The Balkans — that region of Eastern Europe from Albania and northern Greece through Croatia, Romania, Bulgaria and Moldova — is a melting pot of flavours, and it's having a moment.
By CINDA CHAVICH
The jolting reality of war in Ukraine has me pondering the connection of food and culture, and the centuries of fluid borders and shared histories of people in Eastern Europe.
It’s where I can trace some of my family’s roots, whether my mother’s Austrian grandfather or my father’s Serbian parents.
The interesting thing is that they didn’t immigrate to Canada from Austria or Serbia. My great grandfather’s family came from an Austrian enclave in the region (possibly Bukovina) arriving in Saskatchewan in the late 1800s along with many from Austrian Galicia (now Lviv, Ukraine). My Serbian-speaking grandparents arrived a century ago from a village near Timisoara in Romanian territory which, as Wikipedia reminds us, today is “a multicultural city, being the home of 21 different ethnicities and 18 religions,” with “interculturality” a special characteristic of the region.
It’s why the region we call The Balkans today — from Albania and northern Greece through Croatia, to Romania, Bulgaria and Moldova, (throw in Kosovo, Serbia, Macedonia, Montenegro, too) — offers a smorgasbord of distinct yet very similar cuisines.
A long history of geopolitical upheaval has defined this part of the world, once part of the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires, some ethnic minorities then swallowed up by Yugoslavia, and many in the communist orbit of the Soviet Union after World War II. The borders have moved many times, countries colonized, ethnic minorities shuffled, a result of conflict, war and political power grabs that go back many centuries.
Though language and religion define these ethnic groups, they’ve long lived in mixed, overlapping communities, sharing a multitude of traditions, especially in the kitchen.
For my parents and me, all born in Canada, it’s only a shared surname and a few culinary traditions that connect us to our European ancestors.
But the love of those old-country foods runs deep.
In fact, researching some of the dishes my grandmother cooked, leads me to a melting pot of inspirations, whether her phyllo-like pastry for apple strudel and chesnitza (a sort of Serbian baklava), or the perogies, cabbage rolls and fruit-based spirits still encountered across Central Europe (like the fiery Serbian plum-brandy slivovitz).
As a travel writer, I went to Dubrovnik (when it was still Yugoslavia), visited the Czech Republic to explore the origins of Pilsner beer and dine in Prague’s historic cafes, and toured parts of mainland Greece, considered the southern tip of the Balkans. Though I have never visited my own ancestral homelands, the food from all of these countries is so familiar, part of a culinary muscle memory that informs my palate.
Whether nature or nurture, it’s hard to say, but I’m always drawn to the flavour of roasted and fermented vegetables, smoked sausages and pork cracklings, potato dumplings, beets, garlic and dill.
And though none of this has ever been trendy — save an apparently national penchant for perogies — these Eastern European food traditions may now be having a moment.
Even before Putin’s war, there was renewed interest in Balkan cuisine.
According to the Technomic research group, tracking food trends in 2020, nearly one quarter of all consumers, and 31% of Gen Z’s and Millennials said they would like to see more Balkan influences on restaurant menus, and some 16% of consumers were looking for specific regional Balkan restaurants, such as Albanian or Bulgarian spots to dine. Trend watchers are pointing to Eastern European fare for 2024, too, thanks to bold flavours in comforting, homely and filling dishes.
“Cereals like bulgur and couscous, vegetables and pulses, herbs and spices, and grilled meats and stews are all staples in the region,” notes their report. “But each region — and each country within the greater area — has its own specialties, preparation techniques and influences.”
Restaurant industry watchers note Balkan dishes often centre on lamb and pork, with fire-roasted vegetables (like the peppers and eggplant in ajvar), and pickled sides to serve with Balkan grilled lamb shashliki or mici (a.k.a. cevapi), savoury borek pastries and polenta.
Sweets range from palacinke (crepe like pancakes filled with jam or cream) to multi-layered tortes, fruit strudel, sugar dipped doughnuts and fritters, and nutty walnut breads.
THE BALKANS IN BOOKS
There are several new cookbooks focused on this part of the world, too.
