When first-time visitors want to dive into Bosnia and Herzegovina’s history, most opt for a Sarajevo war tour. While this can certainly be a valuable experience, I found an alternative path to comprehending the city’s past and present: Through food. Here are five takeaways from my tour with Balkantina – and why I think you should book a Sarajevo food tour, too.
Transparency: I was a guest of Balkantina during my food tour of Sarajevo in March 2019. As always, all opinions and recommendations expressed here are my own.
Five things a Sarajevo food tour taught me about the city & its people
1 | East really does meet west in Sarajevo
At the point where Sarajevo’s old town begins, there’s a line on the pavement to demarcate the split between the city’s Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian influences. Sarajevo’s very own meridian line separates its Turkish-style marketplace from its wide boulevards and European facades. But the division is in the architecture only: No such obvious split exists in Bosnia and Herzegovina’s cuisine.
Sarajevo’s culinary mosaic has been created after centuries of cultural exchange and overlap. Similar to Tbilisi, this is another world city where the cliche holds true: East really does meet west in Sarajevo.
The first stop on my Sarajevo food tour, the city’s undercover market hall, illustrates this intermarriage of influences perfectly. Built during the city’s period under Austro-Hungarian rule, it epitomises the ordered, consolidated vision of a city the emperor strove for.
Uniformly sized stalls in neat rows are a complete contrast to the cramped, ad-hoc Ottoman bazaar a few blocks away. Both are atmospheric and fascinating, but for different reasons.
Inside the market hall, my Balkantina guide, Dalida, introduced me to three of Sarajevo’s best-known local products: Cured meats, hard cheese, and kajmak – a soft cheese similar to cream cheese.
These are prepared the same way they’ve always been, farm-fresh from small villages outside of Sarajevo. Each morning, families travel to the city to set up in the market and present their latest offerings.
This kind of face-to-face trade is something that cuts across Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian cultures. Whether it’s a neatly organised market hall or the crowded side street of a bazaar, a trade’s a trade – and I bet the cheese tastes just as delicious no matter which side of town you buy it from.
2 | Sarajevo was founded on tolerance
Because of its geographical location, Sarajevo was founded on this idea of plurality and cultural intermingling. It’s no wonder, then, that the city has always been known as a place that’s welcoming to outsiders.
Once upon a time, Sarajevo had the highest rate of inter-faith marriages in the region. Personal coalitions between Orthodox, Christian, Muslim and Jewish couples moulded a community that in many ways transcended belief systems. It wasn’t all peachy – and times have sadly changed – but Sarajevo is still widely thought of as a place where people can take refuge and start afresh.
Immigration has added more depth to the already rich broth that is Sarajevo. One bakery in town, Dalida pointed out as we walked down the main street, was founded by a Macedonian family who settled in Sarajevo, bringing their family recipes with them and turning their passion into a successful business.
Food has undoubtedly played a role in cultivating and sustaining bonds between the different peoples who call Sarajevo home. (One local I met joked that cevapi should appear on Bosnia and Herzegovina’s flag because it’s the only thing everyone can agree on!)
There’s also a history of reaching out to bridge divides with food. When it was built, Sarajevo’s biggest mosque, Gazi Husrev-beg, featured a large community kitchen that dished out free meals for the city’s poor. Everyone could partake, no matter their faith. The food was so good, they say the emperor himself ate there.
In a way, this tradition is mirrored in Sarajevo’s aščinicas – no-frills restaurants that serve traditional food from bain-maries. The idea behind this type of restaurant is to give city workers a chance to eat the home-cooked meals they the lack time to prepare themselves.
At Aščinica Stari Grad, Dalida and I sampled slow-cooked Begova Corba (‘Emperor’s soup’, a rich chicken soup), dolme stuffed vegetables and Bosnaki Lonac (stew cooked in clay pots) with somun flatbread on the side. It’s not difficult to imagine how working class people separated from their families at mealtimes might find solace in these humble eateries.
3 | Coffee is vital to the city’s social fabric
Would there even be a Sarajevo without coffee? It would certainly look very different, given the number of coffee houses that line the old town’s streets.
Halfway through our Sarajevo food tour, Dalida and I stopped for a Turkish-style brew at one of the loveliest coffee houses in the city. Over a cup, she told me a bit about the history of coffee in Bosnia and Herzegovina and the role it has played in building relationships and allegiances.
We were sitting in the central courtyard of an old han (inn), a caravanserai where silk road traders and other merchants found respite from their long cross-continental journeys. This particular han in Sarajevo has found a new life as an office block, with companies installed in the tiny rooms on the inn’s upper level.
Cafes are set in the shaded courtyard, the same place where the inn’s lodgers met to converse and do their business, striking deals and forming partnerships over a shared cezve of Turkish-style coffee.
If they wanted to sweeten the deal, a diamond-shaped slice of baklava or a cube of Turkish delight would also be involved. Dalida and I chose the former.
Times have changed, but the ritualistic aspects of making and drinking Bosnian coffee, a tradition inherited from the Ottomans and tweaked for local palates, remains in tact. Sipping coffee in the same courtyard where 16th-century traders conversed is a very special experience.
