Vittles 3.6 - Balkan Supermarkets

“The same, but also not at all”

Here’s a pub quiz question for you. What is the most common nationality among non-British UK residents? I’m talking about people who are still nationals of their home country. India? close. Ireland? Used to be but not anymore. The answer is Poland, and in second, rising seven fold in the last ten years, is Romania. You would think immigration patterns have a direct effect on restaurant culture, but that isn’t necessarily the case. Unlike those who came here to settle, immigration from the EU is still mainly work based and semi-temporary - a restaurant is a huge investment to make if you only plan to be here less than 5 years. There’s a second problem: while Polish food has kind of permeated the national consciousness through the skleps - most people could probably tell you it has a lot of dumplings and pork and potato, even if they couldn’t tell you much else - Romanian food hasn’t at all. Nor has any cuisine from the wider Balkan area, with the exception of Greek.

This seems curious to me. I believe this is partially down to the general public being great sticklers for things which are easily defined, and Balkan cuisine is not easy to define. The cuisines that make up the Balkans are, as Ada Jusic says in today’s newsletter, “the same…but also not at all”. Each country has its own variations but the general idea is common to each - a personalised blend of flavours and influences ranging from Italian and Turkish, to Teutonic and Slavic, all with the far-ranging explosivity of Franz Ferdinand’s gunshot. But I guess it’s just easier and less risky going to your local ocakbasi.

I hope this changes. Even if there aren’t as many as you might expect, there are actually plenty of great Balkan restaurants in London, from Albanian, Bulgarian and Croatian, to food from the countries which make up the former Yugoslavia. Some of the scene was covered in a great map by Kaltrina Bylykbashi for Eater London, and I know Shekha Vyas was working on a specific Romanian guide before the pandemic started. But in their absence, this would be a good time to make your introduction to the various cuisines that make up the Balkans via the grocery shops. Today’s newsletter by Ada is a thorough guide to Magaza in Acton, but it is broadly applicable to any West Balkan grocery store that might be near you and some of it is even relevant to the Romanian shops. By the end of Ada’s piece, I guarantee you will be processing your order at Magaza, ready to fill your cupboards with ajvar and your freezers with endless pita and cevape.

“The same, but also not at all”, by Ada Jusic.

In the wake of the lockdown there were plenty of memes and wry jokes shared by my Bosnian friends and family about how this is all familiar to us. We had already experienced the panic, the empty shelves, the food insecurity that came with a bitter war. A quarantine was a breeze comparatively. There’s a phrase, Isto ali ni nalik - “It’s the same, but also not at all” 

My family came to the UK in the 90s as refugees. Having left everything they owned behind and with two small children finding domaca hrana (home food) in Reading wasn't the highest priority for my parents, and there wasn’t an established community where we lived. They made do by finding similar products in a local Polish shop, the languages just about similar enough that they could understand the labels and find certain meats, dairy products and sweets that were close enough a taste of home in a time when everything that was home felt like it was gone forever.  The available produce might have looked the same, but much like our new life in the UK compared to the one we left behind, the same - but also not at all. It would be a good few years before Turkish supermarkets arrived and started importing some of our favourite things like ajvar (a rich red pepper relish) or the right kind of powder-fine flour to make our traditional cakes, which my mum and aunties were so happy to see on the shelves. With no national restaurants nearby that met his exacting standards, my dad, who is the cook in our family, made do with what he could get hold of to recreate his favourite dishes at home. When I felt a pressing need to reconnect with my roots as a teenager he would every week teach me a different one. 

Moving to London in my twenties I soon fell out of the habit of cooking those traditional dishes. I relied on cramming my luggage full every time i flew to Sarajevo on family visits and hoping customs won’t notice the still warm and fragrant cevape (God tier fast food - more on that later) or pita (filo pastry pies that are cousins to Turkish borek) hidden under a sweater. The lack of attention paid to Balkan food generally is something that has baffled me for as long as I have been living in London. Perhaps it is too homely? Perhaps, to the unfamiliar eye, it is difficult to pin down what makes it unique compared to similar cuisines with a more established presence? 

Bosnian (and more generally food from the West Balkans, which comprises most of the former Yugoslavia and Albania) is a mix of East and West so deeply enmeshed within each other that it has become its own unique thing, the many strands woven in a way that it cannot be unpicked easily. It is heavily influenced by Turkish culture but also Mediterranean and Austro-Hungarian, the product of it being part of someone else’s empire for a significant part of its history. Our national cuisine is as much schnitzels as it is dolmas ; simple walnut baklava sits alongside fussy Austrian layered cakes. Yes it is similar to Turkish or Bulgarian or Polish but as you travel from Slovenia, through Croatia and Bosnia to Montenegro, Serbia, Macedonia and Albania, local produce, tradition and climate means that even the dishes we all have in common often have their own particular regional flair. Isto ali ni nalik - the same but not at all. 

I want to bring more attention to our food. Bosnians love feeding people; we will make you eat until you explode and then bring out three different kinds of dessert. Consider this me virtually inviting you to sit and eat. I hope it inspires you to seek out some of our national restaurants once lockdown is over. Meanwhile, the shops are still available.

