Culinary heritage of the Balkans (1/5) | Balkan gastronomy, a common heritage

Sarma, pita, burek, boza… From Bulgaria to Bosnia, from Serbia to Albania, from Romania to Greece, many “typical” specialties have an obvious family resemblance. Many drinks and dishes from the different “national cuisines” of the Balkans denote an oriental, Byzantine and then Turkish origin. Researchers are trying to explore this common culinary and cultural heritage.

Translated by Jasna Andjelic


To begin the history of the culinary habits of the inhabitants of the Balkans, we will quote the Romanian anthropologist Vintile Mihalescu who tells in his book Everyday life isn’t what it used to be how he was “very happy to find in Greece the same dish that his mother prepared”. “La sarma”, exclaimed the delighted Romanian. “No, no,” the waiter immediately rectified, “sarmalaki. Traditional greek food”.

Historian Olga Zirojevic notes that the names of the many dishes and drinks of so-called “national cuisines” in the Balkans all point to strong Turkish and Eastern influences. All the Balkans abound in culinary specialties and drinks of oriental origin. You should know that these oriental influences were already present at the time of the Byzantine Empire. Byzantine culture also featured a successful blend of Balkan (Greek) and Eastern influences.

“The most important cultural element that the Turks brought to the Balkans is rice. It comes from India, and hence words like birinda and oriza originated in Sanskrit. The Arabs knew rice in Iraq, and introduced it to the Turks. The first traces of the presence of this plant in the Balkans are found in the vicinity of Plovdiv, in Rumelia (current Bulgaria), around 1365. A French traveler from the 16th century, Broquier, was the first to mention the presence of rice in Serbia, around Nis. Between 1571 and 1580, it arrived in Buda in large quantities,” says Olga Zirojevic.

When the Ottomans bring fruit

“Ottoman domination enriched the palette of available fruits, with new species such as peaches (ceftelija), medlar, apricot, and bitter orange, turundza. Judging by the name given to the apricot in Vojvodina (aprokozna), this fruit arrived there from the West. The Germans call it aprikose and have been cultivating it since the middle of the 17th century, having known it through trade with the Arabs. Word bostan, which literally means “garden” in Turkish, and which in Serbian means melons and watermelons, appears for the first time during the Turkish period. However, melons and watermelons are mentioned in all Slavic languages, and it can be assumed that they were cultivated before the arrival of the Turks. The Turkish word for watermelon is karpuzwhich can sometimes be found in Bosnia”, says our interlocutor.

In addition to agricultural crops, many dishes arrived in the Balkans via the Turks, who influenced city life. These dishes were first accepted by the rulers and the wealthy, and later by the rural dwellers.

“The example of sarma, which has become a ritual dish, obligatorily prepared on the occasion of weddings, Slavic [1] and for Christmas demonstrates that these new dishes were quickly accepted. The rice dish, pilav, also played an important role. In my opinion, the traditional Serbian Christmas Eve cake, the cesnica, was created under the influence of baklava. The first cakes were made exclusively with wheat flour, unlike bread which could include different flours, depending on the possibilities of the moment. The Turks themselves do not use the word sarmabut that of lahana dolmas. The Turkish Verb sarmak means to roll, roll up, and the word sarma probably appeared in our region,” says Olga Zirojevic.

Yogurt, which is part of all European cuisines, came to us from Turkey. “It’s curdled milk, first from sheep, and now more often from cow, which was so dense that you could carry it in the linen bags. The origin of yogurt goes back to the nomadic tribes who inhabited deep Asia,” she continues.

In the middle of the 16th century, a new cheese appeared in the Balkans, the kackavalj [2]. “I suppose, even if nobody has studied the question yet, that the manufacture of the kackavalj was imported by Jews who fled Spain. There are documents which indicate that the Jews of Vidin had about twenty flocks of sheep and that they used specific forms to make the kackavalj. The privilege of producing this cheese was later given to the Jews of Sofia and Thessaloniki. I believe that the tradition of producing the kackavalj in Pirot, in the south-east of Serbia, is linked to this, even if some authors attribute it to the Aromanians”, continues Olga Zirojevic.

The tursija (brine) is a way of preserving fruits and vegetables that also comes from the Turks. The word ‘tursija’ is of Turkish and Iranian origin. Apart from the preparation of fruits and vegetables, brine has been used as a drink.

The appearance of rakija

The first mentions of rakija (eau-de-vie) in the region date from the time of Konstantin the Philosopher, i.e. the first decades of the 15th century. He uses the expression “forged wine”, while the word rakija appears later. It comes from Turkish rakiwhich itself comes from the Arabic root arrack. The Arabs have mentioned this drink since the 13th century.

“When we talk about the dishes brought by the Turks, we must not forget the bulgur and the tarana. These two dishes are made from cereals, most often wheat, and until the middle of the 19th century, they replaced rice, which was expensive. Even if it has almost completely fallen into oblivion with us, the bulgur is very fashionable in Europe thanks to organic stores. It is sold worldwide as a food of the future. The tarana is an integral part of Turkish and Balkan cuisine. Her name is trano in Macedonia and trachana in Greece. In Macedonia, it is prepared with wheat semolina mixed with milk and dried in the sun. In Bosnia, it is still prepared with wheat flour, eggs and tomato juice. Pilav is prepared with rice, but also with bulgur. It arrived in the region with the Turks, but it was probably invented in regions with a highly developed rice culture, in the East.

Bread made with flour and water, without yeast, is known as pogaca, from the Italian word “focaccia” arrived here in the Middle Ages, from the Adriatic coast. The Turks adopted it and still do so under the same name. The word has penetrated other Balkan languages, Hungarian, German and others. However, plan [3] is a Serbian word.

Pite, burek and gibanica

Word gibanica comes from Egyptian Arabic, from the word gubn – cheese, (plural giban). Bulgarians have the word Banica, which keeps the last part. the Burek (borek in Turkish) appeared in the 17th century. It results from efforts to create a dish with very little meat or cheese. The Turks, as well as all of Asia, tend to consume minced meat or small quantities of meat, which have the role of enhancing the smell or taste of certain dishes. They learned from the nomadic tribes of Asia the technology to prepare very fine pasta with a very rational use of flour due to shortages. This makes it possible to obtain a kind of bread or to stuff slices of thin dough. This gave rise to the different pityto Burek and many desserts.


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