The most important tip I can give you on Bosnia and Herzegovina local food, and the only one that will make you elevate from being a tourist to becoming a real traveler immersed in the local culture, is “Stay away from McDonalds“. When visiting Bosnia and Herzegovina, there is awesome local food to try. Head to the local eateries too, and go where the locals go. For me, the food, wine and and even the water is part of the travel experience.
What to Eat in
The most available food in Sarajevo is Cevapi (normally 3-7 KM), the ubiquitous Balkan kebab. Two prominent variations exist – the “Banja Luka” Cevap, a larger kebab with a square shape, and the Sarajevo Cevap, smaller and round. If not had before, every visitor should try an order of Cevapi at least once. There are several variations of pita (around 2KM).
A cheap, tasty and readily available snack is “Burek”, a pastry made of filo dough and stuffed with meat (simply Burek), cheese (Sirnica), spinach (Zeljanica), potatoes (Krompirusa) or apple (Jabukovaca). Some examples are better than others, however, and it can be a greasy affair. If you get to Mostar, however, try to grab a plate of trout (“pastrmka,” which sounds like “pastrami”), which is the local specialty (a particularly fine restaurant serving locally farmed trout lies by the wonderful Blagaj monastery, a short bus ride from Mostar). Local food is heavy on meat and fish, and light on vegetarian alternatives.
Even traditional so-called vegetarian dishes like beans or Grah are cooked with bacon or smoked meats. Stews often contain meat but can be created without. Rice and pasta dishes are readily available and a traditional sourdough soup filling called Trahana is hand made in most regions and a staple during the fasting month of Ramadan. Fast food, with the exceptions of cevapi and pita (or burek) consists of, like in other parts of Europe, pizza, hamburgers and hot dogs. Panini sandwiches are served in most coffee shops popular with the youth, and Bosnian coffee, reminiscent of Turkish coffee, is a must-try for any coffee aficionado.
Oddly, apart from these fast food options, Bosnian restaurants serve few Bosnian specialities – what people eat in their homes is very different from what they will eat if they go to a restaurant. All along Bosnian roads and recreational places, you will notice advertisements for janjetina or “lamb on a spit.” This is a very tasty treat, usually reserved for special occasions. A whole lamb is cooked on a spit, by rotating over a coal fire for a long time. When you order, you pay by the kilogram, which costs around 25KM (not bad since this is enough for several people). Families, on special occasions, make such roasts at home. No matter what food you order, you are bound to be served bread, commonly consumed throughout some parts of Europe with all savory foods.
Both soup and salad are commonly served with entrees, chicken & beef soup with noodles or egg dumplings being the most common. Salads are typically composed of mixed tomatoes, lettuce, onions and bell peppers, often with feta cheese. A Caesar salad is unheard of in Bosnia, and generally most vinaigrettes are of the Italian variety, balsamic vinegar and olive or corn oil. You may also come across many condiments. Ajvar is a canned (or home made if you are lucky) spread, something like a bruschetta spread, made of roasted peppers & eggplant, which are ground and seasoned with pepper and salt and slow cooked. Many pickled foods are also served as condiments, such as pickled peppers, onions, cucumbers [“pickles”], and tomatoes. Kajmak is a dairy spread, with consistency and taste like cream cheese. It is made of milk fat, which is removed, salted and canned.
It has a smoky, salty cheese taste, with a texture slightly drier than cream cheese. Kajmak from Travnik is a local specialty and is exported as far as Australia. Bosnian food generally does not combine sweet & savory foods, and you will never encounter such a thing as a Caesar salad with mandarin oranges. On the other hand, many a fine chef will experiment with sweet and savory tastes like the ‘Medeno Meso’ (Honeyed Meat) made in pre-war Banja Luka by a well known chef.
The delineation between fruit and vegetables is strong, with fruit used only for dessert-type dishes. You will never encounter any dish where sugar is added unless it’s a dessert. The food is generally heavy on fresh produce, which needs little or no added spice. As such, there are few spicy or hot dishes, and dishes advertised as “spicy”, such as stews like paprikas or gulash are usually spiced with paprika and not chillies, and do not carry overt pungency. In some regions, and depending on whether it is restaurant or home food, textures and colors can be important also. Smoked meats are a staple of Bosnian cuisine, more so than the stereotypical foods of pita & cevapi. Amongst the non-Muslim populations, pork rules, and prosciutto, smoked neck, smoked ribs, bacon and hundreds of varieties of smoked sausage make this a real BBQ country. The Muslims, of course, have equally-tasty lamb or beef alternatives.
