Rediscovering Traditional Bosnian Cuisine

One of the goals I set for myself as I returned to Bosnia after a long absence, was to taste again as many of the traditional dishes that were a staple part of my diet when I worked here from 1998-2012 but have not had for quite a while. I made myself a list before I traveled so let’s see how I have done.

Ćevapćići. This was my introduction to Bosnian cuisine in 1998 at a restaurant called Hodzić in Sarajevo. So I had to go back there to do it again. Basically these are little skinless spiced sausages of lamb and beef grilled up when you order it and served with onions in a tasty, fresh pita-like bread called somun. It is often served with drinkable yoghurt but I am not a yoghurt fan so I take it will beer!
Once again the somum bread accompanies Begova Ćorba, s creamy chicken/vegetable soup that also has sour cream in it. Great lunch dish.
When at the Slava celebration in RS, part of the meal was sarma and corn bread muffins. Sarma is basically a cabbage roll, The filling typically consisting of a combination of ground meat (commonly beef and/or pork), rice, finely chopped onions, garlic, and a blend of spices such as paprika, salt, pepper, and sometimes herbs like parsley.
Mućkalica is a flavorful stew that typically includes cubed or diced pieces of meat, such as pork, beef, or lamb, sautéed in oil or fat until browned. Onions, garlic, and bell peppers are then added and cooked until softened. The stew is further enriched with the addition of tomato sauce or crushed tomatoes, along with paprika, salt, pepper, and other seasonings. It is then simmered slowly until the meat becomes tender and the flavors meld together.
At Inat Kuća in Sarajevo I had a mix of Bosnian specialties including dolme ( stuffed cooked onions), bamija (okra – always said to be “good for the potention”) and ćevaps. Served with a dollop of sour cream and a Sarajevsko pivo (beer)
For dessert we wandered down the street to another old restaurant where I always enjoyed Tufahija, a poached apple stuffed with walnuts and topped with whipped cream. Accompanied by voćni ćaj (pronounced vochni chai) or fruit tea.
Burek is a savory pastry made of phyllo dough and filled with either meat, cheese, or spinach. Sliced up like a pizza and good for breakfast or lunch.
Fresh salads are always good, often with tomatoes and cheese and greens and cucumber.
When I worked in Sarajevo I spend many a memorable Friday night in this little corner of Avlija with my co-workers Daren and Al and Donna in particular. What a treat to be there again with Lejla, Aldina, Saša and Muco.
We ordered a couple of platters of food that included proccuitto, Travnik cheese, olives, tomatoes and a basket of Uštipci or Lokum. Uštipci are sort of like fried doughnuts that are often served as a snack or side dish. They are light and chewy and are often served with kajmak cheese or ajvar spread. Kajmak cheese is known for its rich, creamy texture and a slightly tangy and salty flavor. It has a smooth consistency that spreads easily. The other solid cheese on the tray is Travnik cheese often made from sheep milk. It is crumbly and salty and much like feta.
Our second platter was grilled beef, baked potatoes, zucchini, deep fried chicken and mushrooms, more kajmak and lokum. And another toćeno pivo. (draft beer).
My go-to request for coffee for breakfast or a break was usually is “Ja BiH Produženu kafu sa mlijekom, molim” that translates to “I will take an exyended coffee with milk, please. Sort of like a small latté. Comes with a glass of water and sometimes a little biscuit or lump of sugar.
And then there is Bosnian coffee . Bosnian-style coffee or Turkish coffee, is a traditional method of preparing and enjoying coffee in Bosnia and Herzegovina. It is a strong and aromatic coffee brewed in a special long-handled pot called a “džezva.” Lots of grounds in the pot and foam on the top. The grounds settle to the bottom of the small coffee cups. Usually sweetened with sugar cubes you can drop into the cup before decanting the coffee or sometimes you dip the sugar cube into the coffee and eat it.

I loved getting a taste of all these foods that I had enjoyed years a go. I also sampled local beers from all the cities (Nektar in Banja Luka, Tuzlanski pivo and Sarajevsko pivo and Mostarsko pivo in those cities.

The downside was that with all this beer and bread and Bosnian cuisine, I put on 4 pounds over my visit to BiH!

