Balkan Food: Balkan Dishes You Won’t Want To Miss
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 continent! The typical Balkan food scene usually includes hearty meals that are sure to fill your stomach, based on 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 Balkan diet is a shared appreciation for a simple menu done right, which is precisely how it should be!
You May Be Wondering – What Is Balkan Food?
Balkan cuisine refers to the provincial cuisines of 12 countries on the Balkan Peninsula. It would be best described as food based on Ottoman cooking, with heavy influences from Mediterranean and Central European dishes. So, let’s answer all your Balkan food questions.
You’ll find meaty dishes on the list below, like cevapcici and pljeskavica. Various kinds of cheeses, pickled vegetables, as well as all manner of things stuffed, like our famous stuffed peppers
Balkan Dishes You’ll Want To Sink Your Teeth Into
We have put together a list of what we believe is a good mix of all Balkans cuisines. So, if you like trying snacks from other countries, you can taste Balkan food and enjoy a wide range of Balkan foods here. And in the process, you could 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, is by far and away the essential staple of any Balkans cuisine, and you can try different forms of it in almost any country you travel to. It is among the most popular Serbian food served throughout Bosnia and Croatia.
They are served differently, in different amounts, and made with varying combinations of ingredients in each place; 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 grilled meat, whether beef, lamb, pork, or veal, served inside a flatbread. They are often served with ajvar (see below) and chopped onions.
A heavy hitter of Bulgarian cuisine, tarator soup is a standout dish and easily one of the most famous Bulgarian dishes. You’ll quickly discover that tarator soup is listed on nearly every Bulgarian menu.
A ubiquitous sight during the warm summer months, this chilled soup is simple, light, and very refreshing. Commonly served as a first course, tarator soup may be your initial introduction to authentic Bulgarian cooking when you arrive.
Traditional tarator soup usually contains a blend of the beloved unique Bulgarian yogurt, chopped dill, cucumbers, sunflower oil, and maybe a bit of garlic. Cold water or even ice cubes are added to make it all that more refreshing.
Some varieties may see the soup topped with walnuts for a bit of a crunch, and there’s a salad version that omits watering down the yogurt.
Okay, this really isn’t a food per se, but it deserves to be on this Balkan dish list as it is a staple of the Balkans food chain. Think of ajvar to the Balkans cuisine as what pesto is to Italian cooking.
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 traditional Balkan spices, tomatoes, and a little eggplant to make it hot. You will surely get plenty of tastes of ajvar on your vacation to the Balkans.
When you eat a Flija, you wonder how a simple alternating batter and cream dish can taste so good. Alternating layers of batter and cream are filled into a pan and baked one layer at a time over 5 to 6 hours. But if you get the chance to watch it being made, you’ll be awed at the amount of work this simple Kosovo food takes.
Isn’t that painstaking work? It’s probably what makes the flija taste so much sweeter.
Dolma can take many shapes and forms and use a variety of vegetables. However, the most commonly eaten dolma dish comprises rice wrapped in 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 liquid stock or tomato sauce before being served with kajmak (see below).
Mostar’s Sogan Dolma
This unique dolma variety is a typical dish from the area of Mostar. It uses onions as the main ingredient. In the original recipe, onions are stuffed with either meat, rice, or a mixture of both, and it is far from being a dry or tasteless dish.
It can be served as a snack or starter, and it is easy to find in any restaurant or eatery in the region. In contrast with warm regular dolma, sogan dolma will usually come to your table boiling.
Menemen is a breakfast dish, but you’ll find people eating this all day long; such is its popularity. Menemen is made with peppers, tomatoes, and eggs and a little spice to add extra flavor. It’s a real treat and super addictive! Again, use the bread to eat it, and be sure to drink a glass or two of Turkish tea (cay) beside it.
Sucuk yumurta is a breakfast dish you’ll often find as part of a traditional Turkish breakfast. You might also find sucuk served alone or on bread (sucuk ekmek). Sucuk is a dry, fermented sausage that is extremely popular and famous across Turkey. You will struggle to find a house that doesn’t have some sucuk in it!
Sucuk is cut into small, thin pieces and fried in this dish. Then, fried eggs are cracked over the top and cooked. You may find the eggs left with the eggs whole or mixed up in a scrambled variety. Either way, it’s delicious with fresh bread with your hands!
Fish and seafood are popular Balkan foods 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 typical 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.
These small dumplings, usually steamed or boiled, filled with a mixture of ground beef (or mutton) and blonde onions sauté in a pan, is a delicious dish in Balkan cuisine; in some places, it is also possible to find them made with a cheese filling.
