The great variety in Serbia’s cuisine originates from its geographical, national and cultural diversity, and the jigsaw of centuries of population changes. Influences on Serbian cuisine have been rich and varied – it first began as a mixture of Greek, Bulgarian, Turkish and Hungarian cooking.
An old Serbian legend says that during the time of the 14th-century Serbian Empire, under the rule of Stefan Uroš IV Dušan, meals in the Serbian palace were eaten with golden spoons and forks. Historians say that mediaeval Serbian cuisine mainly consisted of milk, dairy produce and vegetables. Not a lot of bread was eaten, but when it was, the rich ate bread made from wheat and the poor ate bread made from oats and rye. The only meat consumed was game, with cattle kept for agricultural use.
Beef prosciutto, kajmak, ajvar, cicvara (a type of polenta made from flour, eggs, butter and cheese), rose-petal slatko (a sweet preserve) and other specialities made with dried plums are considered native Serbian foods.
Dough-based foods, such as breads, strudels and pasta, and various kinds of processed meats produced from healthy stocks of cattle and poultry are characteristic of modern day Vojvodina. Spinach pies and spit-roast pork are characteristic of Šumadija. Smoked meat is the speciality of western Serbia and the lamb dishes of Zlatibor and Zlatar are not to be missed. The cuisine of eastern Serbia is noted for its dry shepherd’s pies, lamb cooked in milk, smoked wild boar meat, janjija with three kinds of meat and various vegetables, and Homolj kačamak (a regional type of polenta made from cornmeal, potato and sometimes feta cheese). In southern Serbia grilled or spit-roasted meat dishes, particularly the famous Leskovac grilled specialities, are very popular. Hundreds of tasty dishes, both vegetarian and meat-based, are eaten in Kosovo and Metohija: bingur, pirjanice, various pies and baklava, as well as lamb and mutton specialities.
It is not an easy task to introduce a foreign visitor in Serbia to the secrets of local cuisine. Many dishes cannot be adequately translated into another language, while others are simply not eaten anywhere else, even though they are made from ingredients commonly available in all European countries. That is why if you are keen to investigate Serbia’s national cuisine, which has evolved in a melting-pot of civilisations and ethnic influences, you should let the experienced hands of Serbian restaurateurs guide you.
If you want to try an authentic, traditional Serbian first course, after your aperitif of hladna prepečenica (45-50 proof cold plum rakija – brandy), you should ask for some proja (cornbread), sir (soft cheese) and kajmak (kaymak – similar to clotted cream). Do not be surprised if you are also asked to choose a salad as they are eaten with both the starter and the main course in Serbia. If it is winter, you should choose kiseli kupus (sauerkraut/pickled cabbage), and if it is summer, opt for hladna bašta (‘Cold Garden’ salad).
If you want to sample one of the meat specialities, the best combination to opt for is a srpska zakuska (Serbian starter) with either proja (cornbread) or pogača (a flat, round bread). Alongside some kajmak and cheese, this dish includes pršut (prosciutto – dry-cured ham), pečenica (smoked pork tenderloin), srpska kobasica (Serbian sausages), dimljeni vrat (smoked ham), kuvana jaja (hard-boiled eggs), papričice (chilli peppers) and mladi luk (spring onion). You should choose a quality white wine or rosé with this starter. During winter, the Serbian starter may also include pihtije, prebranac, pečenica and feferone (chilli peppers).
Pihtije (“pork cheese” – jellied pork) is a traditional Serbian winter starter that originated from the need to make use of low quality cuts of pork (hocks and meat from the head). These are boiled in water with pepper, bay leaves and salt. The meat is separated from the bone and the liquid is poured into shallow bowls. Garlic is then added to taste and the bowls left in a cold place to set. Aleva, that is ground red paprika, is sprinkled on top and then it is cut into cubes. Pihtije is served with pickled vegetables (gherkins, peppers and green tomatoes).
Prebranac (Serbian baked beans) is prepared with a special variety of large white bean (tetovac), onions and seasoning (pepper, salt and paprika). It is served cold as part of the Serbian starter. Of course, some wine to go with this dish is a must. Try a white wine špricer (‘spritzer’ – a mixture of two parts white wine and one part carbonated water) – it helps digestion.
For those of you who prefer lighter food, then cold posne sarmice (little low-fat sarma wraps) come highly recommended. A stuffing made from sautéed onion and rice, plus tomato, paprika and parsley, is wrapped in cabbage or vine leaves.
