There comes a point in your life when you stare into the abyss, and the abyss stares back, smiles, and says hello. More precisely in our case, amidst a refreshing spring shower, it said zdravo. Or so it seemed to me, as I was very focused on it, on its shiny frothy blackness reflecting the last rays of the sun hiding under clouds- my abyss was the mother of all Turkish coffees.
Or domaća kafa, as it is called around this part of the world- homemade coffee, but also coffee from home, without any particular nationality stuck to it, such dances with terms and fire are particularly popular in the area of the former Yugoslavia, where not really knowing what to call it, people will refer to the language as naš jezik- our language, the group engulfed by ‘our’ to be defined at a later stage, or possibly never, as to avoid unnecessary hassle.
Coffee is of course not only an abyss, but a general Balkan turbulence: each summer I spend particularly entertaining moments listening to Turks and Greeks bicker over what to call it- the Turks might have the advantage, as basically the whole area (but the Greeks) calls it Turkish coffee, so besides calling it domaća, you can also get away with calling it turska kafa in Serbia as well.
The specimen which started this whole sociocultural rambling was sampled in the Krunska ulica outpost of the Coffeedream chain and, in its whole intense half-litre splendour induced a state which could best be defined in Vinnie Jones’ words: it was emotional. As per our ulterior investigation, Turkish coffee is often served in giant portions in Belgrade, yet I tend to be partial to the more classical iteration, which fills a small espresso cup- two great places to sample it are the Znak Pitanja restaurant on Kralja Petra street and Srpska Kafana on Svetogorska.
Srpska Kafana shouldn’t be your destination just for coffee- it’s a generally charming old affair, with the classical red-white checked table cloths, patrons who seem to be languishing in a dark corner at least since Vuk Karadžić’s linguistic reform and will casually go for beer and brandy for breakfast, extremely friendly staff (albeit with a completely minimal inkling of English, so be prepared for a polite sign language conversation around the subject of eggs if you speak no Serbian, or, alternatively take a crash course prior to travelling) , an esoteric all-Cyrillic website, and, above all, Srećko the house cat. I seem to have forgotten the food- which is very silly of me, because the food is also pretty amazing.
Should you be too in touch with your inner (or outer )hipster, there are also specialty coffee shops aplenty- in Užitak we were welcomed by a professional but pretty strict lady who took offence at my unorthodox consumption of very light roast Honduran beans as espresso- the coffee was however great and the location on Hilandarska street is perfect to take your poison of choice away to Tašmajdan park- I can’t really find reasons against my living is Belgrade except maybe that I would constantly tend towards zero productivity, as I’d be in Tašmajdan reading and having coffee.
Other spots worth checking out for caffeination purposes are Aviator Coffee- of which there are two, one on Gundulićev venac and one on Cara Nikolaja, and Zona Industriale on Njegoševa street. Should you wish to be on a very sober budget in Belgrade, there are plenty of small stores with fresh countryside produce, one of which brought me to the existential truth that Serbia is to the south of Hungary and thus fruit is riper in mid-May.
I am pretty great at observations like these-just recently, I noticed how, whereas I might run into obstacles in what concerns particularly obscure lexical aspects touching on birds, fish or vegetables, my Serbian vocabulary is flawless when it comes to fruit. Now I love my peaches and melons as much as the next woman, but the real reason behind this forte is that, quite similarly to their northern and north-eastern neighbours, Serbs are also the kind of people who will waste no chances in turning pretty much any kind of imaginable fruit into brandy. (The best kind of people, really, but I admit to being absolutely biased on this one.)The age old classic is of course plum brandy, šljivovica, yet if I were to choose the one type which Serbia excels at in particular, I would go for the more fragrant quince version, dunjevača. Most restaurants serve pretty good, often home made brandies, but for a more intensive study of this fascinating and relevant topic, Rakia Bar is a superb option.
