Balkan Barbeques are Serious Business

When I lived in Serbia, a friend asked me, “Is it true that in America, you barbeque with gas grills?” I responded that some people use charcoal grills but others use gas-fueled grills in their backyards, and my friend laughed in complete disbelief and horror. In the Balkans, barbeque (роштиљ, roštilj) is serious business. The first time I ate barbeque with Serbs was in the United States. I could not believe how much meat they cooked for only 8 people, and I waited in hungry anticipation as they seemed to grill for hours, covering the grill completely several times with meat before we were allowed to dig into the meal. Suddenly, the typical American style cookout of hamburgers, hot dogs and potato salad seemed pathetic in comparison. Later, when I lived in Serbia, I had the good fortune to attend several barbeques with friends. I loved to watch as Serbian friends literally built the barbeque in the grass, and tended to it with care and expertise. Lately, two of my friends traveled to Bosnia and Serbia and I helped them plan their trip. I told them to look for pljeskavica and ćevapi and I felt inspired to research a little more about Serbian barbeque and what makes it so delicious.

Helping with the rostilj in Valjevo, Serbia

Surprisingly, I learned a lot from the New York Times with this article. Previously I thought the secret to the wonderful burgers in Serbia (pljeskavica) rested in the way the people tend the barbeque, or perhaps in delicious toppings of cream or pepper-based spreads. This article explains that the secret to a Balkan burger is in the type of ground meat used to make the patties. Each chef has their own secret, but it seems to me that most in the Balkans use more than one kind of meat, unlike in the United States where we only use beef often with a dry result.

One version of the pljeskavica

Of course, these pljeskavica would not be complete without the unique toppings that exist in the Balkans. My favorite was urnebes, which was a type of salad made from pavlaka and chili peppers, which gave it a sort of pink color. Pavlaka is also a typical topping by itself, and it is a sour cream-like product like crème fraiche.  Cabbage, lettuce, onions, etc, are also popular.

I learned that the pljeskavica was invented in Leskovac, Serbia where they have an annual festival honoring the burger. The festival also includes a contest to create the biggest pljeskavica. According to one journalist who visited the town, the contestants prepared a pljeskavica that was 53 pounds with a diameter of 56.7 inches. Currently Seymour, Wisconsin holds the world record for producing the largest hamburger after cooking an 8,266 pound burger at Burger Fest on August 4, 2001. When the journalist told this fact to the chefs of Leskovac, they rejected it, claiming that it is not possible to make such a big hamburger if cooked correctly. One thing is for sure- burgers/pljeskavica in Serbia are very large, and as my friends in Novi Sad joked, they only get bigger as you travel south in the country.

Competition for the largest burger patty

Another treat of meat that I miss dearly is ćevapi, or ćevapčići (which is the diminutive). The word comes from the Arabic word kebab, and the dish arrived during the Ottoman Empire expansion into Southeast Europe. Sarajevo makes the best ćevapi, which is grilled meat formed into sausage-like rolls. Nothing beats sitting in an outdoor café in Sarajevo and eating this dish, served with onions and lepinja, which is spongy Turkish flatbread that is also put on the grill. Sometimes ćevapi is served with kajmak, which is another unique dairy product that is difficult to explain.  It is something in between a cream and a cheese, and it tastes good on just about everything (I’ve eaten it on burgers, bread and even corn on the cob). Once again, the secret lies in the mixture of ground meat.

Cevapi, lepinja, and onions

According to the NY Times article, there are many places to try pljeskavica in New York City, due to the number of immigrants from the former-Yugoslavia. Somehow, all of the different ethnicities can agree that Balkan barbeque is the best. The most noticeable difference is that in New York, you will pay around $10 for a burger that would cost $2 in Serbia or Bosnia, but they are worth trying. As I plan to move to Bosnia in two months, I am starting to get very hungry.

    • Walter T Bednarz
    • May 16th, 2010

    I never knew that Mom and Dad’s hamburgers were so dry! Maybe some far away daughter should visit home to teach an old dog a new trick. I am always willing to learn a few new techniques to my BBQ skills. Who knows, maybe I’ll get a chance to visit Serbia and try real BBQ

    • Christine
    • May 16th, 2010

    Dad, I said “OFTEN with a dry result” but YOUR burgers are not the norm. You are a grill master, even for an American. Also, if its any consolation… I like American hot dogs better. Nothing beats a ballpark dog grilled at home with my family. Love, Chris

    • Oscar
    • May 16th, 2010

    I’m getting hungry…

  1. Been living in the Balkans for 5 months. In those months that I have been here I have eaten more meat than I have in the last 5 years! But God,it’s good 🙂

    Just discovered your blog – love it!


    • Christine
    • May 18th, 2010

    Zdravo Lana, Welcome to the club of Balkan freaks 🙂 I spent around 4 months last year living in Novi Sad, and now I live in Poland. I plan to move to Bosnia in July…to research my master’s thesis and hopefully to find a job for the long term. What do you do as an EVS volunteer? I am trying to look for volunteer opportunities, internships, jobs etc.

    Glad you are enjoying your travels and thanks for reading.

    Sve najbolje,

    • Christine
    • May 18th, 2010

    Zdravo Lana! Welcome to the club of Balkan freaks 🙂 I am glad you are enjoying your time in Belgrade. I spent 4 months last year in Novi Sad and now I live in Krakow. In July I plan to move to Bosnia to research my thesis and hopefully to find a job for the long term. What do you do as an EVS volunteer? Currently I am looking for volunteer…etc. I am now following your blog on facebook and I look forward to reading your updates.

    Thanks for reading and sve najbolje,

    • Hi Christine 🙂

      Thank you for replying. Sorry, I didn’t read it until now.

      Well, you can basically do anything as an EVS volunteer, depending on your interests and skills. But most projects involve doing something for and with the local community. I am interested in media, so I applied to a media organisation, where among other things I am helping with animation and film workshops for kids.

      There are some EVS links on my blog and I will post more.

      I love Bosnia – good luck with your preparations and your move there in July.

      As for your blog – keep up the good work 🙂

  1. May 26th, 2010
  2. August 20th, 2010

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