Pizza and pasta are to Italy as Cevapi and Burek are to the Balkans. The Balkans are both a region and cultural identity that extends across the Balkan peninsula in Southeastern Europe. From the Adriatic Sea in the West to the Carpathian Mountains in the North, the Balkan’s diverse landscape influences its cuisine.
So what do balkan foods have in common? Cured meats, domestic cheese, savory pastries, fresh vegetables, and a whole lot of soul. Oh, and rakija, of course! Even if you can’t travel to the Balkans right now, you can still visit virtually by making some of these authentic balkan foods at home.
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- Where are the Balkans?
- What are Balkan foods known for?
- Snacks and starters
- Meat Dishes
- Fish dishes
- Vegetarian dishes
Where are the Balkans?
The Balkans are a territory in Southeastern Europe, typically include Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Montenegro, Romania, Serbia, Kosovo, North Macedonia, Slovenia and Croatia. By some definitions, this territory includes portions of Greece and Turkey. However, the exact Balkan borders are somewhat up for debate.
Why? Because “Balkans” is also seen as a cultural identity. Historically, the former Yugoslavia used “Balkans” to unite many of these countries under communist rule. Some associate the term with political unrest and oppression. Others find the word fueled with negative undertones that the “Balkans” are inferior to the rest of Europe.
For this reason, some prefer the term Southeastern Europe instead of Balkans (especially in Croatia and Slovenia). However, it definitely depends on the age and the nationality of who you ask. Speaking from five years of living in Croatia and traveling throughout the Balkans, most younger people are not bothered by the term.
For the sake of this article, I’ll be using Balkan to refer to all the countries in the Balkan peninsula.
What are Balkan foods known for?
Whatever you choose to call this region, Balkan cuisine is the unifying force that brings this region together. Balkan foods uniquely combines the historical influences from the Ottoman Empire, Austro-Hungarian Empire, and even the Venetians.
Typical Balkan cuisine is associated with minced and cured meat, domestic cheese, stew, and lots of red peppers. While dishes are often very simple in their ingredient list, balkan foods are packed with flavor. Dishes are seasonal, prepared with local and domestic products. In fact, many people in the Balkans take pride in growing their own food straight from the garden.
Balkan cuisine is also at the heart of the community, as friends and family love to gather over a large meal. Most traditional Balkan foods are served family style, which can sometimes mean just stabbing a couple of sausages off a plate with your own fork. Of course there’s usually rakija, wine, and occasional yelling over a cloud of cigarette smoke as well.
Here’s the ultimate list of Balkan foods you need to experience!
Snacks and starters
Note the spelling varies depending on the region: börek in Turkey, Byrek in Albania, Byurek in Bulgaria, Burek in Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovenia, and plăcintă in Romania.
Did you even go to the Balkans if you didn’t try a Burek? This flaky pastry is the most popular street food in the Balkans. It is made from phyllo dough and can be filled with meat, cheese, spinach, or even jam. Originally from the Ottoman Turks, bureks are found throughout the entire Balkan region.
Bureks come in all shapes and sizes, as well as flavors. The round, pie-shaped burek is made with layers of dough and usually meat. The rolled burek in a spiral shape is typically filled with sirnica , a filling similar to cottage cheese. There are also cigarette shaped bureks, known as sigara in Turkey. You can find at least one form of burek at every bakery in the Balkans, or try making a burek at home.
Kifle is the Balkan take on French croissants. These treats originate in the Austro-Hungarian empire, but are now made in a variety of different ways throughout the Balkans. Kifle is made with wheat flour, which makes it taste more like a roll than a pastry. The crescent shape of the rolls is said to be inspired by the quarter moon, which is one of the oldest surviving pastry shapes that dates back to the pagans!
These kifle rolls are typically homemade, but you can often find them in bakeries or cafes. Typically they are only salted, but they can be made with butter, cheese, and sesame seeds. You’ll often find kifle served around Christmas or Easter, or as a desert with coffee.
Avjar is like the ketchup of the Balkans. You’re sure to find a homemade jar of avjar in just about every kitchen. Avjar is made from red peppers (paprika), mixed with oil into a flavorful spread and dipping sauce. Avjar is originally from Turkey, though it is now found throughout the entire Balkan region.
You’ll find it used as a condiment for meats or used as a spread on sandwiches. In some parts of the Balkans, like Serbia, ajvar is served as a side dish. It’s typically made in the winter, though you can find it at just about every restaurant or grocery store year round. Here’s how to make ajvar at home.
