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Balkan Food: 26 Dishes You’ll Wanna Try In The Balkans
The Balkans, a region in Europe’s east, is often forgotten on the traveler’s radar. However, this region has much to offer a visitor, with the Balkans filled with culture, nature, and some of the best eateries on the whole continent! The standard Balkan food scene usually includes hearty meals that are sure to fill your stomach based with a lot of grilled meats and prepared with seasonal produce.
The culinary experience in this region includes influences from many surrounding cultures, including the Mediterranean, the Middle East, and even historical influences from periods such as the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires.
First, it must be stated that no matter where you go in the Balkans, whether it is the mountains of Bulgaria, small villages of Montenegro, or beachside resorts in Croatia, a good portion of all menus in the Balkans will have some similarities.
What brings together the Balkans diet is a common appreciation for a simple menu done right, and that is precisely how it should be!
24 Balkan Foods You’ll Wanna Sink Your Teeth Into
We have put together a list of what we believe is a good mix of all Balkans cuisines so you can plan to enjoy a wide range of Balkan foods, and in the process, become a true foodie of one of Europe’s most underrated regions.
Without further ado, we bring you the best foods in the Balkans:
Ćevapčići, also known as ćevapi, are by far and away, the essential staple to any Balkans cuisine, and you can try different forms of it in almost any country you travel to.
They are served differently, in different amounts, and made with varying combinations of ingredients each place you go; however, you can expect the same great satisfaction.
Ćevapčići are small finger-sized skinless sausages served in bunches of 5 or 10. Although they are made differently everywhere, you can usually expect some kind of grilled meat — whether that’s beef, lamb, pork, or veal, served inside a flatbread. They are often served with ajvar (see below) and chopped onions.
Okay, so this really isn’t a food per se, but it deserves to be on this Balkan food list as it is a staple of the Balkans food chain. Think of ajvar to the Balkans cuisine as what pesto is to Italian cuisine.
Ajvar is served with almost any meaty order at restaurants, including fish, and you will find a large variety of ajvar brands and flavors at any market throughout the region.
The original ajvar flavor consists of mainly roasted red peppers and garlic. You may be familiar with the taste already without realizing it. It can also contain spices to make it hot, tomatoes, and a little bit of eggplant. You will surely get plenty of tastes of ajvar on your vacation to the Balkans.
Dolma can take many shapes and forms and use a variety of vegetables; however, the most commonly eaten dolma dish consists of rice wrapped in some kind of leaves.
The filling and wrap can vary widely; there are dolma’s made of onion, zucchini, cabbage, meat, stuffed tomatoes, squash — you name it, it probably can be turned into dolma!
Most ingredients are backed in some kind of liquid stock or tomato sauce before being served with kajmak (see below).
Fish and seafood are popular Balkan food all across the region. If you find yourself at a local seafood restaurant, you should definitely try fiš paprikas, one of the Balkans’ greatest fish dishes.
A spicy fish stew common in the interior Balkans, such as Serbia and inland Croatia, fiš paprikaš is made with freshwater fish, which like čobanac, is cooked in a cauldron of fire. Typically, a mix of freshwater fish is used, including carp, catfish, and pike, along with a generous pinch of paprika. I love the look of the cauldron because it reminds me of how locals may have cooked hundreds of years ago before they had full kitchens.
Pljeskavica is a round patty made of beef, lamb, pork, or veal (or a mixture), depending on where you are visiting in the Balkans. It is a fairly common dish served either plain or on a bun with kajmak and ajvar spread. It is basically the equivalent of a hamburger if you want to look at it that way.
Cheap and cheerful, but very tasty.
This is a salad you can find on almost any menu in the Balkans. Just as any salad you have ever had before, it can be a mixture of many ingredients; however, the traditional shopska salad usually has cucumbers, peppers, onions, tomatoes, and some fine cheeses such as grated feta.
It is a very Mediterranean take on a salad as there are usually no leaves in a shopska salad and is served with olive oil and vinegar on the side. This is one of the only non-meaty options perfect for vegetarians you will find on this list of the best foods in the Balkans.
They look sort of like saltwater taffy, but Turkish Delight is anything but. The cubed, squishy, jelly-like sugary sweets are typically served with tea or enjoyed for dessert at the end of a heavy meal.
Some are covered in various nuts or have them inside, but there are many different versions. Spend some time in the Balkans, and you are bound to find your favorite kind after at least a handful of tastings.
Grilled Meat and Fish
We know we have already mentioned the Balkan’s infatuation with a meaty diet, but this can’t be understated. They enjoy their grilled meats, and there is usually a base of meat or fish in any main course on any menu throughout the region, usually served with rice or potatoes to compliment.
The closer you are to the sea, the more likely you are to find fish as part of the local diet, and almost anywhere you can find a sort of rare slow-cooked lamb on the menu, which should be tried at least once.
This hearty meat stew from Slavonia in continental Croatia is traditionally cooked in a cauldron hung over an open fire. Čobanac will keep you going all day long, as it did Slavonian shepherds for many generations. Not only will it sustain you all day, but the best part is that it’s super-delicious.
This classic dish is typically prepared with three types of meat, including beef, pork, and anything you like (I like to throw a little game in). And, of course, the essential ingredient of Slavonian cuisine is paprika! After that, people tend to put whatever they like in their stew, from potatoes and onions to pancetta, carrots, and various herbs.
Bread, Bread, And More Bread
Bread is not more common in a Balkans diet than, say, an Italian diet; however, you will find many kinds of bread served with almost every meal you eat while on vacation in the Balkans peninsula.
Whether it is with the famous cevapi or served as a side with stew, or buried underneath heapings of the main course, you are sure to fill up on bread with your meal.
Soft bread for breakfast and usually sweet, too. Most pastries we tried were delicious and are worth noting as there are not many breakfast foods on this list.
Balkans bread is not renowned, but you will notice it goes well with almost every staple meal.
Traditional struklji is usually prepared with different ingredients not as common to the Balkans region, such as apple, tarragon, various nuts, and cottage cheese.
Struklji can either be roasted and flaky like strudel or boiled, so it is very versatile in the way it is served.
Depending on what it is filled with, it can either be served to compliment the main course or dessert. They can either be salty or sweet, and it seems every year a new flavor of struklji is being favored by the general public, such as mixed fruits and chocolates. However, the staple flavors are consistent throughout.
Struklji is mainly a Slovenian delicacy that you can find in nearly every restaurant in Ljubljana and can go well with a local beer. You’ll also find a struklji restaurant in Zagreb, that serves nothing but!
Mekitsa is most commonly found in Bulgaria at the breakfast table. The best mekitsas are always handmade and not store-bought. You can try some of the best mekitsa on offer on almost any food tour you take in Sofia.
It is a sweet tasty treat to wake up to, made of puffy dough like donuts but with a sort of crunchy texture. The main base ingredient, believe it or not, is yogurt and usually coated in honey, chocolate spread, or fruity jam.
There is also a version of just powdered sugar and almost any other topping you can come up with; however, these are the main ones.
Though it is mainly consumed for breakfast, you can always find a mekitsa on Bulgaria’s streets, and you usually don’t have to look for too long. You must try this delicacy on your vacation to Bulgaria!
Burek is not only a common Balkan food staple but in versions of it can be found in many places all over Northern Africa and even in the Middle East. It can be baked at home or found at any bakery or quick food shop.
It is a versatile food on any menu because it can be prepared differently for different meals of the day. Generally, for breakfast, Bureks can be prepared sweet with jams. In the afternoon and evenings, the jam can be replaced with meats, cheeses, potatoes, and much more, usually to compliment some sort of yogurt-y dish.
Though it may look different in other places of the world, the ingredients remain similar, and its flaky, doughy texture is usually commonplace. The Balkans’ bureks are normally rounded and look like a bunch of layers of pie compacted into small bite-size pastries.
An incredibly popular dessert or sweet treat in coastal Croatia, kroštule are a type of sweet pastry knots. They are especially popular in the time between Christmas and Easter, particularly around Carnival.
Originating from the coastal regions of Dalmatia and Istria, this crunchy deep-fried dessert is super-easy to make. The dough consists of little more than flour, sugar, egg yolks, milk, and oil. Additionally, flavorings can include lemon zest, orange liqueur, or limoncello. Powdered sugar is sprinkled on top to give them an even more festive look. Check out our kroštule recipe here!
