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Balkan Food Guide – What to eat when visiting the Balkans

Balkan food is extremely underrated. However, its flavors are exquisite and simply delicious. It is impossible to travel somewhere and not to try local food, right? You might like it or not, but this is also a part of your travel adventure and experiences you will never forget.

Balkan food
Traditional Balkan Food

This is a post for those who want to travel to Balkan countries and don’t know what food to expect in their journey. My goal is to introduce you to some typical Balkan food and drinks.

But if you are one of those who doesn’t know much or anything about the Balkan countries, let me give you just a quick info. The Balkan Peninsula (or Balkans) is an area in Europe, comprising Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Albania, Kosovo, Macedonia, Bulgaria, Romania and Greece. People, traditions, culture and language are diverse. In the past, the Balkans were owned by Romans, Turks, Byzantines and Greeks, therefore it’s not a surprise that historical events left traces impact in the Balkans cuisine which can be seen today.

So, what kind of food is Balkan food? Balkan cuisine is rich in variety, it’s quite a meat-heavy, full of grilled meat, but also fresh and stuffed vegetables, various pies, on the coast fish and seafood. The food varies from country to country in the Balkans, at the same time you can find some similar dishes with different variations, side dishes or condiments. What makes Balkan dishes unique is simple and affordable food. There is a special admiration for local and seasonal produce, which means the dishes of the Balkan countries vary depending on the geographic factor. A meal is usually accompanied by family or friends. It is rather uncommon to eat alone.

Balkan food – Breakfast

The continental part of Balkans would usually consist of “heavy” food, such as eggs, cold cuts, cheese, bread. Also, very popular burek ( check burek recipe here )- it is a kind of pie made of phyllo stuffed with different variations – generally cheese, spinach, minced meat, potatoes, cabbage,… It is usually eaten with yogurt. It is also a favorite dish at any time throughout the day. Burek is available at every bakery at an affordable price.

balkan food burek

At Mediterranean places, breakfasts tend to be much lighter, less fatty. It consists of bread with jam, feta cheese, olive oil, olives, anchovies, also vegetables (tomatoes, cucumbers), sometimes spreads like ajvar and kajmak. Ajvar is a traditional relish made from roasted or cooked red peppers and oil, sometimes also eggplant. It can be sweet, spicy or middle spicy. Ajvar can be consumed as a side dish or as a bread spread. Kajmak is a thick creamy dairy product yellow in color with a slightly strong taste. It is used as a side dish or is combined with other dishes.

In Croatia (more common in Dalmatia region) is typical “marenda“, which means brunch and is eaten between 10 am and 11 am. It is an important tradition when you take a break from work even in an office. Usually, it is included local products – prosciutto, cheese, olive oil, homemade bread, fried fish or traditional cooked meal – a pot dish.

Balkan food – Lunch and dinner

Balkans are quite traditional and always prefer a home-cooked meal at the table, rather than going to a restaurant. A meal usually starts with a soup (various kinds of vegetables with/without meat), meat or fish and a side dish.

Balkan’s most popular dish is probably “ćevapi” (also called “ćevapčići“) – kind of small patties made of minced meat (a mixture of various meat – depends on a region) that are grilled. You are served 5 – 10 patties inside “lepinje” (flatbread) with a side of raw chopped onions, a spoon of ajvar and sometimes kajmak.

Ćevapi with lepinja bread, ajvar, kajmak and onion

Pljeskavica” is a typical Bosnian food (also found in Croatia, Serbia, Montenegro). It is an equivalent of a hamburger, which is made from a mixture of beef, lamb, veal or pork. It is grilled and served along with onion, “kajmak” or “ajvar”.

Stuffed veggies are a common and frequent dish in the Balkans, above all “punjenje paprike” (balkan stuffed peppers with meat, rice and vegetables), “punjene tikvice” (stuffed zucchini), and “punjeni patliđan” (stuffed eggplants) with slow-cooked in a simple tomato sauce. Also “sarma” is a typical stuffed dish – stuffed source cabbage or chard leaves rolled around with a filling of minced meat, rice or bulgur. Stuffed vegetables are often accompanied by mashed potatoes.

balkan stuffed peppers
Stuffed peppers

Here is home also “musaka“, my favorite childhood food. Originally it is from Greece, but you can find different versions in other Balkan countries as well. The dish is layered – thinly sliced eggplants or potatoes and tomato-based minced meat sauce. A top layer is of milk or yogurt and egg or flour-made sauce.

balkan food musaka
Musaka is favorite Balkan food

Along the Adriatic sea, the most important component in the cuisine is seafood dishes. For example, Croatian food or Greek food offers a wide range of fish and seafood. very common is grilled fish, black risotto with cuttlefish. “Riblja čorba” (soup made of several types of fish) and “prebranac” (baked beans) are typical Serbian food. There are also common freshwater fish from which a wild carp (caught in Lake Skadar) is consumed in several ways – fried, grilled or roasted and is typical Montenegrin food.