I’m sure many trade deals were lubricated by another of Sarajevo’s famous beverages: Rakija. The final stop on my Sarajevo food tour saw Dalida and I sampling homemade honey and walnut rakija in a small bar on the skirts of the old town.
4 | Sarajevans are incredibly resilient
One of the things I love most about Sarajevo is that it doesn’t shy away from its darkest days. All across the city, depressions in the sidewalk where mortar shells fell haven’t been filled in or built over – they’re emphasised with red paint, creating ‘Sarajevo Roses’ that commemorate the lives those metal fragments cut short or changed forever.
One of the most impressive stories Dalida told me from the time of the Sarajevo Siege relates to the biggest green market.
It’s hard to imagine, but during the siege, when the city was encircled by troops for 1,425 days, many Sarajevans were determined to go about their business as best they could. Schools kept teaching, businesses kept running, theatres kept hosting performances. Movement throughout the city was limited and incredibly dangerous, but people somehow continued to live their lives.
One of the most powerful signals of resistance and resilience locals sent was continuing to frequent their local market. Even during the hottest days of the siege when hundreds of mortars fell, people continued gathering to buy and sell fruit and veg. I bet that for some, it was the last shred of normalcy they had to hold onto.
Hidden amongst the stalls at the Pijaca Markale outdoor market is a Sarajevo Rose. It marks the spot where a mortar fell, part of two separate attacks in 1994 and 1995 that killed 68 market-goers and injured 144 more.
Troops, it turns out, discovered the market was still active and launched a specific attack against it. But Sarajevans persevered, slowly rebuilding the market back into the thriving hub it was before and during the war.
5 | Sarajevo is more than ready to shed its negative stereotypes
It wouldn’t be a Sarajevo food tour without a chance to try burek. I’m no stranger to this meat, spinach or cheese-filled pastry – by the time I got to Sarajevo, I had already been in the region for four months and eaten more than my fair share.
But my burek experience with Dalida was the first time I ate it the proper way: With a cup of ayran (drinking yogurt) on the side. Smooth and slightly tart ayran is the perfect compliment to salty, crispy burek. After that, I never ordered burek without also asking for an ayran again.
While Dalida ordered us a plate, I poked my head into the kitchen of the small shop where we had stopped. Two women, one in hijab and the other with a long black ponytail, were working together to prepare a fresh round of burek. They were a picture of teamwork: While one woman sprinkled her pastry with crumbled cheese and rolled it tight, the other coiled her own tube of finished pastry into the pan. And so on and so on they went until a full circle had been assembled.
Although they worked at different benches, the lengths of pastry they prepared fitted together perfectly, like the pieces of a puzzle, to make a whole greater than the sum of its parts.
When most people think of Sarajevo, they immediately conjure an image of an unsafe, violent, perhaps intolerant place defined by the darkest chapters of its recent past.
I don’t think the country nor the region are completely absolved – and I won’t pretend to understand the complexity of the current situation – but as a tourist, my impressions were overwhelmingly positive and give no credence to the stereotypes commonly associated with Sarajevo.
The Sarajevo (and the Bosnia and Herzegovina) I experienced was defined by forward-thinking, ambitious people who are generous of spirit and open of mind. The best way to grasp this is to dive in – go and see it for yourself.
Similarly, I think Bosnia and Herzegovina (and the whole Balkans region for that matter) still has some stereotypes to shed around its food. Just as there’s more than one side to Sarajevo – and a history that goes far deeper than the Sarajevo Siege – there’s far more to local cuisine than just cevapi!
Cevapi is delicious, and the events of the 1990s should never be forgotten or overlooked, but I encourage visitors to go deeper. Pursue a Sarajevo food tour (or something like it) and open yourself to discovering what gives this city its true flavour.
There are only a couple of companies that offer Sarajevo food tour itineraries. Balkantina stands out from the crowd because it’s the only outfit that focuses solely on culinary experiences. All staff and guides are Sarajevo locals or long-time residents, and have in-depth knowledge about the city’s gastronomy.
Because it was my first time in Sarajevo and I wanted to see as much as possible, I chose to take the Sarajevo Gourmet Food & City Tour. I thought it offered a good balance of historical background and food-specific information (as I hope I’ve shown, the two are intertwined). There’s a fair bit of walking involved, which means you get to see a good chunk of the city, plus five or six food stops. Make sure you come hungry!
The chance to sit with a local over a coffee or shared plate of burek is a really unique experience. I was so grateful for the opportunity to connect with Dalida and pick her brain on everything Sarajevo-related. Our conversations about food naturally led to discussions on all kinds of topics – from travel to traditional Bosnian weddings (we were both recently engaged), politics to religion. Dalida, like the other locals I met in Sarajevo, was completely generous and giving of her time, which really made this food tour memorable.
Balkantina also offers wine, beer and rakija-themed tours, plus a ‘cook and eat’ tour that sees guests prepare dinner and dine with a local family. In the future, the team has plans to introduce cooking classes, and will soon be opening their own gourmet shop where you can buy local food products to take home. I can’t wait to check it out next time I’m in town!