Macedonia is a new cookbook by Toronto-born chef and caterer Katerina Nitsou (Interlink/Thomas Allen), tracing her family’s Balkan culinary heritage. It’s been short listed for a 2022 Taste Canada Award. Though Nitsou now lives in Australia, she grew up in the Macedonian-Canadian community in Toronto, and her book chronicles the homestyle food her grandfather cooked in his restaurant there and recipes from across the Balkan Peninsula.
Carpathia, Food from the Heart of Romania, by Irina Georgescu , a Romanian food writer and cooking instructor in the UK, “takes the reader roaming through Romania from Transylvania to the Danube Delta while introducing dozens of satisfying recipes that express the landscape, culture and joys of traditional Romanian hospitality”.
And her new book, Tava (fall 2022), explores Eastern European baking, “from Romania and beyond,” with “Armenian pakhlava, Saxon plum pies, Swabian poppyseed crescents, Jewish fritters, and Hungarian langoși, alongside plăcinte pies, alivenci corn cake, strudels and fruit dumplings.”
As Georgescu notes, Romanian food is seasonal and influenced by many regional cuisines.
“In summer we cook in the Turkish-Greek style and in the winter we turn to Slavic and Germanic recipes,” she writes. “Summers are for grilling meat, fish and vegetables over open fires … while winters are for braising cabbages, slow cooking hearty stew with potatoes and beans, and baking rich cakes.”
These are beautiful books with photography and cultural details that offer an armchair tour of this region and its culinary traditions, with recipes you won’t find elsewhere.
RECIPES MAKE MEMORIES
Macedonia is a country at the heart of the Balkan region, bordering what is Serbia today, and it’s fascinating to me to see the kind of recipes Katerina Nitsou encountered growing up in Toronto’s Macedonian-Canadian community. Georgescu’s Romanian fare feels equally familiar.
I grew up in Saskatchewan, where our family’s culinary customs crossed with local Ukrainian, Polish, Hungarian and Austrian cuisines. And though there are only a few dishes I recall from my grandmother’s kitchen — her beautiful chicken broth, flakey apple strudel, doughnuts and braided breads — many of the recipes that have made it into my own repertoire and cookbooks over the years, seem to share a Balkan bent.
Whether its fresh young cheeses and feta, zucchini fritters and roasted peppers, cucumber salads, cabbage rolls, white beans in salads, stews and dips, polenta and dumplings, cracked wheat and barley, smoky charcuterie, sour cream, honey and lots of dill in everything, it’s a palette of ingredients that I always return to.
I don’t pretend to understand the complexities of historic conflicts of the region, but I know that the melting pot of European flavours brought to Canada by immigrants from this part of the world stir memories for many.
And it’s a taste of home for me.
AJVAR (Roasted Red Pepper & Eggplant Dip)
A wonderful vegetarian condiment to slather on sandwiches or serve with mici. This recipe is excerpted from Macedonia by Katerina Nitsou Copyright © 2021. Photographs by Oliver Fitzgerald. Published by Interlink Publishing.
1 medium eggplant
6 red bell peppers
¼ cup (60 ml) extra-virgin olive oil
1 medium onion, chopped
3 garlic cloves, finely chopped
½ teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
Juice of 1 lemon
½ teaspoon white sugar
1 ½ teaspoons kosher salt
½ tablespoon freshly ground black pepper
Using a fork, pierce the eggplant skin a few times all around.
Roast the peppers and eggplant over a charcoal grill or a gas flame until the skins are completely charred and blistered. Alternatively broil them in the oven (directly on the rack or on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper), rotating every 15 minutes until charred, 30 to 45 minutes.
Place the roasted vegetables into a paper bag or a heatproof container. Seal and set aside for 20 minutes until cool.
Peel off and discard the skin and stems from the eggplant and peppers, and remove the pepper seeds. Coarsely chop the flesh and set aside.
In a large stockpot, heat the oil over medium heat and saut. the onion until very soft, about 4 minutes. Add the garlic and red pepper flakes and cook, stirring constantly, for 2 more minutes. Remove from the heat.
Add the vinegar, lemon juice, sugar, salt, and black pepper to the pot, and stir in the pepper and eggplant pulp.
