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Kevin Kenjar March 5, 2007

Balkan Culinary Nationalism and Ottoman Heritage

Of the many and varied vestiges left by the Ottoman Empire in southeastern Europe, perhaps the most prominent stamp has been left in the kitchen. While borders shift and empires come and go, sometimes as quickly as it takes for a despondent diplomat to affix a seal onto a treaty, culinary traditions are often slow to change due to the nature in which they are promulgated. Culinary traditions are often passed down along a familial, and historically maternal, line, with each new generation learning the recipes, eating habits, and tastes of their ancestors. This almost genealogical

reproduction of culture, combined with the regional specificity that has historically limited cuisine prior to the advent of consumerist culture, has made culinary tradition a prime candidate for national sentimentalists. In the desire to portray national culture as something unique and externally bounded, culinary traditions have gained powerful symbolic value; national dishes not only serve as the expression of the national spirit, but the very substance with which the national spirit is fed. However, due to the relatively recent diffusion of romantic nationalism into the former Ottoman lands in Europe (i.e. the Balkans), not to mention the duration of Ottoman rule, many of the culinary traditions deemed as national are not particular to a specific nation, but rather relatively common throughout the lands of the former empire. However, taking into consideration that it is a common theme in the nationalist rhetoric of the Balkan states that the Ottoman era was break in continuity, or rather an interruption of the historical development of these nations, the following problem becomes apparent: How can a national dish, seen as an expression and nourisher of the national spirit, be a vestige of the Ottoman imperial era,

the same era generally marked by the repression and starvation of the same national spirit? A closer examination of the national cuisines of the Balkans will demonstrate that this inconsistency is accounted for in a variety of ways. The Spread of Culinary Traditions: The Flux Between Center and Periphery Culinary practices, be they recipes, eating habits, cooking utensils, etc. are transmitted in much the same way that other cultural practices are spread, i.e. through a dialectic between dominant and subordinate carriers of these traditions occurring along points of socialization. It is important to stress the dialectical nature of this transmission, as the dominant carrier does not simply pass on these practices, replacing the culinary practices of the subordinates. In other words, the widespread view that the common culinary traditions in the former Ottoman Empire are simply of Turkish origin is not only anachronistic, but erroneous as well. The Ottoman elites may have disseminated a particular practice to one part of the empire, but this is not to say that this practice was not adopted by the Ottoman elites from another part of the empire. For example, kaymak, a thick, mildly fermented, clotted cream, may well have been introduced to the Balkans by Ottoman bureaucrats or merchants, but only after they (or their predecessors) had developed a taste for its Arabic analogue, qishta. The actual origins of kaymak, and most culinary traditions for that matter, are nearly impossible to trace, and such a task is clearly beyond the scope of this paper. For the purposes of this paper, let it suffice to say that kaymak, with its geographical range stretching from the Balkans to Bangladesh (and now widely available in Western Europe and the United States), most likely isnt an invention of either the Bosnians or the Turks, despite being enjoyed by them both.

Assuming that the initial transmitter of a particular culinary practice, be it a savvy Ottoman chef in kitchens of the Sultan or an absent-minded peasant who forgot to take the milk off the fire, cannot be found, let us now turn our attention to how a practice, once introduced, can be disseminated across as wide of a geographical area as the Ottoman Empire and ultimately become a culinary tradition. Given that dialectical transmission of these culinary practices, the most important aspect of the carriers is mobility. It is the mobility of these carriers that would allow these practices to be carried from one part of the empire to another. To continue with our previous example, let us imagine that kaymak was entirely unknown in the empire prior to an Arab merchant introducing it to a tribe of Kurdish nomads. Perhaps the nomads, having taken a liking to it, presented it to a visiting Bektashi dervish making his way from a distant turbe shrine to Constantinople, where he subsequently introduced it to his dervish brothers in his Order. Once this key transmission from the periphery to the center has been made, the particular culinary practice gains wide exposure. As the center, i.e. Constantinople, served as the highest point of socialization within the empire, the culinary practice, once firmly established, would be transmitted to a wide variety of highly mobile carriers, such as merchants, dervishes, priests, janissaries, bureaucrats, etc. The transmission of culinary practices, as outlined above, can theoretically occur rather quickly, e.g. in a matter of weeks if transmitted by a well-traveled dervish. Being confined at this point to the cosmopolitan metropolises and mobile elites of Ottoman society, these culinary practices would be limited to what we would now think of as haute cuisine. It is only when they are transmitted to, and widely adopted by, the more

sedentary peoples of the empire that they can become ubiquitous culinary traditions that would later serve as the basis for national cuisine. This, above all, requires time. Variation: Recipes, Religions, and Regions Given the time, distance, and quantity of carriers involved between the introduction of a culinary practice into the broader empire and its adoption by the local, sedentary peoples who would later form the core of a horizontally stratified nation, it is both understandable and expected that there would be a degree of difference between the original practice and the one adopted into local culinary tradition, as anyone who ever followed a recipe precisely only to be disappointed with the result can testify to. The reproduction of culinary traditions will undoubtedly vary not only within the empire, but also within a single village or family, or even when reproduced by single chef. Of a Romanian national specialty, ghiveci, Lesley Chamberlain writes, [Ghiveci] is a ratatouille-style medley of vegetables, sometimes including meat, or mushrooms, and potatoes, and eaten hot or cold. It is said each family has its own ghiveci recipe and all good cooks know instinctively what is the right proportion.1 The next instance of culinary variation to be examined is that produced by the socio-religious divisions in Ottoman society. The Ottoman Empire, far from being a religiously homogenous society, was comprised of three primary religious groups, i.e. Muslims, Jews, and Christians. Both Islam and Judaism contain a set of religious

restrictions on the production and consumption of food, halal and kashrut respectively, the most prominent of which is the total ban on the consumption of pork. Thus, within the culinary milieu of the empire, a sharp distinction could be drawn along confessional

Lesley Chamberlain, The Food and Cooking of Eastern Europe, (Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 1989), 39.

lines. As the Muslims, with their dominant social position, and Jews formed a significant part of the mobile classes of the Ottoman Empire, the diffusion of pork based culinary traditions would almost certainly have been stifled, as evidenced by an almost complete lack of pork dishes in the shared culinary traditions of the Balkans. Indeed, the religious distinctions over the issue of pork played a significant role in the transmission of culinary in the Balkans. Concerning this, Alexander Kiossev writes: In spite of all the similarities in eating habits, in spite of the solid penetration of Turkish-Persian cuisine throughout the peninsula, there was a widespread prohibition against members of one religious community eating together with members of other confessions. The similarities, the influences and even the fusion of the cuisines were usually not mentioned at all; what mattered was that Christians ate pork and Muslims didnt. Against the backdrop of this archaic attitude (the food others was deemed dirty and repellent; in popular folklore, the image of unclean alien food a stable, repetitive stereotype) the emblematic food differences delineating religious identities were much more important than the similarities.2 Kiossev may be overstating the separation of culinary culture, for even though such a fusion of the cuisines may not have been discussed, the transmission of culinary traditions undoubtedly occurred. It is important to note that such a prohibition would almost certainly not have extended to coffee, as the ever-prevalent coffee visit played a key role in Ottoman culture, and the tradition of drinking strong, thick, and sweet unfiltered coffee, often accompanied by sweet delicacies such as baklava, halva, or kadaif, is found in every former Ottoman country3, and continues serve a point of socialization between even the most divided religious communities in the Balkans, such

Alexander, Kiossev, The Dark Intimacy: Maps, Identities, Acts of Identification, Balkan as Metaphor: Between Globalization and Fragmentation, Duan I. Bjeli and Obrad Savi, eds. (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2005), 174. 3 Chamberlain, Food and Cooking, 424-426. 5

as Bosnia.4 Though religion certainly played a role in the transmission of culinary traditions, it should be noted that religious affiliation, like borders, could change overnight, while the deeply embedded culinary traditions, transmitted in an almost genealogical fashion, were much slower to change. Jovan Hadi Vasiljevi, concerning Slavic Muslims in southern Serbia, writes, Everywhere in mixed villages they laughed, both Albanians and real Turks, at the Turkified ones (i.e. converts to Islam among the Slavs), for in their attics, they still store the pots in which their elders boiled sour cabbage with bacon.5 Other than the variation occurring over time and between religious communities, variation occurs, perhaps most dramatically, between regions. The regions geographical particularities undoubtedly play a large role in determining the variation. Traditional recipes for dolma, a generic name for various stuffed vegetables, necessarily vary depending on the produce available in the region, e.g. the ubiquitous grape-leaf rolls of Turkey are not typical to regions of Bosnia that are unable to sustain grapevines, while stuffed peppers (biber dolma) and onions (soan dolma) are widespread. Due to this agricultural variation, names used to specify one culinary tradition have either narrowed or broadened in meaning. Turkish dolma, when made using grape leaves, known as yaprak dolma, is often referred to as sarma dolma, or simply sarma, from the verb sarmak, meaning, to wrap. In Bosnia, sarma is used almost exclusively to refer to a cabbage-leaf roll, made from either fresh or sour cabbage, while dolma is typically