My favourite shop, Magaza, opened in Acton in 2011 to a waiting queue of people. Family run, the owners were inspired to fill this gap in the market after struggling to get hold of Balkan produce for the best part of 24 years. Their physical store is currently closed but they run an online grocery shop that delivers across the UK. The categories in the guide below are taken from their shop website with links to each product page. 

Ajvar, Sauerkraut and Pickles

The dishes dolma and sarma originally came to us from Greece and Turkey but we have our own take. Dolma is nearly any vegetable that you can hollow out and stuff with rice and meat while sarma is the same filling wrapped in pickled cabbage leaves - I've never seen it made with rice only as the Greeks do. In this section you can find a whole cabbage for making sarma if you're up for the challenge. Otherwise the shredded sauerkraut or the spicy pickled peppers are a great addition to bbqs, salads or added to hearty stews. 

Red pepper relishes such as ajvar, the spicier lutenica or the aubergine based pindjur are extremely versatile. Use them as a dip, a spread for sandwiches or toast, to accompany grilled meats or stir a great big dollop in place of where you’d use tinned tomatoes. If you have a Romanian supermarket near you look for zacusca which is very similar. 

Frozen section 

There are two bona fide traditional delicacies available here: pita/burek and cevape. 

Being from the Highlands of Bosnia our staple carbs are potatoes, bread and pita. A traditional Bosnian meal will often have all three as well as a meat dish in one sitting (bonus carb points if rice is also in there, either as a side or as part of the stuffing in a dolma dish) The most popular fillings are potato, (krompirusha) minced beef, (burek) cheese (sirnica) and cheese & spinach (zeljanica). I call them pita here because Bosnians insist only the meat and potato variety is named burek, while in Croatia and Serbia burek is the catch-all term for filo pies. This is a hotly contested debate between the nations).

Cevape are minced kebabs often described as “sent from heaven”. My dad insists that they’re difficult to make in the UK because most of the commercially available mince is too mature - Bosnians favour “Junjetina” a class of beef slightly older that rose veal. The mince is formed into sausage-like patties, grilled on an open flame and served in soft, fluffy somun bread. You can find both frozen here, cook the cevape on a BBQ for best results and serve with ajvar, chopped raw onion and kaymak 

Dairy Products 

You can’t have cevape without kaymak, a slightly salty, clotted-cream like cheese that goes as well with jam and bread as it does with grilled meats. Use it like sour cream as a topping for hot dishes or melt it with butter to make topa, an indulgent dip for somun bread served during Ramadan. If it’s available, make sure to try the pickled peppers in sour cream, great as a side dish, with fried eggs and slanina (see below) or nibbled straight out of the tub while standing at the fridge. 

Smoked Meat and Salamis

Smoked meats and salamis are a staple in traditional mezze, which is generally made up of cold dishes such as cheeses and pickles. Similar to prosciutto, smoked beef and lamb is popular in Bosnia due to its large Muslim population, while Croatia and Serbia are known for their pork delicacies such as slanina (a smoked bacon that can also be eaten uncooked) and smoked pork neck. There’s also the eternally popular “chicken sausage” - a unashamedly processed luncheon salami that’s great for sandwiches. I recommend the Poli brand.

Soups and Food Seasoning 

Grilled meat is king and seasonings tend to be simple so as not to overpower the flavour - salt and pepper, bay leaf, parsley, paprika and perhaps some additional herbs depending on the dish. Mustard is milder than the English variety and much like deli mustard commonly found throughout Europe. Consider getting a big bag of Vegeta food seasoning - this is to the Balkans what OXO is to the UK, an inexpensive all rounder that can be found in most kitchens. It can be added to just about anything and has a nice MSG kick. 

Now, the hill that I will die on is that the mayonnaise is far, far better than anything produced in the UK: tangier, more flavourful and similar to Japanese Kewpie mayo. Thomy is my favourite brand. Also check out the packet soups, these are so handy if you’re feeling under the weather or need something quick to fill you up. The Podravka Beef and Chicken noodle soups with their distinctive yellow and blue packaging saw me through many a childhood illness when we were still living in Sarajevo and are regularly served as a starter by my grandma. 

Sweets and Snacks 

There is an absolutely dizzying array of sweet things to eat if you were ever to pay a visit to the Balkans, a riot of many layered cakes,  nut filled pastries drenched in sugar syrup and traditional fruit jams and compotes. Sadly the more elaborate ones are 

unavailable here, but there is still plenty to choose from if you can’t resist trying a new snack. For me chocolate bananas, Wotsit-like peanut-flavoured Smoki crisps and Neapolitan wafers all bring back a rush of memories. My grandmother still always has a packet of wafers or chewy kiki sweets tucked away in a cupboard, and whenever i'm in a supermarket in Sarajevo i can't resist grabbing a Banako while waiting in the queue for the till. Grab some Pretzel peanut butter sticks and Eurocrem spread (similar to Nutella) and use the former to dip into the latter. 

Everything I have written about above is available online from Magaza, though some items can also be ordered from Taste Croatia . You may also be able to find them in your local Turkish, Polish or Eastern European shop. Also if you live near Ealing I recommend Mugi’s, and Chicken and Cevapi which are currently offering a takeaway service. 

This newsletter was written and illustrated by Ada Jusic. You can find more of her illustrations at https://adajusic.com/ . Ada was paid for her work.