Tucked away in a cosy corner of Dubai’s Jumeirah area, with a name inspired by a controversial century-old science experiment on the weight of a soul, is a restaurant driving traditional Balkan cuisine into the New Age.
Hot, flaky, oozy golden burek with its layers and layers of pastry and cheese. Bold, rich flavours of red pepper dip ajvar, perfect to accentuate the flavours of grilled meat dishes such as cevapi. Bottomless salads. Century-old recipes that have seen little tweaking. A generosity in both flavours and portions. Ubiquitous across the sprawling Balkan Peninsula is all this and more - a lot of it revolving around slow cooking. But it's a cuisine that has resisted modern adaptations with a vengeance, and there’s a definite reason for it.
Tradition and comfort over experimentation
“The culinary needs of the people are pretty much the same, and it wasn’t influenced much by the gastronomical world, like the revolution French cuisine went through," head chef Urosh Mitrasinovic of the restaurant 21grams said. "Balkan cuisine mostly catered to home cooks. It’s hard to say this, but it’s a cuisine that caters to survival. You make a meal for yourself and your family and the neighbours, but you don’t elevate it to restaurant cuisine. It’s always meant to be soul, comfort food.”
Due to this focus on long-established methods and refusal to go mainstream, Stasha Toncev, the founder and owner of 21grams, calls the Balkan restaurant scene as being a bit conservative.
“The Balkan people are overprotective about what they are used to, there is a strong emotional bond with the dishes we know. They always expect to see it as they know it, and don’t accept modifications easily. Plus, we underestimate our cuisine as well. There’s very few places in the world that think our cuisine is worthy of elevation – there’s probably about 20 to 30 worldwide. It takes a lot of bravery to do that, as we lack support from our own community. It’s not like with Italian or French, which were open to change and even took pizza that was just dough and tomato and basil to another level with various additions, making it appealing to so many cultures. We need to be able to do that.”
Not limited at all
Chef Mitrasinovic still won’t call the cuisine limited, saying while the label can be applied to technique, the variety of ingredients and number of dishes that make up the cuisine are anything but that. “Yes, it needs to evolve from a poor man’s food to a health-conscious food. Of course, in the seaside areas you have very light diet meals, fish, olives and olive oil. The more continental influences you get the tougher that becomes. Change takes a lot of effort, and is one of the reasons why Balkan cuisine isn’t up there on the world’s food scene. But the first wave is happening. The Balkan region is opening up, to both tourists and food inventions.”
The wheel of change is being set in motion via those working abroad and bringing back home a desire to recreate dishes with a wider appeal. “Over the past few years we had chefs coming from abroad and taking things to another level,” he added. “They made a trend of it. From Serbia to Croatia, Montenegro, Bosnia, and Bulgaria - chefs learn in another kitchen abroad and continue with that style, educating Balkan people on various new processes.”
Change takes a lot of effort, and is one of the reasons why Balkan cuisine isn’t up there on the world’s food scene. But the first wave is happening. The Balkan region is opening up, to both tourists and food inventions.
But Toncev feels it's still not fast enough. “A few places in Serbia and Croatia are trying to innovate, but in general it’s very hard to grow within and with a different perspective - to step back and see the cuisine as a whole and add to it.
“When I was starting 21grams, so many people were resistant to it – they were convinced no one would want to eat cevapi or sarma in Dubai. We also had many people coming in and having no clue what Balkan means – this is just three years ago, and we had to do a lot of education.”
Dubai and the Balkan culinary drive
Toncev added that being in Dubai has helped spur on this movement of experimentation and modernisation. “The Dubai palate is spoilt for choice with the variety and accessibility of restaurants – even for just casual dining or breakfast, everyone expects nicely presented dishes. Which means we have a chance to incorporate modern techniques and presentation, all while using traditional recipes. That’s not possible back home. This process is easier here with diners who appreciate the dish for its ingredients and what it is."
Mitrasinovic agreed. “We’ve been able to play around with so many dishes here. The only difficult bit to implement here is nose-to-tail cooking. Back home everything is used, every part of the animal, and this market lacks such consumption. People wants premium cuts and tenderness here, they don’t want to try liver or brains or sweetbread, unlike other places, where it’s a delicacy.”
A couple of years back you could ask people to name one food from the region and they wouldn’t have been able to. Now, they’ll come and ask for their favourites, and there’s a strong awareness of the dishes and ingredients used. I’d say it’s a focus on pure meat that uses less spice that has made our foods popular among UAE residents, especially Emiratis. Meat and salt is all that’s used, but the depth of flavour achieved is fantastic
Haris Burek is chef at Global Village’s Bosnian House, which has won the Hidden Gems Dubai award for best restaurant two years. He said the cuisine’s grilled meats have made it a slow but strong winner - and a contender for a spot on the world’s culinary scene.
He’s personally witnessed Balkan foods’ sharp rise in popularity in the UAE over the past few years. “A couple of years back you could ask people to name one food from the region and they wouldn’t have been able to. Now, they’ll come and ask for their favourites, and there’s a strong awareness of the dishes and ingredients used. I’d say it’s a focus on pure meat that uses less spice that has made our foods popular among UAE residents, especially Emiratis. Meat and salt is all that’s used, but the depth of flavour achieved is fantastic,” Burek added.
