Serbian cuisine, not unlike the country, is surprisingly full of contrasts; ones that somehow work together effortlessly to offer the first-time visitor the kind of culinary experience that is both interesting and somewhat indulgent. Meats grilled to soft, juicy perfection, the freshest tomatoes you’ll ever taste, light and fluffy bread and desserts generously drizzled with honey; Serbian cuisine is like a delightful mezze (platter) of the best parts of the cooking traditions from the Middle East, Mediterranean, and Balkans, garnished with the creativity of the Serbian kitchen.
On a recent trip along the Roman Emperors and Danube Wine Route, I had the chance to discover Serbian cuisine with these dishes that stood out.
A fluffy flatbread, that looks similar to the Arabic khubz, Turkish bazlama, and North Indian kulcha, lepinja is especially delicious because of its soft and spongy interior that splits into two, like a pita. It’s the perfect accompaniment to grilled meats such as ćevapčići.
I tasted this cheese (made from cow’s milk) grilled and served in a slightly tangy and aromatic tomato preparation and topped with black olives and herbs. Along with the rest of my dinner company, I reached out for seconds and thirds despite the warnings from our hosts to save space for the main course, because it was simply irresistible.
Karadjordjeva šnicla or Karadjordje’s schnitzel is a breaded rolled steak stuffed with kajmak cheese that is then deep fried and served with tartar sauce and roasted potatoes. The meat is usually pork or veal but some places also serve a chicken version (like the one I tried). The dish is named after the Serbian Prince Karadjordje and was created by chef Milovan Stojanović who first prepared the dish for an important visitor in 1956 at a Belgrade restaurant. The visitor ordered Chicken Kiev but Stojanović, faced with an absence of chicken in the pantry, decided to innovate and used veal instead to create the dish that has now become a favorite of the locals. Crunchy on the outside and perfectly juicy towards the center, this one is a big meal that’s absolutely worth the extra calories.
A treat for meat-lovers, ćevapi or ćevapčići is minced meat (pork, beef, lamb or a mix), shaped like a kebab, and grilled until it’s tender and succulent. Some say that the dish has its origins in the Ottoman Empire, while others believe that it was first prepared by the Hajduk (Turkish for rebels) as the roasted Hajdučki ćevap during the Ottoman occupation of Serbia in the 15th century. Today, the ćevapi is a favorite street snack all over the Balkans.
Leskovački uštipci is a minced beef patty that has bacon, cheese, peppers, and garlic as its other ingredients. It can be served on a platter of grilled meats along with ćevapi. The name comes from Leskovac, a city that is famous for its tradition of grilled meats and even has an annual grill festival that sees a large number of tourists each year.
Not usually a fan of apples, I was pleasantly surprised by the more sinful version of the fruit; Tufahija is a dessert made of poached apples stuffed with walnuts and served with a huge dollop of cream and sweet syrup. The name comes from the Arabic word for apple-tuffah. The sweetness of the warm poached apple is balanced with the crunchy walnuts and cool cream to create a perfect harmony of flavors in the mouth. I couldn’t have asked for a sweeter ending to my meal!
Note: This article is part of the Crossing Routes – Blogging Europe 2016 campaign, in the framework of the Joint-Programme between the Council of Europe and the European Commission aiming at promoting the Cultural Routes of the Council of Europe, in collaboration with iambassador.