Balkan Cuisine

By Nancy Berkoff, RD, EdD, CCE

Albania, Belorussia, Bulgaria, Romania, Bosnia and Herzegovinia, Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia, and Slovenia... These are countries very much in the news, nations swept up in historical maelstroms. Despite conflicts in this geographic region, these countries share many characteristics, including their approach to the culinary arts.

If we try to make generalizations, Balkan cuisine is a hearty cuisine, resulting from harsh winters and short growing seasons. Traditional meals are heavy, and several starches may be served in one course. For example, boiled potatoes and noodles may accompany an entrée, with bread or rolls served on the side. A thick bean soup may be made with potatoes and garnished with dumplings, or it may be served with vegetable croquettes or fluffy, steamed barley.

In all of the cultures, root vegetables, such as beets, carrots, potatoes, and turnips; pickled and dried fruits; and hearty vegetables, such as cabbage and cauliflower, are mainstays. Seasonal mushrooms are gathered and dried for use as main ingredients. Additionally, mushrooms and onions are stewed or fried to use as seasonings. Grains are widely available, as many grains are fast-growing crops that store well. Several countries grow grapes for fresh consumption, drying for raisins, and for use in jams, syrups, and wines. Olives and corn are also grown, adding a Mediterranean influence.

Rolled or stuffed cabbage and peppers are made in every Balkan country, as are vegetable patties. Stuffings for cabbage and peppers can include cooked grains, chopped carrots, onions, peppers, potatoes, rice, nuts, and dried fruit. Some countries use pickled cabbage leaves, while others use steamed cabbage and sauerkraut. Peppers can be fresh or pickled, red or green. Sauces can be a sweet and sour tomato, a sour cream-based condiment, or as typical in Yugoslavian cuisine, a garlic sauce spiced with cayenne pepper.

Also popular are dumplings, which come in all shapes and sizes. They may be solid or filled with sweet or savory ingredients. They can be made with white or whole wheat flour, bread, potatoes, or cottage cheese and are served in soup, as a side dish, an entrée, or dessert. Bread doughs may be baked to form loaves or rolls, fried to become fritters, or boiled to become dumplings. Thin crêpes or pancakes are sometimes used instead of vegetables for stuffing. Pancakes are filled with savory ingredients for an entrée and sweetened soft cheeses and fruit for dessert. Thick, heavy jams are used as condiments for both sweet and savory pancakes.

With these overall similarities, some of the food characteristics are difficult to untangle. The Balkan states have always been in a position to do cuisine-sharing. Their availability by water and land routes ensured that most countries have cross-cultural cuisine. It is practically impossible to separate the cuisines of the different countries or from their surrounding cultural influences. For example, the former Yugoslavian cuisine was influenced by Italy, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Greece, Albania, and Turkey. Stuffed vegetable dishes, yogurt, syrupy desserts, and strong coffee, along with lots of garlic, onions, and spicy pickled vegetables used to season foods, show the influence of many countries.

Belorussia, wedged in between Poland and Russia, has Lithuanian influences. Belorussian cuisine includes lots of dairy products and butter (a Lithuanian trait). Onions, potatoes, beets, cabbage, pumpkin, mushrooms, sauerkraut, and garlic-dill pickles are found on winter menus. Spinach, sorrel, green onions, radishes, and sweet peas are used during warm weather months. Most meals are accompanied by boiled or baked grains, such as buckwheat and barley. Pirazki (sounding like the Polish pyrogi, a ravioli-type dumpling) are little balls of unbaked yeast dough stuffed with chopped vegetables and deep-fried. Kisiel is a summer fruit dessert, made by pressing cooked berries, peaches, or apricots through a sieve, then reheated and thickened with cornstarch. Halubcy is the Belorussian version of cabbage rolls, garnished with tomato sauce and served with boiled potatoes or boiled barley.

Bosnian cuisine has Turkish influences. It would not be unusual to have baklava, halva, or kadiaf for dessert. These are all Turkish sweets made with chopped nuts and sweet syrups. Assisted by a Mediterranean growing climate, Bosnia traditionally has a healthy cuisine, adding okra, olives, and summer squash to the usual Balkan root vegetables. Croatian cuisine shows some Austro-Hungarian influences, including goulashes (gulyas), strudels, and the use of paprika. Macedonia has Muslim and Greek Orthodox populations, so its cuisine shows Greek and Turkish influences, along with Albanian, Bulgarian, and Serbian accents. Hot chili peppers, fresh herbs, garlic, onions, and leeks are used to season many dishes. Olive oil is used instead of animal fat for cooking, and there are many sweet and savory specialties made with pita as the base.

In addition, there are cuisines within these cuisines. Balkan Jewish cuisine is a mixture of Romanian, Bulgarian, and Yugoslavian dishes blended with Greek influences. You can see the Greek influence with avgolemono sauces (a lemon-rice blend) and the use of yogurt and phyllo dough. There are many eggplant dishes and desserts that include the use of pumpkin, syrups, and nuts. Sweet red peppers, called gamba, are used as a garnish and featured in a traditional marinade that includes pickled gamba, sugar, and onions. Mamaliga is a much-enjoyed entrée of thick cornmeal served with yogurt or cheese. And croquettes are made with chopped seasonal vegetables that are breaded, browned, and simmered with lemon and sugar.

