Serbian dishes are made of quality ingredients, fresh and succulent meat, seasonal fruits and vegetables, whose genuine scents and flavours are never smothered by sauces and heavy spices. Genetically modified food is banned in Serbia. The usual food preparation techniques include boiling, stewing, simmering, frying, roasting, grilling, baking, and some restaurants use the traditional methods, such as roasting on a spit or cooking “pod sačem” (sač being a pot with a bell-shaped lid made of clay or cast iron, covered in hot ashes).
There is a variety of so-called “cooked” dishes (eaten with a spoon, as the saying goes in Serbia), which require simmering for some hours to allow the flavors to fully develop. Ingredients in “cooked” dishes normally include onions (fried to make a base for the dish), vegetables (such peppers, carrots, potato, tomato, cabbage, collards or dock), and meat such as beef, pork, chicken or lamb, with smoked bacon as “flavor enhancer”. Traditional seasonings from these areas are parsley, dill, rosemary, basil, thyme, and chives, and introduced spices include black pepper, ground paprika (both sweet and hot), and bay leaves. Garlic, prunes, honey and walnuts also serve as spice. Serbs are obsessed with fear of starving to death, which may account for the enormous size of portions in some restaurants (as much as 300 to 500 grams of meat per serving). If you don’t share their obsession, you can ask for a half portion. Serbs love to get together over food and they use any occasion to have a party, toss something on a grill or roast some meat on a spit.
Vegetarians may take some time finding a suitable dish, as most restaurants do not have vegetarian dishes grouped together on the menu, but they will enjoy salads, hot and crusty bread with cheese, various pies, broths, mushrooms and breaded vegetables.
Serbian dishes you may find in restaurants
About one half of Belgraders consider coffee and cigarettes nourishment enough before going to work. On the way to work, they pop into a bakery for a slice of burek or some puff pastry (preferably with pig cracklings). Burek is a savoury filo pastry filled with cheese, or minced meat, or with no filling at all. Although of Ottoman origin, its method of preparation developed over centuries to suit the local taste buds and nowadays Serbian burek differs from the burek in Turkey. It is baked in round pans and sliced in wedges of your choosing (ask for a 250 gram slice for a start). Traditionally it is eaten with yoghurt, in the bakery, while standing at the bar (you can also have it as a takeaway). Many restaurants offer hearty breakfast at prices ranging between 2 and 4 EUR (scrambled eggs with bacon, sausage or cheese, uštipci (deep-fried dough served with cheese or jam), kačamak (polenta with fresh cheese and kaymak)…
Hot and cold starters
A glass of chilled rakija is a perfect way to start a meal, it whets the appetite and warms the heart. Next come the starters, similar to meze common throughout Mediterranean – a selection of small snacks served together on a platter or as a dish on its own. In Serbia these include kajmak (soft dairy spread, like a savoury clotted cream), proya (cornbread, often made with cheese and kaymak), gibanica (traditional Serbian pie made of filo pastry sheets filled with eggs, cheese and kaymak; it is best eaten hot with kiselo mleko, a kind of thick yoghurt), prebranac (large white beans baked with lots of sautéed onions, ground paprika and spices), fresh and brined cheeses (a large variety, made of cow, ewe or goat milk or a combination of those), Užice prosciutto (beef or pork), čvarci -pig cracklings (crisp residue left after lard has been rendered, its subspecies being duvan čvarci – tobacco cracklings), pihtije – pork jelly (aspic made of lean pork meat such as trotters, rind, ears), breaded peppers stuffed with cheese and kaymak, bacon-wrapped prunes stuffed with cheese… There are many more scrumptious filo pies made with different fillings: cheese, spinach, leek, pumpkin, potato, apple, sour cherry… Whatever the filling, the best pies are made from hand rolled and stretched filo dough.
Most restaurants will offer veal or lamb čorba (rich thick soup prepared with lots of meat chunks and vegetables, served hot, with cream; some patrons like to add a few drops of vinegar), chicken supa (clear soup, often with dumplings or noodles), čorbast pasulj (bean stew) or a nettle soup. Riverside restaurants will offer riblja čorba, a bright red fish soup made from a mix of river fish and spices, particularly hot paprika, usually served in small cauldrons brought to the table. The fish is cooked together with head, fins, bones, even roe, all of which add something to its flavour. It is eaten with lots of bread.
Minced meat stewed with onions, rice and spices rolled in sauerkraut leaves. Sarma is a true example of Serbian dedication to food preparation. It begins with carefully choosing the cabbage in the market, and fermenting it in the cellar (or on the balcony in the absence of the cellar) for at least one month. Than you need to prepare the filling and wrap it into sarma rolls (the smaller the better), tuck them snugly into a pot among generous amounts of bacon, smoked pork ribs, even pork knuckle, and simmer sarma for 7-8 hours. Now begins the heard part – you should in theory wait until the third day, when it tastes the best (even diehard traditionalists quail at the prospect)! Jagnjeća sarmica – Serbian haggis, finely chopped lamb liver and lungs stewed with onions, mixed with rice, eggs, and seasonings and wrapped in lamb’s stomach lining, topped with milk and eggs and baked in the oven.