Kajmak is essentially the cream cheese of the Balkans. It’s a spreadable, fermented cheese with a slightly sour taste. It’s similar to the English clotted cheese, though this cheese is never mixed with tea! Kajmak is used as a spread and condiment throughout the Balkans, and it is also commonly found in the Middle East as well.
Kajmak is traditionally homemade, but now there are more commercial products that carry it across the Balkans. It’s common to add this cheese to meat or bread, while the Turkish use Kajmak as a breakfast and desert topping.
You may have heard of Greek yogurt, but have you tried Balkan yogurt? Balkan yogurt has a longer fermentation process, which gives it an unsweetened, sour taste somewhat similar to kefir. Balkan yogurt varies by country, but it is usually used as a dipping sauce for meat and potatoes. In some parts of the Balkans, yogurt is a popular savory drink.
You can always find all varieties of Balkan yogurt at any grocery story or market. Many of the smaller villages in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, and Serbia will make this style of yogurt, and sell it on the side of the road!
Cevapi is not only one of the most popular regional dishes of the region, it might as well be the official mascot of the Balkans. This skinless sausage is made with minced meat (beef and/or pork) and grilled to perfection. Typically it is served with onions with either Ajvar or kajmak atop a pita flatbread. Usually 5-10 pieces come with each serving, and it’s one of the most authentic and affordable eats you can find in the Balkans!
You can always find cevapi at almost any type of restaurant (sometimes the translation refers to them as “meat fingers”, haha). It’s also found at most commercial grocery stores, great for having a BBQ with friends! Cevapi is found throughout the entire Balkan region, but it’s Bosnia and Herzegovina that takes the most pride in their cevapi. Learn how to make cevapi at home here.
Nothing tastes quite like home for me than the smell of sarma. Meaning “wrapped” in Turkish, sarma technically refers to all the variations of grape leaves or stuffed cabbage throughout the Balkans. In Croatia, Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Serbia, sarma is made from sour cabbage stuffed with rice and minced beef and pork. It is then boiled in tomato sauce with panceta (bacon) and seasoned with fresh herbs. Sarma is usually made in bulk, so it is great for leftovers.
Sarma is traditionally prepared at home, though there are some restaurants that may serve it in the winter. It’s common to find sour cabbage at grocery stores throughout the Balkans. Otherwise in Europe and parts of the U.S., you may have to go to an international food store and look for canned sour cabbage. Try making sarma at home with this recipe here.
Both sarma and stuffed peppers are considered “dolmas”, which refers to any type of stuffed vegetable. Similar to sarma, stuffed peppers are another savory staple in the Balkans. This dish consists of red or green peppers stuffed with rice and minced beef in tomato sauce, and is usually made in summer or fall when peppers are fresh. Some recipes call for baking the stuffed peppers, though I know that some people in Croatia boil the peppers.
I’ve never seen stuffed peppers on a menu at a restaurant in the Balkans. Thus, they are usually better as a home-cooked meal. The good news is that they are easy to make, as the ingredients are rather simple. Check out this stuffed pepper recipe here.
Everyone seems to make and spell musaka (mousakka) slightly differently. Traditional Greek Mousakka is a casserole dish made with ground beef, eggplants, and eggs topped with a tomato sauce seasoned with that traditional nutmeg flavor. However, traditional Balkan musaka replaced the eggplants with potatoes. Also, some regions use cheese instead of any type of tomato sauce.
You’ll definitely find musaka in restaurants throughout Greece, Turkey, and maybe Bulgaria. However, musaka is best when it is homemade. Check out this traditional Bulgarian musaka recipe.
Goulash is a hearty winter soup popular throughout Eastern Europe as well as the Balkans. Goulash is originally from Hungary, though each region of the Balkan prepares goulash in their own way. Typically Goulash is a stew mixed with meat, potatoes, vegetables, and some type of herbs. In the Balkans, it is a tradition to cook Goulash over a wood fire.
Goulash may be on the menu during the winter at many restaurants in the Balkans. Though again, this is a meal that is usually made at home. It is popular to prepare for an evening with friends in the winter.
Crockpots and instant pots? The Balkans don’t know them. Instead, this region prefers to slow cook the old fashion way by heating a cast-iron bell under open flames This is usually prepared inside a “konoba” style old house, and typically served for a special occasion. The most traditional type of peka is lamb or veal under the bell with fresh potatoes. However, you can also find octopus and even chicken under the bell. Peka is so popular because it makes the meat and vegetables extremely tender.
