Sunday, 20 August 2017

Take a Wok on the Wild Side in Belgrade, Serbia

Text by by Mona Mangat   
With thousands of foreigners flooding the city for the Universiade Games and the Exit festival, the hot and crowded summer Belgrade nights were full of exotic sounds and scents , and inspired by the multicultural spirit taking over the city, I decided to check out what Belgrade had on the menu to offer its visitors.

Trencherman has a closed deal on all the posh restaurants in town, but anyway, it quickly became apparent that there’s a trail of oriental spices scattered around the city in the form of Chinese take outs, successfully catering to the average ‘Joe’ or indeed, Jovan. All over the country, the most popular flavours that keep the national taste-buds active come from Chinese food, and fast food at that.

Almost 30 years ago, in the old Yugoslavia, the municipality of Belgrade, in international and socialist cooperation with the city of Beijing, decided to inaugurate a sister-city cultural exchange. Beijing sent over 12 of its best experts in Northern Chinese cuisine. The chefs arrived in Belgrade and began what is now a Chinese food institution, the Peking Restaurant (located on Vuka Karadzica ). Still in its original location, the restaurant has survived many a tough time, and can take credit for the hard work of introducing Chinese cuisine to Serbia’s confirmed meat eaters.

Peking’s Head Waiter, Vlada Simovic, told us that their chef specialises in Northern Chinese cuisine, focusing more on Chinese green vegetables, soy and oyster sauce dishes. This mix, he said, seemed to go down well with his Serbian clientelle. Rice is always a mainstay, but with more meat than is perhaps traditional and dumplings and dim-sum which he sees as a substitute for some of the more exotic piroske, The Peking restaurant has had enough success to recently open a take-out operation which uses the same kitchen as the restaurant, but offering a limited and quick menu.

Vlada told us of a chance meeting which brought back some of the original glory to the establishment. Last year, almost 25 years after leaving, one of the original 12 chefs who first came to Belgrade to promote Chinese culture to Yugoslavians, was rehired, through coincidence, Mr. Jang reconnected with the team and, after a quarter century, was offered the job as head chef, to reinvigorate the tradition he was responsible for starting. Mr. Jang seems happy and at home behind the wok again.

Peking is not the only success story in Belgrade. After clearing the way for others, another institution specialising in Chinese fast-food and specifically Southern Szechuan style is ‘Luda Kuca’, and yes it really is a crazy house in there, but in the best possible way. Meeting with one of the original founders and owners ‘Riki’, we were able to get a taste of a more hip and younger version of the original Serbian-style Chinese food experience.

Luda Kuca, which opened more than 15 years ago, began home delivery and must be doing well as they have recently opened a fourth location near Republic Square, and in September plan to open a new fifth sit-down location in Novi Beograd. Riki confidently told us that they have no real competition, as for more than a decade they have cornered that market for price and service. That, we felt was something for our taste testers to decide!

We asked the chefs what they had to change in their recipes to keep their Serbian customers happy. Riki told us that having more meat was definitely a necessity and they had to tone down the spicing in some of the more usually fiery Szechuan cuisine. He said that they use more Serbian vegetables rather than traditional Chinese greens but that the spices are direct from China. He said they try to be as authentic as possible but give emphasis on the using more grains, beans, and vegetables. It makes great healthy fast food he said, because the cooking style itself is better, focusing more on boiling and wok cookery instead of deep-frying.

A newcomer to the scene is ‘Wok to Walk’ a quick and fancy take out place on Nusiceva Street. A Dutch franchise, it showcases the chef behind a glass screened kitchen, and allows the customer to choose by mixing and matching ingredients and sauces to customize their dinner. Not so authentic perhaps, but theatre certainly, and guaranteed freshness as it’s cooked to order in front of you.

Trencherman wasn’t too impressed when he visited Macau recently but the guys there must be doing something right, because they have a number of restaurants around the town which always seem to be packed out.

Chinese food seems to have slipped onto the menu, in many more mainstream restaurants too, such as the New Belgrade ‘Black and White’ restaurant, although it’s mixed in with snicla, and dishes from the grill. We set our dedicated team the task of tasting a dish from each of our featured restaurants to see if they could discover the soul of Chinese food in Belgrade and, having had a tasty adventure through what is really a fusion of Serbian and Chinese cuisine, we entice you this weekend to take a wok on the wild side.

We conducted a blind taste-test of a popular, widely available Chinese dish in Belgrade: Piletina Kikiriki (Peanut Chicken). Four taste-testers, two men and two women tasted this dish from five different restaurants:

1. **** Peking - Not too sweet and just salty enough with good mix of peanuts and vegetables, our testers were very satisfied with this dish. 3 out of 4 taste-testers agreed that this dish was either the best or second best.

2. *** Luda Kuca – The spiciest of the five, both the guys loved the huge amount of chicken and the good sauce.

3. *** Macao – Just edged out by Luda Kuca, but nevertheless a good dish, with lots of nuts veggies and chicken.

4. ** ½ Wok to Walk – Under-spiced and a little short on meat, was the general view here. But still good enough to hit the spot after a few drinks on a Friday night

5. * ½ Black and White – Over-cooked meat, salty and very uninspiring – stick to the snicla guys!

This article is courtesy of Balkan Insight, the online publication of the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network, which contains analytical reports, in-depth analyses and investigations and news items from throughout the region covering major challenges of the political, social and economic transition in the Balkans.

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