Eastern European food is often derided as bland and forgettable, but as the 30th anniversary of the breakup of Yugoslavia approaches, the crossroads cuisine of the Balkans—the home of such nations as Croatia, Serbia, and Bosnia and Herzegovina—is finally getting its due here in the States.
The surest indication of that recognition is the presentation of awards, starting with a Michelin Bib Gourmand for Ambar, a Serbian restaurant in Washington, D.C ., and a James Beard nomination for chef Loryn Nalic of Balkan Treat Box in the St. Louis suburb of Webster Groves, Missouri. Inspired by her Bosnian husband, Nalic traveled throughout the Balkans to research her menu, which features adaptations of street foods such as ćevapi (beef sausage) with kajmak (unripened cheese) and somun (flatbread).
“One of the reasons we knew it would work was because it’s so familiar,” Nalic says. “You find a lot of comforting flavors, like garlic, paprika, and parsley. And every culture grills meats over coal and wood.” Bosnian cuisine also makes good use of ingredients and influences from its regional neighbors: chilies from Turkey, pickles from Austria, seafood from Greece.
A newer staple, the döner kebab, has gained fans at The Balkan House, in the Detroit suburb of Hamtramck. Although the dish—rotisserie-cooked meat, usually served in a sandwich or pitashares the same Ottoman roots as many Balkan classics, Bosnian owner Juma Ekic didn’t encounter it until 1992, when she arrived as a refugee in Germany, where the Turkish diaspora had made the döner ubiquitous. “Now we have them all over Bosnia and Croatia,” she says.
Ekic, who opened The Balkan House in 2019 on the site of a Bosnian restaurant where she once waited tables, has seen firsthand the growing appeal of her home region’s cooking. “All the customers were our own people,” she recalls of her place’s early days. “My goal was to introduce our food to others.” She appears to have succeeded: The Balkan House has been featured in The New York Times, and a second location opened in nearby Ferndale.
While Ekic focuses on a humble classic, Top Chef winner Joe Flamm looks toward fine dining with Rose Mary, an Adriatic coastal restaurant inspired by his wife’s Croatian family that’s set to open soon in Chicago’s Fulton Market. “Croatian food is similar to Italian food in a lot of ways,” says Flamm, who worked in the kitchen at the Windy City institution Spiaggia. “It’s simple and ingredient driven, with a cool mix of influences and more punched-up spices.” The menu at Rose Mary will include dishes like pastičada (Dalmatian Coast beef stew) and squid-ink risotto, blending Mediterranean herbs with Eastern European spices such as Hungarian paprika, fennel pollen, and mustard powder.
There’s even an appropriate libation to toast this success. The fruit brandy known as rakija has been the go-to spirit in the Balkans for the better part of a thousand years, but it has long been difficult to find in the U.S. Starting in 2019, however, Yebiga Rakija, which is distilled from plums in the Goč mountains of Serbia, became available in several states, including California, Florida, Illinois, and New York, with more on the way.
All of these developments speak to the potential for Balkan food to grow in the way other immigrant cuisines have. “When people are refugees, it takes time to acclimate and open their world up to everybody else,” Nalic says. “The next generation spreads out, so it only makes sense that it’s being talked about now.”