As mentioned earlier, kajmak is used in or on many dishes in the Balkans and, therefore, if not even a dish itself, must be mentioned on this list. Kajmak is just a spread, sort of like firm butter or cheese, served with some bread as an appetizer or used in various recipes just as cream would be used.
It has the texture of thick cream but very mild in taste. We love kajmak on almost any dish in the Balkans, or at least to compliment. And locals would agree with us. That is very obvious by the amount you will be served this side staple.
If you haven’t eaten kajmak over the course of your Balkans road trip, you probably haven’t eaten locally enough during your stay. You should consider returning for a more fulfilling culinary experience.
This is a fun Balkans dish usually served for more than one person, sort of like you are at home sitting around the table with family. Everyone digs into this meaty dish prepared with all kinds of chunks of meat but most commonly chicken, pork, and sausage.
It is served on a scorching hot iron plate in the center of the table, where you can hear the meats and other various ingredients still sizzling away. Though this tends to be a meat-eater dish, there are also vegetarian forms of Sach with loads of peppers, tomatoes, potatoes, and onions — a little something for everybody’s pallet.
Since it is a hearty, meaty dish, this meal is usually best washed down with some red wine, but when there is some spice to the meats, nothing hits the throat better than an ice-cold craft beer brewed in the heart of one of the Balkans countries.
Banitsa might be the most well-liked Bulgarian dish of all traditional foods in the country. It is a good taste for breakfast, or really, any other times of the day. With plenty of different variations of this popular food, you would be hard-pressed not to find one which suits your liking.
Usually, banitsa is made of eggs and cheese backed into a flaky-ish pastry that practically melts in your mouth. Some of the other varieties include yogurt, honey, pumpkin, spinach, and much more, so as you can see, there is a taste of banitsa for every craving.
You can find banitsa especially sold in Banicarnitsa around any part of Bulgaria where there will usually be a local or two enjoying one when you walk in.
Stuffed peppers are probably the most common dolma-type-of-food, so it gets its own place on this list of best traditional foods all over the Balkans. Usually filled to the brim with a few simple ingredients, stuffed peppers are sure to have your mouth watering and (probably) craving more at the end of it.
Some of the ingredients include (but are not limited to) meats (of course), rice, paprika, tomato sauce, onions, and garlic. The most favored pepper is the red when preparing stuffed pepper dolma, but yellow peppers are slowly catching on in a few Balkans countries.
These little cabbage rolls are something you can find in many continental European countries, including Poland. All Croatians, however, will tell you that their sarma recipe is the best! That being said, don’t be afraid to try these wonderful rolls throughout the Balkans, from Serbia to Macedonia and Romania.
Over the years, Mrs. Chasing the Donkey has honed her sarma-making skills and is good at preparing these smelly little rolls – for an Aussie, that is. “Why are they smelly?” I hear you ask. It’s because the cabbage leaves, in which you roll the meat, are pickled. If you have never tried these, give them a whirl. Don’t let the smell put you off. They’re absolutely delicious.
Baklava is a special dessert that deserves some love; I ate this all over Greece and Turkey; although it is not found just in Greece, you can find many different pastries similar to Baklava all over the Balkan peninsula.
Traditional baklava is made of phyllo dough, layered in walnuts, and cut into cube-shaped bite-size pieces of heaven. Usually, a waterfall of honey is cascading from the treat, and we suggest letting it soak into the thin pastry for the best tasting experience.
Be careful when trying Baklava, as after you have your first one, you are almost guaranteed to come back for another… And another after that. Perhaps, it is best to save baklava for the back-end of your trip through the Balkans. That way, you can’t become addicted or splurge too often on these overly sweet Balkan food sensations.
A typical coastal Croatian food, rafioli, is found all along the coast, from Istria to Dalmatia. There are numerous varieties, all known by their local name, including dalmatinski, trogirski, makarski, and sinjski rafioli. In fact, the fun thing about rafioli is that you can experiment and try out new ingredients—basically, every Croatian family has its very own rafioli recipe. They are a staple at events like baptisms, birthday parties, and weddings.