Using an immersion blender or food processor, blend the mixture to a coarse paste with a slightly chunky texture. Be careful not to completely puree the mixture. Store in a glass container in the refrigerator. Serves 4 to 6
A typical street or pub food in Romania (and known as cevapi in Serbia, Bosnia, Macedonia and other Balkan countries) these garlicky little skinless sausages are grilled on the barbecue or in a hot pan, then served with mustard. Flatbread, ajvar, sour cream or yogurt, and onions make a traditional accompaniment, too. A recipe from Carpathia: Food from the Heart of Romania by Irina Georgescu (Interlink Publishing).
300 g (11 oz) ground beef
500 g (1lb 2oz) ground pork
200 g (7oz) pork back fat or lardo, diced and briefly minced in a food processor
3 slices of white bread, soaked in milk
1 head of garlic, cloves peeled and crushed to a paste
1 teaspoon black pepper
2 teaspoons sweet paprika
1 teaspoon dried thyme
1 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons sour cream
75 ml (3 fl oz) cold concentrated beef stock made from ½ stock cube dissolved in 75ml (3 fl oz) hot water
2 tablespoons vegetable or sunflower oil for frying
Ask your butcher to mince the meat together with the pork back fat for you, so you won’t have to mince it separately at home. The fat is key to the juiciness and texture of the mici – it can be made with less but the texture will be slightly drier.
Combine all the ingredients, except for the oil, together in a bowl (or food processor). Knead by hand to an almost bread-like dough which resembles a paste. Refrigerate for at least 1 hour. With wet hands shape 60–70g (2 ½ –3oz) of the mixture into a chunky little sausage, about 10cm (4 inches) long and 3 cm (1 inch) thick. Place on a greased tray. Repeat with the remaining mixture, then cover and refrigerate for at least 1 hour or, ideally, overnight.
Heat the oil in a large frying pan over a medium to high heat and cook the sausages on all sides, turning them six times in total, until browned on the outside and soft and juicy in the middle. Alternatively, cook on a hot barbecue, brushing with a little oil first. Makes 15-20.
Stuffed peppers (Polneti piperki) is a Macedonian dish featured in Katerina Nitsou's new book but reminds me of a comforting dish I enjoyed at home as a child, with Romanian/Serbian roots. This recipe is excerpted from Macedonia by Katerina Nitsou Copyright © 2021. Photographs by Oliver Fitzgerald. Published by Interlink Publishing.
Serves 4 to 6
8 large bell peppers, ¼ inch
(6 mm) cut off the tops,
1 lb (450 g) lean ground beef
2 medium yellow onions, grated
1 cup (180 g) long-grain white rice, rinsed and drained
4 garlic cloves, minced
1½ teaspoons kosher salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 tablespoon dried oregano 1 teaspoon paprika
2 teaspoons tomato paste
1 cup red wine
½ cup (12 g) finely chopped fresh parsley
2 large tomatoes, cut into 8 thick slices
Preheat the oven to 350°F (180°C). In a deep baking dish or Dutch oven, arrange the peppers upright so that they fit snugly and won’t topple over.
In a large sauté pan, heat 1 teaspoon of olive oil over high heat. Add the ground beef and cook, stirring constantly, until the meat is just cooked. Drain the fat from the meat and set the meat aside.
In the same pan, heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil over medium heat. Add the onions, rice, garlic, salt, black pepper, oregano, paprika, and tomato paste. Sauté, stirring, for 1 minute, just to toast the rice. Pour in the wine and bring to a simmer. Remove the pan from the heat and stir in the meat, parsley, and 1 cup (240 ml) of the boiling water.
Loosely fill each pepper with the meat and rice mixture to just below the brim of the pepper. Gently press one slice of tomato on top of the opening of each pepper.
Pour ½ cup (120 ml) of the boiling water into the bottom of the baking dish. Tightly cover the dish with a lid or aluminum foil and bake for 30 minutes.
Remove the lid or foil and bake for an additional 30 minutes, until the peppers are tender and the rice is cooked.
EASY FILLED AND COILED PASTRY
Boerek or burek is often filled with ground meat and sometimes made with phyllo pastry. This savoury coiled pastry, Lesna banitsa so sirenje, from Macedonia, starts with frozen puff pastry and has a vegetarian ricotta/feta filling. The recipe is excerpted from Macedonia by Katerina Nitsou Copyright © 2021. Photographs by Oliver Fitzgerald. Interlink Publishing.
