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.