Sarajevo’s distinctive little rolled cevapi are world famous - at least among former Yugos – but they are not the end of the line for cevap in Bosnia. Not by a long shot. The cevap made in Banja Luka, in the west of Bosnia, are a whole other universe of cevapoid pleasure, one that can divide cevap fans into partisan camps between two cevapdzinicas on the same street. Banja Luka is a city west of Sarajevo that wound up in the Republika Srbska after the Dayton Agreement ended armed hostilities in 1996. Today it is the de facto capitol of the Rpka. Srpska zone, and the once large muslim Bosniak population of the town was resettled into the Federation territories, many of them in Sarajevo. With them came the Banja Lucki cevap, a tight square of cevaps divided into four connected cevap and usually served with… gasp!... a hot pepper.
The square shape, which peels off into four tender mini cevapi when cut with a fork, are ever so slightly different than the Sarajevo rolled method. You usually get three (a middle sized portion) or four( super size me to veliki, baby!) squares, loaded into a somun loaf that has been dipped into a greasy broth and then toasted on the grill, which keeps the whole serving warm and juicy while you eat it. The sides – onions and kaymak cream – are topped with a couple of small hot peppers.The end result is that the cevapi stay juicier when connected into one firm meat cake than they would if already divided into little turdy taste bombs, as in Sarajevo style. The meat mix may also include some lamb, or at least younger veal. The discovery of the Banja Luka style cevapi made my life choices much harder in Sarajevo.
Will it be Zeljo’s? Or Kastel? Or the Banja Lucki place that mixes hot pepper into the meat? How can I ever decide? Luckily, I didn’t decide. I ate them all. Banja Luka cevaps were usually a little bit cheaper in price than the cevap from the better known places, and one afternoon while hanging in Mirella's cafe the bartender ran down the street, bought a big take out bag of Banja Luka cevap, and then shared them out with the whole of the bar clientele - me, Fumie, and the accordion player.When I got back to Budapest I ran into cevap grillmaster Sinise from the Jelen Bar one night hanging with some other Serbian expat friends. One mention of Sarajevo sent them into swoons of nostalgia and competing cevap nostalgia for the two styles. Even cooks from Belgrade and the Voivodina go into rapture at the mention of Bosnian cevapi.It mostly has to do with the quality of meat. Bosnia is mountainous and produces great beef and lamb. Most cevap is pure beef - slightly older than veal - and some is a mixture of lamb and beef. Serbian cevap from Leskovac uses pork in the mix, and as you get into Bulgaria you wind up with pure pork kebabche. I personally consider Bulgarian kebabche to be just beyond the pale of enjoyable cevap… perhaps because I once got food poisoning from eating a bad one in Koprivshtitsa in 2001. Which is strange since just across the border from Bulgaria you enter Turkey and suddenly the ground meat universe blossoms into the wonderful world of kofte… made of beef and lamb again. Balkan cooking is essentially a subset of Turkish cuisine, and often you will find an Ottoman era recipe tweaked into a pork dish that it isn’t possible to identify with the Turkish cuisine of the past. Greeks make souvlaki with pork, Bulgarians make kebab with pork, and guess what? It’s a political statement, not an improvement. Furthermore, pork falls apart when made into a meat patty, so you have to add binders like egg or breadcrumbs. Sticking with the beef and lamb traditions of Balkan Muslim cooking, Bosnian cevapi are some of the best of the best ground meatwads available in the universe. They are copied all over the Balkans wherever Bosnian refugees have settled, such as in Slovenia.I’m not even goung to attempt to discuss the hamburgeroid South Slav pleskavica here (which is one of the most searched items that directs readers to this blog.) Pleskavica is essentially a cevap patty that you can eat like a burger. If I am in Serbia or Croatia, yes, I will eat pleskavica. It is what I get at the Jelen and other Serb grills in Budapest. Budapest - lacking anything vaguely resembling decent beef - is a barren desert when you want a simple hamburger. In those cases you get yourself to a Serbian bar and order a pleskavica. But give me a good Balkan grill south of the border and I go for the cevap. Bosnia – keep my seat waiting. I’m pretty sure I’ll be back within the year.