It was 6am, and I had just stepped out of the overnight coach I took from Zagreb to Sarajevo––an eight-hour journey. It was a chilly, grey-sky morning, despite it being in the middle of summer. With my 10kg backpack on my shoulders, I made the 17-minute walk from the bus station to the block where my Couchsurfing (CS) host, Zjelko, lives.
My first impression of Sarajevo wasn’t a good one. It looked post-apocalyptic. Some buildings still had bullet holes in them; roads weren’t smoothly paved, and the city looked like it was slowly crumbling. Perhaps it was the quietness of the early morning that creeped me out, but having seen Ljubljana and Croatia, Sarajevo was aesthetically a shocker. Whilst making my way to my host, there was no one around, save for a man walking his dog. A murder of crows flew above my head, cawing loudly; they sounded almost angry. There was a pack of stray dogs across the road. They seemed hungry. I hastened towards the direction of Zjelko’s flat, just in case these dogs eat me alive. Someone once told me not to show fear when faced with a hungry pack of stray dogs. They can smell fear.
I arrived at Zjelko’s place safe and sound. He welcomed me with a hug, and introduced me to his cousin, his mother, and his sister, who were visiting. He offered me a cup of tea, and we all shared a tasty traditional Bosnian breakfast of Burek and Pita. Burek is readily available everywhere in the Balkans, but Bosnians take it more seriously. In Bosnia, Burek is made of minced beef stuffed in phyllo dough, while the spinach and cheese version is called Pita. Both exist in other Balkan nations, but they’re all called Burek.
After breakfast, Zjelko and his sister took me to explore Sarajevo. We went to a bar called Tito Express, named after the president of ex-Yugoslavia. In the Balkans, people are nostalgic about the great country of Yugoslavia, made up of six “states” that speak roughly the same language, and share a similar culture. A country where everyone had an education, a job, a home, and the freedom to travel on a strong passport. A country where socialism worked for everyone, and nationalism and religion were banned. To an unpatriotic atheist like me, it sounded like Utopia, and for the people of the Balkans, it was Utopia.
Then the Yugoslav Wars happened in 1991 to 2001. The history of it all is too complex for a foreigner like me to recount to anyone. You have to hear it from the people who’ve been through the hardships caused by the wars. But what I’ve learnt from Zjelko was that it had a lot to do with politically driven ethnic cleansing (What ethnic cleansing? Liberal people of the Balkans would agree that they’re all the same ethnicity, which is south Slavic) of Muslims in Bosnia (called Bosniaks), by the Serbs. And Croatia was at war with Serbia too. Bosnia, a country where Serbs (Orthodox Christians), Croats (Roman Catholics), and Bosniaks (Muslims) resided in peace when it was part of Yugoslavia, was torn apart. Suddenly, these three different groups of people hated each other whilst living in the same country. The city and its people crumbled. Even today, the country is divided by religion, which is also in part politically motivated. Politics and religion and war are always complicated.
After hearing these stories, I felt guilty about my first impression of Sarajevo. For thinking it was ugly. That wasn’t its fault. Everything was falling apart because it got attacked by its neighbours. It’s still trying to pick itself up. Depending on who you meet and which country in the Balkans you’re in, you’ll hear a different side of the story. Everyone suffered, but it seems that Bosnia, being caught in the middle, suffered the most.
It was the day before the anniversary of the Srebrenica Genocide. On our way to the city centre, we saw a march going on outside a mosque. The sombreness in the air was palpable. We then took a walk uphill to the Yellow Fortress. Standing on the vantage point overlooking the city, I realised how completely wrong I was. Sarajevo isn’t ugly at all. It’s where the cultures of the East and West meet, with influences of the Austro-Hungarian empire in the New Town and Turkish in the Ottoman Old Town. It’s evident in the architecture, and especially the food.
Knowing that I wanted to try traditional Bosnian food, Zjelko and his cousin, Mirna, took me to Zara iz Duvara, a cosy little 18-seat family style restaurant, for dinner. All the dishes are cooked by the owner Sabina’s mum. And despite having a full menu of a few different appetisers, soups, salads, mains, and desserts, the restaurant only serves limited portions of a few dishes on rotation each day, depending on the season, ingredients available, and what the owner’s mother feels like cooking that day. Sabina plays host to every diner that walks in. She is welcoming, genuine, friendly, and personable, like a friend who’s invited you over for dinner would be. Apart from dining in a Bosnian home, the food here is as traditional and homestyle as it gets in a restaurant.
For a start, my dinner companions ordered a beer and a cherry rakija. Rakija is a traditional alcoholic drink in the Balkans. It’s fruit brandy and also moonshine. Everyone drinks it. In fact, if you’re a tee-totaler in the Balkans, people would think you’re weird. They drink a lot. Perhaps it’s part of their culture, but with all the war, the ongoing conflict, and weakening economy in the region, drinking helps them forget.
We then ordered a barley soup with minced veal meat, a mushroom ragout served with rice, and Bamiya, a stew made with veal, beef, lamb, fried okra, and tomato sauce, served with thyme rice. They told me I wouldn’t be able to find this dish anywhere else in Bosnia. A quick Google search of Bamiya tells me that it’s an Arabic dish, available in the Middle East. But I doubt I would ever have it the way it’s served in this restaurant, on a traditional Bosnian plate covered with a dome-shaped lid, anywhere else. With Middle Eastern influences heavily featured in Bosnian cooking, spices are abundant in its cuisine.
The soup, and the sauce of the Bamiya were piquant, tangy, slightly spicy, and perfectly savoury. The meat was fork tender, and melted in my mouth. Each spoonful of soup, meat, sauce and rice put a smile not only on my face, but also on my companions’ faces. My Asian, spice-loving, tastebuds sang and danced.
“Jebiga! (Translation: fuck it) It’s good,” Mirna exclaimed, midway through her plate of Bamiya.
As we ate, it seemed like all our troubles melted away and all was right with the world. We couldn’t stop smiling. Positive energy flowed amongst the three of us at that table. The restaurant was our temporary shelter from all the pain and sorrow in this world, and the food an escape from reality. There was no war, no sadness; only good company, good food, and good conversations.