Thursday, May 28, 2009

Jewish Sarajevo

While modern Bosnian history has pivoted on the divisions between Muslim Bosniak, Catholic Croats, and Orthodox Serbs, Bosnia has also been home to a vibrant Jewish community. The majority of Bosnia's Jews were Sephardim, expelled from Spain in the 15th century and granted refuge in the Ottoman Empire by the Muslim Sultans. Sarajevo's Jewish comunity dates from the early 16th century, and by 1900 Jews comprised about 12 percent of the city's population, and about 100% of its doctors. Other towns had (and some still have) smaller Jewish communities, enlarged by Ashkenazic immigrants after Bosnia was annexed by the Hapsburgs to Austrian rule in 1828. My maternal Grandmother was born in Travnik in 1896, met my Jewish Hungarian Grandfather during WWI - while he was serving in the 19th Jász-Kun Huszár regiment - and moved to Hungary after the war.
Today, the Ashkenazic Synagogue is the center of Sarajevo Jewish life, although the majority of the congragation is of Sephardi origin. The Jews of Sarajevo - as in most of former Yugoslavia - lived in a tolerant cultural atmosphere almost devoid of the antisemitic poison that prevailed in pre-WWII Europe, and it all the more tragic that they were almost entirely destroyed during the Holocaust. Local Muslims and Christians were active in saving the lives of many Jews, and Jews were prominent in the Yugoslav Partisan movement, such as Moshe Pijade, Tito's right hand man. There is a photo in the Jewish museum of a Jewish Woman - wearing a Jewish star armband - walking along the main street of Nazi-occupied Sarajevo arm in arm with her Muslim friend, a woman maintaining the tradition of a complete face veil, their daughters holding hands.
During the siege of Sarajevo Serbian forces had cut the city off from almost all access to foreign aid. During this time, the Sarajevo Jewish community based in the Ashkenazi Synagogue maintained a soup kitchen and medical center under the auspices of the local Jewish mutual aid society known by its Ladino name as La Benevolencija. Given the history of good relations between Serbs and Jews, and the politically cautious stance between the Israeli Government and the Serbian nationalists, La Benevolencija was the only aid agency not to be targeted by Serb snipers in the hills just a few streets above the Jewish community, and was able to provide food aid and medicine to Sarajevo residents of all religions throughout the war. The present Synagogue has been rebuilt to accomodate a smaller congregation (about 700 Jews reside in Sarajevo, but unoficially the number is about half that - many are abroad in Israel and return on occaision.) But like a lot of Sarajevo cultural centers, it still attracts a daily crowd of loyal retirees to its kosher kitchen and backgammon boards.While Sarajevo was one of the centers of culture for the Ladino language, today perhaps only about twenty of the people in the community actively speak it. Sarajevo's Jews once had a a flowering music scene, as evidenced by the existence of the award winning "Lira" Jewish choir during the 1920s, but today the sole representative of that tradition may be Flory Jagoda, an aging Ladino singer who moved to Massachusetts decades ago but is still considered to be the soul and Nonya (Granny) of Sarajevo Jewish music. At the Sarajevo Jewish Museum, located in the Bascarsija of old Sarajevo, there is an exhibit dedicated to the Lira Choir. A lot of Sarajevo starogradsko pesme "Old City Songs" however, have Ladino folk song origins, such as Kad ja Podjoh na Bembasu, considered to be the unofficial city anthem of Sarajevo.(The Youtube clip below is from the 1968 Yugoslav film Sarajevski Atentat and presents the Bosnian philosopher/actor Predrag Finci as Gavrilo Princip plotting the demise of the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand which leads to World War One...There are no Yiddish speakers in Bosnia at all anymore, and most of the Ashkenazic community has Hungarian Jewish origins as can be seen in their names, especially when visiting the cemetery. The Cemetery in Grbavica was one of the prime sniper posts during the siege - it poked down the hill straight into a clear rifle shot at the main downtown square. Serb paramilitary poured gunfire and shells into the modern center - named "Sniper Alley - and, on retreating, heavily mined the cemetery, which was only declared safe again in 2006.
Personally, I don't consider mine fields to be fun, so I asked at the Synagogue and I took it on trust that the cemetery was safe and caught a cheap cab ride up the hill. Personally speaking, blowing one's self up can be a bummer. A lot of the hills surrounding Sarejevo are still dangerous for hiking, due to the thousands of antipersonnel and land mines laid during the 1990s. A majority of the stones in the Grbavica cemetery were damaged or destroyed during the siege, but restoration efforts are being made - the priority, however, is for the living.After a long walk downhill it was time for lunch. We passed a lot of Americans in suits in the downtown area and I wondered if Obama was in town for some kind of meeting - I would have loved to take him to Zeljo's for some meat. But it was only Joe Biden, and I didn't see him at any of our Bascarsija hangouts so the Vice Dude just missed out on the good stuff. No, I did not eat the cevapi for every single meal in Sarajevo... although that would be easy for me to do. For the sake of variety, we chose a famous stew and soup house, an Ascinica in the old town.I ordered the bamija, an okra and veal stew, while Fumie went for a plate of meat-stuffed everything: stuffed peppers, stuffed grape leaves, stuffed zucchini, all served with soft and puffy somun bread. As much care and heritage was evident in this meal as in any of the famous cevapdzinicas we tried.Finished it off with a Bosnian coffee and a kadaif. Bosnia is proud baklava country, but the kadaif - a noodle version of baklava - was almost like a pudding of nuts and noods swimming in syrup.