Unlike some of the other meat dishes, you can usually find peka on the menu in the balkans year-round. It is sometimes referred to as “under the bell” at restaurants, but note that you need to order at least 3 hours in advance.
As you move further along the coast in the Balkans, you will notice that meat is replaced by a variety of fresh fish. Grilled fish dressed with domestic olive oil, lemon, and herbs is a summer staple in many regions in the Balkans. The type of fish varies by region. For example, along the Adriatic coast, you’ll find sea bass, monk fish, and sardines. In-land you’ll find grilled freshwater trout, and even mackarel and goby from the Black Sea in Bulgaria!
Some restaurants serve fillets, but it’s best to assume you’ll get the entire head and all when ordering grilled fish in the Balkans. This is why it is also acceptable to eat fish with your hands. You can also check out your local farmer’s markets when traveling in the Balkans (best to go early in the morning) and try making fresh fish on your own.
Mussels are another popular seafood dish found throughout the Balkan region. Mussels can grow in either freshwater or saltwater, so you’ll find this dish along the coast as well as inland. Mussels are mainly steamed and usually cooked in tomato sauce in the Balkans. In Dubrovnik, mussels “buzara” style are traditionally made with white wine, parsley, breadcrumbs, and olive oil.
You can usually find the freshest mussels either in spring or summer in the Balkans. You can usually find them on the menu at major restaurants. Or you can learn how to make them from home here.
While most of the fish dishes in the Balkans are rather light, black risotto is a rich speciality that will definitely leave you feeling full. Black risotto is made from rice, cuttlefish, and squid ink, which gives the dish its rich, creamy texture. It’s then usually topped with parsley and parmesan cheese for one of most iconic dishes of the Adriatic coast.
Typically you’ll find this dish in the Dalmatian region of Croatia, though you’ll also find black risotto in Montenegro, Albania, and Greece as well. It’s more popular to find on the menu in the summer, though you can learn to make it at home during any time of the year here.
There are many variations of fish soup and stew in the Balkans. For instance, Riblja corba is a clear soup made from the smaller fish that fisherman could never sell in the Bay of Kotor. In Serbia, fisherman compete for who can make the best Dunav fisherman’s stew made from a medley of fish from the Danube river. In Croatia, brodet is a popular winter stew made from white fish and potatoes in a tomato base. Each of these stews are a way to incorporate fish into the winter diets!
Most of the time these meals are made at home, though sometimes you will be able to find them on the menu at restaurants.
Worried about being a vegetarian in the Balkans? Rest assured that the Balkans isn’t just all meat. There is plenty of vegetable risotto, salad, and grilled vegetables to go around! Grilled vegetables as usually served as a side dish in the Balkans, though you can often get a “vegetarian platter” like this filled with lots of options. You’ll also usually get a side of bread, or you could also ask for rice or risotto.
What gives the grilled vegetables in this region their flavor is the domestic olive oil, garlic, and fresh herbs. Not to mention, many of these vegetables are locally grown and packed with natural flavor!
The Shopka salad is the Balkan version of the chopped salad. Originally from Bulgaria, it is said the salad was originally made to promote the local produce of the region during a tourism campaign in the 1960s. It is made with fresh tomatoes, cucumber, parsley, and of course the traditional Bulgarian Sirene cheese.
Today the Shopka salad is found throughout the Balkan region. You can find it on the menu at restaurants, especially in the summer. You can also learn to make it at home with this shopka salad recipe.
Scientists once attributed the long lives of many Bulgarians to their natural yogurt consumption. That’s why tarator soup is one of the iconic Balkan foods. This cold soup is made from cucumbers and natural yogurt. It is typically prepared as a light, refreshing dish in the summer months. It’s also sometimes mixed with walnuts.
You can find this soup on the menu of some restaurants in Bulgaria during the summer. Otherwise, you can learn to make it at home here.
Blitva and potatoes
Blitva and potatoes is typically served as a side dish with fish, though it can be a meal in and of itself. Found along the Adriatic Coast, this dish combined blitva (a cross between spinach and swiss chard) with boiled potatoes. Fresh garlic and onions may be added for a simple, yet delicious veggie-friendly dish!