During more formal occasions, fish lovers should not forget to try punjeni smuđ na golubački način (Golubac style stuffed perch fillet). The perch – the king of the Danube – and Golubac – a fortress on the river – have combined quality and a tradition of fine dining. Fish is always accompanied with white wine, but straight this time!
If you manage to resist the charms of the cold starters and delicious soups, you can begin your meal with a warm starter. Of course, soft cheese and kajmak are still on the menu because no meal can be complete without them, but as a warm starter they come as gibanica (cheese and egg pie) or zeljanica (spinach pie). These pies are made with filo pastry and are filled with plenty of cheese, kajmak and egg, and if you order a zeljanica, then it contains finely-chopped spinach and dock leaves as well. These pies are especially good with some beer!
In the majority of good restaurants you can order pečurke (mushrooms), which are usually button mushrooms. They are served on a bed of rice, or more often with chicken liver. Don’t forget to drink some good rakija (local brandy) before starting this dish! Choose either klekovača (juniper brandy) or lincura (Yellow Gentian herbal brandy), as they will increase your appetite.
Punjene paprike sa sirom (peppers stuffed with cheese) is an interesting dish from southern Serbia. It is cooked in two different ways, either fresh or breaded. They are best made from dried red peppers, stuffed full of cheese and kajmak, and roasted in a fireproof dish. Pohovane tikvice (battered courgette) or pohovani plavi patlidžan (battered aubergine) are fantastic during summer. These dishes are served with tartar sauce and are best washed down with a beer.
Soups and broths
There is a common saying in Serbia, “If I haven’t eaten with a spoon, then I haven’t eaten at all!” Regardless of whether it is an everyday affair or a special occasion, without soup or a čorba (broth) lunch is just not complete. There are many different kinds of soups and broths to be sampled, the common ones being:
- Serbian veal broth (teleća srpska čorba)
- Serbian chicken broth (pileća srpska čorba)
- Lamb broth (jagnjeća čorba)
- Beef or chicken soup (goveđa or pileća supa).
Čorbe are full of meat and vegetables, and are often spiced or sour.
Supe (soups) are also made with meat and vegetables, but these are removed prior to serving and replaced with noodles or dumplings.
However, there is a čorba that is a bit of both: Šumadijska (ratarska) supa (Šumadija farmer’s soup). This broth contains chicken strips, carrot, parsnip, celeriac and onion, cooked with a dash of pepper and finely-chopped parsley to season.
You can get all kinds of international cuisine in Serbia’s restaurants. Nevertheless, when we want to eat well, we turn to local cuisine.
Serbian grilled meat dishes have become the symbol of Serbian cuisine, with one of the best known being ćevapčići (minced beef rolled into finger-size pieces on ice, grilled and served with finely-chopped onion).
Mešano meso (mixed grill) combines all the delights from the grill on a single plate: ćevapčići, pljeskavice (beef burgers), uštipci (meatballs stuffed with cheese and smoked ham), kobasice (sausages), krmenadle (pork chops), ražnjići (shish kebab), đevrek (doughnut-shaped meatball with kajmak) and vešalica (strips of smoked meat). As food from the grill is best eaten freshly prepared and still piping hot, the so-called leskovački voz (Leskovac Train) was invented. The number of ‘carriages’ this train has depends solely on the size of your appetite. Once you have eaten two or three ćevapčići, next to arrive is a pljeskavica, and then, before you can raise your ice cold spritzer to propose a toast, steaming hot kobasice are placed on the table. The ‘train’ continues to chug along with the arrival of some home-made lepinja (flatbread). Keep in mind that it is you who dictates when the last ‘carriage’ has passed by!
The Karađorđeva šnicla (Karađorđe steak) is named after Karađorđe, the leader of the First Serbian Uprising against the Turks. A veal steak is stuffed with kajmak, rolled up, and dipped in egg. It is then covered with breadcrumbs and deep-fried. This dish is served with tartar sauce and a glass of quality red wine suits it very well.
Serbs cannot imagine celebrating any important holiday without pečenje na ražnju (spit-roasted meat). But why stop at holidays? Travelling through Serbia, you will notice that restaurants with lambs or pigs revolving on the spit-roast in front of them are an integral part of the landscape. The meat is sold by the kilogram and is eaten with salad, and in winter, with pickled winter salads. With the roast, you can enjoy a glass of red wine.
