Don't baulk at Balkan bites

Don't baulk at Balkan bites

Don't baulk at Balkan bites

There are three things we eat in Serbia - meat, meat and meat," announced Alex with an air of finality. Not surprisingly, the Serbian national dish is pljeskavica, a grilled patty of pork, beef and lamb. Yes, all three together! The name comes from 'pljesak' (pljeskavice is plural), meaning 'to clap the hands', the way it is shaped. It seems the dish has already apportioned its share of applause even before it's made. The meat mixture is also formed by hand into little skinless sausages. By the end of our trip, we knew our evap (jawab or answer) from our Äevapi (kebab).

It helped our cause that we were being driven around by fellow foodie Alex, an offroad rallyist from a reputed Balkan tour company. Like baklava, börek and Äorba (shorba or soup), many dishes in the Balkans were introduced during the 500-year-long Ottoman presence in the region. But before vegetarians may baulk at the meaty Balkan diet, there's assorted bread, salad, cheese and red paprika - pickled, roasted, stuffed or mashed into a spicy spread called urnebes, literally 'pandemonium'.

We got the perfect introduction to Serbian cuisine at Dva Jelena at Skadarlija, Belgrade's hip Bohemian quarter. Drawn by the '1832' sign and the enigmatic twin-deer symbol, we entered the restaurant lined with old paintings and a live band playing traditional music. It was one of the oldest and most frequented restaurants in Belgrade, patronised by actors, poets, artists, musicians, novelists and foreign visitors. The restaurant got its name when one day, some hunters from Belgrade plonked their prey, dva jelena (two deer), in front of it. We had a nice night-out, hunting with Jelen (Deer) and Lav (Lion) - both local beer brands.

On the way
Setting off on our drive from Belgrade to Zlatibor in western Serbia, we stopped at the pottery village Zlakusa and Staro Selo (Old Village) at Sirogojno, a complex of 50 wooden houses transplanted from the Zlatibor region. The village restaurant's menu was in Cyrillic, so we surrendered to Alex who ordered a rustic meal of cornbread, heljda (buckwheat) pie, Zlatibor's beef prosciutto, village salad and lamb cooked with potatoes in Zlakusa's famous saÄ(earthen bell dish).

By evening, we reached a picturesque holiday resort in Zlatibor. Still reeling from the afternoon's excess, we ambled into Grand Restaurant Jezero for what was to be a 'light' dinner. Out came some wine, rakija and a Serbian mezze platter of prÅ¡uta (dry-cured ham), kajmak (sour cream), ajvar (roasted paprika condiment), pogacha (Serbian bread) and duvan Ävarci – pork rind cooked in milk and resembling shredded tobacco. All was well till we learnt this was only the starter. The assorted meat platter that followed was like a freeway pile-up. Portions in Serbia are massive and restaurants offer half portions, as we learnt after the meal!

We tried karadjordjeva schnitzel that bears the name of Karadjordje ('Black' George) who led the first Serbian uprising against the Ottomans and founded the Karadjordjević dynasty. The dish is an improvised chicken Kiev created by chef Mica Stojanovicć in 1959 for an important Russian visitor. He used veal instead of chicken, rolled it with kajmak, breaded it and fried it. Feeling it was incomplete, he poured tartar sauce and decorated it with roast potatoes, tomatoes and a lemon slice. The dish looked uncannily like the Order of the Star of Karadorde medal, giving the steak its name. Its phallic appearance led to its cheeky name 'the maidens' dream'.

In Zlatibor's market, friendly shopkeepers offered a taste of honey, kajmak, cheese, smoked meats and Serbia's national drink, rakija (brandy).

Traditionally made of plums, they also make it from quince (dunja), apricot (kajsija) and pear (kruška). Between Mount Tara and Zlatibor at Drvengrad, a film set of wooden houses built by Serbian director Emir Kusturica for his movie Life is a Miracle was converted into a permanent tourist attraction.

Feeling light-headed and reckless in the rarefied mountain air, we followed Alex's recommendation to try the tufahije, a Bosnian dessert made of walnut-stuffed apples, stewed in sugar syrup.

Serbia has over 700 types of wine and nine wine routes from Palić Lake in the north to Metohija in the south. At Bajilo Winery, one of the 60 wineries in Sremski Karlovci, we tried the sweet bermet. We travelled on the Šumadija wine route to the vineyards of the Karadjordjević royal family. King Petar I planted the best grapevines from Europe on 30 acres of the Oplenac hill slopes, while his son Aleksandar established Kraljev Podrum, 'King's wine cellar'. At Aleksandrovicć winery at Vinca on the Oplenac route, we tasted Trijumf, the first wine for the global market, using a recipe from one of the King's cellar winemakers.

At Knežev Han restaurant in Oplenac, over our last meal with Alex, we caught a glorious sunset. "Don't make it too special," we pleaded! Oh, just a Serbian mezze platter and a troika of dishes - veal, chicken with mushroom, and kajmak wrapped in bacon… Much as we loved his company, we breathed a sigh of relief as we said goodbye to Alex, for the sake of our own survival! Thankfully, our Belgrade guide Luka ReliÄ was a modest eater.

The beginning
Most Serbs start their day with börek (flaky pies), either plain with cheese or meat, consumed with yoghurt. At Belgrade's Pekara Andjelko, founded in 1920, börek is not sold per piece, but by weight, which gives some idea about how much Serbs love börek. Another staple is knedle (derived from knödel or dumpling), a dish of boiled potato-dough dumplings filled with sljiva (plums).  

Belgrade's atmospheric confluence Savamala is packed with bars and cool hangouts serving great beer and coffee.

The oldest kafana (tavern) in town is the 200-year-old Znak Pitanja  or Question Mark café. When one owner wanted to rename it as Kod Saborne crkve (By the Saborna Church), Serbian Orthodox church authorities objected. As a temporary truce, in 1892, a question mark was put on the door and it gained fame as 'znak pitanja' (question mark).

After a sunset cruise on the Danube, we disembarked at Zemun quay, lined with restaurants. Å aran (carp) is Belgrade's top fish restaurant on either side of the Danube and we ordered grilled fish fresh from the river.

It was unbelievable how much food we packed in. Down south in Niš, we savoured teleci repic (shredded veal) in Kafana Galija on Nikole Pasica, a charming avenue of open-air restaurants. At the northern university town Novi Sad, we tried the grilled ham-n-cheese Index Sandwich. Our final meal was at Zavicaj, an ethnic restaurant in Belgrade - more grilled meats, drinks and lepinja (Serbian bread). It was like a refresher course, as if we would be quizzed on Serbian cuisine at immigration!

Yet, all the walking down Knez Mihailova was not enough to prevent us from heading back with excess baggage, around our waists.

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