Cuisine of Bosnia and Herzegovina: An Introduction

I often refer to Bosnian & Herzegovinian (B & H) food in conversations, and I cook it for my English friends from time to time. However, many people ask me: what exactly IS B& H cuisine? Information on the internet (at least in English) is meagre, and there is not a single book on the subject in common circulation on the subject in English. I have never really tried to define it fully either. I hope that the following introduction will provide some insight.

First of all, if you really want to understand B & H cuisine you must understand that there is a difference between the two regions of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Bosnia is the larger of the two, comprising about 70% of the land area of the central and northern parts of the country. Here the climate is continental with warm, sunny days and cold, snowy winters. Herzegovina comprises the rest in the southern portion of the country and has a Mediterranean climate with hot, dry summers and cool, wet winters. The geographic proximity of the two has meant that from the beginning the cuisine here was influenced by both Mediterranean and continental flavours, and continental crops such as cabbage and leeks are as popular as Mediterranean pomegranates and figs.

The cuisine itself is basically a mixture of Balkan, Mediterranean and Oriental cooking styles that have blended and fused over many centuries. Traditional Balkan soups and stews are as popular as Mediterranean style salads and Turkish/Oriental sweets. The main seasonings are garlic, black pepper, paprika powder, celery, parsley leaf and parsley root.  Pickled vegetables, generally stronger and sharper than their British counterparts, are commonly eaten and often accompany meals. During the winter months many families make their own pickled winter salad selection (zimnica) often consisting of, among other things, shredded pickled cabbage, carrots and peppers. In addition, families will make their own cabbage stuffed peppers, pickled gherkins and the most famous ajvar sauce– a blend of minced peppers and aubergines cooked with spices.

Most other Mediterranean herbs, such as thyme, rosemary and sage – which grow in great abundance in Herzegovina – are not often used in cooking. However, they are often used to make teas, alcoholic drinks and cordials; local sage cordial is a particular favourite of mine. Rakija (Balkan brandy) is extremely popular. Common flavours include plum rakija or slivovitz (from Serbo-Croatian šljivovica) and loza (made from grapes – similar to Italian grappa). Also popular: apple, pear, walnut, and morello (sour) cherry liquors.

The most popular meats are beef and veal.  Note that the latter is NOT produced like the notorious “white veal” (where calves are raised in appalling conditions without sunlight to turn their flesh white). Lamb is also popular, especially in hilly areas with poor soil. Chicken occasionally makes an appearance, while pork is mainly eaten in the form of local salamis, hams and similar products.  Fresh pork is eaten less often, even among non – Muslims. B & H is basically a landlocked country, meaning that fish and seafood is largely absent from the menu, save for delicious local trout and eel from B & H’s many cold, fast flowing rivers and mountain lakes. Dried meat (suho meso) is very popular and is used to add a deep, smoky flavour to stews. Local salamis and other cured meats are also staples.

There is a widespread belief in the region that eating “too early” is bad for you. Early breakfast has therefore never been a big part of the local cuisine. However, around 10 or 11 am locals do have a colossal go at demolishing high calorie and cholesterol ‘breakfast’ often consisting of speck (cured bacon), bread and pickles. Another belief is that it is not good for the gut if “something eaten with a spoon” is not regularly eaten (i.e. soup or stew) – term ‘regularly’ meaning on a daily basis. Boiled and braised dishes are indeed a big part of the diet.  These range from the Mediterranean influenced pea stew with veal or chicken to the elaborate “Bosnian pot”. The latter is a unique local concoction. It is characterised by stacking alternating layers of thickly cut chunks of meat (beef or lamb) and vegetables, mainly cabbage and carrots, and by a very long, slow braise that renders the ingredients meltingly tender.

The cheeses in B & H are not usually strongly flavoured and are mainly white cheeses. The main type of white cheese, known as sirene, may be eaten fresh or brined (resulting in a crumbly texture similar to Greek feta). White cheeses were historically so ubiquitous that many people say “as white as cheese” when describing pale skin. Sirene may also be crumbled and combined with vegetables to make šopska salata, a salad similar to Greek salad. Milk, yoghurt and other dairy products are heavily consumed, and drinking yoghurt – a Turkish influence – is very popular, in particular when eating a local pie (see below).

Ottoman Turkish influence must be examined. Over 400 years of Turkish rule (1463-1878) left a deep cultural legacy. This is very notable in food. The Turks introduced filo pastry, leading to the creation of one of B & H’s most celebrated street foods: Bosnian pie. Sheets of very thin filo are stuffed with beef mince, sirene cheese, spinach, potato or pumpkin and rolled into thin tubes before being baked to perfection. It sounds simple, but the result is outstanding, so much so that the dish was included in the 2012 edition of Lonely Planet’s “The World’s Best Street Food” book. For Bosnian pie to be completely successful homemade filo must be used; this is a skill that many local people acquired from the Turks.

The Turks also introduced many other dishes that have now become ubiquitous among all ethnic religious and ethnic groups in B & H. These include dolma (stuffed vegetables), japrak (stuffed vine leaves), grilled and barbequed meat, leading to the creation of čevapčići (lit. “mini-kebabs”, sometimes considered to be the country’s national dish) as well as a whole range of Oriental sweets and desserts such as rahatlokum (Turkish delight) and baklava. Turkish coffee, a super strong, thick concoction served in tiny coffee cups known as fildžan, soon became more popular in B & H than in Turkey; Turks have always preferred tea.

Finally, let us end by discussing desserts.  The two main types of desserts in B & H are Turkish/Oriental ones, and local cakes and confectionary. The former are often very sweet and often-but not always-feature a rich lemon syrup called agda. Baklava-the local version being layers of filo pastry stuffed with ground walnuts and soaked with agda after baking-is the best known and most famous. B & H style cakes often share common characteristics with caked from neighbouring Croatia and Serbia. They are often characterised by a rich flavour and heavy use of cream, and can be very elaborate in comparison to British cakes. Two very popular local cake ingredients are walnuts and morello (sour) cherries. An ubiquitous local dessert is breskvice. Literally meaning “little peaches”, tiny round cakes are stuffed with a mixture including ground walnuts and jam before being rolled in natural red and yellow food colouring. I have yet to see versions of this dessert outside the Balkans.

I hope that you enjoyed this short introduction to the food of this relatively small yet incredibly diverse country. The food influences and range of dishes are equally diverse, and I invite you to try my recipes and discover more about this tasty yet little known cuisine.

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