Teleći šumadijski kotlet (Šumadija veal cutlet) is a cutlet of veal, served with Serbian cheese, tomatoes, bacon, sour cream, potato, rice and hot chilli peppers. We recommend a quality red wine to accompany this dish.
The tradition of preserving meat by smoking is illustrated by the large variety of smoked meats served in restaurants. The best-known is dimljena vešalica (a smoked, grilled strip of pork), served with Serbian Salad as a side-dish. A quality red wine goes great with this meal.
As the cold makes way for spring, winter food is replaced by fresh food. Kapama od jagnjećeg mesa (lamb kapama – a stew) is a favourite springtime meal. Pieces of lamb are sautéed with spring onion and leek, together with young spinach, and then simmered on the stove or, alternatively, cooked in the oven. Natural yogurt is the preferred drink with Lamb Kapama.
Srpski đuveč (a casserole) is prepared with tomatoes, bell peppers, potatoes, rice, hot chilli peppers, diced pork and onion, which is first fried and then baked in the oven. It is has a piquant and delicious taste. You will be thirsty, so do not forget to order some white wine.
Those of you who prefer milder dishes will not go far wrong with punjene tikvice (stuffed courgettes). Courgettes are stuffed with rice and minced meat (lamb and pork), cooked with tomatoes and herbs, and then served with a helping of natural yogurt. You should order some quality rosé wine to drink with this meal.
Pasulj (Serbian beans) is one of the most popular local dishes and comes prepared in many different ways, such as a broth or a soup, a vegetarian version or an “army” version. Pasulj is cooked with onion, bay leaves, and meat, such as diced bacon or smoked spare-ribs, and thickened with browned flour to finish with. Pasulj is usually served with kobasica (sausage), krmenadla (pork chop) or similar meat. You really should order a salad to eat alongside pasulj – we recommend sweet cabbage or roast peppers in oil, with a sprinkling of garlic. Beer or a white wine spritzer go hand-in-hand with this dish.
Kiseli kupus (pickled cabbage/sauerkraut) is a traditional winter food. However, fresh cabbage is also eaten raw, as a salad, or it is cooked in a variety of ways. One of these is podvarak (stewed cabbage). Chopped sauerkraut and onion are fried, and then fat is added, often with finely chopped pieces of bacon. This is then baked in the oven and served with turkey or roast pork. This dish is a regular guest at the dining table during the winter holidays. A quality red wine should be drunk with this dish.
Svadbarski kupus (Wedding Cabbage) is cooked slowly in a large clay pot for several hours. It is prepared using pickled cabbage, mutton, beef, pork, and smoked meat as well, with generous amounts of onion, pepper, salt and bay leaves. This dish is especially good when accompanied by quality red wine.
Kuvana kolenica (cooked pork hock) is a gourmet dish, cooked together with spices and served with horseradish. This dish cannot be eaten without some white wine or a cold spritzer.
Jagnjeća sarmica (lamb sarma wraps) are made from lamb lung and liver. These are boiled, then chopped with rice, egg, fried onion and spices added. This is then stuffed into lamb caul fat to form small parcels, which are dipped in milk and egg. These parcels are then roasted in the oven. This dish is served with sour cream and we recommend a quality white wine.
Riblja čorba (fish broth) is an excellent way to start a meal. There are numerous competitions every year to award a prize for the best fish broth, which suggests that there is no standard recipe, only excellent chefs and their well-kept secrets. Riblja čorba is prepared using a number of different species of high quality fish, plus various herbs and spices.
Šaran sa srpskim pilavom (carp with Serbian pilaff) – carp, rice, onion, tomato, white wine, paprika, salt, pepper and lemon. A fish needs to swim – best to let it do so in white wine.
Smuđ na smederevski način (Smederevo style perch) – fillet of perch prepared with onion, tomato, peppers, parsley, a dash of white wine, lemon, salt and pepper. Of course, this dish should be accompanied by white wine.
Punjeni smuđ (stuffed perch) – fillet of perch stuffed with pršut (smoke-dried ham), onion, rice, grated potato, and a touch of salt, pepper, parsley and white wine. Again, white wine goes well with this.
Pržena somovina (fried catfish) – for those who like to eat fish but find the bones off-putting, we recommend you sample this dish. Catfish steaks are fried in oil and served with boiled potatoes and lemon. You guessed it: white wine goes well with this dish, too.
