Serbian Cuisine, Europe’s Best Kept Secret of Culture and Flavor

With one of the most eclectic cuisines in Europe, Serbia says hi to all the foodies of the world! Here's everything you need to know about it.

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This image shows Ajvar (pepper mousse) in a jar and on a slices of bread. Ajvar is delicious dish of red peppers, onions and garlic.
Ajvar is used to enhance flavor in Serbian gastronomy. Melica73/Bigstock.com

It’s hard to say what the authentic Serbian cuisine is, since this country is a crossroad between East and West. Throughout its turbulent history, different people from different countries have lived or passed through it, leaving their own cultural footprints. These customs, trademarks and ways of living shaped what’s nowadays its national culture. Within it lies the Serbian gastronomy, often described as an mix of elements from Turkish, Greek, Austrian and Hungarian cuisines. This article will give you a glimpse of authentic Serbian cuisine and everything you need to know about it. Besides, we’ll give you some dining habits Serbs have, so you can experience Serbian food like a local. Read on and, by the end of this article, you’ll be one of the few people who know about Europe’s best-kept secret.

Serbian cuisine isn’t for picky eaters

Serbian people love to go big in everything: they’re loud, expressive, full of character. Their souls are rich in stories to share, exaggeration isn’t foreign to them, and their cuisine’s no different. So, vegetarians and vegans out there, here’s a disappointing truth: there’s a high chance you’ll stay hungry in Serbia. The food’s heavy, spicy, overwhelmed with hearty meats, local vegetables, caloric pastries and pies. Having a taste of Serbian food means tasting history, a flavorful, hard-to-resist, finger-licking history.

For Serbs, meals aren’t just simple meals: they’re social events, treated like important rituals. Lunch or dinner are opportunities for family and friends to gather, and most Serbian households are still keeping that tradition. Perhaps that’s not the case every single day, but they try to make it that way at least on Sundays. To eat like a real Serb, you have to eat a lot and, traditionally, here’s what that can include.

Appetizers in Serbian cuisine

This image shows Ajvar (pepper mousse) in a jar and on a slices of bread. Ajvar is delicious dish of red peppers, onions and garlic.
Serbs use Ajvar to enhance the flavor of most Serbian food. Melica73/Bigstock.com

Let’s get some cured meat like ham, prsuta (similar to prosciutto), cajna kobasica (similar to salami), kulen (similar to pepperoni) and different kinds of cheese, including mladi sir (“young cheese” in free translation; it reminds of cheese curds). Slice all that, arrange it on a large plate, and you have a typical Serbian cold appetizer called Meze. Meze is the entrée on a multi-course meal, served to warm you up for what’s next. But it can also accompany alcoholic drinks, which are part of traditional Serbian dining too.

If you’re not in the mood for meat appetizers, try delicious pastries and pies such as proja or gibanica. The first one is a type of cornbread, while the other one is a specific Balkan region specialty. It’s a cheese pie with thin layers of dough with cottage cheese between them. It usually has an egg poured on top before baking to give it a nice crust.

Mighty kajmak: a staple of Serbian gastronomy

Sliced Serbian Gibanica with cheese eggs and herbs close-up on the table and kajmak, a yogurt-like substance that's the king of Serbian food. Horizontal view from above
Gibanica and the mighty Kajmak, the king of Serbian food. FomaA/Bigstock.com

No meal is complete without kajmak and ajvar. Ajvar (sometimes referred to as “vegetarian caviar”) is a spicy, smoky flavored spread made from roasted bell peppers, oil, chili peppers and lots of garlic. The best ajvar is homemade, with recipes passed in a family from generation to generation. Cooking large portions of ajvar in the autumn, to enjoy it throughout the whole year, is still a practice in the majority of traditional Serbian households.

Kajmak is a national treasure made from fresh unpasteurized cow milk and comparable to clotted cream, but much saltier. To get the best out of it, try it in a warm lepinja (a flat bun) and let it melt in your mouth. On top of that, Kajmak is also perfect with all forms of grilled meat.

