Serbian cuisine is the traditional cuisine of Serbia, sharing characteristics with the rest of the Balkan nations. Historically, Serbian food is characterized by influences of Byzantine-Greek, Mediterranean, but also by Turkish and to a lesser extent of Central Europe.
With Serbia being located on the crossroads between East and West, its cuisine has gathered elements from different cooking styles across the Middle East and Europe to develop its own hearty gastronomy with an intricate balance of rich meats, vegetables, breads, cheese, fresh pastries and desserts. It has much in common with the cuisines of neighbouring Balkan countries. Its flavours are mild, fresh and natural. Seasonings are usually salt, black pepper and paprika, while ingredients are fresh and of good quality. Eating seasonal food is very important, and many dishes are strongly associated with a specific time of the year.
Most people in Serbia will have three meals a day, breakfast, lunch and dinner, lunch being the largest. However, traditionally, only lunch and dinner existed, with breakfast being introduced in the second half of the 19th century.
A number of foods which are usually bought in the West are often made at home in Serbia. These include rakija (fruit brandy), slatko, jam, jelly, various pickled foods, notably sauerkraut, ajvar or sausages. The reasons for this range from economical to cultural. Food preparation is a strong part of the Serbian family tradition.
William, archbishop of Tyre, who visited Constantinople in 1179, described the Serbs: “They are rich in herds and flocks and unusually well supplied with milk, cheese, butter, meat, honey and wax”.
The first published cookbook in Serbia is The Big Serbian Cookbook (Велики српски кувар), written by Katarina Popovic-Midzina in 1877.
The best known Serbian cookbook is Pata’s Cookbook (Патин кувар), written by Spasenija Pata Markovic in 1907; the book remains in publication even today.
An old Serbian legend says that during the time of the 14th-century Serbian Empire, under the rule of Stefan Uros IV Dusan, 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.
Breakfast in Serbia is an early but hearty meal, rich in calories and carbohydrates, meant to provide one with enough energy to start the day well. Bread is frequently eaten, served with butter, jam, yogurt, sour cream or cheese, accompanied by bacon, sausages, salami, eggs or clotted cream (kajmak). Many people would stop by a bakery in the morning to enjoy fresh pastries, such as puff pastry focaccine, rolls (which in Serbian usage may or may not be crescent-shaped and may be sweet, but may also be sprinkled with salt crystals), pretzels, buchteln, bread sticks, Kaiser rolls or simits. Other common breakfast dishes include börek, corn porridge and cornbread. Before breakfast most people usually have a cup of coffee, or perhaps espresso. With the breakfast itself either milk, tea or coffee is served.
Meze is an assortment of small dishes and appetizers, though, unlike the Middle Eastern meze, it does not usually include cooked dishes, and is therefore more similar to Italian antipasto. A Serbian meze typically includes slices of cured meats and sausages, cheeses, olives, fresh vegetables and pickles. Meze is served either to accompany alcoholic drinks or as a starter before a soup on bigger meals.
Soups are eaten as an entrée at almost every lunch. They are considered to be very important for good health. There are two types of soups in Serbian cuisine: thin soups called supa, and thicker soups with roux or eggs called corba. The most common ones are simple pottages made of beef or poultry with added noodles. Lamb, veal and fish soups are considered delicacies.
The main course is most commonly a meat dish. Beside barbecue, which is very popular, braising, stewing and roasting in an oven are the most common cooking methods. Grilling is very popular in Serbia. Grilled meats are the primary main course dishes offered in restaurants. They are commonly served as mixed grill on large oval plates. They are often also eaten as fast food. The cities of Leskovac and Novi Pazar are especially famous for their barbecue.
Bread is the staple of Serbian meals and it is often treated almost ritually. A traditional Serbian welcoming is to offer the guest with bread and salt; bread also plays an important role in religious rituals. Many people believe that it is sinful to throw away bread regardless of how old it is. Although pasta, rice, potato and similar side dishes did enter the everyday cuisine over time, many Serbs still eat bread with meals.
In most bakeries and shops, white wheat bread loafs (typically 0.5 kg) are sold. In modern times, black bread and various graham bread variations regain popularity. In many rural households, bread is still baked in ovens, usually in bigger loafs.
In Serbia, salads are eaten as a side dish with the main course. The simplest of salads are made of sliced lettuce, cabbage, tomato, cucumber or carrot, olives with oil, vinegar salt and spices.
Dairy and meat products
Dairy products are an important part of the Serbian diet. Fermented products such as buttermilk, clotted cream, yogurt and sour cream are common breakfast foods, consumed daily. White cheese is much more common in Serbia than yellow cheeses. There are numerous varieties, some of which have been awarded for their quality, such as the white cheese with walnuts from Babine, which won the 2012 “best autochthonic cheese” award. Serbian Pule cheese, made from donkey milk, is the most expensive cheese in the world. Although less common, several yellow cheese are locally produced.
Every autumn or early winter, on an event called pig slaughter, meat is dried in the cold air, cured and preserved for winter. Cured meats, bacon, fatback, pork rind, sausages such as blood sausage and kulen are produced. Offal and cheaper cuts of meat are utilized as well, made into processed products such as brawn.
In Serbia, pies are very popular. They are eaten either for breakfast, dinner, or as a snack. Most commonly they are made with thin layers of phyllo dough. There are several preparation methods and numerous types of fillings, both sweet and savoury. Usually, pies are named after either the preparation method, or the filling.
One pie variety that is not made with phyllo is the strudel, but similar to a nut roll.
Sweets and desserts
Sweets are served at the end of meals. Sweets and desserts enjoyed in Serbia include both typically Middle Eastern and typically European ones, as well as some authentically Serbian ones. Pies with sweet fruit fillings are also commonly eaten as desserts.
Coffee is the most commonly consumed non-alcoholic beverage in Serbia. It is mostly prepared at home, rather than bought in coffee shops, and preferably consumed in the company of friends or family. Slatko, Turkish delight and rakija may be served alongside coffee. The majority of the Serbian population starts a day with a cup of coffee in the morning. Herbal teas are consumed as a medication, rather than a beverage. Yogurt and kefir are commonly consumed dairy beverages. They frequently accompany savoury pastries. A beverage made from maize, called boza or kvas, used to be popular in the past. Today it is rarely consumed.
A number of fruit juice and mineral water brands are produced locally. The Knjaz Milos mineral water is considered a national brand.
Rakija is a general term for distilled beverages made from fruits. There are numerous varieties, which are usually named after the type of fruit they are made from. Comparatively many people brew their own rakija. Loza, made from grapes, is considered the national drink.
Beer has become recently popular and is enjoyed in Serbia, even outpacing the traditional rakija and wine. The largest brewery in the country is Apatinska pivara.
There are nearly 110,000 hectares of vineyards in Serbia, producing about 645,000 tons of grapes annually, with South Serbia producing the most. Because of that, Serbia has great international recognition as a wine producer.