Posts Tagged ‘ Food and Drink ’

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.


What is Wigilia?

Pierogis made by my Babcia last Christmas Eve

I was going to wait to write about Polish Christmas traditions until the holidays are closer, but last night my university had its annual Christmas Party/Wigilia Dinner, and now I am very excited. My family has a Wigilia dinner every Christmas Eve in Philadelphia and it is my favorite day of the year. The university scheduled the party early because soon all of the students will leave for the holiday break, but typically this dinner is on December 24th.

The word “Wigilia” comes from the Latin verb vigilare, “to watch”, and literally means ‘eve’. Once the sun goes down, the whole family gathers for a huge Christmas Eve supper. Traditionally, you are supposed to leave one seat empty at the table for the “uninvited guest” in the spirit of hospitality, but my family has enough trouble fitting the “invited guests” at the table so we leave this part out. The evening begins with the sharing of oplatki, or Christmas communion wafers, so before sitting down to eat everyone takes a square. Mingling around the room, you break a piece off of someone else’s wafer wishing them a Happy New Year and vice versa. Although I am not a religious person and did not like eating the communion as a kid, now I think its nice to take the time to personally thank and wish everyone the best.

When that is over, everyone sits down at the table. Traditionally this is a meatless dinner with only fish served. First, my family starts with white borscht (sour soup) or mushroom soup. Next, there is fried fish, which is usually carp in Poland, but in Philadelphia we usually have two kinds of tilapia. My family laughs as a course of only peas go around, and then a course of just carrots as we wait for better courses to come. Śledź, or pickled herring, is served but only my late grandfather really enjoyed it. Finally the best course arrives- the pierogi (polish dumplings). My grandmother makes two kinds for every Christmas- ruskie (filled with potato and cheese) and kapusta (filled with cabbage). There is coffee, polish cookies for dessert, cake, etc. With the several courses, the meal takes a very long time and it’s nice to have the chance to sit and talk with family. However as a child, this is a long time to wait for presents, which come after the meal.

Perhaps my family’s Wigilia dinner with its few substitutions is not strictly traditional. In Poland we would eat more than one kind of soup, and probably a lot more cabbage. Also, my family usually has a baked ham hiding in the kitchen for those that do not like seafood. I think Wigilia dinner is probably a little bit different in every home, with the traditions partly Polish, and in part specific to the individual family. Since I’ve now lived in Poland for three and a half months and eaten my fair share of pierogis, it will be funny to go to Philadelphia for more. Still, living in Poland has made me cherish this tradition in my family even more, and I cannot wait until the dinner this year.

Polish Political Party(ing)

As my classes continue, I am slowly learning about the government of Poland.  Also, last weekend I took a tour of the Sejm (House of Parliament) in Warsaw, but the guide left out a very interesting fact that I learned today at school.  Apart from the “normal” sounding major political parties- Civic Platform (Platforma Obywatelska), Law and Justice (Prawo i Sprawiedliwość), Polish People’s Party (Polskie Stronnictwo Ludowe)… there is an interesting minor player in the mix: the Polish Beer Lovers’ Party.  I kid you not, this actually exists.

I can’t find much about the party on the internet, but according to wiki, the Polish Beer Lover’s Party (PPPP- Polska Partia Przyjaciół Piwa) was satirically founded in 1990 to promote beer over vodka consumption in an effort to prevent alcoholism.  Because of the funny name and the general feeling of post-communist discontent and apathy, some people voted for the party.  Although starting as a prank, the party actually developed a political platform and won 16 seats in the Sejm in the 1991 parliamentary elections.  Today the PPPP no longer exists, but I think this fact adds to the quirkiness I am finding here in Poland….as well as a small insight into the country’s post-communist transition.  Zywiec-piwo

Polish Food- Not Recommended for Those on a Diet

Polish food, typical of the East and Central European cultures I have encountered so far, is heavy but delicious.  The most typical ingredients used in Polish cuisine are sauerkraut, beetroot, cucumbers, sour cream, kohlrabi, mushrooms, sausages and smoked sausage.  Meals in a restaurant come in courses starting with homemade soup and contain large portions.  Although I did notice two vegetarian restaurants in Krakow, salads in Poland are not the same as the lettuce-based American salads.  Basically, avoid Poland if you are on a diet but you will definitely miss out.

Here are pictures of a few mainstream Polish dishes… just to make sure my Babcia in America cooked authentically.


First, Gołąbki.  These cabbage “parcels” are originally from Lithuania but are popular  in Poland.  The cabbage is stuffed with they are usually stuffed with meat and rice and either topped with a mushroom cream sauce or a tomato sauce.  Many East/Central European countries have their own version.  In Serbia, these are called sarma.  In Polish, golabki literally means “little pigeons.”


Next we have the shaslik… which is pretty basic and common on the menus here.  It’s really just a shish kebab and often contain either pork or chicken.  Here it came with frytki and a salad.  The salad is primarily cabbage.


Lastly, the pierogi.  This is probably the most well-known Polish dish.  Every Wigielia (Christmas Eve) my family eats pierogi that my Babcia makes from scratch, expertly preparing the dough with years of experience. Pierogi were traditionally peasant food but eventually grew in popularity for all social classes. They are very traditional small white dumplings, larger than ravioli, filled with sauerkraut, mushrooms, meat, cheese and potatoes or even with fruit. My favorite kind are ruski (pictured) which are filled with potato and cheese and served with fried onions.


%d bloggers like this: