The cuisines of the Balkans mix and match Mediterranean, central European and Turkish influences. Though heavy food may make you feel as though you’re packing an artery with every meal, the produce is largely organic. In most meals, superb use is made of produce from this agriculturally rich region. There’s a legion of local cheeses barely known outside the immediate area, and an excellent range of fresh fruits in season. In colder regions cabbages, walnuts and root vegetables such as turnips are used. Local dishes tend to be fairly simple, relying on abundant quality produce to create tasty meals.

Where to Eat & Drink

There are many local terms for restaurants and eateries, from Croatian gostionica (restaurant) to Albanian byrektorë (bakeries selling burek, stuffed filo pastry), and Serbian pekara (bakeries selling almost everything), which provide a range of sweet and savoury snacks. Eating hours across the region are much the same as in the rest of Europe.

Staples & Specialities

Burek or byrek, with a range of fillings including cheese, meat, potato, spinach and mushrooms, is the classic Western Balkans snack. It’s often enjoyed with yoghurt for breakfast.

Meals usually begin with spongy Turkish bread slathered with kajmak – a salty curd. Appetisers include locally smoked hams, pickled vegetables and feta-style cheeses. For lunch and dinner, the most common restaurant dishes are grilled meats such as ćevapčići (grilled spicy kebab fingers), ražnjići (shish kebab, called qebap in Albanian areas) and pljeskavica (spiced mixed meat patties). Kebabs are often served with Turkish-style bread and sliced onions. Stews are popular, often cooked slowly over an open fire, with favourites such as bosanski lonac (Bosnian stew of cabbage and meat) or kapama (lamb stew). Where it’s available, peppery riblja čorba fish stew is not to be missed. Goulash made with paprika is a hearty dish found in regions bordering Hungary.

Coastal Croatia, Albania, Montenegro and the littoral of Slovenia are a dream for fish-fans; grilled fish, shellfish, scampi, calamari, sea bass, bream and hake are drowned with garlic and olive oil. Fried mussels in Albania’s Saranda are a treat. Pastrmka (trout) is widely available, and usually arrives grilled with a zesty sauce on the side. Macedonian skara (barbecue) includes fresh fruit and vegetables.

Salads with diced cucumber and tomato drizzled in olive oil and sprinkled with herbs accompany many main meals. Meals often end with seasonal fruit, or far less healthily with baklava (nut-filled pastry heavy with sticky syrup), stuffed palačinke (pancakes, which if you’re not careful can also constitute a main) and hurmastica (syrup-soaked sponge fingers, urmašice in Serbia). Cakes and ice creams are also common.

In addition to local fare, ubiquitous Italian food (pizza and pasta) is much loved by locals and international cuisine can be found in larger cities throughout the region.

Drinks

Every country has its favourite locally made beer (pivo or piva in Slavic languages, birra or birrë in Albanian), challenged on the shelves by major international brews such as Heineken and Fosters. Local beers worth looking out for are Karlovačko from Karlovac in Croatia, Nikšićko from Montenegro, and Korca from Korca in Albania. Most beers are lagers, though there are some dark stouts and ales available.

There is also an incredible array of spirits distilled from a variety of fruits; these are called rakija in Slavic tongues and raki in Albanian. The alcohol content is generally between 40% and 70%, so not surprisingly it’s drunk as a shot from special little glasses after meals and for toasts. Macedonia’s local variant is žolta (yellow) rakija with wheat added during a secondary fermentation – even more than most rakija, it kicks like a mad mule. The most common fruit rakija is made from plums, and is variously called šljivovica (Croatia, BiH, Serbia and Montenegro) or slivovka (Slovenia). This is the national drink in Serbia, where something like 70% of the plum harvest goes into its production. The drink appears at any excuse for a celebration, from Christmas to birthdays to anniversaries. Albania’s liquor of note is Skënderbeu konjak, a surprisingly smooth and subtle brandy. The region also has a range of herbal liqueurs, from Albania’s very curious Fernet to Serbia and Croatia’s rather medicinal-tasting pelinkovac.

More and more, the region is a great one for wine lovers. Wine routes are increasingly being pushed to travellers in the region and yield some splendid surprises both in terms of the wine and the scenery it hails from. Wine connoisseurs should particularly seize the opportunity of being in the Balkans to sample offerings from monastery wineries.

Slovenia alone has something like 400 wine producers, most with less than10 hectares of vineyards. Slovenian wines are fairly similar to northern Italian and Austrian wines, with an emphasis on aromatic dry whites. Many Slovenian towns have a vinoteka (wine shop) selling local varieties such as Sipon, Traminec and Beli Pinot as well as better-known varietals such as Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. The late harvest or izbor dessert wines are more expensive but can be spectacular.

Croatia’s wine producers are divided into the inland Slavonia region (mostly white wine) and coastal Dalmatia (mostly red wine). Graševina, a gentle golden-hued white similar to riesling, is the most widely grown variety in Slavonia. The Dalmatian coast wineries are increasingly growing merlot and cabernet sauvignon, and some other unusual varieties. The wine routes of Croatia’s Istria region are becoming increasingly popular for wine lovers and foodies, who are also starting to flock here for prized truffles and olive oil.

Serbia’s workhorse red grape is prokupac, a dense, robust red with high sugar levels, often blended with French varieties such as gamay, merlot and pinot noir. In Serbia, the Fruška Gora region is a major wine producer – and an extremely pretty one. Bermet is a traditional Vojvodinian dessert wine worth trying in these parts.

Some fine wines are also coming out of Macedonia, which is putting its endemic grape varieties to good use with vranec, stanošina and temjanika. Boutique wine producers such as Bovin have taken root in Macedonia’s vineyard heartland in the Kavadarci-Negotino region. The Tikveš wine region of Macedonia is worth a visit for its scenery as much as its top-notch wines.

Hercegovina’s wine route offers fine žilavka (white) and blatina (red). Domaći (house) wines served in restaurants in BiH can be a nice alternative to imported wines on the menu. Many blatina reds are rich and well-balanced, and Stankela white (a prize-winning žilavka), from Međugorje, is crisp and fresh.

Albania’s wine industry is fairly small, but offers some curiosities like red kallmet from the northern Shkodra region. The Cobo winery near Berat in central Albania is also well worth visiting.

Besides alcohol, coffee is the main social catalyst. The Ottoman aristocracy introduced caffeine in the 16th century, and coffee houses have been pillars of local communities ever since. Turkish-style coffee is the traditional staple, though younger urban clientele opt for Italian- and Austrian-style brews. Turkish coffee (which is not always acknowledged to be Turkish) is prepared by heating finely ground coffee beans and water for several minutes and served in a small cup with a glass of water and a biscuit or Turkish delight on the side. In Serbia, Kosovo and Albania the custom is to mix sugar with the coffee powder and water as well.

Vegetarians & Vegans

Vegetarians may get frustrated on occasion; it pays to learn some key food phrases in each country, so you can explain what you don’t want to appear on your plate.

There are some delicious Turkish-style vegetable dishes to be had, such as roast peppers and aubergines (eggplants), cauliflower moussaka and vegetarian burek, which can be filled with cheese, potato or spinach.

Many entrées are vegetarian as well, such as ajvar, but ‘vegetarian’ soups are sometimes flavoured with smoked ham. Top-end restaurants and those in international hubs are getting more veggie-savvy, but if all else fails you can always fill up on salads: generally a fresh mix of chopped tomato, onion and cucumber, sometimes with grated white cheese and peppers as well. Or enjoy starters tapas style; fried peppers and aubergines, goat cheese and olives can be a happy substitute for a main.

Vegans, good luck. On the upside the region is agriculturally rich and doing your own shopping in produce markets will be a joy.