Meat: the quintessential Serbian food

This image shows the Cevapi (or Cevapcici), delicius minced meat shaped like fingers, in a lepinja bread, accompanied by ajvar (a cornerstone of Serbian food) and herbs.
Cevapi (or Cevapcici) in a lepinja bread, accompanied by ajvar (a cornerstone of Serbian food) and herbs. samotrebizan/Bigstock.com

Serbs are so proud of their barbeque that you can find it everywhere, from fancy restaurants and little old-style taverns (called kafanas) to fast food stands. The most prominent dishes are the cevapi or cevapcici, finger-sized, sausage-shaped portions of minced grilled meat. These are usually a mix of beef and pork or lamb, depending on the region, and they come as 5 or 10 pieces in lepinja, with spreads and toppings of your choice. To make the experience even more authentic, order cevapi with kajmak and onions. If you want to make friends in Serbia (including the waiter/fast food worker), learn to order in Serbian “deset u pola sa lukom” (ten in a half with onions) and see what happens.

The same mixture of meat with the same style of serving, just in different shape, is called pljeskavica. Some foreigners may mistake it with a burger in their language. If you do it in front of a local, you may end up listening to all the differences and all the ways pljeskavica is better. Keep in mind that, for Serbs, there’s no better cuisine than their own.

This image shows a Karadjordjeva steak, which is stuffed pork meat with ham and cheese, dipped in eggs and breadcrumbs before deep frying.
Karadjordjeva Steak. Artangels/BigStock.com

While cevapi and pljeskavica have middle-eastern roots, Karadjordjeva steak is all Serbian. Invented by a famous local chef in 1956, this dish became part of almost all the restaurants’ menus. This is a rolled, breaded pork steak stuffed with kajmak, ham and cheese, which is then fried or baked and served with roasted potatoes and tartar sauce.

Serbian gastronomy’s vegetables

Besides its famous barbeque, Serbian cuisine has a lot more to offer. One of the most famous and beloved dishes is the sarma: sour cabbage leaves stuffed with ground beef or pork and rice, and cooked for hours in a large pot. Sometimes, sour cabbage leaves can be replaced with grapevine leaves, but cabbage is more common. In fact, sour cabbage is the main ingredient in many other dishes, such as podvarak and svadbarskikupus. The first one is cabbage cooked with different kinds of meat and bacon, while the other one is cabbage cooked with pork and fat.

Paprika is the most common vegetable in Serbian cuisine, used in all shapes and flavors. Besides serving its holy purpose for ajvar, it’s also eaten pickled in tursija and grounded as a spice. It can also be roasted or stuffed with the same mixture as sarma, cooked the same way to make another beloved dish: stuffed paprika.

If you want to eat your vegetables “with the spoon”, there’s djuvec, a vegetable stew similar to ratatouille. There’s also a bean stew called “army beans”, named by Serbian soldiers who invented it. It’s perfect for winter months, as some it’s believe it renews strength and brings warmth to the body.

Serbian food for your sweet tooth

This image shows white grapes preserved in a glass jar, known as Slatko, a traditional Serbian desert. and a staple of Serbian gastronomy
Slatko, a staple of Serbian gastronomy. HiddenCatch/Bigstock.com

We know it’s hard, but try to make room for a desert. Baklava is a very sweet pastry made of layers of thin dough filled with chopped walnuts and soaked in sugary syrup. It was incorporated in Serbian gastronomy from middle-eastern traditions and has stayed as the favorite dessert in many households. Other middle-eastern desserts incorporated into Serbian cuisine tradition are urmasice, fried dough dipped in syrup or honey; tufahije, stewed apples stuffed with walnuts and sugar, as well as alva.