Tone Bringa, Being Muslim the Bosnian Way: Identity and Community in a Central Bosnian Village, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995), 67. 5 Jovan Hadi Vasiljevi, Muslimani nase krvi u Juznoj Srbiji, 1st Ed, (Beograd: 1924), qtd. in Bojan Aleksov, Historijski Mitovi na Balkanu Zbornik Radova, Ed. Husnija Kamberovi, (Sarajevo: Institut za Istoriju u Sarajevu 2003). 6

used to refer to stuffed onion. For stuffed peppers, neither sarma nor dolma is used, but rather the Slavic form, punjena paprika. Even if the actual variation within a single culinary tradition is minimal, the names given to dishes often produce a high degree of perceived variation. If a Bosnian tourist from Sarajevo, raised on punjena paprika, were to travel to Turkey and encounter biber dolma, an expected reaction could be, This is similar to our stuffed peppers. Upon trying them, the mere difference in location and language would more than likely accentuate the differences for the taster, perhaps resulting in Our stuffed peppers are sweeter. The stuffed peppers to which the Bosnian traveler is accustomed may well be sweeter, but perhaps the Turkish peppers are sweeter than the peppers prepared in the Bosnian city of Tuzla, or even those prepared in a neighboring apartment in Sarajevo. The difference in name alone can often be enough to draw one into comparing tastes between dishes, rather than between two preparations of the same dish. From Variant to Sui Generis: The Nationalization of Culinary Tradition Chamberlain, in her explanation of nationalization of culinary tradition writes: In the babble of dishes it is sometimes difficult to say which dish belongs where. Polish barszcz and Hungarian gulys, for instance, seem distinctive, but what is the real home of beetroot soup, considering the Russians, Lithuanians, Ukrainians and Jews all lay claim to it? [] For reasons of national pride most countries would willingly take the borderline recipe as their own, but the whole business of nationality in food, particularly in a part of the world so ill-served by the natural geographical borders, is so generally unhelpful to the cook. In Bulgaria the food resembles that of Turkey and Lebanon with touches of Russia and Vienna, while in East Poland it is close to the staple Russian diet.6 To understand why such nationalization occurs, one must look at the role played by cuisine in nationalist discourse. As mentioned above, national dishes not only serve as the

Chamberlain, Food and Cooking, 3-4. 7

expression of the national spirit, but the very substance with which the national spirit is fed. This is perhaps best illustrated in the following quote, taken from Bulgarias most famous 1893 novel, Ivan Vazovs Under the Yoke, which depicts Ottoman oppression in Bulgaria: with all its hardships and bondage has yet this one advantage: it makes a nation merry. Where the arena of political and scientific activity is closely barred, where the desire of rapid enrichment of finds no stimulant, and farreaching ambition has no scope for its development, the community squanders its energy on the trivial and personal cares of its daily life, and seeks relief and recreation in simple and easily obtainable material enjoyment. A flask of wine sipped beneath the cool shade of willows by some clear murmuring rivulet will make one forget ones slavery; the native guvetch, enjoyed with its purple egg-plants, fragrant parsley and sharp pepper-pods, enjoyed on the grass under the spreading branches overhead, through which peeps the blue distant sky, constitutes a kingdom, and if only there by gipsy pipers present, is the height of earthly bliss If one but looks at the poetry of a nation, one finds clearly expressed the national spirit, the nations life, and its views of existence. There, amid cruel torments, heavy chains, dark dungeons, and festering wounds, is yet interwoven the mention of fat, roasted lambs, jars of red wine, potent raki, interminable marriage feasts, and mazy dances on the green sward of a whole anthology of national songs.7 The underlying assumption here, and in nationalist rhetoric in general, is what Aziz AlAzmeh terms culturalism, i.e., the view that regards conceptual and imaginary representations as the ultimate and irreducible constraints at work in the life of the historical mass in question [...] Ethnographic detail, real or imagined, [is] encoded in a genealogy and in a pseudo-history of uniqueness and continuity8. This understanding of culture is based on an organismic model, in which a particular culture, in this case Bulgarian culture, is depicted as a living entity, with a soul (the national spirit) that can be oppressed, or even extinguished, by a rival culture, i.e. Ottoman culture. However, a
7 8