Balkan Mushroom and Vegetable Caviar

(Makes about 22 two-ounce servings)

Dried mushrooms can be found in Whole Foods, Wild Oats, and specialty grocery chains, as well as some farmers' markets. This recipe is traditionally prepared with dairy sour cream and cottage cheese. We have used soy sour cream and diced firm tofu instead. Serve this over shredded carrots or cabbage as a cold appetizer, spread it on sandwiches, or use it as a dip for vegetables, crackers, and bread sticks.

  • ½ ounce dried mushrooms
  • Warm water
  • Vegetable oil spray or olive oil spray
  • ¾ cup coarsely chopped onions
  • 1 cup coarsely chopped red bell peppers
  • ¼ cup coarsely chopped green bell peppers
  • 1 pound coarsely chopped fresh mushrooms (about 2 cups)
  • 3 cloves garlic, crushed
  • 1 teaspoon coarsely ground black pepper
  • ½ teaspoon red pepper flakes
  • ⅓ cup chopped fresh dill
  • 1 cup vegan soy sour cream
  • 1 cup finely diced, drained firm tofu

In a small bowl, soak dried mushrooms in just enough water to cover (about 4 Tablespoons) for 30 minutes. Drain, discard water, and chop mushrooms finely.

Spray a heavy frying pan with oil. Sauté onions, peppers, fresh mushrooms, and garlic, stirring, until the vegetables are very soft and all the liquid has cooked away, about 20-30 minutes. Be careful not to burn the vegetables. Add soaked dried mushrooms, black and red pepper, and dill. Stir and cook for 10 minutes. Remove from heat and allow to cool.

Stir in sour cream and tofu and combine well. Allow to chill for at least 40 minutes before serving.

Total calories per serving: 40 Fat: 3 grams
Carbohydrates: 3 grams Protein: 2 grams
Sodium: 45 milligrams Fiber: <1 gram

Dalmatian Rice and Vegetable Salad

(Serves 5)

Dalmatian cuisine is a specialty within Yugoslavian cuisine. For variety, you can use cooked barley or whole wheat in place of rice.

  • 3 cups cooked and cooled brown rice (Start with 1-¼ cups uncooked rice.)
  • ¼ cup chopped green onions (Use both white and green parts.)
  • ½ cup peeled and seeded diced cucumbers
  • ¼ cup chopped fresh tomato
  • 1 Tablespoon drained capers
  • 1 Tablespoon olive oil
  • 2 teaspoons vinegar
  • 1 clove fresh garlic, minced
  • ½ teaspoon dry mustard
  • ¼ teaspoon dry marjoram
  • ¼ teaspoon dry thyme
  • ¼ teaspoon red pepper flakes
  • ¼ teaspoon hot sauce
  • ½ teaspoon orange juice concentrate

In a large glass or plastic bowl, mix together rice, onions, cucumbers, tomatoes, and capers. Set aside. In a small glass or plastic bowl, combine oil and vinegar with the remaining ingredients. Whisk until well combined. Right before serving, dress rice with oil and vinegar mixture.

Total calories per serving: 160 Fat: 4 grams
Carbohydrates: 29 grams Protein: 4 grams
Sodium: 75 milligrams Fiber: 3 grams

Chorba Village (Moldovan Soup)

(Serves 4)

Moldovan cuisine incorporates cuisines from the Mediterranean and southern Europe, including Turkey, with a little bit of Russian and Ukrainian added. This soup, redolent with garden vegetables, reflects the fertile growing areas of Moldova. The soup is traditionally garnished with a dollop of sour cream right before serving.

  • 4 cups vegetable stock or broth
  • 20 fresh green beans, ends snapped off and broken or chopped into small pieces (about ¾ cup)
  • ¼ cup chopped carrots
  • ¼ cup chopped fresh parsley
  • 2 stalks celery, finely chopped (about ½ cup)
  • ½ cup chopped onion
  • 2 cups shredded green cabbage
  • 2 Russet (baking) potatoes, peeled and diced (about 1 pound or 1-½ cups)
  • ½ cup chopped fresh tomatoes
  • 2 teaspoons red pepper flakes
  • 1 teaspoon white pepper
  • ¾ cup vegan soy sour cream (optional)

Place vegetable stock in a large soup pot. Add green beans, carrots, parsley, and celery to the stock, cover, and allow mixture to simmer for 10 minutes. Add onions, cabbage, potatoes, and tomatoes. Cover and allow soup to simmer until vegetables are soft, about 30-40 minutes. Add red pepper flakes and white pepper and continue simmering, covered, for 15 more minutes. Serve hot. Garnish with a small amount of soy sour cream, if desired.

