Food is the window into a culture. If you really want to know a people and the soul of a nation, eat their food. The people of any country, place their traditional dishes on a pedestal. They are protected, treasured, passed down from generation to generation. The ingredients, the preparation and the consumption of the food is highly important. But in Sarajevo, it’s also about the people that you meet when you make an effort to try something new. They start to feel like friends. In Sarajevo, people are so inviting and honest that you can’t help but feel that you are never really alone.
So let me take this opportunity to talk about Bosnian food. Meat, vegetables and bread. God help you if you are a vegan. In fact, if you are a vegan, just don’t bother going. Or bring your own food. If you have a gluten allergy, it’s not so bad. I was told on the first day, when I explained my gluten allergy, “I don’t think anyone in Bosnia has that allergy.” Well, to be honest, it’s actually easier to avoid gluten in most countries in the world than it is in North America because of our pervasive use of fillers, binders, preservatives and all-around just plain, old crap ingredients in our food. Vegetarians would probably be able to find food here as long as you aren’t too strict. Everything is oily and probably prepared with the meat. I saw a review on Trip Advisor complaining about the amount of grease in the food at one of the restaurants we ate at and I chuckled. Our tour guide mentioned this about Bosnian food. Everything is cooked in oil. Everything is greasy. Don’t be that stupid tourist who goes to another country and then complains about how they cook their food.
Don’t wait until you are hungry to find a place to eat and don’t budget North American time for your meal. Everything is a relaxed pace and everyone is late in Bosnia (our tour guide said it, not me!). In fact, factor in a few extra days in the city just so you can do fewer structured activities every day and allow yourself time to relax over lunch and fit in lots of coffee breaks. Be Bosnian and just chill for a while.
The first place we had the pleasure of eating was the little Italian restaurant called Piccolo Mondo around the corner from the apartment. It’s a small restaurant that serves Italian food but also Bosnian cuisine. In case you are wondering if this restaurant is any good and the reviews on Trip Advisor don’t convince you, just consider this. This restaurant is not in a main pedestrian area. In the summer, there is a lovely terrace but the view is of burned-out buildings. Despite these two factors, it is always busy with locals. On Monday night, we were there around 9:30 pm and on Tuesday evening, around 7:30 pm and it was still bustling. It was established in 1999, which is only a few shorts years after the war was officially ended. Considering the damage to the buildings around it, it was probably in a similar state. Not only did it open in a tumultuous time, it has remained open since then, which, in my mind, speaks to its quality of food and atmosphere.
The first time we went here (on the night of our late arrival to the city), I ordered the Bosnian moussaka and Bob ordered a pizza. Bob’s pizza had a thin-crust and came with three different sauces to drizzle on top, as well as a small bowl of parmesan. Bosnian moussaka is a casserole-type dish made using layers of cheese, potatoes, ground beef, onions and spices. The moussaka we had in Montenegro had egg in it but this one didn’t. The way Piccolo Mondo had prepared the moussaka, it reminded me a lot of lasagna. Being gluten-free, this made me very happy because lasagna used to be one of my all-time favourite dishes. The moussaka was layered with ground potatoes, beef, and tomatoes and then smothered in melted cheese. We so enjoyed the food that the next night, we decided to go back.
We were starving when we got there so we both ordered an appetizer as well as a main dish. I ordered a rustic salad and the seafood risotto and Bob ordered soup and the same pizza as the night before. Again, absolutely delicious! The second night, we had nothing planned for the evening so we were able to just sit, relax and chat about all the things we’d seen on our travels. Again, we packed up our leftovers for breakfast the next day. (You’re right, seafood risotto isn’t very good for cold breakfast the day after.)
I should also mention that smoking is allowed everywhere in Bosnia except on public transit. So be prepared to be inhaling second-hand smoke from the table next to you while eating, especially in winter when you can’t sit outside.
The next morning, we headed to the Old Town to wander around. By the time we got there, we were in the mood for a coffee and Bob wanted us to have Bosnian coffee (obviously, since we are in Bosnia). There are cafés everywhere in Sarajevo but not everywhere serves Bosnian coffee. Bosnian coffee is a thick, strong-tasting, sludgy coffee. It has a carafe and tiny cups and it’s served with Turkish delight. The first café we went in didn’t serve it but he told us where we could get it.