Qtd. in Ibid, 47. Aziz Al-Azmeh, Culturalism, Grand Narrative of Capitalism Exultant. Islams and Modernities. 2nd Edition. (London: Verso, 1996), 18. 8

closer examination of the native dishes paints a picture of culinary culture that is anything but national. Aside from the wine, which even the most ardent Bulgarian nationalist would not claim as being purely Bulgarian, the dishes mentioned here are fat, roasted lambs and the native guvetch. The native guvetch (), a mainstay of Bulgarian cuisine, promoted and featured fair in Bulgarian restaurants, is a sealed casserole containing a variety of a vegetables and may or may not contain meat (Chamerberlain 46). Yet is this not similar to the Romanian national specialty, ghiveci, mentioned above? Or perhaps it appears similar to the Serbian and Bosnian dish, uve? Or it may remind one of the Turkish dish, gve, and the eponymous earthenware cooking pot in which it is prepared. Assuming the etymology of the dish lies in the pot used in its preparation, simply translating the name of the pot into other languages yields a variety of other national dishes, such as the authentic Bosnian culinary specialty known as bosanski lonac, a casserole prepared in an earthenware cooking pot (i.e. lonac) with a variety of vegetables and meat. And what of this fat, roasted lamb? Surely this is the infamous Bulgarian dish cheverme (), a specialty of the Rhodope Mountains (clearly from the Bulgarian portion of the mountain range, not the Greek portion). Yet, this dish is strikingly similar to internationally acclaimed Turkish dner kebab, the infamous Greek gyros, and the Bosnian and Serbian specialty peena jagnjetina. Of course, the notion of spit-roasting a lamb is far from unique to the Balkans, let alone Bulgaria, as it is perhaps one of the simplest ways of preparing a lamb. Yet, it is claimed by Bulgarians as a national dish nonetheless. This is not to say that it is not distinctly Bulgarian, for who else could claim a dish known Rhodope cheverme, with its distinctive Bulgarian name and

geographic origin? In the world of national cuisine, unlike that of the Shakespearean rose, a spit-roasted lamb by any other name would not taste as sweet to a Bulgarian tongue. The perceived difference between national dishes is augmented by the use of a distinctive name. In an informal survey conducted, when nationals of the Balkan states were asked to produce a short list of their "national dishes", the foods listed were, without exception, shared in general style, if not in name, with all neighboring national cuisines. Flaky cheese pies, under the names Turkish brek, Bulgarian banitsa (), Serbian gibanica (), Bosnian sirnica, Greek tiropita, and Romanian plcint cu brnza were all named. Similarly, skewered meats were listed under the names Turkish i kebap, Bulgarian shashlik (), Serbian ranji (), Bosnian i evap, Greek souvlaki, and Romanian kebab. Regional variation between the national dishes also contributes to their perceived uniqueness. Chamberlain, during her visit to then Communist Albania, recalls one particular quote regarding the national pride of these regional variations, however slight they may be: Albanian dishes have just enough to distinguish them from those of their neighbors and former foes, writes Kay Shaw Nelson, in which case the style of food seems to be imbued with the same pride and desire for independence in fairly hopeless circumstances as the style of Albanian politics.9 Though the geographic distribution of, e.g., the spiced meatball is far from being confined to the lands of the former Ottoman Empire, the importance of this dish and its elevation to the status of national cuisine is certainly worthy to note. The regional variation in terms of which meats and spices are used, the shape of the patty, what type of

Chamberlain, Food and Cooking, 52. 10

bread (if any) accompanies the dish, and what condiments are served alongside it provides ample ammunition in the struggle over national cuisine. Turkish kfte, Bulgarian kyufteta (k), Serbian pjeskavica (a), Bosnian evapii, Greek keftedes, and Romanian chiftele all differ in their standard shape and suggested garnishes. Advocates of various Balkan national cuisines often stress the inclusion of pork in their culinary traditions. In the informal interviews conducted during the research of this paper, one Serbian participant, when asked to name several national dishes, immediately named skewered meat and spit-roasted lamb. After a brief pause, he stated, I suppose those are Turkish. He subsequently named spit-roasted pig followed by, of all things, bacon. This can be understood as a deliberate attempt to distance these dishes from the Ottoman past, despite the fact that a large percentage of the Ottoman population, particularly in Balkans, did in fact eat pork. Despite the uniqueness imbued onto a particular culinary tradition through its distinctive name and regional variation, a key problem remains. If national culture is understood along the organismic model, rather than as a bricolage of foreign influences, how are widely shared culinary traditions to be treated as authentic representations of a distinctive national spirit? The answer to this can be found in the application of creation myths to national dishes. While numerous examples of this exist, let us keep our attention on the spiced meatball mentioned above. One particular version of Romanian chiftea is known as the distinctly spiced and shaped mititei, affectionately known as mici. Despite the wide geographical distribution of similar dishes, many hail mici as being a uniquely Romanian dish. Of this skinless garlicky