Monday, May 25, 2009

The Sarajevo Cevap Report Part One: The Sarajevo Style Cevap

Certain foods have certain localities where almost everyone agrees that it does not get better than here. Pastrami? Katz's in New York. Sushi? Tsukuji fish market in Tokyo. Now I'm going to make a philosophically unsound and broad overstatement that many won't agree with - Sarajevo has the best ground meat product in the world: cevapi. Most people in the former Yugoslavia would probably agree - Bosnian cevap was something you wrote home about, and when I visited Macedonia in the 1980s everybody agreed that the Bosnian owned cevap houses were the best in town. There were documentaries on Yugoslav TV about Bosnian cevap. Even in Istanbul, Bosnian cevap houses do a brisk business in a city that probably serves more grilled meatwads per capita than any other supermetropolis in the world.
Yes, better than White Castle hamburgers, better than Cicek kofte in Istanbul, better than any cevapcici in Belgrade or kebache in Skopje. Nobody takes a ground up cow and grills it better than the Bosnians. I challenge even the hardiest hamburger partisan to eat Bosnian cevapi in the Bascarsija district and walk away thinking that In-and-Out burgers or Shake Shack can hold a candle to the simple perfection of a $3 Sarajevo cevap plate. The first thing we did when we set down our bags after arriving at 9pm was to make a beeline to Zeljo's. Zeljo's is, perhaps, the most famous of the Bascarsija's cevap houses - cevabdzinicas - and there are now at least two on the same street. Like most cevapdzinicas, the menu is spare and no beer is served, but you can order fresh sour buttermilk by the glass to wash down the meat, which is served in a spongey flat pocketed bread known as somun. Traditional sides are chopped fresh onion and kaymak, a thick and slightly cheesy cream ball that melts over the cevap. This is the classic Sarajevo cevap: a small cylinder of meat, a mere morsel of amino acids and proteins that was once a happy little animal and is now a masterpiece, a high point of world cuisine, the excelsior of the grilled arts. And also, it is my lunch. Mine!This is the Cheeseburger of the Gods, the ultimate in ground beef goodness on this little blue orb we call Earth. They are even easier to eat than a burger, and served inside a warmed somun bread they stay warm throughout the meal. You can eat the cevapi like a sandwich but most people tear up the somun and grab the cevap with the bread. This cevap was astoundingly good, and a bite of this flooded my brain with all kinds of dopamine "happy brain" chemicals - true meat crack. I would drag myself through the sewers of hell for another plate of these cevapi. For Sarajevo style cevap, Zeljo's definately took the "I Can Eat This Twice a Day Award", but we had to try a few other places as well... people who have tried cevap in this nabe can be sharply loyal to one cevap house or another, and while I definately stand in Zeljo's camp, Cevapdzinica Hodžić was also highly recommended. Hodžić is definately going for the upscale market: they were the most expensive cevapi in the quarter, and they seem to have opened a new franchise on about every block in the Old City... there is Hodžić One, Hodžić Two, and so on. Still, it is hard to be too upscale with grilled meat... nothing on the menuis over 5 EU (the Bosnian mark is 2 BM to 1 EU) and you can get grilled veal kidneys and liver... I was tempted to try the pleskavica, but heck... stick to the classic shapes.
The verdict? Good. Very good. Better than 99% of all the world's cevapcici, but not as good as Zeljo's. Slightly saltier. Slightly more charcoal flavor in the bread. And a truly excellent Coca Cola. I know... I know... globalization goes better with coke... but I only drink about five cokes a year. I really love Coke and I know they would kill me if I drank more, so whenever I actually drink one it is a memorable event, and it paired so well with the saltier Hodžić cevapi. Truly an idealna kombinacija! Later we ate at the Cevapdzinica #Nine, right next door to our accomodations (the clean, friendly and shockingly cheap Kod Kome Guest House.) For some reason, Sarajevans seem to name their meatwad bistros after cardinal numbers, usually involving a soccer ball in the logo, which gives me the impression that opening a cevapdzinica is something you do when you retire from football. If you are Irish or Hungarian, you open a pub, but Bosnian ex-strikers go for grilled meat. This is your usual no-big-deal Sarajevo cevap house, meaning it is only better than 98% of the cevap houses in the entire world. And they served salad! What a treat. For several days we had not seen anybody eating anything that resembled a vegetable (and face it, onions don't really resemble a vegetable.) Noting the interesting long term effects of an entirely fiber-free diet on our digestive systems, we went for the salad. Glad we did.
So what did we do when we weren't eating cevap? We ate burek (another post) or Banja Luka style cevap (yet another future post: the serious issue of a competing cevap style is too complex to include in a single post.) We also walked around not buying any souvenirs. I have managed to live from day to day for decades without really needing a copper Turkish coffee pot or a small flintlock musket to defend myself from miniature Albanian sheep raiders. I could, however, hear the sad, beseeching voices of the rugs, pleading "Buy me! Buy me! Pleasse! Take me home with you!" With a stone heart, I ignored them and walked on. Yes, I like rugs, but for the price of one rug I can eat about 125 plates of cevapi, so there really wasn't any contest there. Fumie, however, fell in love with a pyjama set in a shop window, and passed on it when it turned out to be the same price as 13 servings of cevap. Disturbo? Disturbo!
(Coming soon: The Banja Luka style Cevap!)