We peeked down a tiny side street off the Ferhadija (the main shopping street in the Old Town), right near the compass rose in the sidewalk where East meets West, and saw a sign for a small café called Rahatlook. The large wall of windows and colourful interior gave the café a sunny, cozy feel. There was seating of all kinds – wooden chairs, benches, a rocking chair, an arm chair, several small stools around a low round table, even a swing! The kitchen was open-concept and an integral part of the homey feel to this café. Sweets, coffee and tea were prepared on the counters at the side of the kitchen and the finished wares were displayed on the island in the middle of the café. The proprietor was wearing her apron and spoke English very well. She asked us where we were from and told us all about her cakes and sweets. She creates only traditional Bosnian treats made in the traditional way, with only organic ingredients – the way her grandmother taught her. Bob got a piece of cake and we both got Bosnian coffee.
Bosnia is all about coffee. Bosnians have a million coffee breaks a day. It seems there is nothing so important in life that it can’t wait until you can sit down with coffee. While there were also many European cafés in the Old Town, serving lattés and espressos, we also saw many times throughout our three days in Sarajevo, people going from café to workplace with a tray of tiny cups filled with the traditional Bosnian coffee. If you don’t have time to sit and drink it, don’t even make it. I wonder what Bosnians think about our culture, rushing around with our over-priced to-go cups. Our coffee keeps us from killing each other in our stressed-out, way-too-busy society. Their coffee is meant to bring people together, to facilitate conversation and to create a happy, mental space.
After we had finished our coffee, we got up to leave and the owner engaged us again in conversation. Had we ever had candied pumpkin? No, in Canada we just carve faces into them and then let them rot. (Ok, I didn’t actually say that but it is a strange use for a fruit, don’t you think?) “Come back tomorrow and I will have some ready for you. I make it like my grandmother taught me, very traditional around the holidays.” We were a little stunned by the offer. I’m sure she wasn’t making it just for us but the idea that she wanted us to try this traditional dessert was quite endearing.
The next day we arrived and she greeted us as we walked in, saying, “Oh! I was afraid you weren’t coming!” We sat and she brought over the candied pumpkin. It was peeled and the flesh of the pumpkin was soft, with the consistency of cheesecake. I had eaten pumpkin before when I lived in Japan but in savoury dishes. This seemed to have been baked and softened somehow with something sweet, sprinkled with cinnamon and drizzled with a coulis. It was absolutely delicious!
Later that day, we booked a sightseeing tour in the Old Town. We also asked for a good recommendation for a place that served traditional Bosnian food for lunch and were given the brochure for Nanina Kuhinja. (I know I keep using the word “traditional” but we didn’t come all this way to eat hamburgers.) This place took us forever to find, mostly because the map on the brochure was completely wrong. Now, it was winter so instead of those traditional Bosnian stools around the low tables outside, it was regular-height tables and chairs inside. However, there was a lovely wood stove in the centre of the restaurant emanating a lovely warmth for a cold day. (The temperature was about -2°C, which is not cold for a Canadian but as in many countries that don’t get our insanely stupid winter temperatures, these buildings had minimal, if any, insulation. So it feels colder than in Canada because inside the buildings it’s colder.)
Bob ordered Bosanski Lonac, which was a stew that consisted of veal, beef and potatoes and after asking the server about three different options, he recommended I get the Sarajevo platter, a mixed plate of stuffed peppers, zucchini and onions. I’m not used to eating so much grease, I will admit, but Bosnian food is mouth-watering comfort food. Stuffed peppers, cabbage rolls, stuffed onions, soft cheese, grilled veg and potatoes, I could go on. We had a glass of red wine with lunch as well. While it would have been very Bosnian of us to have another coffee, I really can’t handle that much caffeine so we had to pass.
The next day, before we met our tour guide for our Sarajevo tour, we wandered the Old Town looking for a place to eat and ended up in a restaurant called Kolobara Han. This restaurant is quite large and it is one of the oldest Hans (inns) in Sarajevo. The grounds were lovely with greenery and fountains but it was winter and while nobody was sitting outside, they did have thick, clear plastic walls surrounding a heated terrace. Tripadvisor lists it as BBQ, Mediterranean and pizza cuisine. I’m not sure why as it also offers lots of traditional Bosnian dishes. The atmosphere was warm with red and golden hues in the decor and there were lots of families and groups eating there. I got the grilled potatoes and vegetable plate (10 KM, about $8) and Bob got his standard cevapcici. (For around $5). Again, we had to completely defy Bosnian culture and pay and leave as soon as we were finished because it took a while to order and then to get our food, which meant flagging down the waiter.