The Old Bridge in Mostar

It was good to be back in Mostar for a few days, to visit with friends and wander in the town, I was reminded of the first time I came to Mostar in 1998 and seeing all the devastation along the Neretva River that was basically the front line of the hostilities there. The iconic 400-year old bridge had been destroyed in 1993 and the whole east side was battered.

I had a photo that I took of the bridge in 1998 and went back to the same spot, now the terrace of a restaurant by the river. I asked a young waiter if I could go down by the railing to take a comparable photo and showed him what I was trying to copy. He showed my phone pic to a waitress friend. Her response was “where is the bridge?”. She was 2 years old in 1998 and the young man was not yet born. They never saw first hand the devastation that the war caused although there are still buildings that remain waiting repair.

The historic old part of the city has been mainly restored and now attracts a lot of tourists. In 1998 there were none. It is good to see this recovery.

The destroyed bridge in 1998
From the same vantage point 25 years later.
The bridge photos above were taken from the far corner of the restaurant by the trees.
In May 1999 that riverbank looked like this.

Here are some photos of the old bridge area now.

Video: A montage of photos of the old bridge in May 2023.

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Tuzla -Šta ima novo? What’s new?

When I worked in Tuzla 15-20 years ago I always find the town to feel industrial and the people to be “salt of the earth”. The city had experienced a lot of trauma during the war and there were many refugees, particularly women who had escaped from Srebrenica when their husbands and sons ( 6000 of them) were slaughtered in July 1995.

Now “salt of the earth” is appropriate in more ways than one. The people here are sturdy and diligent and resilient. But Tuzla also got is name from the Turkish word for salt – Tuz. The area was once covered by a shallow sea, and as the sea dried up, it left behind large deposits of salt. Over time, the salt deposits were buried under sediment and rock, and geological processes caused the salt to dissolve and form underground brine lakes. These were mined for many years by a process where the salt was dissolved underground and brought to the surface as salivated water which was evaporated.

As a result of this process some of the land in the centre of the town is unstable and has sunk a bit in places. But when you are given salt…make some salt lakes. In the centre of the city are three small salt lakes that have been developed as a recreational area for swimming and exercise and enjoying summer weather. These have been more fully developed since I was working here and are now even an attraction for tourism.

One of the three salty lakes in the centre of the city.

Today the city also seems more vibrant than I remember it. The core area walking street is livelier and more colourful but still has a sense of history. The main square has been upgraded with a big fountain and there are lots of restaurants with patios around it and a big Ferris wheel.

The main Peace Square is a friendly gathering spot.

I had lunch in a restaurant that I used to go to twenty years ago, called Citte del Sale. I have been on a quest to eat some of the traditional Bosnian foods that I enjoyed over my years here and for lunch I got some Begova Ćorba creamy soup made with veal or chicken, vegetables, and sour cream that was served with some fresh hot Somun bread. Somun bread is a type of flatbread that is a staple in Bosnian cuisine. It’s similar to pita bread, but is thicker and softer, with a chewy texture and a slightly sour taste.

Begova ćorba with Somun.

There is a large new modern hotel that is so much more appealing than the Hotel Tuzla where I used to stay. It looks modern and spacious and well appointed and has a gym and pool.

Lobby of the new Mellain Hotel

There are larger shopping centers and grocery stores. One supermarket below the new hotel is gigantic and a far cry from the little shops that were the norm in the past. Shops along the main walking street also seem more colourful.

Well-stocked Megsstores have sprung up in all Bosnian towns – a far cry from what was available 20 years ago.
Walking street in central Tuzla.
Small central street at night.

Sunday stroll around Banja Luka, BiH

It was great to go back to the centre if Banja Luka and stroll around the streets where I had lived and worked on and off over several years.

Basically the place looks pretty much the same as it did when I was last here in 2012. Here are some photos of the centre of the city which has a population of 200,000 spread around it.

The main waking street has not changed much in 15 years.
This market behind the mosque used to be open air, cold in the winter and wet when it rained. Now it is covered and larger. Lots of fresh fruit, flowers and vegetables.
This little restaurant is where we had our burek lunch.

We stopped for lunch at a small restaurant that makes burek under the sać. Burek is a pastry made of phyllo pastry stuffed with cheese, meat or spinach and in this case cooked on a pan that is covered with a lid and then with hot coals piled on top. This way of cooking can also be used to cook meat and vegetables under a dome piled with coals. It was filling and delicious lunch of a traditional food made in a very traditional way.

