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Blending the flair of the Mediterranean and heat of West Asia atop a hearty foundation of European cuisine, these Balkans foods will speak to plenty of your senses with their creative fusions and rich flavors.
The Balkan Peninsula has a fascinating geography, sandwiched between several regions, including the Mediterranean, Central and Eastern Europe, and Asia. This means that a vast amount of culinary influences have found their way into the various cuisines of the region.
From buttery pastries to spiced meats and earthy soups to fiery spreads, the dishes of the Balkans will take you on a whirlwind adventure of color and flavor. While the cuisine is vast, these 25 dishes are especially popular throughout the region, and should definitely be added to your must-try list.
Popular Balkan Foods
One of the most popular foods all over the Balkans and throughout Eastern Europe, ćevapčići can be served in many ways, depending on the country.
Also called ćevapi, these skinless sausages made with a variety of minced meats are a staple of Bosnian and Serbian cuisines but are also popular in Croatia, Montenegro, Kosovo, North Macedonia, Albania, and Romania.
While the recipe can differ slightly, ćevapčići are usually made with beef, salt, and pepper. Some countries add veal, mutton, and lamb. Ćevapi are served on a plate with flatbread, onions, and ajvar on the side or as a fast food dish, placed inside a flatbread with ajvar.
Read more: Bosnian Food – 11 Traditional Dishes as Recommended by a Local
Dolma (the Turkish word for “stuffed”) refers to a broad category of stuffed dishes in Ottoman cuisine, the most popular being stuffed peppers, tomatoes, eggplant, and onions. You’ll find stuffed peppers in all Balkan countries, while stuffed onions are particularly popular in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
The vegetables are stuffed with a mix of rice, minced meat, onion, tomato, and herbs. Many countries also have vegetarian variations. From Serbia and Bulgaria to Croatia, Greece, and Romania, you can find dolma everywhere in the Balkans.
A subcategory of this dish is sarma, which you can discover more about below.
Another popular dish throughout the Balkans, sarma refers to the many variants of stuffed vine or cabbage leaves. The word sarma means “wrapped” in Turkish, referring to the action of wrapping the leaves around the stuffing, which usually consists of rice, ground meat, onions, and herbs.
The dish originated in Ottoman cuisine but is widespread across Eastern Europe, especially in Balkan countries.
Sarma is part of the broader stuffed dishes family of dolma, and is very common in Bulgaria, Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, and Romania, to name a few. It’s a heartwarming and filling dish, so pack an appetite.
Read more: Stuffed Grape Leaves Recipe
A popular Balkan street food, burek is a pastry made with filo dough and filled with anything from cheese and spinach to meat and potatoes. Burek is usually savory, but sweet variations also exist. The pastries can be either baked or fried.
You can find burek either in a large pan, divided into portions, or as individual pastries, usually rolled in a spiral.
You’ll find variations of burek in all Balkan countries. It’s a delicious and filling pastry, and one portion can easily replace a meal.
Read more: Cheese Burek Recipe
Tarator is a cold cucumber soup with yogurt, garlic, and dill. Although it resembles the Greek tzatziki, tarator is served as a soup in Bulgaria, Albania, and North Macedonia. Especially in Bulgaria and Albania, tarator is a widespread summer dish.
At restaurants, you can order tarator as an appetizer instead of a salad, followed by the main meal. If you ever visit Bulgaria or Albania in summer, be sure to try this refreshing dish.
Read more: Wonderfully Refreshing Tarator Recipe to Enjoy on a Hot Summer’s Day
If you visit Albania, Fergesë is another must-try dish. This one-pan dish is made with tomatoes, green peppers, onion, and cottage cheese or feta cheese. The mix of sautéed vegetables is placed in a clay pot, topped with the melted cheese, and baked in the oven.
The dish is left to cool before serving as a side dish with bread. A variation that includes liver is served as a main dish. This is mostly a homemade dish, but you can find it in some traditional Albanian restaurants, especially in Tirana.
Related: 17 Most Popular Albanian Foods to Try
7. Begova čorba
When in Bosnia and Herzegovina, you should try one of the most popular dishes of this Balkan country, begova čorba, or bey’s soup. The traditional soup is made with chicken, okra, egg yolks, and a mix of herbs and root vegetables. The result is a thick and tasty dish.
Begova čorba is usually served as an appetizer, but it’s so filling that it can just as well be a main dish. You’ll find this soup in all traditional Bosnian restaurants.
Read more: Bosnian Food – 11 Traditional Dishes as Recommended by a Local
Although moussaka is mainly associated with Greece, variations of the dish are popular all over the Balkans.
In Greek cuisine, the main ingredients in the moussaka are eggplant and/or potatoes, tomatoes, and minced meat, topped with a bechamel sauce. The various layers are placed in a dish and baked before serving it hot.
In other countries, including Albania, Bulgaria, and Romania, the moussaka is made with potatoes instead of eggplant and topped with crushed cheese. All countries usually have a vegetarian variant popular during fasting.
Related: Bulgarian Food – 15 Traditional Dishes as Recommended by a Local
Banitsa is a traditional pastry dish in Bulgaria, North Macedonia, and Serbia. The pastry, a variation of the more popular burek, is made with filo dough, eggs, and yogurt and is traditionally filled with cheese, usually the traditional Bulgarian sirene cheese.
You can eat banitsa hot from the oven, topped with yogurt, or even cold. In Bulgaria, banitsa is particularly popular on New Year’s Eve.
For the occasion, a lucky charm is placed in the center of the banitsa. This was originally a coin or some other trinket, but nowadays, it can be a message written on a small piece of paper and wrapped in aluminum foil.
Read more: Banitsa Recipe
Another popular Bulgarian dish, patatnik is originally from the Rhodope Mountains in the south of Bulgaria. A simple yet delicious potato pie, in the original recipe, the grated potatoes are mixed with onions, salt, and a type of mild mint and baked on the stove.
Variations of the dish include cheese (sirene), eggs, garlic, and parsley. The dish is baked and served hot. Quite simply, if you’re looking for comfort food in Bulgaria, this is it!
Read more: Patatnik Recipe
11. Tavče gravče
One of the most popular dishes in North Macedonia is tavče gravče, considered the country’s national dish. This one-pot dish is made with boiled beans, onion, tomato, oil, and flour, and is seasoned with various spices before being baked in an earthenware pot for many hours.
Traditionally, Macedonians prepared the dish every Friday because it was the day they didn’t eat meat. Nowadays, you won’t have any problems finding it in restaurants any day of the week.
Read more: Foods to Try in the Republic of North Macedonia
Ajvar is a relish made primarily with red peppers, popular in most Balkan countries. The relish can be more or less spicy and is served either as a spread with bread or as a side dish.
A popular variation of ajvar contains eggplant and tomato, but the original recipe only contains red peppers.
Ajvar is usually homemade in big quantities for the winter, but you’ll also find it sold in many stores. You can find ajvar in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, North Macedonia, and Serbia. A similar dish is lyutenitsa.
Read more: Ajvar Recipe (Sweet and Creamy Roasted Pepper and Eggplant Relish from the Balkans)
Another must-try North Macedonian dish, turlitava (also spelled turli tava) is an oven-baked vegetable and meat stew. The recipe for turlitava can vary greatly, so you can expect to find many variations depending on where you go.
The most popular vegetables in turlitava are potatoes, eggplants, okra, carrots, tomatoes, bell peppers, green beans, and onions. Beef and lamb are usually part of the recipe, but the dish can also be made without meat.
Known as turlitava in North Macedonia, variations of this dish exist all over the Balkans with different names. In Albania, it’s called turli perimesh, in Greece, tourlou tourlou, and in Bulgaria, türlü güveç. The name derives from the Turkish word türlüg, meaning “variety.” In Turkey, the casserole is called türlü.
14. Shkembe Chorba
Tripe soup is popular in many Balkan and Eastern European countries, and shkembe chorba is the Bulgarian version of this centuries-old dish. The soup is made with thinly sliced beef tripe, paprika, and milk. Once ready, the soup is seasoned with garlic, vinegar, and ground hot peppers.
Variations of the soup are also common in Greece, Romania, and Serbia. You’ll find shkembe chorba in many Bulgarian restaurants. And if you happen to have too much to drink, word on the street is this soup is a hangover cure.
The Balkan’s version of meatballs, delicious qofte, traditionally contain minced lamb meat, breadcrumbs, and herbs. The meatballs are usually deep-fried, but they can also be baked.
Kofte or qofte are, of course, native to other cusines as well, including Middle Eastern, South Caucasian, South Asian, and Central Asian cuisines.
In the Balkans, the traditional way to serve qofte is with a side of salad, a yogurt-based dip, and bread. While lamb is the most common meat type, qofte can also be prepared with beef or chicken. Mint is usually added to the mix to add refreshing notes to the rich meat mixture.
16. Tavë Kosi
Another Albanian dish more than worthy of its place on our list is tavë kosi. Consisting of baked lamb and rice with yogurt, this dish is also known as Elbasan Tava or Tavë Elbasani in other Balkan countries such as Kosovo, Greece, and North Macedonia, but is a national dish in Albania. Elbasan is, in fact, an Albanian city.
Tavë kosi is comfort food, perfect when you feel like eating something heartwarming. If you visit Albania and especially Elbasan, you must try this dish.
Sataraš is a vegetable stew made with bell peppers, tomatoes, and onions. The vegetables are cut into small pieces and sautéed in vegetable oil, then seasoned with salt and pepper and cooked until the flavors blend together and the vegetables are soft.
