Serbian cuisine is similar to that of other Balkan countries, with a few specialities that it can claim for its own. The long Ottoman occupation clearly had some influence, especially in the wide range of grilled meats available. In fact, Serbs enjoy eating meat in as many ways as they can think of cooking it. This passion for animal flesh is reflected in a cuisine that, while both tasty and wholesome, can be daunting for vegetarians and health-food aficionados.
Although there are hints of the Mediterranean in the cooking, most Serbian food is on the heavy side with a tendency towards greasiness. This is not the whole picture, of course. While meat is enjoyed in quantity at every possible opportunity, so are fresh vegetables, and, in a country where fresh, unadulterated produce is still a fact of life – fertilisers and pesticides are rarely used – it is possible, with a little careful selection, to eat well whatever one’s personal dietary tastes might be.
If you are vegetarian then you will need to declare, ‘Ja sam vegetarijanac’ if you are a man, or ‘Ja sam vegetarijanka’ if female. It’s probably better to be more specific and say, ‘Ne jedem meso’ – ‘I don’t eat meat’ – perhaps adding, ‘Ne jedem pileće meso, ribu ni šunku’ – ‘I don’t eat chicken, fish or ham’ – just to be on the safe side.
The problem with eating out in Serbia is often a matter of understanding exactly what is on offer, as menus are often written in Cyrillic and hard to decipher. There is also the phenomenon of overly optimistic menu-writing in which the items listed merely reflect the chef ’s familiarity with sophisticated cuisine rather than his ability or willingness to produce it.
A typical meal might consist of kajmak – a sort of salty, cream-cheese spread of Turkish origin – with bread to start, then a grilled meat like ćevapčići with a salad. Fresh fruit is as likely to conclude a meal as any sweet dish. While wine is often chosen to accompany a meal, something stronger like a glass or two of šljivovica might well precede it as a high-octane aperitif.
For starter courses, smoked meats are a popular choice, with dalmatinski pršut, a lightly smoked ham, or užički pršut, a hard, smoked beef, frequently offered on menus. Another meat preserve, pihtije, a dish of jellied pork or duck with garlic, tastes much better than you might imagine. A dip that can be spread on bread in the same way as kajmak is ajvar, slow-cooked peppers, which are chopped and seasoned with vinegar, oil and garlic. Although there are proprietary brands of ajvar available, the very best is that which is produced in thousands of rural Serbian kitchens each autumn at the end of the pepper season.
Traditionally coffee means strong and thick Turkish coffee (turska kafa). Sugar is added at the beginning of the brew and so it is customary to specify the amount of sweetening that you require. If you do not specify then it will invariably come medium sweet (srednje slatka), although with foreigners they quite often let you add your own to taste. The relative proximity to Italy has meant that most establishments now have espresso machines and so even a kafana in a small provincial town can usually conjure up a convincing espresso or cappuccino.
Tea (čaj) is also available but it is usually fairly weak and insipid. For tea with milk, ask for sa mlekom, with lemon, sa limunom. Speciality and herb teas are also popular and some city cafés have a good selection of these.
Most Serbian wines are drinkable and some are actually very good. The best are probably the white wines (belo vino) that come from the Sremski Karlovci region in Vojvodina, but Serbia has a range of wines that come from various grape-producing regions such as Vršac and Negotin. Some red wines (crno vino) also come from Montenegro. Wine can be bought in restaurants and cafés by the bottle, by the glass or in carafes of various sizes. In a supermarket, a bottle of decent domestic wine will cost something in the order of 250–700din; in a restaurant, maybe double this.
Serbians are proud of their wines but probably more enthusiastic about the range of alcoholic spirits they produce. Experimentation with these products can be something of an adventure. Šljivovica is a sort of brandy traditionally made from plums, but rakija, which is normally a spirit made from grapes, tends to be used as a generic term for any sort of strong liquor. Konjak is, as its name implies, cognac, and lozovača, another form of grape brandy. There are also annual rakija festivals in Pančevo and Belgrade. Attend them at your peril.