A pan of burek just off the coals from the oven behind.
The reconstructed Ferhadija mosque in the centre of Banja Luka

Exactly 22 years ago to the day, May 7, 2001, Saša and I had stood on this same corner when a large crowd gathered and hooligans held 200 Muslims (and the Canadian ambassador) hostage in a building by an empty lot here. The group had come to lay a cornerstone to rebuild the Ferhadija mosque that had been destroyed during the war.

The original mosque at this site was built in 1579 during the Ottoman period and was named after its founder, Ferhad Pasha Sokolović. The mosque was an important religious and cultural landmark in the region, serving as a gathering place for Muslims in Banja Luka for over 400 years.

However, during the Bosnian War in the 1990s, the Ferhadija Mosque, along with many other historic buildings and cultural sites, was heavily damaged as ethic conflict plagued the country. The mosque was set on fire and its minaret was destroyed, leaving only the stone walls and foundation intact.

As tensions tose on that 2001 May Day, two busses that had brought some of the people now barricaded in the building burned and black smoke rose over the site. SFOR helicopters roared overhead. Thankfully the tensions were eventually brought under control and no one was injured but it was a day filled with uncertainty and threat. My co-worker and friend, Daren Trudeau and I were forced to make a hurried escape through the mountains to Sarajevo while the crisis was evolving.
Today, 22 years later, I was delighted to see this beautifully reconstructed Ferhadija mosque. 

On the street , men gather in the spring sunshine to play chess.

Bosnia is struggling.

Since I have returned from my visit to Bosnia and Herzegovina, my first in five years, I have been asked many times “What has changed since you were there last?”  I have been surprised to have to say, “Not much.”

image I worked in Bosnia on and off from 1998 to 2009. I came to be very familiar with much of the country but was usually based in Sarajevo, a second home for me for a few years.  It was in the relatively immediate post-war period so there were a lot of international dollars being spent in recovery in one way or another. Every time I returned, there would be some obvious changes – new roofs on buildings that were damaged during the conflict, people moving back into neighborhoods that had been demolished by war. Many of the locals were being employed or supported in some way by the recovery efforts.  Recovery was the industry but many of those programs had a ten year lifespan. Ours went for about 15 years, but like the others, the money to maintain it was doled out over a fixed term and once that was done, we withdrew and our local associates needed to find other sources of income.

Ready for the tourist dollar.

Ready for the tourist dollar.

So now, five years later, it seems like the country is once again stalled.  The one area where there has been more development is in the tourism sector. Of course, during the post war period, tourists, except for very curious and courageous ones, were not coming to Bosnia. Now it seems that industry is stuck or even declined and tourism is the only sector that is in some way flourishing.  This is true of the Croatian coast as well.

Hotels have been fixed up and are quite presentable, comfortable and not expensive. When I first went to Bosnia in 1998, there was no internet or banks or computers.  imageNow the coffee shops and hotels all have WiFi, there are ATM’s on all city streets and credit cards are accepted widely.

The people are a bit frustrated. In fact, there have been some demonstrations throughout the country protesting lack of economic security.

To add to the economic woes, in the last week the region has received record rainfall – three months worth of rain in three days – with resulting catastrophic flooding and landslides causing havoc, destruction and loss of life. It has been estimated that 40% of the country has been affected by flooding and damage exceeds 2 billion dollars, money that Bosnia doesn’t have.  The flooding has uncovered or exposed buried land mines left over from the war, adding to the disaster and many are without safe drinking water. Thousands have again been made homeless.

An election scheduled for the fall but there is skepticism that anything significant will (or can) change.  In the next few months there will be a lot of mopping up to do.  Bosnians are, once again, facing the challenges of coping with recovery – financial, infrastructure and political. They will need some help.




Dobro došli u Bosnu i Herzegovinu

I have switched countries. Now on the east side of the Adriatic in Bosnia where I worked for several years between 1998 and 2009.  It is nice to be back.  My friend Saša picked me up at the airport and we headed along one of my favourite drives from Sarajevo to Mostar.  A twisty road lined with mountains and following the Neretva River.