Sataraš is a staple of Balkan cuisine, though it is thought to be an adaptation of the Hungarian lecsó, made with peppers, tomatoes, and paprika.
Sataraš can be consumed hot or cold, on its own, or as a side with bread, meat, rice, polenta, or mashed potatoes.
18. Bosanski Lonac
If you travel to Bosnia and Herzegovina, you must try the local specialty, Bosanski lonac, meaning “Bosnian pot”. The comforting dish is simple yet tasty, perfect for cold winter days. Bosanski lonac is the country’s national dish.
The recipe includes chunks of meat (beef or lamb) and a mix of vegetables, including cabbage, potatoes, tomatoes, and carrots. The stew is seasoned with garlic, whole peppercorns, and parsley and is served hot.
Widely referred to as Bulgaria’s most delicious dish, kavarma is a stew baked in the oven in an earthenware pot. The traditional recipe includes chunks of pork, carrots, onions, leeks, red peppers, mushrooms, and tomatoes. Bay leaves are usually added for taste, and some add hot peppers for a hint of spiciness.
The recipe can vary in the vegetables used depending on the region. Chicken or beef is sometimes added instead of pork, but no matter which variation you try, you’re in for a truly hearty and flavorsome meal.
20. Bob Chorba
Bob chorba is another famous soup in Bulgaria, made with beans and a mix of diced vegetables, including carrots, tomatoes, celery, peppers, and onions. The nutritious and heartwarming dish is perfect in winter and is traditionally served on Christmas Eve.
Although the original recipe is vegetarian, you can find bob chorba variations with meat, usually pork. The thick soup is served piping hot, often sprinkled with fresh parsley or Bulgarian mint, and accompanied by bread.
Read more: Bob Chorba Recipe
You can find lyutenitsa mainly in Bulgaria, North Macedonia, and Serbia. The main ingredients in this vegetable relish are tomatoes and red bull horn peppers, but variations of the dish can include eggplant and carrots. The vegetables are mashed and seasoned with salt, pepper, oil, and sugar.
Lyutenitsa is usually served as a spread with bread or crackers. The relish is even sold in jars in most supermarkets across the Balkans, but most families make it at home. It is a similar style spread to ajvar.
Read more: Lyutenitsa Recipe
A traditional Serbian dish, cicvara is an ancient recipe that was traditionally served for breakfast. The dish is prepared by mixing corn flour, milk, sour cream, and kajmak, a typical Serbian creamy cheese. The result is similar to polenta.
Cicvara is served hot, often topped with sour cream. Although the recipe is not as popular as it used to be, you can still find it in traditional Serbian restaurants. You may also find cicvara in restaurants in Montenegro’s mountain areas.
Related: Mamaliga Recipe You Need to Try
23. Shopska Salata
A national salad of Bulgaria, shopska salata is made with cucumbers, tomatoes, bell peppers, onion, and crumbled Bulgarian Sirene cheese or feta cheese. The salad is then topped with chopped parsley and a dressing made with sunflower oil, red wine vinegar, salt, and pepper.
The salad’s name comes from its place of origin, the Bulgarian region of Shopluk. The fresh summer dish is also popular in Serbia and North Macedonia.
Read more: Easy Shopska Salad Recipe
Prebranac is a bean stew widespread in Serbia, Montenegro, and Bosnia and Herzegovina. The heartwarming dish originated as a peasant food, made with a few simple ingredients, usually served in winter. The recipe traditionally calls for white beans, caramelized onions, bay leaves for flavor, and sweet Hungarian paprika.
The Albanian version of prebranac is called grah or grosh, while in other Balkan countries, it’s known as pasulj, and contains chunks of smoked meat.
Last, but certainly not least, pljeskavica is another dish that Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Serbia have in common. This meat patty made with a mix of various types of meat, usually pork, beef, and lamb, is the Balkan version of a burger.
The meat patty is usually grilled and served either inside a flatbread with onion, ajvar, and kajmak (cheese) or on a plate with side dishes that can include fries, onions, ajvar, and vegetables.
Balkan Foods Summary
Culinary treats and mouthwatering dishes wait for you throughout the Balkans, no matter which countries or regions you travel to.
The meld of European and West Asian cuisine, lacing spice with savory among other combinations, brings about a cuisine that really is like anywhere else on Earth. The region’s dishes are incredibly unique and deliver some truly divine flavor.
Whether you try them on your travels or get inspired by our recipes to make them at home, these Balkan dishes are certain to leave a lasting impression on you. Hopefully, you can find a little place in your heart for more than a few of them!
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Contributor: Roxana Fanaru is a freelance journalist and writer, originally from Romania, who has traveled extensively across Europe and the Balkans and written for a number of publications.