In some Balkan countries is also very common “zimnica” or winter food is an old tradition – preparation for the winter scarcity of summer vegetables and fruit. it is usually stored in the basement and consumed during winter. The most common are:

  • Ajvar
  • Ljutenica is prepared with hot red peppers, tomatoes, seasoned with garlic and basil.
  • Turšija is different vegetables stored in a jar with a unique sour taste. It is made from pickles, carrots, tomatoes, cauliflower and is used as a side dish or consumed as a salad.
  • Kiselo zelje is a sour cabbage. The natural juice in which the cabbage is left is also drinkable.
  • Marmalades, jams
  • Kompot is made of fruit and stewed with water and sugar. It can be made of a combination or only one sort of fruit. The most common are from apples, cherries, pears and plums.
Zimnica – special winter foods

Balkan drinks

No matter if it is a continental or Mediterranean place, always there is a must drink – coffee. No, it is not a simple kind of coffee, like espresso but Turkish style coffee. How is it different and how to make it? Turkish coffee is unfiltered coffee, made of 100% of roasted and finely ground Arabica beans, slowly boiled in a “đezva” (a small long-handled pot like shown on the photo below). The key idea is to let a coffee build a thick layer of froth on top. It is poured into a small cup. The beverage has a strong, rich aroma and is very thick. It is usually sweetened with sugar. However, in many bars, you can also find various kinds of espresso, macchiatos, cappuccinos and more. Drinking coffee is a very important part of Balkan culture, it is some kind of a pastime at any time of the day. They take time to pause and enjoy the moment. It’s also some kind of ritual when visiting friends or family. To make more fun, sometimes women are used to turn their coffee cup upside down to its saucer after finishing, so the grounds fall down. Consequently, it leaves some patterns on the surface of the cup – and helps to predict future events.

The “obligatory” component in the life of Balkans is “rakija” – a traditional queen of Balkan spirits. It is some kind of schnapps, a fruit brandy, made from the distillation of fermented fruit. Usually, it is made from plums, but it’s also common to make from other fruit, honey, herbs. Some even start a day with this traditional beverage – to get their circulation going or any time through the day. When a guest comes to someone’s house, the first thing he will be offered is……exactly, rakija! There is almost no social gathering without rakija. This spirit is not only considered as an alcoholic drink, but it is also a natural remedy. It might sound strange, but some say that it helps cure any virus or works well as pain relief. Often you can find that many families make it themselves. It can be strong – up to 60% of alcohol.

Rakija – Balkan brandy

Another alcohol that is present at the table of the Balkans is wine. Balkans produce some very high-quality wines, especially along the Adriatic Sea. There is a famous dry red of Montenegro “Vranac”, Slovenian “Cabernet” and “Merlot”, Croatian “Plavac Mali” and “Assyrtiko” white wines of Greece.

Balkan food – Desserts

Balkans love rich flavors – desserts of all kinds with some of the main ingredients, such as layers of phyllo, nuts, chocolate, in Greece it is used more of yogurt instead of milk, honey instead of sugar and fruits.

The queen of Balkan delicacies is “baklava” for sure. It’s a typical Bosnian food (you can also find in other Balkan countries) – a pastry made with layers of phyllo dough with chopped nuts (often with walnuts), sugar and some lemon on the top, usually cut into diamond pieces and baked. It’s very juicy, sweet and with full taste.

Turkish delight “lokum” are small cubes of jelly, flavored with rosewater, nuts, citrus fruit juice, coconut, etc. Traditionally, locum accompanies Turkish coffee (sometimes with tea as well) which fits perfectly.

Another very sweet dessert is “tulumbe“. They are traditionally fried and then soaked in simple syrup.

Potica” is a traditional Slovenian delicacy made of leavened dough filled with any variety of fillings (walnut, hazelnut, tarragon, poppy seed, cottage cheese,…).

Interesting facts:

  • What I know for sure, from my own experiences (and my Montenegrin roots) is that in general, the more you are on the south of the Balkan peninsula, the people are more hospitable. They open the door of their home and make the table with the best food (preferably homemade) and drinks. What’s more, a host always makes his best so that his guests feel comfortable and enjoy the food.
  • Do not miss visiting markets. Thankfully, you can find good providers of organic, fresh and local vegetables, cheeses, fruits, herbs and olive oil. Not only to buy the products but also to meet locals how they interact with each other or maybe even to begin a conversation with them (no matter if you don’t speak their language – they are open people and usually with basic words is enough 😉 ).
  • People in the Balkans countries usually eat home-cooked food (also, during working days, eat their lunch late when coming home). Women are committed to cooking what they learned from their mothers. The reason lies in history – when women needed to stay at home and were in charge with preparing the food.
  • Greek cuisine is one of the oldest in the world. It left a big mark in other cuisines, especially in the Balkan Peninsula

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