Total calories per serving: 110 Fat: 1 gram
Carbohydrates: 24 grams Protein: 4 grams
Sodium: 490 milligrams Fiber: 5 grams

Szerb Bableves (Serbian Bean Soup)

(Serves 5)

In traditional Serbian cookbooks this is referred to as "Southern Hungary Soup," and in Hungarian cookbooks as "Serbian Soup." It is usually served with small potato dumplings that resemble gnocchi, or as referred to in Yugoslavian cookbooks, "njoki." (Both words are pronounced the same way!)

  • 1 cup dried white beans
  • 11 cups cold water, divided
  • ¼ cup diced carrots
  • ¼ cup diced parsnips
  • ¼ cup diced celery
  • 2 Tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
  • 1 Tablespoon dried mushrooms
  • Vegetable oil spray
  • ¼ cup chopped onions
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 Tablespoon all-purpose or whole wheat flour
  • 1 teaspoon paprika
  • 1 teaspoon red pepper flakes
  • 3 teaspoons white vinegar
  • 1 cup unflavored vegan soy yogurt (optional)

Soak beans overnight in 3 cups cold water to soften. Drain beans and discard water.

Combine 2 quarts (8 cups) water with carrots, parsnips, celery, parsley, and mushrooms in a large soup pot. Allow to simmer for 1 hour. Add beans, cover, and allow to simmer until beans are soft, about 1 hour. If necessary, add water to keep level at 2 quarts.

While beans are cooking, spray a frying pan with oil and allow to heat. Sauté onions and garlic until soft, about 2 minutes. Remove from heat and quickly stir in flour. When beans are soft, stir in onion mixture, paprika, and red pepper flakes. Allow soup to simmer, covered, for 15 minutes. Mix in vinegar and allow to heat for 3 more minutes.

Serve hot. If desired, garnish each serving with a dollop of soy yogurt.

Total calories per serving: 170 Fat: 1 gram
Carbohydrates: 33 grams Protein: 11 grams
Sodium: 35 milligrams Fiber: 8 grams

Small Dumplings

(Serves 5)

Flour and potato dumplings are a favorite side dish or soup garnish. This recipe can be made ahead and rewarmed when ready to eat.

  • 3 cups all-purpose or whole wheat flour
  • ¼ teaspoon salt
  • 1 Tablespoon vegetable oil
  • 4 Tablespoons silken tofu
  • 16-¾ cups water, divided

In a small bowl, mix together flour and salt. In a large bowl, mix together oil and tofu. Add ¾ cup water to oil/tofu mixture and whisk until well combined. Mix flour into water mixture only until ingredients are just combined. Cover and allow to sit for at least 1 hour.

Boil 16 cups of water. Flour your hands. Drop dime-sized pieces of dough into the boiling water. Allow to cook until firm, about 10 minutes. Finished dumplings will rise to the top but won't look floury. Drain and serve as a side dish or in soup, as a garnish.

Note: Water and flour amounts may not be exact, depending on the type of flour used and the daily humidity. I suggest adding the flour slowly, using only enough to form a loose paste. You may want to have a little extra flour on hand, in case more is needed.

Total calories per serving: 270 Fat: 5 grams
Carbohydrates: 53 grams Protein: 10.5 grams
Sodium: 120 milligrams Fiber: 9 grams

Polenta with Garlic and Tomato Sauce

(Serves 3)

Polenta is a traditional dish in many Balkan countries. It is usually cooked in a thick Dutch oven or cast iron soup pot to prevent scorching and to allow the polenta to acquire a rich, creamy texture. This is a dish that requires your attention and your love. We've given exact measures for the polenta, but precision comes more with experience. You will become better at preparing it with practice.


  • Vegetable oil spray or olive oil spray
  • ½ cup sliced sun-dried tomatoes
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • ½ cup chopped canned tomatoes (not drained)
  • 1 Tablespoon minced fresh dill
Spray a small frying pan with oil and allow to heat. Add sun-dried tomatoes and garlic and allow to sauté until tomatoes have softened, about 4 minutes. Add canned tomatoes and dill, cover, and allow to simmer until flavors are combined. The sauce can be kept heating while polenta is cooking.


  • 1 cup yellow cornmeal
  • ½ cup cold water
  • 4 cups boiling water
  • ½ teaspoon paprika

Combine cornmeal with cold water and stir until smooth. Bring 4 cups water to a boil on the top of a double boiler. Gradually add cornmeal mixture, stirring rapidly to prevent clumps from forming. When all the cornmeal is added, stir in paprika. This process should take 2-3 minutes. Continue to stir until mixture is smooth, with no lumps. Cover and allow to steam for 15-20 minutes, or until desired texture is achieved. Serve a bowl of polenta garnished with a small amount of heated sauce.

Total calories per serving: 180 Fat: 2 grams
Carbohydrates: 38 grams Protein: 5 grams
Sodium: 240 milligrams Fiber: 5 grams

Nancy Berkoff, RD, EdD, CCE, is VRG's Food Service Advisor and the author of, most recently, Vegan Microwave Cookbook.