The meat is prepared by first curing in salt for several days, which removes water & dehydrates the meat, while the high-concentrations of salt preserve the meat from spoiling. After being rubbed with spices (a Bosnian dry rub is usually very simple, and includes some combination of high-quality fresh peppercorns, hot paprika, salt, onions & garlic, and a few spoons of Vegeta, a powdered chicken soup mix similar to an Oxo flavor cube), the meat is then hung over a heavy smoke made by a wood fire. Fruit trees are well-known by BBQ aficionados around the world to produce the most flavorful smoke, and apple, cherry and walnut trees are the most commonly used in Bosnia. Whereas commercially produced deli meats (of the sort you may buy at your local deli) are most often dry-cured or hung in dehydrating fridges and only then pressure-smoked for a few hours to allow some flavor to permeate the meat, Bosnian smoked meat is painstakingly smoked up to three months. The meat hangs in a “smoke house,” a tiny wooden shed usually only big enough to light a fire and hang the meat. Bosnians will only smoke meat in the fall or winter, because the low temperatures, together with the salt curation, allow the meat to hang for months without spoiling.
During this time, it is smoked up to 4 times a week, for 8-10 hours at a time, which infuses the meat with the flavor of the smoke and removes any remaining water. The finished product has an incredibly strong aroma and flavor of smoke, with the texture of chewy beef jerky. Depending on the cut of meat, the most noticeable difference between smoked meat produced this way and the commercially produced meat available in North America, is the color inside the meat. Whereas commercial deli meat is usually soft, red, a little wet and fairly raw, Bosnian smoked meat is black throughout with only a slight tinge of pink.
Larger cuts of meat, like the Dalmatian prosciutto, do tend to be a bit more pink & softer inside, but the difference is still dramatic, since the Balkan-made prosciutto has much less water, is chewier and overall better smoked. Such meat is most often consumed at breakfast time, in sandwiches, or as meza, a snack commonly brought out to greet guests. For the visitor, smoked meats are a cheap and incredibly flavorful lunch meat, and can be bought at Bosnian marketplaces from people who usually prepare it themselves.
Have a pork neck sandwich with some Bosnian smoked cheese and a salad of fresh tomatoes in a bun of fresh and crisp homemade bread, and you’ll never want to leave. When you visit a Bosnian at home, the hospitality offered can be rather overwhelming. Coffee is almost always served with some home-made sweet, such as cookies or cakes, together with Meza. Meza is a large platter of arranged smoked meats, which usually includes some type of smoked ham (in traditional non-Muslim homes) and sausage thinly cut and beautifully presented with cheese, ajvar, hard-boiled eggs and freshly cut tomatoes, cucumbers or other salad vegetables. Bread is always served.
Most cookbooks on South Slavonic cooking are packed with hundreds of varieties of breads, this being one of the most bread-crazy regions in the whole world. Yet, just about the only type of bread in most Bosnians’ homes is the store-bought French variety, which the Bosnians , of course, would never dream of calling “French.” To them, it is simply “Hljeb” or “Kruh”. However, more of an effort is made at special occasions to produce traditional Slavonic breads, and each family usually bakes its own variation of a traditional recipe. At Christmas & Easter, Orthodox Serb & Croatian Catholic families typically make a butter-bread called Pogaca, which is often braided and brushed with an egg-wash, giving it a glistening finish perfect for impressive holiday tables.
During the month of Ramadan, the Bosniak (Muslim) populations bake countless varieties of breads, and the unique and Turkish-inspired varieties are generally more numerous, diverse and dependent on regions and villages than amongst Christian populations, where special-event recipes are more homogeneous and fewer selections exist. Lepinja or Somun (the bread served with Cevapi) is a type of flat bread, probably introduced in some form to Bosnia by the Turks, but has since developed independently and is only vaguely reminiscent of Turkish or Middle Eastern flat pita breads. Unlike the Greek or Lebanese pita, the Bosnian Lepinja is chewy and stretchy on the inside and pleasantly textured on the outside, making it a perfect spongy companion to oily meats and barbecue flavors.