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Sarajevo: City of Survival

We got home last night from Bosnia. Given how much I travel, I should be jaded by now, but the astounding geography and physical beauty of Sarajevo City, and most of all, the openness and friendly outgoing quality of the Bosnian people we casually met absolutely floored me. If any of you are looking for a truly unique experience while traveling around Europe, do not miss out on Sarajevo. With Europe now becoming ever more homogenous - a mall here, a Starbucks knockoff there - Sarajevo manages to retain a singular idenity - not surprising, since not many European nations spent half of the 1990s fighting tooth and nail to simply survive in Europe the way the Bosnians did. It isn't a tourist town: it is an actual city full of heroes.
During the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s, the Bosnians wanted to maintain their multicultural traditons of religious and cultural tolerance only to be cheated by both Franjo Tudjman and Slobodan Milosevic in a secret 1991 agreement to split Bosnia between Serbia and Croatia. Nobody thought the Bosnians would survive, except the Bosnians themselves. The result is a place and peiople that really appreciate what survival actually means, and live their days as a gift in an almost supernaturally beautiful setting amidst memories of the most horrible urban warfare of modern times. Sarajevo is also where WWI started: Gavrilo Princip shot Austrian ARchduke Ferdinand on the Latin Bridge in the summer of 1914. Within two months of that act nobody remembered what the war was even about anymore - it was a war for war's sake. Welcome to the 20th century, greetings from Sarajevo. Today, getting to Sarajevo from Budapest was easy: 50 EU round trip on the train from Keleti station. The one drawback is that the train takes twelve hours - bring bottled water, food and WC paper. Sarajevo isn't really convenient to anywhere... which is it's gaping weakness and its saving grace. The city is beautiful - almost fully rebuilt from the crippling damage of the longest urban siege in European history between 1992 and 1995.
Tourists are present, but not overwhelming, and the Bosnian people take time to approach and enage foreigners in conversation. I had never visited Bosnia, partly because for many years a lack of accomodation made staying overnight very expensive. Happily, for a tourist, those days are gone, and today you can get great accomodation for below 20EU a person in the Bascarsija, the old Ottoman era district. Eating is similarly cheap - expect less than 5 EU for a great meal. And since the market districts still serve locals more than tourists, prices on carpets and crafts were very close to what you would find in the back markets in Istanbul (which is where, in fact, a lot of the tchatchkes come from.) In addition, Sarjevo is a coffee culture. The entire city is dotted with cafes, and coffee costs between 50 Euro cents and one Euro. The old city has a definate Ottoman era feel to it: cevapcici houses on every corner, burek bakers, stew shops (I'll post separately about each of these specialties later) and in between... coffee shops. Most locals opt for the traditional "Bosnian coffee" which we know as Turkish style coffee, served in copper beakers with a glass of water and a block of loukoum, a jelly like sweet otherwise known as "Turkish Delight." It was hot during the days we were there, and cafes also offer fresh squeezed lemonade with the pulp floating in it, as well as a local "domaci suk" - a homemade soft drink made from lightly sweetened juniper berries.
The old city tempo of life is pure badialdzija. Badialdzia is a Balkan Turkish term we used to use in Skopje to describe the master of doing absolutely nothing besides sitting around in tea houses all day: the producer of nothingness. Balkan Zen, in a sense.People conduct their business over coffee, relax from business over coffee, and no one seems to suffer from the caffeine jitters. there is no Starbucks in Sarajevo... and no McDonald's either (I'll get to that in a future post.)
Modern Sarajevo is predominantly Muslim - the term "Bosniak" means a Muslim Bosnian as opposed to a Catholic Croat or Orthodox Serb - but it is a congenial and tolerant Ottoman style of Islam. Turkish influence is widespread, no surprise since so many Bosnians found refuge in Turkey during the war when Europe was reluctant to admit so many of the over half million refugees. Today a lot of those refugees have returned bring some of the best of modern Turkish culture with them. And - while you can always find a beer or a slivovitz if you want one - Bosnians don't drink a lot of alchohol. It is almost a relief from the stereotypical drunk and boisterous Balkan cultural syndrome that lives from loza to loza and falls down at night. No, Bosnians prefer to sip coffee...
Of course, at the end of a day, a few loza and a glass or two of wine does bring out the old songs... we were lucky to have found Mirella's Cafe on our first night in, weary from the train trip in from Budapest. The next afternoon she was waiting for us with her husband and friends... and an accordion player. This is what we mean when we talk about Balkan music and Balkan soul...