Moving from middle-eastern influences, one of the rarely authentic Serbian and Balkan desserts are vanilice. Everybody loves these cookies stuffed with plum or apricot jam, and any local will tell you they remind them of their childhood. Serbs love to use fruit to satisfy their sweet tooth and, that is, with lots of sugar. That’s the case with slatko, a fruit preserve often offered to guests a warm welcome.

Let’s get something to drink

This image shows two glasses with rakija, a fruit liquor typical of Serbian gastronomy. There's also a glass plate of plums.
Rakija, a fruit liquor typical of Serbian gastronomy. In this image, plum rakija. Branko B Jovanovic/Bigstock.com

No social gathering or special occasion can go without rakija; for some, not even one lunch. Rakija is a strong alcoholic drink, a type of brandy made from fruits like apricot, quince, pear and many more. However, the most popular one is sljivovica, made out of plum and has become a national drink of Serbia. Almost every household outside the major cities makes their own rakija, with their own traditional recipe. The process to make it is another social event, another opportunity for family, friends and neighbors to gather.

Besides that, people also use Rakija to cure pretty much everything. If you ask Serbian grandmothers, it can cure toothaches, sore throats, stuffy noses, fevers and more. Sometimes they even use it as a cleaning solution for wounds and windows, but nevermind, just be open to drinking it. It’s important that, if someone offers you rakija, you accept it, because otherwise it’d be impolite and rude, almost offensive. You have to sip it slowly, savoring it; don’t shoot it all at once.

Serbs also enjoy drinking coffee and you’ll find there all the varieties, but the only authentic one is the Turkish (“black coffee” or “domestic coffee”). It is most comparable to Americano, only it has a stronger taste since it comes from a different kind of coffee beans. This originates from middle-eastern traditions and it’s still popular to this day, becoming a daily habit, especially when meeting with friends.

Conclusion

In the end, some of the dishes from the Serbian gastronomy are hard to describe because they taste uniquely. Serbia is a specific country, with intriguing food that gives it its unique charm. We highly recommend you that you don’t just read about it, but go and try it for yourself. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience that will enrich your life and broaden your tastes. But before you try Serbian food, Europe’s best-kept secret… prijatno (bon appétit)!

Have you ever tried any of the Serbian food that we mentioned here? If not yet, what was the Serbian food that tickled your taste buds the most? Share your Serbian gastronomy fantasies in the comments section below!

3 COMMENTS

  1. Being a Serb, it’s simply awesome when you stumble upon an article such as this one!

    I know that you cannot, for the love of god, cover whole of one nation’s cuisine in a limited ammount of characters, and while you did a pretty good job at it, i need to say that Serbian cuisine is much, much more complex, and has a fuckload more to offer! 🙂

    To anyone comming here, i’d like to point, that since Serbia is a kind of a crossroad, where east meets west, and where north meets south, you should definitely go through it all!

    From german/hungarian influences in the north of Serbia, called Vojvodina, to the delights on south of Serbia, where you’ll encounter a strong middle-eastern meat-oriented culture, one very important factor is present: almost all of the food in Serbia is prepared from organically grown ingredients, be it a tomatto, or a piece of meat from something that has actually lived outside in the fields and grassy hills…

    Happily, Serbia is still mostly rural, and such ingredients are not something exotic, but more of a normalcy.

    Anyway, if you decide to come our way, know that hospitality in Serbia is on a level that will make you come back! Not just because we’re nice people, we are, but also because of our old beliefs, where a guest is sacred! 🙂

    So, welcome!!! 🙂

    • Thank you so much for the insight, Miloš! We’re glad you liked this article. We’d love to further explore Serbian cuisine and culture in other articles. Any suggestions for us? 🙂

  2. +1 on Milos’s comment. On my trip to Serbia, there were many occasions where I felt like I was tasting familiar ingredients (tomatoes in sopska salata, for example) for the first time in my life. And don’t even get me started on rakija, not just the flavors but the sheer variety of fruits it can be made of.

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