Serves 4 to 6
16 oz (450 g) package puff pastry sheets, thawed
All-purpose flour, for dusting
1 egg, whisked, for egg wash
Vegetable oil, for greasing
1 cup (150 g) grated feta cheese
1 cup (240 g) ricotta cheese
¼ teaspoon kosher salt
Preheat the oven to 350°F (180°C). Grease a 9-inch (23 cm) pie pan or oven-safe dish with vegetable oil.
Mix together the filling ingredients and set aside in the refrigerator.
Lightly dust your work surface with flour and use a rolling pin to roll out each sheet of puff pastry until it is ¼-inch (6 mm) thick, creating two long rectangles, each about 30 inches (75 cm) long and about 12 inches (30 cm) wide. Slice each sheet of pastry in half lengthwise. You will have 4 long strips of dough. Prick the surface of each strip at random with a fork.
Brush the dough strips with egg wash. Spoon a quarter of the filling along the long side of one strip of dough, about 1 inch (2.5 cm) from the edge of the dough. Fold the edge of the dough over the filling and roll it up to create a rope. Repeat with the remaining strips of dough.
Using a bit of egg wash, gently pinch the ends of the ropes together to form one long rope. Form the rope into a coil and carefully place it in the pie pan. Brush the top with the remaining egg wash and bake for 45 to 50 minutes, until golden brown. Allow to cool for 10 minutes before slicing into wedges.
My grandmother made strudel with paper-thin dough she pulled into sheets by hand and I use frozen filo pastry. But this recipe from Katerina Nitsou and her new book Macedonia, The Cookbook intrigued me, with its thicker pastry, made with sour cream. Nitsou says the strudel can be made with any stewed fruit, like apples, cherries or plums, making it a great autumn dessert.
Excerpted from Macedonia by Katerina Nitsou Copyright © 2021. Photographs by Oliver Fitzgerald. Published by Interlink Publishing.
3 cups (375 g) all-purpose flour, sifted, plus extra for dusting
1 cup (225 g) cold unsalted butter, grated
1⁄2 cup (120 ml) sour cream
1 egg yolk 1 whole egg, whisked, for egg wash
4 tablespoons (60 g) unsalted butter
1 tablespoon flour 1⁄4 cup (60 ml) brandy 1⁄2 cup (70 g) light brown sugar
1⁄4 cup (40 g) chopped dried apricots 1⁄4 cup (30 g) chopped walnuts
1 teaspoon cinnamon 1⁄2 teaspoon kosher salt 3–4 medium ripe pears, peeled, cored and diced 1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice
In a large bowl, use your fingers to mix the flour and butter until it looks like coarse breadcrumbs. Use a spatula to fold in the sour cream and egg yolk. Lightly dust your work surface with flour and knead the mixture just until it comes together smoothly. Be careful not to overwork the dough. Flatten the dough into a rectangle about 5 by 10 inches (13 by 25 cm). Tightly wrap the dough in plastic and refrigerate for at least 2 hours or overnight.
When the dough has been chilled, preheat the oven to 350°F (180°C). Line a large baking sheet with parchment paper.
Make the filling: In a large sauté pan, melt the butter over medium heat. Slowly mix in the flour and stir until you have a paste (roux). Add the brandy, sugar, apricots, walnuts, cinnamon, and salt, and stir until the sugar dissolves. Fold in the pears, and simmer over medium heat for 5 minutes. Remove from the heat and add the lemon juice. Set aside to cool.
On a lightly floured surface, roll the dough into a rectangle 12 by 16 inches (30 by 40 cm) and 1⁄4-inch (6 mm) thick. Brush the top of the dough with some of the egg wash. Place the filling in a thick line down the center of the rectangle. Fold each side of the dough over the filling, making sure the dough overlaps to create a seal. Carefully flip the strudel over and place it on the baking sheet, seam side down. Cut slits into the top of dough about
1 inch (2.5 cm) apart and brush the dough with the remaining egg wash. Bake for 25 to 30 minutes, until golden brown.