I’ve mentioned cevapcici in a few of my posts so let me explain in a little more detail what this local delicacy is. First of all, all the c’s in the name are pronounced ch and should have a little hat over them. (However, I can’t find that special character in WordPress.) It is a skinless lamb sausage that is served with fluffy naan bread, chopped white onions and sometimes with the soft, white, homemade cheese that looks like sour cream but tastes more like mild goat cheese. This cheese is not something you can buy pre-packaged as it has to be made fresh so it’s not likely to be found outside of Bosnia. We have found cevapcici in a local Bosnian deli here in Ottawa. The people of Sarajevo will also tell you that cevapcici is found everywhere in the Balkans but the best cevapcici is here in Sarajevo. With Bob as resident taste-tester, he agrees.
On my plate of grilled vegetables, you will also see some orange sauce in the middle of the food. This is ajvar. It’s a roasted red pepper sauce and it is quite tasty. It is available in Canada in any grocery store that has a robust international food section.
On Day 3, after our walking tour (where we again met Jacques from Mostar!), we decided to eat lunch down Bravadziluk street. This street is known for traditional Bosnian food. Again, while a magnet for tourists, just as many locals can be found dining here as well. The menus often have English on them because the Old Town is so touristy and there are often pictures of the dishes as well which is very helpful. Bob really wanted to go to this place, the Bosanska Kuca, because their advertisements on the main street boasted steak. But when we got there, he took one look at the menu and ordered …you guessed it! Cevapcici! I had another mixed plate of grilled veg, stuffed peppers, dolmades and rice.
The final place we went to partake of the eating and drinking in Sarajevo was a tea house that Jacques had told us about. This tea house was slightly out of the rest of the Old Town, on a cobblestone street that went steeply up and out of the Bascarija. It was called Cajdzinica Dzirlo (cajdzinica means tea house). The cozy atmosphere and friendly banter between locals and tourists (us) continued as it had for the three days we had the pleasure of being in this amazing city. When we entered, it seemed filled to capacity and so we said we would sit outside. They seemed comically aghast! The conversation quickly turned to English. It was too cold, the other patrons exclaimed. We joked that we were Canadian which elicited genuine laughter all around and comments like, “Oh! This is like summer for you!” And then two dapper young gentlemen got up, moved all their stuff over to a tiny table and offered us their table that could fit three (Bob, Jacques and I). In fact, there was an upstairs room as well but we didn’t know this. If you look at the third photo below, the stairs are through the doorway, behind the counter.
The proprietor, an older lady who was beautiful, hip and relaxed, floated over to us to ask us our order. But as in many other places, we were first asked where we were from and how we knew each other and would we be interested in trying something unique to Sarajevo? Of course!
Salep. Salep is a tea that is made from ground orchid root. At this tea house, it was prepared with steamed milk and cinnamon. It reminded me of chai. It was a comforting, spicy taste. I know they serve it as just tea at Rahatlook though we never had it there.
In our three days in Sarajevo, we ate mostly in the Old Town, which is the touristy area of Sarajevo but none of the prices we encountered were inflated. The Bosnian Konvertible Mark is almost the same rate as the Canadian dollar (1 KM = $0.80 CAD) so when we paid KM, we just took a few dollars off to mentally calculate it into dollars. But the prices were also slightly cheaper than in Canada for food so it was nice. Wine and beer were considerably cheaper.
There is a small booklet that is put out at the beginning of every month called Sarajevo Navigator that has listings and advertisements for other restaurants and cafés as well. But even if you just decide to wander around, you will definitely find something good to eat. As long as you aren’t vegan or vegetarian.
When you go to a place that has as many restaurants, cafés and tea houses as Sarajevo, I don’t think you can really go wrong. The competition is too high. Traditional food is traditional food. The ingredients are all the same because there aren’t any massive grocery stores or imports happening. If you are looking for food that isn’t Bosnian, perhaps you will be disappointed. I am of the mind that if I’m in a restaurant with a bunch of locals, it can’t be bad.