The Turks may have begun this recipe, but the Bosnians have taken it to a whole new high. In every-day cooking, Bosnians eat lots of stew-type meals, like Kupus, a boiled cabbage dish; Grah, beans prepared in a similar fashion, and a fairly-runny variation of Hungarian goulash. All are made with garlic, onions, celery and carrots, followed by a vegetable, smoked meat and several cups of water. This is then cooked until the vegetables are falling apart. A local spice called “Vegeta” is incorporated into almost every dish, and the same spice is used throughout the region, as far as Poland. It is the North American equivalent of a chicken Oxo cube, or, in other words, condensed chicken broth mix. These type of stew meals will cost you next to nothing, and are very hearty filling meals.
As for desserts, you will drool over ice cream sold in most former Yugoslav countries. There are several varieties, but regional milk and cream must be a contributing factor to their wonderful taste. You can buy ice cream either by the scoop or from an iced-milk swirl machine, packaged in stores or from a sidewalk vendor with a freezer right on the street. Recommended is the “Egypt” Ice Creamery in Sarajevo, famous in the region for their caramel ice cream. Also try “Ledo,” a type of packaged ice cream made in Croatia but sold throughout the region. You should also try some local desserts, such as Krempita, a type of a custard/pudding dessert that tastes something like a creamy cheesecake, and Sampita, a similar dessert made with egg whites. Traditional Bosnian desserts are also something to try.
Hurmasice or Hurme, is a small finger-shaped wet sweet with walnuts; Tulumbe are something like a tubular doughnut, crispy on the outside and soft and sweet on the inside. And of course, don’t forget to try Bosnia’s take on the world-famous Baklava, which tends to be somewhat more syrupy than its Turkish counterpart and usually does not contain any rum, like its Greek counterpart. Much of the traditional cooking has Turkish undertones, a colorful consequence of six hundred years of Ottoman rule over most of Bosnia & Herzegovina, and desserts are no different. Whatever you eat in Bosnia, you will notice the richness of the flavors you thought you knew.
The cuisine of the country has not yet been ruined by commercially-grown produce, so most foods are (uncertified) organically or semi-organically grown, using fewer chemicals and are picked when ripe. The vegetable markets sell only seasonal and locally-grown vegetables, and you are bound to have some of the best tasting fruit you’ve ever tried in the Neretva Valley region of Herzegovina (close to the Croatian border, between Mostar and Metkovic). The region is famous for peaches, mandarin oranges, peppers & tomatoes, cherries (both the sweet and the sour variety), watermelons and most recently Kiwi fruits. Cheese is also incredibly flavorful and rich all across Bosnia & Herzegovina, and generally all foods are as fresh as it gets. Enjoy!
What to Drink in Bosnia and Herzegovina
The legal drinking age in Bosnia and Herzegovina is 18 years (changed in 2005). Popular domestic beers are Nektar (from Banja Luka), Sarajevsko, Preminger (from Biha?, made according to a Czech recipe) and Tuzlansko, while the most common imports are Ozujsko and Karlovacko from Croatia, Jelen from Serbia, and Lako and Union from Slovenia. Like in almost every European country, beer is very common and popular. Even in more heavily Islamic areas alcohol is available in abundance to those who choose to drink and almost every bar is fully stocked. Like most Slavs Bosnians make ‘Rakija’ which comes in many a variety and is made both commercially and at home.
Red wine is ‘Crno vino’ (Black wine) and white wine is ‘bijelo vino’. Wines from Herzegovina are renowned for their quality. Alcohol is not taxed as heavily as in most Western nations and is often very affordable. Quality alcohol is sought after and valued. Another popular drinking beverage is Turkish coffee, in Bosnia called Bosnian coffee, which can be bought in every bar, coffee shop or fast food place. Bosnians are among the heaviest coffee drinkers in the world.
Other local foods, or drinks that you recommend? Please add and comment.