In case you find brandy too intense, there is, of course the soothing alternative of beer. Although local friends have complained of a dip in the quality of commercial beers, I would still say that Serbia is in the fortunate position of having several absolutely enjoyable domestic beers, such as Jelen and Zaječarsko, plus neighbourly imports such as Nikšićko, of which the dark version is particularly heartwarming. Several craft breweries have also popped up recently- Kabinet definitely being the best, yes, I know I am weak minded, their bottles are just wonderful and I rattled home with several of them in tow, but the content is also top notch. Our sampling was done in the cozy surroundings of Pivopija bar in Novi Beograd- breaking news: they have a CAT- but in case you’re less lazy, you can also check out the bigger version in Zemun. Further to Kabinet, we’ll also give honourable mentions to beers from the Paunović and Zebrew brewery.
I now realize I have gone this far with only few mentions of what was supposed to be the main topic- food. I will therefore jump to the nutshell version: it’s magnificent. No, really, it is. I have always thought of Serbia as the land of, well, not necessarily milk and honey, but kaymak and Eurocrem. Even their standard supermarket sweets are of the mouth watering variety, and then they go full mental and make pancakes with plazma biscuits and the aforementioned Eurocrem- which is the nec plus ultra of the socialist dream, a dual coloured concoction of hazelnut cream which tastes like all your childhood fancies packed into a square plastic box. The day the disintegration of Yugoslavia really hit home was when my grandfather told me I would have to do with the sub par Greek version of Eurocrem- and with it, childish innocence died too.
Actually, I don’t even have a sweet tooth, but then I think of the tufahija (walnut stuffed apple) in Znak Pitanja, and I reconsider a fair chunk of my existence. I do however love meat, and was pretty amused to see vegan manifestos plastered all over Belgrade- much as I wish to be accepting of everything of everyone, there are lines you do not cross, and the connection of people from the Balkans with meat is a sacred bond.
Ćevapi (minced meat rolls), ražnjići (meat grilled on skewers) and pljeskavica (grilled meat patty), usually accompanied by an assortment of sides dishes including ajvar (pepper relish), kaymak, urnebes (peppery cheese cream) and onions are absolute staples, and just to make it all even more tantalizingly diet friendly, a delicious flatbread going by the local name of lepinja, is also thrown in. My absolute meaty nemesis when it comes to Serbian cuisine is Karađorđeva šnicla- a breaded and fried steak filled with kaymak- tasty and invariably, huge. I once dared ask a cook whether it would be possible to make a smaller edition- with a look of pity and scorn in his eyes he told me there is no such thing as a small Karađorđeva šnicla and he stormed off to talk to people who made marginally more sense than me.
You will definitely be on the safe side of things if you try some of the above in the restaurants on Skadarska street- Tri Šešira, Dva jelena, Zlatni bokal or Ima dana. Then there is of course the oft mentioned Znak Pitanja and the exquisite option of Koliba, modestly situated at the scenic confluence of the Sava and the Danube- though here you might also wish to try the fish and the walnut cake -as already mentioned, I’m really not into sweets and that is why I spent basically my entire stay in Belgrade eating them. Like, I’m not into ice cream either, so every time I went into Moritz Eis it was by some silly accident and I was drooling like a crazed pug over their entire range only because I had nothing better to do- they are to open a store in Budapest as well, so I will have new accidents for no good reason soonish.
That time I stumbled into a French pastry shop on Dobračina street was likewise an accident, alongside all the surreptitious visits to random bakeries (pekare) which serve burek with yogurt. As GK Chesterton said, poets have been mysteriously silent on the subject of cheese, but so have they been on the subject of yogurt, and that is just as wrong, because there is the kind of yogurt which is sour just so, and teeters on the border of being fluid, yet without falling into this trap- this kind of yogurt is rare and can be found in but a few countries in the Balkans and Belgrade happens to be in one of them.
In case some/all of the above sounds too intense, no need to despair, you can detox with smoothies and shakes in FitBar– though instead of kale and goji berries, they will still put kaymak in your omlette, because even diet food is fun in Serbia.