Sunday, 20 August 2017

Balkan Culinary Wars I: Turkey, Bulgaria, Serbia and Greece in a Ruthless Fight over a Greasy Snack

Text by Albena Shkodrova   
A dozen modifications of the same dish are at the bottom of a deep culinary dispute on the Balkans. The Bulgarian banitsa, the Serbian gibanica, the Greek pita, the Macedonian maznik and the Bosnian-Turkish börek are in constant competition over the hearts and stomachs of millions of heavy dough snack fans. Not long ago, I went into a snack bar in central Sofia with a friend. We were the only customers and as soon as we approached the counter, the bored saleswomen greeted us:

“Would you like a banitsa or a börek?”

Because in Bulgaria the börek is not filled with meat as it is in Bosnia and Turkey, but rather – similarly to banitsa, it is made of phyllo sheets and cheese, I decided to clear up the confusion with the terms.

“And what exactly is the difference?” I asked.

The saleswoman looked at me, cheerfully, and said:

“There is no difference!”

“Then why ask?” – that was the first question that came to mind. But before I could utter it, it occurred to me that there was another, much more interesting conundrum at hand:

“Then how do you tell them apart?”

The cheerfulness in the saleswoman’s eyes turned into genuine regret. She had the expression of a mother who has just discovered that her child doesn’t know the alphabet at the end of the first grade and she was quick to disclose, very loudly, a fact that was apparently a secret only to me:

“Well, one is turned over, isn’t it!” she explained condescendingly.

“That’s good!” I noted. “So, when you run out of börek, you turn some banitsa over and then you have a bit of both again!”

My sense of humour was either not welcome or entirely missed, as it led to an explanation about how the whole thing was like with sweets – how in fact they are all sweets, made out of dough.

This conversation testifies not only for the complete chaos in culinary terminology on the Balkans but also for the reason for it – the similarity between the different cuisines of the people in the region. This proverbial similarity makes people ignore the differences. And Bacchus, without a doubt, is like the Devil – in the details.

In Turkey

Turkish water börek with spinach

In Turkey, whose cuisine supplied all the Balkan nations with inspiration, the börek is especially honoured – one is assured of that upon seeing the sign on the unique International Börek Centre in Istanbul. The word is used in reference to an assortment of stuffed phyllo pastries. The water börek, su böregi, is prepared by boiling the phyllo sheets before stuffing and baking them. Parsley is often added to the cheese and it seems that Turks are the most creative when it comes to vegetable stuffing. They use aubergines, nettle, zucchini and many spices, with which the rest of the Balkan countries traditionally have not had the courage and patience to experiment. Despite that, all the varieties are all called börek, and the type of stuffing is added as clarification.

Beside the water börek, other popular versions include the cigarette börek, sigara böregi –it has the shape of a cigar, and the triangular püf böregi.

In Bulgaria

The classic Bulgarian banitsa is made from pastry sheets of various thickness, sprinkled with yogurt and oil, wrapped around a stuffing made of cheese and eggs.

There are some variations, such as adding leek or spinach, or even cabbage or rice. They are still called banitsa, though rarely one can encounter names such as luchnik[ital], derived from the Bulgarian word for ‘onion’, and zelnik – from ‘cabbage’. A definite exception is the sweet banitsa with pumkin and walnuts, known as tikvenik – from the word tikva, or ‘pumkin’.

Bulgarian Tikvenik

The introduction of mass eateries throughout Bulgaria dramatically simplified the traditional banitsa recipe by leaving out one of the four ingredients. The eggs were done away with (except, sometimes, they are used in the phyllo preparation) and the feta cheese got substituted with cottage cheese.

The introduction of pre-made multi-sheet pastry confused things even more and any phyllo pastry stuffed with anything started going by the name of banitsa, as long as it wasn’t croissant- shaped. It is difficult to say what the word börek stands for in Bulgaria, as each and every baker has an opinion on the issue. There are even internet forums, where confused people ask about the difference between banitsa and börek, without getting a proper answer. The consensus is that the börek is “richer.”

In Serbia

The traditional Serbian dish is the gibanica. It is very similar to the Bulgarian banitsa – the phyllo sheets are prepared with eggs, the traditional stuffing consists of feta cheese, though it could also be made with onion, potatoes or spinach.

In Serbia, the word börek stands for a special pastry, the sheets of which are hand-made through tossing them up in the air. The stuffing could consist of meat, vegetables, leek or anything that one might also put in a Bulgarian banitsa.

A popular version is the round börek from Niš. Apparently, it has a history spanning over five centuries– approximately since the Ottoman Empire’s conquest of the Balkans.

In Bosnia and Herzegovina

Here the börek is very popular, but the word is used only in reference to phyllo stuffed with ground meat. Even though the bakeries, known as pekara, offer many kinds of pastries, they all have distinctive names – krompirusa for potato-stuffed pastry, zelianica and sirnica for pastries stuffed with cabbage and cheese respectively.

In Greece

Here the word börek is used in reference to small pastries. The cheese and egg variety is called tiropita (tiro means ‘cheese’) and the spinach one – spanakopita. Another version is the bougatsa, called Μπουγάτσα in Greek – in it, the phyllo sheets are not wrapped around but rather laid out horizontally, with the stuffing spread between them, like lasagna, and then baked. Other varieties are sweet – with a vanilla and egg cream, with cheese and with minced meat.

The bougatsa – whose name is related to the Bulgarian word pogacha and the Turkish boğaça, meaning a round loaf of bread, originated in the Thessaloniki region. Today, it is still sold there and in two other places in Greece – in Heraklion on Crete and in Khania. It is said that Armenian refugees from Asia Minor brought it to Heraklion.

P.S. In Bulgaria, this dish is also called banitsa! Actually, in Bulgaria anything can be called banitsa – even the country itself. When media report on a redistribution of power between politicians, they metaphorically claim that the latter are “splitting the banitsa.”

Readers' Comments:

Hi Balkan Travellers,

As a born Bosnian who grew up in Bosnia and Herzegovina on Bosnian food I must add something in regards to
borek in Bosnia. It is a national meal. It makes a big part of Bosnian cuisine and it is called pita. It is probably more used and made in Bosnia and Herzegovina than in other surrounding countries. Borek or burek in Bosnia is pita made out of minced meat. Cabbage is almost never used as a filling but rather spinach (very similar to Greek spanakopita) and it is called zeljanica. Nettle is also used sometimes instead of spinach as a filling. Also popular pita is made out of potatoes (krompirusa) or pumpkin (tikvenica). One of the most popular fillings is also with cheese. Ricotta cheese is mixed with eggs and sour cream to be used as a filling. This pita is called sirnica.
It is not classic phyllo pastry bought in shop that is used but rather very thin hand made phyllo sheets. Bosnian pita, and this is its name, is a part of every Bosnian household and most Bosnians have it as a meal at least once a week. It is usually serviced with sour cream and/or yoghurt.
There is 2 different types of pita : rounded pita, which is the most traditional and the layered pita which is mostly made with minced meat (
polagani burek) or spinach or cheese.
Rounded pita is made by rolling filling in pastry so it looks like one long cigar and then put in a form of spiral into a baking dish. Close to the end of baking pita is sprayed with mixture of hot water and butter to make it moist.

I hope this will add more to your knowledge about the Bosnian cuisine.




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