The weather was threatening rain but the sky was dramatic and there were lots of bursts of sunshine to give great light for photography.




A story rivalling Romeo and Juliet in Sarajevo …

“For never was a story of more woe, than this…”Prince Escalus,  Romeo and Juliet.

Last month I posted a blog that contained references to my first spring in Sarajevo and the “Grandmother’s Breath” that swept the city that spring.

This spring I am in a production of Romeo and Juliet in Kingston that will happen in a couple of weeks.

This is the bridge in Sarajevo where a tragic real-life love story happened in 1993.  I took this photo in 2005.  At that time only a small bow and dried flower bouquet marked the incident.

This is the bridge in Sarajevo where a tragic real-life love story happened in 1993. I took this photo in 2005. At that time only a small bow and dried flower bouquet marked the incident.

Today I came across a wordpress blog article by a Bosnian blogger. His article combines the two themes in a story that is as poignant as Shakespeare’s play only a real-life event – a Muslim woman and a Serb man gunned down as they met to escape Sarajevo over the Vrbanja bridge at the start of the ethnically-driven war.

I share it with my readers. It triggers memories of similar sad stories I heard when I worked in Bosnia. I crossed the bridge where this tragedy occurred many times and sometimes stopped to note the small plaque that had been erected there.

You can read the whole story here:         Romeo and Juliet in Sarajevo.

Grandmother’s Breath

It is 15 years, almost to the day, that I first went to Sarajevo to start work with the Queens Family Medicine Development Programme in Bosnia and Herzegovina.   I find it hard to imagine where those 15 years have gone.

I remember arriving in Sarajevo, flying into the airport over houses whose roofs had been destroyed by the recent war.  The city had been devastated and in the dreary spring weather looked particularly tired.

On March 24 we had a light snow and a cooler dip in temperatures to about 2 degrees.  The locals called it “Grandmother’s Breath”.  I always wondered why that might be the nickname for this last burst of winter.  I always had associated grandmothers with warmth and comfort. Maybe it was grandmother winter saying “I’m not done yet.  There is still breath in me.”  Just when it looks like spring is on the way, there is a brief and surprising turn to the life of old winter.

photoThis past two days we have experienced Grandmother’s Breath in Kingston. We wake up in the morning to a fresh whallop of snow.  As the day goes on the sun quickly warms our spirit however and melts much of the snow on the sidewalks and streets.  Winter saying, “Don’t give up on me yet, I am not through.”

This reflection made me look through an old journal entry I had written on March 25, 1998.  It was the start of  an adventure in Bosnia that lasted for 11 years and my foray into International Development that has taken me in a direction I would never have imagined.

It is also obvious that digital photography has come a long way in the past 15 years!

 Sarajevo. March 25, 1998.

The apartment where we are staying is very interesting. It is an old, high-ceilinged place on the top of a hill. It has a great view from the balcony overlooking the main part of the city and the mountains beyond.  There are several places in the wooden floors that are splintered from bullets that would have come through the windows during the war and the outside of the building is pock-marked with the shelling from grenades.  Buildings nearby remain totally gutted.

The view from our Sarajevo apartment in March 1998 after "Grandmother's Breath" had dumped a bit of snow on the city.

The view from our Sarajevo apartment in March 1998 after “Grandmother’s Breath” had dumped a bit of snow on the city.

There has been a light dusting of snow. The locals call it Grandmother’s breath, the last winter’s snow. It is about 2 degrees. Today the sun is shining. There are a lot of funny things about living here. The water is often shut off during the middle of the day or at night which makes flushing the toilet a bit of a problem. You have to plan your washroom activities around the water or let it sit there until the water comes back on.

Many of the buildings in Sarajevo had been destroyed by the recent war.

Many of the buildings in Sarajevo had been destroyed by the recent war.

The food is great. The Bosnians tend to be meat and potato people. Lots of Lamb and Veal but they have some other great vegetable dishes as well. Today for lunch we went to a little restaurant to have Cevapcici, a sort of pita  thing made a local bread called Somun filled with grilled sausages, vegetables and onions. This is a popular meal like a hamburger in North America. Last night we went to another little restaurant that was like a deli with lots of good selection of local foods. The local beer (pivo) is called Lachka (or something similar) and I have had a few cans.