02 August 2012

Bosnian Food

Every night during Ramadan, a single firework is fired above Bosnian towns.  If you haven't installed yourself at a restaurant table yet, you may be out of luck - the bang is a signal that it's time to eat.  Crowds of Muslim Bosniaks suddenly emerge and pack the eateries, famished after a day of fasting.  What do they order?  Brains or trout, liver or steak, maybe a shopska salad or a plate of spinach and eggs… but probably, predictably, they will sit down to plates of ćevapi.
Ćevapi is a Yugoslavian dish, served from Belgrade to Split, but we've never seen it in such heavy quantities as we have here.  In Travnik, a crowded alley of tables and sweating waiters is hung thick with smoke and the smell of charring meat.  Ćevapi is like a skinless sausage, grilled and served in thick loaves of bouncy bread.  It's mildly spicy, heavy with fat, a perfect combination of salt and heat.  We were told repeatedly, by people in other towns, to go to Hari, a Travnik institution.  The tables were full, the meat was good, the plates were garnished only with a pile of chopped onion.  This is, in practice, the national dish.
Not everything in Bosnia is made of brawn and sinew - before this post devolves into a list of organs and cuts, I should point out that there's also cheese, in terrific variety.  Sheep's milk is the preferred foundation, and the process is usually quick and light-handed. While there are some firmer, more aged types - the old, yellow livanjski sir comes to mind - their most distinctly Bosnian cheeses are soft, newer and cloud-white.  Travnik in particular is famed for its shepherd's travnički, which has a sharp and creamy taste that is great both by itself and as an addition to other dishes.
At this cheese shop in Travnik, the smell of milk was overpowering. The white-coated proprietor gravely sliced and spooned and carved us tastes from his various wheels and tubs.
At its romantic core, Bosnia is a land of woodcutters and mountain streams, of smoky fires and hidden glens.  It's also a land of shepherds, and the dish we found ourselves identifying with Bosnian roadsides is a kind of amalgamation of woodland and herd.  Everywhere on our travels - especially in the more Bosniak regions of the country - we came across spit-roasting restaurants, where lambs turned whole over hot coals.  The hearths ranged from solid brick to bare dirt.  The animals were stretched into gruesome lines; legs extended behind, skull pierced by metal, ribs tied shut around the pole.  Beside water or in thick forest, with picnic tables or ironed linen, these jagnjetina restaurants all had something of the ancient about them, a primal treatment of meat.
This is how it arrives on the table at Vrelo Restoran, near Vlašic.  The meat is saltier closer to the outside and untouched by seasoning or technique further in.  It's a perfect way to cook lamb.  The meat stays richly juicy and chewy.  This isn't braised, fall apart, mushy meat that has been tamed in a pot - it requires a little tearing, a willingness to confront the beast itself.
It's the way that Bosnian cuisine is, once you veer away from the ćevapi and french fries.  This is brave food, and it's rewarding not only for its taste but for the adventure of the thing.  When I ordered mozak, an enthusiastic waiter turned cautious.  "Do you know?" she asked, gravely.  Yes, I assured her, pointing at my head.
Mozak, or fried veal brain, is one of the most common dishes on Bosnian menus.  At Srebrna Školjka, a restaurant above the meat and cheese market in Sarajevo, I figured the brains would be the freshest.  They arrived in two fatty lobes, lightly battered and piping hot.  The mayonnaise was superfluous, as the tenor of the dish is already soft and oily.  It needed only a squeeze of lemon and a firm commitment - after a few bites, my trepidation was gone.
A similar dish in some ways, though more familiar to me, is brizle, or sweetbreads.  At Papilon restaurant, in Cazin, the delicate little glands were served as simply as can be, treated as casually as anything meaty; scored, fried and accompanied by french fries and kajmak.  It was one of the best meals of Bosnia, and one of the tastiest sweetbread dishes I've ever had (and I love sweetbreads).
Oh, this culinary journey already seems too full of offal, too carnivorous, too greasy and charred.  But, alas, that's what Bosnian people eat, it's what they like.  For them, red meat is food, everything else is just decoration.  When Rebecca told a woman in Mostar that she didn't eat meat, the reply was "but you're already thin, you don't need to be vegetarian!"  I could go on to talk about sudžuk, japrak, mučkalica and pljeskavica, meaty dishes all, but there's no real need.
There was no real need, but at Titanic restaurant I ate thick slices of veal liver beside the Lašva river. The portly waiter approved heartily, the meal was weighty and I left feeling that I'd had enough liver for a few months.  I'll leave Bosnia feeling the same about meat in general, but that's fine.
A glimmer of scales can seem like salvation amid all the meat.  Thankfully, Bosnia is full of water and the streams and rivers are full of pastrmka.  Near the Pliva lakes, as the sun set and people strolled by the water, we ate these fine trout with cooked chard.  The fish had been dressed up a little more than is typical, with a sprinkling of paprika and a fine layer of garlic and herbs inside the rib cage.  The local fish - as Rebecca has already written - are delicious, and (along with the plentiful wild mushrooms) have been a lifesaver for her in such seas of beef and lamb.
Of all Bosnian foods, the most Bosnian, is probably their version of pita.  Pita, meaning pie, is another pan-balkan staple, but this national preparation is different.  Thin tubes of bread-like pastry are filled with stuffing and baked in a swirl - it's a more labor intensive, unique process than in other places, and it is the default fast food on the streets of Sarajevo or Mostar.  There are four main types: burek (stuffed with meat), zeljanica (filled with spinach), krompiruša (with potatoes) and sirnica (with cheese).
At Buregdžinica Sač, in Sarajevo's old town, the pita is cooked under a sač, a kind of coal-covered, iron cover.  We ate a special type called tikvenica, filled with creamy pumpkin and cheese.  The women there, standing in the sweltering heat near the ovens, cut big slices which they weighed on an old scale before wrapping in paper.  It's greasy, it's filling, it's too hot to eat for several minutes, and it tastes like nothing else.  


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