The basics, however, are always the same. Rafioli is a simple Croatian shortbread cookie traditionally filled with an almond filling. Modern versions can have different fillings, though, ranging from chocolate and cream to citrus and vanilla. An amazing Balkan food to try when exploring the coast of Croatia!
A typical breakfast dish in Turkey, I personally think you can enjoy this at any time of the day. Gozleme is a flat bread-type of dish, containing all kinds of different ingredients. A personal favorite of mine is potato, but you can also try cheese, mincemeat, spinach, cheese,… the list goes on.
I recommend trying and finding gozleme made the traditional way and avoiding the ones you find rolled up in bakeries. You’ll know that it’s traditional when you see the ladies in the restaurants rolling the thin dough and cooking it over a huge, round hot plate.
Gyro is one of the most famous and popular dishes in Greece, as beloved as souvlaki or even more. When it comes to gyro, the meat (chicken, pork, beef, or lamb) is not on skewers but cooked and then sliced and wrapped inside a pita that has been previously heated or kept warm.
Similar to many other Balkan dishes, old traditions, and personal taste define the gyro. Some Greeks would never dream of adding anything else to their gyro than the traditional tomatoes, onions, and yogurt.
However, for others, a gyro wrap is not complete without also putting lettuce and fried potatoes in it. Other people would never eat a gyro without tzatziki sauce inside it… there’s gyro for every taste in Greece.
Also known as krafne, krofne is a type of Balkan doughnut. These light and airy dough balls can be filled with various ingredients, such as jam, chocolate, or even marmalade, custard, or cream. The most common filling, however, is jam or chocolate, and you can easily grab and eat one on the go if you have a sweet craving. You can also try to make them at home yourself with our krofne recipe!
You’ll find regional variations of palačinke all over the Balkans and Europe. This is a crepe or thin pancake, which is traditionally filled with cream, chocolate sauce, biscuit, walnuts, and, sometimes, honey. You’ll easily find them all over the place, either as street food or in dedicated shops (that’s how popular this Balkan food is). There’s also a savory version to try, which is often filled with cheese or ham.
Well, here we are. We have reached the end of this list of the best culinary experiences in the Balkans. And what would this list be if it didn’t include the Balkans’ all too-famous drink, Rakija.
Actually, rakija may not be renowned enough throughout the world, but it certainly is throughout the Balkans. Everyone, everywhere (in the Balkans), drinks this delicious spirit throughout the region and cultures – they just usually spell it differently.
It is generally made from plums, which gives it a naturally sweet taste similar to that you get from a good bottle of brandy. Though plums are only the beginning, almost anywhere you go, you will see endless choices of flavors such as berries, apples, pears, peaches, herbs, nuts, and so much more beyond what you can imagine.
Every vacationer to the Balkans has their own rakija story of a night drinking one-too-many and, believe us, it can happen easier than you think. This stuff goes down like water!
Foodie’s Guide to the Balkans
While we by no means consider ourselves experts on every country’s culinary scene in the Balkans, it is safe to say we have ventured out and tried our fair share of Balkan foods.
We have had enough grilled meats and stuffed vegetables to last ourselves a while for now. Still, we definitely approve of the Balkans’ traditional foods listed above and recommend anyone visiting the Balkans try to taste as many of these delicious dishes as they can.
A Perfect Balkans Itinerary
Over the course of those trips, we have been able to accumulate what we believe to be the best itineraries, no matter the length or modes of your travels. Have a look at some of our best guides around the Balkans and its many scenic roads, coasts, and railways.
Your One-Stop Resource for Balkans Vacations
At Chasing the Donkey, we pride ourselves on knowing the Balkans region inside and out. We are passionate about bringing the Balkans to the world’s attention, as it rightfully deserves.
Whether it is the best foods from the Balkans, itineraries, best hotels and resorts, or off-the-beaten-path ideas for your entertainment, we try our best to bring you the most from the Balkans.
This beautiful region of Europe has been vastly under-explored and underappreciated for far too long. It is time vacationers are made aware of this gem of a vacation destination.
If you have any inquiries about other Balkan foods to try, don’t hesitate to reach out to us!Share