Since we wrapped up the last workshop for EAT Umeå, the Balkans seem to have been on the cards. First the 'Cultural Heritage in Migration' conference took us to Sofia,Bulgaria( a dedicated post is long over due but hey! we are on holiday here!) and after a week back in Umeå, here we are, in Mostar, Bosnia. The weather is perfect and at 32 degrees, it is a real summer finally! (Umeå is still fighting overcast skies and 14°C so we are not going to be ungrateful for sweating it out in the summer!!)
The old city of Mostar is quaint and still holds scars from the 1993 war. "Never forget but always forgive" is painted on signs, on walls and etched in stone along with some artillery wounds that can still be found on some facades. But Mostar has a deeper history as a city that has existed for years and is most famously known for its stone bridge called the Stari Most which was designed by the architect Cejvan Kethoda for the Ottomans back in the 16th century. It is therefore no surprise, that the food in this region takes it's roots from the Ottoman empire as well.
The city of Mostar is beautiful, with its steps upon steps and layers behind layers, its cobbled streets polished by centuries of feet walking through it and the smells of grilled meats wafting through the streets as you walk through them. We met 2 Bosnians from Mostar, one of them coincidentally called Lena as well, who couldn't stop talking of food in Mostar even though we gave nothing away to hint that we are a little food obsessed(poker face). Here is an account of the foods we tasted and the flavours we explored.
Cevapi,(ch-va-pee) or spiced grilled minced meat formed into sausage sized cylinders ( I am refraining from calling them skinless sausages as they are commonly described) are actually the national dish of Bosnia and Herzegovina. They are essentially the Bosnian version of kebabs, whose origins lie in Persia(both in name and type). They are mildly spiced, with the proportions of spices varying from place to place. My favourite place for cevapi in Mostar, called ROTA served steaming hot, extremely moist cevapi(which is an art unto itself) and which told tales of the quality of the meats used, and the fats into it. Depending on the size you order, small-medium-large, between 5-10 pieces of the cevapi always come tucked into a flatbread called lepinje, with some chopped onions accompanying the meat. Now the lepinje itself is a beauty. A soft flatbread, it soaks up the fats and becomes uber delicious. The aroma of the cevapi with that of lepinje combined is irresistible and it keeps staying away from the carbs impossible.
There are several types of stuffed vegetables that are also common to the Bosnian cuisine. Quite like the dolmas or the Turkish sarmas(that we learnt in EAT Umeå's workshop), Bosnians stuff herbed, spiced minced meat into peppers and onions as well as roll them in cabbage and vine leaves. They have different names for each. My absolute favourite has been the onion stuffed ones and they were served with a little bit of stock. The onion was super tender and the meat generously stuffed along with rice and parsley. The stock was literally the most well balanced soup of all times with the sweetness from onions standing alongside meat stock with a slightly tart aftertaste( I am guessing lemon juice). So light and non-fatty, it made me feel less guilty about the...ahem..plates of cevapi I had downed earlier at Rota. I ate the stuffed onions at the NATIONAL RESTORAN BALKAN.
We also had the burek(specifically the meat one) there which was rather nice. It is a snack, a phyllo dough roll stuffed with cheese, or cheese and spinach, or meat.The pastry wasn't excessively oily(which I felt a little of when I last ate the banitsa as it is called in Bulgaria) but we noticed that they were quite liberal with the parsley in the meat stuffing also, which frankly speaking I loved and it gave me flashbacks of Syria. I love how food and smell are so intensely intertwined with our memories.
The baklava, which I have seen on almost all menus was just okay at the National Restoran Balkan. It was excessively sweet and the pastry wasn't crispy. HOWEVER, the surprise element was orange rind in it! The citrusy taste, in spite of the very sad pastry was just about the most refreshing thing I have eaten sitting outside in 32 degrees. ( I am not complainingg!!!)
The last and the final paragraph(I promise!) is about the 'national' platter I had. It was a clear touristy gimmick, with the wait staff in traditional clothing and pictures on menus but I chose to go with it because it was essentially a sampling platter of most of the traditional eats. It included Bosnian cookies(meat patties), Bosnian sausage(It was not really a sausage instead a tremendously tender piece of lamb), minced meat wrapped in vine leaves, in cabbage leaves, in a pepper. Some rice, sour cream, ajvar( which I discovered a few years back accidentally and always have a jar of in my fridge), boiled potato pieces, some mixed vegetables(bit like a stew, I couldn't figure out which is which) and of course, a cevapi!
The next few weeks are going to be spent in the same region, but closer to the coast. In and around Croatia and in places still undecided. At some point I want to do a post about the food influences and how far they have reached. How the Ottomans' obsession with food carried eastwards and how the food from this region has been the predecessor to foods I am more familiar with, i.e. from India and Pakistan.