Salads are commonly eaten as a side dish in Serbia. In the past, the type of salad eaten depended on the season. Turšija (pickled vegetables) was eaten in winter, while fresh vegetables were more common in summer. These days it is not so strict, but the tradition has lived on. Tomatoes, peppers, onion and hot chilli peppers are the most common ingredients in mixed salads.
Srpska salata (Serbian Salad) consists of the previously mentioned vegetables, plus fresh cucumber, a pinch of salt and pepper and a drizzle of oil. If grated white cheese is added then it becomes a šopska salata.
Peppers are eaten fresh, but more commonly they are roasted. Pečena paprika (roasted pepper) is a salad made from a long, pointed variety of pepper, roasted, with garlic, oil and vinegar.
Urnebes salata is recommended for those who love their food hot. This salad is a paste made from cheese mixed with powdered chilli peppers.
In some restaurants, hot green chillies, fresh or roasted with garlic in oil, will already be on the table.
In the more cosy restaurants, you may be offered a salad called hladna bašta (‘Cold Garden’ salad). A whole tomato, peppers, peeled cucumber, spring onions and lots of ice cubes are placed in a large bowl.
Kiseli kupus (pickled cabbage/sauerkraut) is mainly eaten during winter. A whole pickled cabbage is chopped and served with oil and crushed dried peppers.
Ajvar is baked peppers and aubergines – roasted, ground, mixed and then fried in oil. It is served with oil and if you want garlic, it can be added.
Turšija is a mixture of pickled gherkins, peppers, green tomatoes, cauliflower and carrots. This salad is most often served alongside a roast dinner.
Do not be taken aback if you are offered a salad to eat with your aperitif – which will probably be a Serbian šljivovica (plum brandy). Sauerkraut goes very well with a good rakija (brandy).
If you wish, you can also order salads made of fresh cabbage, cooked beetroot, lettuce, beans, French beans, celeriac and potato.
After a good lunch or dinner with cold wine, the waiter will ask if you would like something sweet. The answer should of course be yes! Serbia is a major fruit producer and exporter, but in Serbian restaurants you will not be served fresh fruit as a dessert, only as an ingredient in cakes.
Every good Serbian kafana (traditional restaurant) wishing to live up to its reputation ought to have suva pita sa orasima (walnut pie), which has a layer of special rolled and lightly baked pastry, then a layer of ground walnuts. It is very refreshing after a heavy meal, and with a glass of wine it’s even better! Alternatively, you could try orasnice (finely chopped walnuts bound together with sugar and egg in the shape of a horseshoe). Men in particular are fond of them!
If you do not like walnuts, then try štrudla sa jabukama, štrudla sa višnjama or štrudla sa makom (apple/sour cherry/poppyseed strudel), which are made from flour, oil, eggs, vanilla sugar, raisins, yeast and either apples, sour cherries or poppy seeds.
You cannot overlook palačinke (pancakes) which are made from flour, sugar, eggs, milk and oil. You can eat them with walnuts, jam or chocolate, baked, flambéed or in a wine chateau. On special occasions, pancakes are eaten with walnuts, chocolate, butter, almonds, orange syrup, some maraschino liqueur and a dash of cognac. This is set alight in front of you and then your flambéed pancakes are ready.
Once you have finished your meal, you will be offered some coffee before you settle the bill. Should you have a Turkish coffee or an espresso? You really should try a Turkish coffee, which is in actual fact Serbian coffee because this kind of coffee has never been drunk in Turkey. Simply say how you like your coffee, with or without sugar, or simply ask for an “ordinary coffee” (obična kafa), leaving the details to the cook.
The range of both alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks in Serbia’s restaurants is excellent and covers drinks from all corners of the world. Restaurants that keep selected types of rakija and wines in their own cellars are particularly highly regarded.
We suggest that you try some of Serbia‘s own brands of drink:
- Rakije (brandies) made from natural ingredients (fruits and herbs): šljivovica – plum brandy, kajsijevača – peach brandy, viljamovka – pear brandy, dunjevača – quince brandy, lozovača – grape brandy and travarica – herb brandy
- Beers: Lav, MB, BG, Jelen, Vajfert and Pils.
- Fruit juices: Next, Nectar, Golf and La Vita
- Sparkling water: Knjaz Miloš, Vrnjci, Aqua Heba and Minaqua
- Still water: Rosa, Aqua Gala, Voda Voda and Aqua Viva