They are very similar to Turkish manti or Italian ravioli and are simply one of the best meals you can have in the country.
On top, you will not find tomato sauce but a delicious and creamy sauce made with yogurt and plenty of garlic.
Pljeskavica is a round patty made of beef, lamb, pork, or veal (or a mixture), depending on where you visit the Balkans. It is a fairly common dish served either plain or on a bun with kajmak and ajvar spread. This Balkan street food is 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. Like any salad you have ever had, 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 it 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.
As in many other countries in Eastern Europe, the Balkans, and even Greece, rice is much more eaten than you would have expected. In general, dishes have a strong vegetarian component, and there are a lot of dishes without meat. Djuvec is one of them.
Cooked in a typical round pot bearing the same name as the dish, Djuvec is a vegetarian dish made with various seasonal vegetables and rice. Everything is slow-cooked for at least 2 hours in this pot and well-seasoned. When the dish is ready, it can be served alone as a main dish or the perfect side dish for a succulent piece of grilled or stewed beef.
They look 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 will find your favorite kind after at least a handful of tastings.
Grilled Meat and Fish
We know we have already mentioned the Balkans’ 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, traditionally served with rice or potatoes to complement.
The closer you are to the sea, the more likely you are to find fish as part of the local Balkan 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.
And, of course, the essential ingredient of Slavonian cuisine is paprika! This classic dish is typically prepared with three types of meat: beef, pork, and anything you like (I like throwing a little game in). After that, people tend to put whatever they like in their stew, including the typical Balkan vegetables like potatoes, onions, carrots, and herbs.
Bread, Bread, And More Bread
Bread is not more common in a Balkans diet than in an Italian diet. However, you will find many kinds of bread served with almost every meal you eat while on vacation in the Balkans.
Whether with the famous cevapi, served as a side with stew, or buried underneath the 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.
Somun, The Local Pita Bread
Available with any meal, commonly used to prepare snacks and sandwiches, and ideal to accompany the several meat dishes in Balkan cuisine, somun is a type of flatbread, very similar to Arabic or Greek pita bread.
The most common way to find somun is with cevapi and other ingredients such as chopped white onions, a red pepper paste (ajvar), and soft cream cheese known as kaymak.
The bread is soft, chewy, and fragrant, with Turkish roots.
Traditional struklji is usually prepared with different ingredients not as common to the Balkans region, such as apple, tarragon, nuts, and cottage cheese.
Struklji can either be roasted and flaky like strudel or boiled, so it is very versatile in how it is served.
It can be served to complement the main course or dessert, depending on what it is filled with. However, the staple flavors are consistent throughout. 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.
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!
It is jokingly said in Bulgaria that a suitable partner must know how to make good Bulgarian moussaka. Moussaka may be considered more Greek, but the Bulgarians have their own unique recipe, which is adored throughout the country. Bulgarian moussaka substitutes the traditional eggplant found in the Greek variety with potatoes and contains minced or ground meat, egg, and sometimes mushrooms.
This traditional Bulgarian food is easy to make and incredibly delicious. Some recipes call for a topping of yogurt for a bit of a tangy flavor, while others choose to top their moussaka with cheese.
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. Believe it or not, the main base ingredient is yogurt, 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 an everyday staple in Balkan cuisine; 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. The jam can be replaced in the afternoon and evenings with meats, cheeses, potatoes, and much more to compliment some 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. These popular Balkan snacks are typically rounded and look like a bunch of layers of pie compacted into small bite-size pastries.
Another lovely dessert with Ottoman origins is tufahija; this recipe takes a simple ingredient like apples and turns them into an authentic delicacy.
To cook this dish, apples are cored and boiled in water with sugar and then served topped with walnuts and whipped cream; it is also common to drizzle it with the warm cooking juice (which has turned into a thick, savory syrup). Perfect to have it with a cup of coffee.
An incredibly popular dessert or sweet treat in coastal Croatia, kroštule are a type of sweet pastry knots. They are especially popular 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. Powdered sugar is sprinkled on top to give them an even more festive look. Additionally, flavorings can include lemon zest, orange liqueur, or limoncello. Check out our kroštule recipe here!
These small dough pieces are filled with a sweet or savory filling and then deep-fried. And, of course, they are among the most favorite snacks in the country.
Sweet ustipci are filled with various jams or even honey (modern versions can even have Nutella in them) and sprinkled with icing sugar on top. The savory ones can have cheese, onions, or meat inside.
In their sweet or savory version, ustipci is a snack with very old origins, a traditional recipe passed from one generation to the next. It is common to have them with your coffee or salep tea.