Friday, May 15, 2009

Going to Sarajevo

I'm headed off to Bosnia tomorrow. It's been over a decade since the war, but it still is not safe to go trout fishing in most places. My buddy Claude, who knows about trout in Bosnia, tells me to wait 150 years before I go wading in the mined rivers. Damn! However, a few days of the world's best cevapcici (see above) should cover the pain of not being able to catch trout in a place where every stream has oodles of feisty wild trout, specifically because those streams were mined and unsafe for fishing. Damn! Be back in the middle of next week...

Monday, May 04, 2009

Karl Marx's Tasty Rooster Ball Stew

Does anyone out there remember The Worker? Before there was the Venture Capitalist, the Systems Manager, the E-Business Consultant, and the Human Resources Rep, there was a guy in overhauls and a flat cap who used to carry a tool box and produce useful things in factories and dream that one day, Uncle Karl's dream would come true and the Last Capitalist would finally sell himself enough rope and... well, yeah. The Worker, a dying breed. Well, May 1 is his day.After 1989, people in East Europe never really gave up on May Day, since they never got around to thinking that they were not workers, but merely consumers, as befits the modern world. And so the May Day celebrations continue, albeit without the neat parade of Soviet tanks, in the Budapest city park. Amid the beer tents and the t-shirt sellers and the incredibly bad Hungarian pop-rap music, the old school Hammer and Sickle crowd still pitch their tents over by the Vajda Hunyad castle in the City park, and enjoy an old fashioned csardas care of the Hungarian Communist Worker's party. As with most Hungarian holidays, there is a lot of bad grilled food and beer, especially since Hungarian May Day traditionally meant "free hot dogs and beer in the park." Things have gotten a bit better, though. How about some radically red food?No, that is not bean stew. Not by a long shot. Kakas here pörkölt is rooster ball stew. Yes, the rooster's family jewels are rudely removed and stewed in a thick paprika sauce and served with a snicker and a thick slice of bread. (Fumie asks: "But where do they come from?" From inside the rooster, darling...) It is not a commonly served dish, but given the amount of chickens eaten in Hungary, there are obviously enough roosters singing soprano to produce an awful lot of these cashew-sized chicken testicles. I am strongly inclined to believe that the value of the dish is in the public eating, as in "Ewww... look what daddy's eating! Wanna try one? Go ahead.... just one...."
Just to give a sense of the scale of culinary poultry castration, these stews are served up in humongous portions. I don't really get the point of the rooster ball stew... it is not considered an aphrodisiaic, and most Hungarian men don't really need any help in that department at all, at least not from something also known as a cock. I didn't try this particular batch, but I have eaten battered fried rooster balls on occaision, and they were... well... ballsy. I'm not an expert about what cock balls are supposed to taste like, although I have no problem with anyone who perhaps is.
Slightly more like normal Hungarian Sunday fare is székely pörkölt pork and sour cabbage stewed in paprika. Contrary to what you might read in a dozen or so Hungarian cookbooks, it has absolutely nothing to do with the Transylvanian Székely people, but is named after a certain 19th century Budapest librarian named Székely who liked to have the chef stir sauerkraut into his afternoon stew. And thus we get Red Sauerkraut, the stew of the Working Masses on May 1st. Which reminds me that it is only two years ago that Fumie and I accidentally found ourselves in downtown Kiev on the morning of May 1, and got to witness May Day the way the Old School Hammer and Sickle Posse likes to roll it.And remember, "If Marx were living today, he'd be rolling around in his grave... because Karl, the world isn't fair...