Stories of survival: notes from a Bosnian kitchen

“But in the homes, not only of the Turks but also of the Serbs, nothing was changed. They lived, worked and amused themselves in the old way. Bread was still mixed in kneading troughs, coffee roasted on the hearth, clothes steamed in coppers and washed with soda which hurt the women’s fingers.” – Ivo Andric, The Bridge over the Drina [Bosnian novel]

“Time is the key ingredient, and there’s no way to cheat it.” Sabina is stirring a large pot of onions, gently observing them sweat and caramelise into a sweet sticky jam. “Sauté, sauté, sauté”, she lulls, drawing out the final syllable in a lilting accent. 

Sabina is cooking in her tiny restaurant kitchen in Sarajevo, slowly conjuring up a meal on her wood-fired stove. She carefully adds chunks of veal, watching it splutter and spit, fusing its fat with the already jammy onions. The lid goes on. She checks the fire is gently smouldering before turning and smiling; “to really slow-cook, you must use wood fire”. Sabina is making sitni cevap; a melting veal stew that needs only a few ingredients and a little effort before it’s left to bubble and simmer over the course of an afternoon. 

Slow-cooking is the basis and soul of Bosnian food and I’ve tasted none better than with Sabina. She lights a cigarette, draws and exhales sleepily. She’s despondent after a week of slow business, bemoaning the worsening economy and locals’ lack of appetite for rustic cooking outside of the home. The night before, as every evening, her friends stayed late, arriving with guitars and filling the room with smoke, conversation and the slow pulse of Bosnian folk songs. Among her guests, Sabina laughs easily and with a beguiling smile that feels both genuine and warm. She’s what you’d expect from the matron of a thriving business, and on the surface that’s just what it would seem as her little restaurant fills with musicians, friends and passersby, attracted by the music and good vibes. Still, Sabina remains resolute. “I want people to come here to taste my grandmother’s food”, she tells me, “to remember the traditions of our ancestors”.

Sabina grew up in the north of Bosnia with her grandmother, where she learnt how to roast peppers, stuffed with potato and rice, and doused in butter and cream. She recalls huge vats of preserved cabbage leaves to fill with beef and rice and cooked slowly into juicy cigars (a dish that’s echoed across the Balkans, Turkey and Armenia). She remembers long dried okra garlands strung onto string and hung in her grandmother’s kitchen, which she’d mistake for exotic necklaces. There was lamb moussaka too, and her favourite, sour trahana soup; a beef broth of tomato, beans and fermented ‘trahana’ grains.

“This is my most vivid memory of childhood. My mother, grandmother and aunt mixing flour with milk or yoghurt to make the trahana dough. They’d leave it to ferment on long tables in the sun for days. There is nothing like this soup. It gets milky and tart as the grains dissolve into it”.

Sabina is animated as she describes long afternoons in the kitchen, making ajvar (read more about this spicy red pepper relish here) or rolling pasta for beef-stuffed ravioli (klepe), boiled and tossed through cream. “Everything that is important to me, I make in this restaurant. What I cook is what I grew up on. All of it.” 

bosnia traditional cooking mountain refuge

In the time I spend in Sarajevo, I fall in love with it. The low-lying sprawl of its Ottoman bazaar, centered around the city’s principal grey-domed mosque. Its winding streets, lined with shops and tavernas, breathing their signature smells of grilled meats and baked burek. Its wider boulevards, distinctly more European, with their ornate pastel-coloured facades. Within a few hundred meters of that, I find the city’s synagogue, its enormous Orthodox cathedral, piled high like a wedding cake, and the only-slightly more modest, Catholic cathedral. It doesn’t take much to imagine why marketers have labelled Sarajevo as the “Jerusalem of Europe”; a powerfully multifaceted city that wears history on its sleeve.

Much like it’s food, Bosnia is a complex intermingling of peoples and communities after centuries of rule and conquer from both eastern and western powers. Descendants of a mixture of Celtic and Slavic tribes, Bosnia was more or less independent when the Ottoman Empire took over in 1463, spanning what was to become a 400-year rule that integrated the entire Balkan peninsula under a uniform umbrella. Many Bosnians, although not all, converted to Islam, living side-by-side with Orthodox Serbs and, later, with the advance and conquer of Austria-Hungary, the increasing influx of European Catholics. Nowadays, Bosnian society is an inextricable mix of peoples, religions and ethnicities, sharing centuries of common history, culture and cuisine that make it impossible to decide where one ends and the other begins.

During the Bosnian war of the early 90’s that saw widespread ethnic cleansing between Serbs, Bosniaks and Croats, Sarajevo lay under siege for nearly four years (the longest siege in modern history). The city lay cut off from the outside world with no running water or ready food supply as the Serb-dominated Yugoslav People’s Army took control of the mountains. Civilians were regularly shot at, risking their lives to get food, water and fuel. Even now, Sarajevo is a city pockmarked with reminders; bullet-ridden buildings are commonplace, as are the red-painted craters splashed onto pavements, left as a reminder of bombs dropped and lives lost. 

By the time war hit, Sabina, still a child, had returned to Sarajevo to live with her mother but like many others she is decisively flippant when I ask her about it. “Before the war, I’d never questioned whether I was Muslim or not. My best friends were a mixture of Orthodox, Christian and Muslim faiths. Our ethnicities were irrelevant, and remained so in Sarajevo even during the war. Unlike the rest of Bosnia, we were all in the same mess. We all endured the same shortages and fear of shootings.” 

A lack of meat and fresh produce hit families hard, surviving often on plain rice alone, but Sabina remembers her mother growing food. “We were lucky because we lived near a running stream, which we used to water our garden but it was dangerously in view of snipers.” She remembers her mum charring their homegrown spring onions until smoky and tender, sprinkling them with the few spices they had and sandwiching them between soft, fluffy pitta. “It tasted like meat, like real cevapi”, she tells me with a smile, referring to the sausage and onion pitta, dubbed Bosnia’s national dish. “People make big stories about it, but Bosnia was always a place where different religions and ethnicities lived together. It still is.”

When I return later to Sabina’s kitchen, it is thick with the smells of the slow-bubbling cookpot. Juices have released and fused into a meal of sumptuous, tender meat, melting onions and rich sauce. Spices are typically used sparingly in the Bosnian kitchen, relying instead on the flavours of both protein and vegetable, conjured up from the magic of a low fire and hours of patience. Sometimes the modest addition of a few peppercorns or a little sweet paprika is all it takes, perhaps a scroll of cinnamon or a few cloves, but more often than not the results are honest translations of the fresh ingredients.

Sabina brings the stew to the table in lipped sahan plates. With chopped parsley, steaming boiled potatoes and a hunk of bread, we eat.

Sabina’s pantry: veal – beef – lamb – root vegetables – sour cabbage – onions – okra – tomatoes – garlic – parsley – rice – millet – wheat – cream – peppercorns – cinnamon – cloves – paprika – walnuts – almonds – nettle – fresh berries – plums – cherries