Friday, September 09, 2011
Sarajevo: Cevapi for the End of Summer
Summer is winding down but I managed to squeeze one last road trip out of it before the temperatures cooled down. I met my son, Aron, in Sarajevo, keeping good on a birthday promise that I would show him the best cevapcici in the world. And Sarajevo has just that, along with a beautiful Ottoman style old city and enough history to keep an eighteen year old history buff occupied for four days. It's been two years since I last visited, and I have had a yearning to come back ever since. It is a city of heroes, a city of survivors, and a city in the midst of renovation and rebirth. Oh… and coffee.Aron has developed into something of a coffee fanatic, and Sarajevo is a coffee obsessed city. Unlike the tea addiction that characterizes Istanbul or Skopje, my other two favorite Ottoman café cultures; here you have Bosnian coffee at every corner. Essentially, it’s the same as Turkish coffee, but like a lot in Bosnia, it comes cheaper here than elsewhere – with the Bosnian mark running two BM to one Euro, coffees cost fifty Euro cents.With rooms renting out at 15 Euro each, and a plate of the world’s best cevapi going for 3 Euro, Sarajevo is a place I can afford to kick back and enjoy without feeling like I need to have an ATM machine strapped to my back. When I lived in Skopje, Macedonia, during the hyperinflation era in the late 1980s my Macedonian friends had a term for spending the day passing the time in cafes rather than pursing the protestant work ethic in a deflating economy: badialdzija. Its from an old Turkish term meaning “producer of nothingness.”They were masters of badialdzija, spending the days sipping tea with art students in Skopje’s old town and nights drinking rakia. I used to change a US $20 bill at the bank and walk away with a shopping bag of Yugoslav Dinars, enough to pay for cevapi and teas for my whole crowd of lazy intellectuals and shiftless Roma and Turkish sufi friends. Sarajevo brings me back to that vibe. Aron is a hardworking, industrious kid, and he desparately needed to be taught a lesson in Balkan sloth. With temperatures outside at the hottest of Europe’s this summer (38 c. or 98 Fahrenheit) there was little to do except sit in the shade of the coffee houses and watch time pass idly by.After his discovery of Bosnian coffee – served in a finjan that will fill two small cups after a nerve-wracking wait for the muddy dregs to settle, accompanied by a wad of loukoum, a soft Turkish sweet to take the edge off the bitterness – my son had a goal. He would himself become a master of Bosnian coffee. So, off to buy a coffee set.The street of coppersmiths had all manner of coffee paraphernalia on sale, but thinking better of it we wandered just a bit outside of the Bascarsija center to a small copper shop I had seen on a siise street near the Bascarsija tram stop. Aron picked up a set at 20% cheaper than our lowest negotiated price in the market. And then there is Bosnia's entry in the world of ground meat: cevapi. Of course, we can digress endlessly on where you can find the best cevapi, and I have on these pages previously, but there is no way out of presenting the latest in cevapi porn here again.Zeljo’s is usually mentuioned as the Big Daddy of Bascarsija cevapdzinicas, with two locations located on opposite corners. Zeljo’s meat is excellent, but they differ from other cevapdzinicas in the way they serve their spongy somun flatbread toasted but not dipped into a broth to dampen it while toasted on the grill. For that, try the cevap at Hodzic’s, which has spread into a mini empire of cevap houses all over the old city (named, appropriately, Hodzic #1, Hodzic #2, etc.)Cevap slightly bigger, and the somun bread is fluffier and dipped in some broth before being toasted. How many hours of my life have I spent arguing with friends whether Zeljos or Hodzic is better? How many more will I waste? Hmmm... How about something completely differnt. So different as to almost comprise a completely alternative food group? How about... the Banja Luka style cevapi! The Banja Luka style cevap served at Kastel is still one of my favorites.The Banja Luka style means that the cevap are made somewhat smaller, but served in bricks stuck together, which preserves their juicyness, and an even damper steamed bread. Apparantly, in Banja Luka itself, which is now in the Serbian Republic, the secret ingredient is a bit of pork mixed into the cevap meat mix. That doesn’t roll in Sarajevo with a Muslim majority population and a very large population of Muslim refugees resettled from Banja Luka. I noticed this elsewhere in the Balkans: cevap places often prepared their products with a stated intention of being off limits to Muslim minorities. This reaches its most absurd peak in Bulgaria, where almost every meat product available is made from ground pork, unlike Turkey, where beef and lamb rule. Needless to say, Bulgaria is not a culinary standout. One final cevap discovery came when we took a tram ride to the far end of Sarajevo – in the Ilidza neighborhood out near the Sarajevo airport. Ilidza was heavily bombed during the siege of Sarajevo, and many of the ruined buildings along the tram line have still to be renovated or bulldozed, and then you arrive in a cement city center evocative of communist times when pleasant architecture was secondary to providing quick cheap housing for the proletariat masses. We had been hoping to connect to visit either the famed tunnel museum or go out to the beautiful park in Vrelo Bosna, but a lack of information and the baking heat drove us into the nearest lunch joint.Excellent cevapi for 3 BM (Euro 1.50) Given that I live in a country that lacks decent hamburgers, I can get by knowing that an annual trip to Sarajevo (only Euro 54 round trip on the train, albeit an 11 hour gruling slog through Slavonia) will keep me fueled for a year’s worth of excellent ground beef goodness. Oh, and did I mention that we visited during the final days of Ramadan? I will in my next post.