Rolled veal steak filled with kaymak and breaded, served with sauce tartare. Named after Karađorđe, leader of the First Serbian Uprising against the Ottomans. Informally also called a “maiden dream”.
Stewed shredded sauerkraut , often prepared with turkey or smoked carp. Kolenice u kupusu – pork knuckles stewed with sauerkraut, savoury comfort food in winter. Svadbarski kupus – layers of shredded sauerkraut alternating with layers of mutton, beef and pork meat (fresh and smoked), cooked in a large clay pot for several hours, the longer the better.
Courgettes stuffed with rice and minced veal or pork meat stewed with onions and seasonings. Served with cooled thick yoghurt.
Peppers, tomato and onions seasoned generously with hot paprika, stewed with chunks of previously grilled meat. If you’re wearing a white shirt, forget it.
Bean soup, cooked with onions, bay, dry red paprika, bacon and smoked pork ribs. Dip bread into the soup for best taste and never mind the table manners. Not suitable as a pre-theatre meal.
A dish of choice for the indecisive diners or those favouring a delicious yet uncomplicated meat dish. Lambs, suckling pigs and baby goats are spit-roasted over beechwood embers in many roadside restaurants on major routes. The taste is so good, it takes a will of iron not to lapse in table manners and lick your fingers. Meat is measured by the kilo and you can order as much as you want (one kilo should be about right for two local adults, provided that they are not too hungry, as the meat is sold with the bones). Be sure to try Jagnjetina ispod sača (lamb under a sač). Chunks of lamb and potato are snuggled in a sač pot, covered in hot ashes and left to simmer for several hours, until the meat is so tender, it melts in your mouth. Grilled meat – various types of meat roasted on a grill, with beech charcoal used for fire. Typically served with a generous amount of finely chopped onions. People cook meat on a grill all over the world, however, in Serbia, this culinary skill is elevated to an art form. Restaurants (or households) guard jealously their own secrets of just the right heat, meat cut, meat preparation or marinade. The result is the taste you won’t find anywhere else. Grill chefs are a class of their own and the best of the lot come from the south-Serbian town of Leskovac.
While onions are practically mandatory, other accompaniments may include kaymak, oven-baked potatoes or pommes-frites.
All cuisines of the world have numerous, sometimes intricate recipes for fish, however, when the fish comes straight from the river, directly in front of your table on a floating restaurant, it tastes bests when briefly tossed on a grill. It goes well with potato salad (boiled potato, sliced and dressed with onions, oil, vinegar, salt and pepper) or chard and potato garnish (boiled and dressed with olive oil, salt and lemon juice). Seafood lovers will not be denied their pleasure, as fresh fish and shellfish arrive by plane from the sea almost every day.
Although a meat or fish meal is almost always accompanied with some vegetables, people in Serbia often order salads made of fresh seasonal vegetables as a side dish. Summer salads include Srpska (sliced tomato, cucumber, sweet pointed peppers, onions, chilly pepper, seasoned with salt and oil), Šopska (Srpska with a topping of grated fresh cheese), green salad (lettuce, sometimes mixed with rocket and radishes seasoned with salt, oil and vinegar), fresh cabbage (shredded and dressed with salt, oil and vinegar), spring onions… Winter salads include turšija (a mix of pickled cucumbers, peppers, green tomato, carrots and cauliflower), sauerkraut (sprinkled with hot paprika; incidentally, the liquid in which sauerkraut was fermented, called rasol, is a great source of vitamins and a traditional hangover remedy), roasted peppers (sweet pointed peppers, roasted, skinned and dressed with oil, vinegar, salt and garlic – tasty, but to be avoided before a date), ayvar (now this involves quite some labour – sweet red pointed peppers are roasted, skinned and deseeded, ground and then stewed for hours). A subspecies of ayvar is made of peppers and aubergines.
Those who like it hot may help themselves to chilly peppers, fresh, or roasted and dressed with oil, vinegar and garlic, pickled chilly peppers, urnebes relish (hot paprika mixed with fresh cheese) and horseradish relish (clears your sinuses and goes best with winter soups and stews).
By far the most important accompaniment to any meal in Serbia. Bread is placed on the table immediately after guests are seated and it goes with all courses (except dessert). Restaurants include bread in the cover charge (kuver) and the price is fixed, no matter how much you may have. It is quite normal to ask for more. Better restaurants will offer several types of bread (white, brown…) and different spreads. The ultimate bread experience is when crusty round loaves of pogača come piping hot from the restaurant oven, spreading the inviting scent of the freshly baked bread. Devoured while still hot, with generous helpings of kaymak.
Check out also Soul food Serbia video to get more in to Serbian Cuisine.