sausages), you can find them anywhere, especially in Sarajevo’s Old Town (Baščaršija) where each restaurant claims to have the best. And like the Cokevs Pepsi debate in the US, opinions on which ćevabdžinica (restaurant that serves ćevapi) is the best can get quite heated. I swear by Petica Ferhatovićas I prefer the simple combination of minced meat and salt. There are others that use Vegeta and some that add breadcrumbs and some that even add egg to the mixture to help the meat stick together, but all of this is useless in my opinion and simplicity wins.
Aside from these very meaty dishes, seasonal vegetables are also part of the local cuisine. You will find them in use in more traditional, homemade meals, which you can thankfully also find in restaurants called aščinice. An example of a type of food you’ll find there is grah/pasulj, which is a slow-cooked bean stew. Typically, the beans are cooked along with onions and carrots, but other vegetables can be added depending on the cook. There is also bosanski lonac(Bosnian pot), another slow-cooked dish. It is made of large chunks of meat and vegetables (typically cabbage, carrots, green tomatoes, and zucchini) layered over one another—meat then veg—and cooked for several hours with a cup or two of water. And of course, there is sarma, or stuffed cabbage, my winter staple. The best way to make sarmais with pickled cabbage. Ground meat and rice are mixed together along with some spices (pepper, salt, paprika, and, OK, Vegeta!) and rolled inside the cabbage leaves and slow-cooked again for hours. You may have noticed that there’s plenty of slow cooking going on here, and yes, that can’t be good for the veggies in terms of keeping the good, healthy parts of them intact, but this is traditional Bosnian cooking. I imagine that it has to do with the fact that for a long time, and even now, people used wood burning stoves to make their food, especially in villages and poorer homes. These types of meals are prominent in the winter months too, so cooking them serves a double purpose: nourishment and warmth.
All these savoury treats might leave you asking what Bosnians eat when they’re craving something sweet. Whatever it is, the basis for many, many cakes and pastries is simple syrup, aka sugar water. There’s phyllo dough, walnuts, and simple syrup (baklava); extruded and fried dough and simple syrup (tulumbe); oval-shaped dough with a cheese grater pattern and simple syrup (hurmašice); hollowed out apples filled with a walnut mixture and doused with simple syrup (tufahije); and a tall meringue pie, which is made with simple syrup and egg whites (šampita). And those are only some of the desserts in the simple syrup family. There are also delicious cookies, which are often made with lard in many families, but can be made with vegetable shortening or butter as well. Many of these cookies are made for Christmas or New Year. In my family, my father was in charge of making medvjeđe šape(bear paw cookies). There are also makovnjača(sweet poppy seed roll), kiflice (sweet crescent rolls), paprenjaci(a kind of gingerbread cookie), gurabije (shortbread), and many others. Considering there are many different cultures in Bosnia itself, I am for sure missing some great treats. If I’ve missed any out, it’s not intentional, and I would love to hear what your friends and families make to sate their sweet teeth. I enjoy many of sweet treats, but my favorite dessert (and sometimes even breakfast) is knedle, or plum dumplings. Knedle are made with small plums rolled into a potato dough then boiled and finally rolled in breadcrumbs. Sprinkle sugar on top and enjoy. You won’t be able to find them in restaurants, but maybe you can convince a friend to make them for you?
If you’re interested in learning more about Bosnian, or more correctly ex-Yugoslavian cuisine, I encourage you to do a bit of research. There’s so much I missed out on in here and there’s so much history behind each dish. Most of the desserts, for example, are remnants of the Ottoman Empire, and knedle are from Austro-Hungarian influences. Cuisines are intrinsically interesting and can even carry some baggage. Anthony Bourdain once said that “there’s nothing more political than food”. Culinary politics is something we should all have at least a passive interest in. It shows how similar we are, no matter what differences we may have in other areas.
Written by Irena Huseinovic