Wednesday, 23 August 2017

Balkan Culinary Wars III: Other People’s Meatballs

Text by Albena Shkodrova   
Ćevapčići from Leskovac, köfte from İzmir or Bulgarian kebapche? Greek keftedes too, please!

The saddest song about meatballs in history was sung by an African-American. “One Meat Ball,” performed by Josh White, became a hit in the 1950s – it tells the story of a poor man who goes into a restaurant and the only thing he can afford with his last 15 cents is a measly meatball. And no bread.

This isn’t any wonder – in the US at that time, only one type of meatballs was known – the kind that go over spaghetti. The Americans claim the dish was brought over by the Italians, who deny this in dismay. They say their cuisine could never produce such a misunderstanding.

To put it shortly, Josh White’s melancholy is understandable. In the US, meat balls naturally bring about sadness – something inconceivable on the Balkans.

Here, meatballs have long been a source not only of epicurean pleasures, but also of creative inspiration. According to some reference books, the Balkans nations make between 300 and 400 kinds of meatballs. Just in Turkey, a local newspaper managed to count 291 kinds. Even though the dish, in its variations, is known throughout the world, there isn’t another region where it is the object of such explosive creativity. And of such furious table-side disputes – not only between different nations, but also between culinary regions, over the superiority of its taste quality.

As a whole, the debates on this theme are entirely inappropriate. It is much more pleasant for one to actually enjoy the diversity, which could serve as an excellent reason for a short thematic tour of the Balkans.

If, nevertheless, the need for an argument is pressing, it has to cover several categories. The most creative in meatball-making are the Turks and the Greeks. Serbia, on the other hand, tops the list with the role it has given to the dish in its national cuisine – rostilj or grilled meat, takes up around 70 per cent in an average Serbian menu.

Albania, Bulgaria, Macedonia and Romania are a little behind in the meatball contest but that doesn’t mean they have nothing to say regarding spending one’s time over a solid portion of balls of minced meat.

But creating a top-ten list of the tastiest Balkan meatballs is an assignment that can be completed only by the Michelin experts.

Turkey: From Edirne’s Eateries to Urfa’s Çig Köfte

Some say that in Turkey alone, with its many regions, over 80 kinds of meatballs are prepared. The only thing uniting them is that the meat they are made out of is minced and not pork.

Together with the döner and the tripe sour eateries, the places that offer grilled meat are among the most popular kind of restaurants – from Turkey’s European part all the way to its eastern border with Syria.

The recipes vary significantly. In the area between Edirne, Istanbul and Izmir, for example, one can enjoy a wonderfully tasty juicy lamb meatball, with a side dish of chillies, minced raw onions and a grilled piece of tomato. Unlike the American song meatball, here they are always served with bread, even when one orders just one. They are a bit like the Bulgarian home-made, grilled meatballs, but the lamb gives them a stronger aroma.

This classic meatball version is used as a basis for an endless array of variations. They include the Adana köfte – the burningly spicy meatballs made in the south-eastern part of the country, the Izmir köfte – the especially juicy kind, dipped in a clay plate of sauce and dozens of other kinds, some bearing poetic names such as kadin budu (‘a woman’s thighs’) – fried in egg and breadcrumbs.

One of the most radical recipes is for the çig köfte, which enjoys great popularity in the central and south-eastern parts of Turkey. It is particular because it is served raw, which – in the hot climate of places like Urfa, isn’t recommended for people with sensitive stomachs. But when it is well-prepared, it is an exceptional delicacy – made out of the finest veal, mixed with groats and spices.

If anyone doubts the extent to which Turkish cuisine has influenced the neighbouring people, it is enough only to trace the dish’s name: in Bulgaria, Albania, Romania and even in Greece, it is a derivative of the Turkish word köfte.

It is possible that this is the etymology of the köfte in many countries in the Middle East, even though this is a contentious issue. According to some sources, the Arab countries borrowed the dish from the Ottoman Empire, but others claim that it originated in Persia, as in Persian koofteh means ‘pounded meat,’ derived from the verb koobidand – ‘to pound.’

Greece: Keftedes, Soutzoukakia and Yuvarlakia

The Greeks are sort of like the Venetians of the Balkans. Their contemporary cuisine resulted from many years of fine-tuning, which included a large variety of southern spices.

The classic recipe is for keftedes. What they have in common with those of the other Balkan nations is that the Greeks make them from coarsely ground pork and veal meat, to which they add minced onion, paprika, bread crumbs, egg and parsley. Some of the peculiar ingredients not used by all cuisines include peppermint, cumin, nutmeg and white wine.

Other popular Greek versions are soutzoukakia and yuvarlakia. The former are prepared with a lot of cumin, onion and oregano, sometimes only with veal meat and grilled. They are often served after being additionally boiled in tomato sauce.

Yuvarlakia is the Greek version of meatballs with rice. Here, the sauce is specific – it is prepared with olive oil and contains peppermint. Some versions add a generous dose of lemon too.

Bulgaria: Any which way, but always with sharena sol

Bulgarian cuisine is also abundant with meatballs recipes – from the fried ones that are quite similar to the Greek keftedes through glorious and juicy kebapches – a more elongated, rather than circular, version, to the patriotically-named Tsarigrad-Style Kyuftes (Tasrigrad - literally 'King's City,' being the name used in Bulgaria to refer to Istanbul while it maintained ambitions of a Great Bulgaria) – small meatballs placed over a steaming portion of buttered mashed potatoes.

Put in a soft white bread bun alongside steaming stands, and heavily sprinkled with sharena sol, a typical salty mixture of herbs, the grilled meatballs have for a long time served as a source of national pleasure at simple food. The home-fried meatballs have become a proverbial symbol of family domesticity.

Unfortunately, the reputation of these dishes, especially the kyuftes and kebapches, is suffering from the overall condition of the country’s food industry. Almost all restaurants serve the ready-to-cook variety – greasy, watery, sometimes stringy forms that – judging from their taste, may have been made of plasticine.

Otherwise, the classic Bulgarian meatball is made from pork and veal ground meat, usually in the proportion of 60:40, and it is very important for the pork meat to be relatively greasy. Unlike the Greek meatballs, the Bulgarian ones are often made with savoury instead of cumin, or a combination of the two.

With added crushed chilies, they are called ‘nervous.’ There isn’t a communal memory of where this name came from but – according to the national etymology, it refers to the slight nervous tics that people get when they eat them – from pleasure.

Another peculiarity of the Bulgarian kyuftes and kebapches is that they are not always served with bread. It has to be ordered separately. Even in averagely expensive restaurants, waiters ask the embarrassing question: “How many slices of bread should I bring? Each is 12 stotinki (6 euro cents).” And that’s if you’re lucky. If not, they simply do not bring any bread if not ordered explicitly.

On closer inspection, Bulgarians must be the closest to singing “One Meat Ball” from all the Balkan nations.

The Former Yugoslav Republics: Grill ad nauseam

The republics that were once unified in the Yugoslav federation all have quite a similar attitude towards ćevapčići and it could be described by the word ‘cult.’

They are usually made small, in large quantities and served with a generous amount of onion and a little pile of ajvar– a coarsely ground red pepper and tomato paste, and another Balkan culinary wars source.

In Belgrade, where this culinary fashion began, ćevapčići are known as ‘Leskovacki’ – different from the Bosnian ones because they are slightly longer: 10-12 centimeters, instead of 7-8.

The spread of the dish, like an epidemic, was described by the Serbian writer Branislav Nušić: “From Maribor, where once they only used to eat beet as appetiser, all the way to Đevđelije, where goat dried meat reigned supreme as appetiser; and from there to the Adriatic, where the appetiser masters used to be the little olives and dried fish, as far as the Timok region, where every drink was accompanied by yellow cheese, today the kings are the ćevapčići, and they have become a national appetiser , equally precious to all Serbs, Croatians and Slovenians.”

In the last few years, some of the former Yugoslav republics dropped the kebapches[ital] in favour of some European, or their own, now forgotten, foods as a sign of their struggle for national emancipation. In Bulgaria, their fashion is just taking off, belatedly. Over several years, the sign “Srubska skara” (Serbian grill) used to guarantee restaurants a ground-breaking success – the issue of its authenticity notwithstanding.

What is peculiar of the Leskovački ćevapčići is that they taste like quality meat and very little else. Spices are far from mandatory in the Serbian grill cuisine and often just cover up the superior taste of good minced meat. The Bulgarian restaurants never caught on that detail.

Albania and Romania: Put on Some Feta

Despite their geographical remoteness, Albanians and Romanians have similar tastes when it comes to meatballs. Both nations like to have them with feta cheese.

Albanians, who have borrowed the recipe largely from the Turks, add peppermint as well. The Romanians bring certain elements of the Central European cuisine by putting boiled beans purée in their meatballs.

To put it shortly – to each their own, to the delight of lovers of culinary travel. And when it comes to the top ten list of best meatballs on the Balkans – forget about it. Even the Michelin expert-tasters are unlikely to manage.

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On the question of restaurants in Bulgaria serving generally bad versions of kyufteta - I not only do not agree, but think this comment is uncessarily negatively biased. Naturally, it depends what restaurant you go to and to say the "kyufte" is emblematic of the (generally bad, as it comes out) state of Bulgarian food industry is too strong!
Anyone in any country would tell you that home-made, restaurant made and ready made simply do not compare!
I myself do not like the Greek kyufte, however, I do agree that this is question of taste and there shouldn't be negativism in anything written about the other Balkan cuisines. Indeed, there isn't any in all cases but the case in question.
This type of anti-advertisement is not only unnecessary, it is not true.
Iva Nikolova

Dear Iva Nikolova,
Thank you for your comment.
We agree with you there are exceptions. One of them we can instantly name is the Czech Club in Sofia. The authors of this text, being great fans of good food, will be most delighted if you could name several restaurants that serve good kyuftes. We will be happy to share this information between ourselves and with our readers as insider’s advice.

Regarding your remark re: anti-advertisement, does not aim to advertise (or not), but rather to be a useful and trustworthy guide to our readers. We could not applaud Bulgarian restaurants that serve grilled meats when roughly 95% of them offer pre-made kebapches and kyuftes bought from food whole-sale supermarkets. Our belief is that this is not only offensive to their customers, but also a crime against Bulgarian traditional cuisine and any rules of good food.

Apart from that we believe that the best way to help the tourist industry and the societies in the region is to objectively describe reality. This includes sometimes pointing at the dark side of it.


Best meatballs in Bulgaria? Perhaps Kopitoto, near St. Konstantin & Elena resort in Varna, long known as one of the best restaurants to get traditional Bulgarian cuisine, specifically kofte and kebache. I have to say that even fast food places such as the popular chain “Happy” serve a very tasty rendition of the traditional meatballs, on par or better than anything I’ve tasted in Turkey, Greece, Romania, Albania, Hungary, or anywhere else I’ve traveled…

Kristian Alekov



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