As mentioned earlier, kajmak is used in or on many dishes in the Balkans and, therefore, if not even a dish itself, must be noted 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.
We love kajmak on almost any dish in the Balkans, or at least to complement. And locals would agree with us. That is very obvious by how much you will serve this side staple. It has the texture of thick cream but is very mild in taste.
If you haven’t eaten kajmak throughout your Balkans road trip, you probably haven’t eaten locally enough during your stay. You should consider returning for a more fulfilling Balkan cooking experience.
Another amazing Balkan dish for those who prefer sweets over savory are loukoumades.
A fantastic delicacy made with the well-known donut dough, these small balls of pastry are fried and served hot, sprinkled with loads of honey, sometimes cinnamon, or crushed almonds or nuts. A typical food of Greece easily found in Greek resorts during summer; loukoumades can be served with whipped cream and even ice cream that melts when placed over the steaming hot sweet pastry.
Nothing is more delicious than a dish of just-fried loukoumades. They can be the perfect afternoon treat and a fantastic dessert right by the beach!
This is a fun Balkans dish usually served for more than one person, 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 Balkan taste and flavor 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 country’s most well-liked Bulgarian dish of all traditional foods. It is a good taste for breakfast or any other time 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 baked into a flaky-ish pastry that practically melts in your mouth. Some 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 primarily 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 place on this list of best traditional foods throughout 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 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 slowly caught on in a few Balkans countries.
If you like pizza with a difference, you’ll love lahmacun. It’s cooked in a wood-fired oven until the edges are crispy and super delicious! This flatbread is typically topped with ground lamb, spices, and tomatoes.
Roll it up with salad leaves in the middle and a squeeze of lemon for a tasty treat you’ll undoubtedly want to repeat.
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 said, don’t be afraid to try these beautiful 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. Don’t let the smell put you off. If you have never tried these, give them a whirl. 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 cascades 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. Numerous varieties are known by their local name, including dalmatinski, trogirski, makarski, and sinjski rafioli. They are a staple at events like baptisms, birthday parties, and weddings. 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.
A portion of excellent Balkan cuisine to try when exploring the coast of Croatia! 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, ranging from chocolate and cream to citrus and vanilla.
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 a 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 it’s customary 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 Greece’s most famous and popular dishes, 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 putting lettuce and fried potatoes in it. Other people would never eat a gyro without tzatziki sauce inside it… there’s a 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. However, the most common filling is jam or chocolate, and you can quickly grab and eat one on the go if you have a sweet craving. You can also try making them at home with our krofne recipe!
You’ll find regional variations of palačinke all over the Balkans and Europe. This is a crepe or thin pancake traditionally filled with cream, chocolate sauce, biscuit, walnuts, and, sometimes, honey. You’ll quickly 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, which is often filled with cheese or ham.
Patatnik is one of Bulgaria’s top comfort foods originating in the Rhodope Mountains. It’s a shredded potato pie typically featuring Bulgarian sirene white cheese, but you may also see it prepared with local grated kashkaval yellow cheese. The dish also features a hint of mild locally grown mint.
The traditional Bulgarian cooking method of patatnik involves slow cooking it over an open fire. Still, nowadays, you often see it prepared in a pan on the stove or baked in the oven. It may not be the quickest dish to make, taking around 30 to 40 minutes from start to finish, but the flavor is worth the effort. Some varieties may also include eggs or peppers.
This isn’t any old burger. No, it’s undoubtedly an acquired taste, but you should give it a go. In particular, you’ll find an islak burger in Istanbul, and it’s a wet hamburger. Although a little smaller, it’s a regular hamburger, then covered in a tomato/garlic sauce and put in a very hot box of steam until it turns wet or a little sweaty.
It sounds horrendous, but it’s not. It’s quite pleasant!
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 worldwide, but it certainly is throughout the Balkans. Everyone, everywhere (in the Balkans), drinks this delicious spirit throughout the region and cultures – they usually spell it differently.
It is generally made from plums, giving it a naturally sweet taste similar to that of 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, and it can happen more straightforward 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 cuisine.
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
Our team has also done a lot of travel — whether it be via road trips, Eurail, Adriatic cruises, or flying all over the Balkans.
Throughout those trips, we have accumulated what we believe to be the best itineraries, no matter the length or modes of your travels. Please look at some of our best guides around the Balkans and its 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, the 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 or more Balkan cuisine recipes, don’t hesitate to reach out to us!
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Baklava is NOT AT ALL greek.. Even greek prime minister accept it’s turkish… Because of the ottoman empire some countries(greece,balkans etc) have turkish food too.. 🙂
Thanks for the incredible blog
A great read with lots of new food ideas.