Usually this is served at most restaurants year-round, though blitva is harvested in the winter. You can easily modify and make this at home with either blitva or some type of chard or collard greens mixed with potatoes and olive oil!
gravče na tavče
“Gravče na tavče” is definitely one of the most hearty, and protein-packed vegetarian dishes you’ll find in the Balkans. This bean stew is considered the national dish of North Macedonia. It is made by mixing butter beans with onions, red pepper, and tomato sauce, served in a claypot.
You can find this dish at almost any restaurant in Macedonia. You can also learn to make it at home with this Tavče gravče recipe here.
There’s nothing quite like Christmas in the Balkans. However, Cozonac takes the cake (pun intended) for one of the most beloved desserts around the holidays. This is a traditional Romanian sweet bread made with raisins, Turkish delish, nuts, and cocoa cream. Romanians also make Cozonac for Easter, and there are similar variations to this sweet bread throughout the Balkans.
While in Romania, you can find Cozonac at bakeries or cafes, but usually only around the holidays or Easter. Otherwise, you can learn to make this at home with this traditional Romanian Cozonac recipe!
Checkout what the capital of Croatia looks like during Christmas for the Advent Zagreb Festival.
You have American pancakes, French crepes, and then you have Balkan pancakes somewhere in between. Known as “palacinke”, they are somewhat thicker than crepes but have a similar texture. Made with eggs, butter, wheat flour, and some sugar, you can eat enjoy them savory with kajmak or meat or with homemade jam.
Typically locals make these for dessert or breakfast in the Balkans. However, you can also order them at most restaurants or cafes. They are served with powdered sugar, jam, or nutella. Learn to make these Balkan pancakes at home here.
Baklava is one of the most iconic desserts from the Balkans. The Turks and the Greeks still can’t agree on the history of baklava, and which country can claim ownership. However, you can find this treat layered with thin fillet dough, nuts, and honey throughout the Balkans and Middle East today. Even though the layers of dough are very thin, it is extremely sweet, unlike some of the other Balkan deserts!
You can always find baklava in the bakeries and cafes of Turkey and Greece, often in other Balkan countries too. You can buy baklava in bulk in many of the shops or duty free sections of the airports. Otherwise, you can take a stab at making baklava at home.
Tulumba is the closest you’ll get to churros in the Balkans. This fried pastry dates back to the Ottoman Empire, and today you can find it throughout the Balkan region, but especially in North Macedonia. The pastry is fried and then soaked in syrup, sometimes with sugar and cinamon added. Tulumba is a tradition treat during the Hanukkah season.
In addition to North Macedonia, you can find mini-sized tulumba in portions of Albania, Serbia, and Turkey at most of the bakeries or cafes. Otherwise you can learn to make it at home with this Tulumba recipe.
Known as the Bulgarian donut, mekitsa is a deep-fried flatbread made with yogurt. The root of the word “mek” refers to the soft texture of this bread, which is typically paired with honey, jam, or powdered sugar. You can also find mekitsa in Serbia and North Macedonia. Traditionally, Macedonians made mekitsa to celebrate the birth of a new baby.
You can find mekitsa at many of the coffee shops and bakeries in Bulgaria, and in some parts of Serbia and North Macedonia. You can also learn how to make mekitsa at home here.
Before life starts in the Balkans, one needs a strong cup of coffee. In most cases, this translates to a cup of Turkish coffee. Turkish coffee is made by mixing fine ground coffee and sugar in boiling water. Usually there is a thick layer of coffee grounds on the bottom, traditionally used for telling your fortune! There are several variations on Turkish coffee, or “Bosnian” coffee that is similar, but this is the traditional type of coffee served in the Balkans.
Rest assured that you can order a regular espresso or cappuccino at any decent coffee shop in the Balkans. This style of Turkish coffee is usually prepared at home, though you can definitely find it at many coffee shops in Bosnia and Herzegovina and Turkey.
Consider rakija is the tequila of the Balkans. Rakija refers to the family of spirits made from herbs and fruits. With 40 percent alcohol or higher, rakija is infamous for its strength. While the types of rakija vary by country, the most popular types are usually honey, plum, pear, walnut, and various herbal brandies.
Rakija is also popular for its healing properties. Locals will swear that rakija cures almost any type of ailment, especially stomach aches. They also use rakija as a disinfectant on open wounds.
You will quickly realize once you come to the Balkans that people here REALLY love their wines. In fact, this is one of the most underrated regions for wine in the world, and home to the world-famous Zinfindel variety! But since people here love their wine so much, they often sparkling water in to keep hydrated. This is called Gemist, and is made from mixing white wine with sparking water. You can check out some of the wines in the Balkans here.