Food influenced by geography and politics
In the region, dishes are meant to be shared, hospitality is key, and everything is cooked in big batches. It’s also a melting point of influences - a geographical position on the south eastern edge of the European continent, coupled with foreign rule and multiple wars fought, are reflected in the blend of flavours in its cuisine.
The influences come in various forms. Toncev explained that while Balkan cuisine is predominantly Ottoman and Turkish, there are central European and Mediterranean influences, providing a nice mix. Chef Mitrasinovic added that the cuisine from around the Adriatic Sea, including food from countries including Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Italy, Montenegro and Slovenia, plays a key role - Italian risottos, pastas, seafood. A German influence is prevalent on the northern side of the Balkan region, so sweet sauces and strudel are common, as is bone broth instead of the stews that are widespread in the south regions like Serbia and Montenegro. While Greece and the Mediterranean provide fresh ingredients and flavours, there’s plenty of winter dishes such as sarma, stuffed cabbage rolls, and Pasulj, a bean soup.
The Balkans as a region, a name inspired by the Balkan mountain range, are usually characterised as comprising Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Romania, Serbia, and Slovenia — with all or part of each of those countries located within the peninsula, as per Britannica.com.
Eating is all about family
It’s a vast region, so classic Balkan fare isn’t easy to define, but Toncev said that if she had to summarise the cuisine, she’d list four foods - some form of vegetable sarma (cabbage or charred leaves stuffed with rice meat or veg); grilled meat like cevapi; filo pastry; then dips and sauces. “Fermentation and preservation is a big part as we have four seasons and winters are harsh so when we have vegetables that are ripe and fresh in the summer, we preserve them in oil, sugar or salt, as pickles. The cuisine is beautiful - an alchemy from simple ingredients.”
“Every family and member in that family has its own way of making things, and even a generalised version won’t conform to everyone,” Mitrasinovic said.
A comfort-food approach is emphasised throughout. Take the flaky on the outside, croissant-like on the inside, cheese-filled burek. Or what’s known as the poor man’s food, proya or corn bread - butter or cheese is added if the family could afford it. “Balkan cuisine makes use of a lot of scraps and leftovers and common ingredients that are sufficient to fill up the whole family. Burek is made of just flour, salt and water, some fat - delicious and diverse yet so modest in its making.”
Be present in the moment
Toncev said lives revolve around food, and there’s no celebration or even business meeting without it. “There are whole rituals around home cooking, helping bring the meal together and then sharing. We grow up in the mindset that planting, growing food and preparing is a process that deserves a lot of respect. That we need to be present in the moment. The eating culture is strong and it spreads to all activities of life.”
Every guest to Serbian homes is greeted with a spoonful of slatko - fruit preserve made of fruit or rose petals and much sweeter and thicker than compote but with whole fruits - along with a glass of water. Same with the kaymak, similar to clotted cream. A first-time guest will be served dry meats, aged cheese, kaymak, and shopska salad.
Bread is a huge part of Balkan life, and I mean before the pandemic! So is Sunday lunch with the family - even if you don’t live with your parents, everyone troops to grandma’s on Sundays.
“Bread is a huge part of life, and I mean before the pandemic!” Chef Mitrasinovic said. “So is Sunday lunch with the family - even if you don’t live with your parents, everyone troops to grandma’s on Sundays.”
Even desserts are primarily flour based - cakes, filo pastry, pies, milk cakes, fruit cakes, sponge and layer cakes, small chocolate-truffle-sized bites as sweets are traditional for holiday season. “We don’t have as many creamy desserts, there’s no crème brulee style dishes, it’s all more flour,” Stasha says. “We use a lot of nuts, dairy, eggs and flour – yes, there’s no concept of gluten-free! Baklava is a good representation of our desserts – flour, nuts and sugar.”
Vegetarians have options too
Toncev stressed that the notion Balkan cuisine only caters to carnivores is a misconception. “We do have a beautiful variety of dishes based on vegetables, and our menu can work for vegans too. Yes, our people do not consider a meal a meal without meat, but every meal is always accompanied with vegetarian dishes. We have not just many starters too that are plant-based, but proper meals too just waiting to be discovered. The mousakka for instance, the stew base used for everything, is traditionally made with meat but delivers beautiful flavours with beans and chickpeas. And in Dubai with its melting pot of cultures we have been able to switch up dishes to vegetarian.”
Recipes for you to try
The Balkan region might not be particularly enthusiastic about reinventing their food, but Chef Mitrasinovic said that Balkans have embraced evolution when it comes to coffee. “The specialty places that do different versions are fully accepted, and everyone goes out to cafes in masses – the Balkan people always have money for coffee, in any form.”
Which means coffee is treated as more than just a beverage. “It’s not just a wake-up call but a reason for gathering, conversation, a way to slow down, and fun traditions – fortune-telling included,” Toncev added. “Everything always comes together with Turkish coffee. The first thing served in my house is Turkish coffee - Turkish coffee served with Turkish delight.”
While she thinks Balkan cuisine will take another five years for it to be firmly on the world map, it’s getting there with passion and quality: “We have fresh ingredients, prepared with a lot of love and care. It’s only a matter of time before people will sit up and take notice.”
Location Courtesy: 21grams
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