ground beef cylinder, nearly identical to prized Bosnian evapii (though without the inclusion of lamb), the BBC reports, Legend has it that they were invented one night at an inn in Bucharest, after the kitchen ran out of casings for sausage casings.10 Similar stories are to be found on various internet message boards regarding Greek souvlaki being created by no less a figure than Alexander the Great, who skewered meat on his sword and held it over a fire (perhaps even more Greek pride can be imbued if Alexander roasted the meat over the smoldering ruins of recently razed Persepolis). Of course, Alexanders supposed creation is not to be confused with the distinctly Turkish Iskander kebap. A Crete tourism office similarly imparts ancient Greek (specifically Cretan) origins to souvlaki, stating that there is no doubt that souvlaki is the modern version of an ancient dish known as kandaulos,11 even providing a classical citation from Athenaeus The Deipnosophists. However, a closer examination of this classical text reveals that the connections to modern souvlaki are rather spurious: And the Lydians, too, used to speak of a dish which they called candaulus; and there was not one kind of candaulus only, but three, so wholly devoted were they to luxury. And Hegesippus the Tarentine says, that the candaulus is made of boiled meat, and grated bread, and Phrygian cheese, and aniseed, and thick broth; and it is mentioned by Alexis, in his Woman Working all Night, or The Spinner; and it is a cook who is represented as speaking: --A. And, besides this, we now will serve you up. A Dish whose names candaulus B. Ive neer tasted Candaulus, nor have I eer heard of it. A. Tis a most grand invention, and tis mine; And if I put a dish of it before you, Such will be your delight that youll devour Your very fingers ere you lose a bit of it.

BBC News, "Coming Up: Food from the New EU," [Online] 1 January 2007, <>. 11 Explore Crete, "Greek Souvlaki," [Online] Retrieved 3 March 2007, <>. 12

We here will get some balls of snow-white wool. * * * * You will serve up an egg well shred, and twice Boild till its hard, a sausage, too, of honey; Some pickle from the frying pan, some slices Of new-made Cynthian cheese; and then A bunch of grapes, steepd in a cup of wine: But this part of the dish is always laughd at, And yet it is the mainstay of the meal. B. Laugh on, my friend: but now be off, I beg, With all your talk about candauli, and Your sausages, and dishes, and luxuries.12 It certainly seems that this classical dish, in either of the variations mentioned above, can be likened to modern souvlaki only by the greatest stretch of the national imagination. Perhaps the Cretan account of the origins of souvlaki does impart authentic continuity with the ancient past, not in culinary tradition, but rather in Greek hubris. In conclusion, culinary practices are not strictly confined by borders, but rather are transmitted along points of socialization. As these practices are eventually inculcated into local cuisine, they become culinary traditions and are transmitted and reproduced at the family level of society. The traditions disseminated throughout the Balkans while under Ottoman rule, which necessarily precede the advent of the Balkan nation-states, if not national consciousnesses, have since been nationalized through an emphasis placed on distinct names and regional variations, as well as through the use of creation myths. Though some culinary traditions are widely accepted as being of a particular national origin, others remain at the center of controversy, fueled by national pride and insecurity, and the greater fear that the national spirit will starve.


Athenaeus, The Deipnosophists, Vol II, Book XII. 13

Bibliography Al-Azmeh, Aziz (1996): Culturalism, Grand Narrative of Capitalism Exultant. in ibid: Islams and Modernities. Second Edition. (London: Verso, 1996). Athenaeus. The Deipnosophists. Vol II, Book XII. BBC News. "Coming Up: Food from the New EU." [Online] 1 January 2007. <> Bringa, Tone. Being Muslim the Bosnian Way: Identity and Community in a Central Bosnian Village. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995). Chamberlain, Lesley. The Food and Cooking of Eastern Europe. (Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 1989). Explore Crete. "Greek Souvlaki." [Online] Retrieved 3 March 2007. <>. Kiossev, Alexander. The Dark Intimacy: Maps, Identities, Acts of Identification. Balkan as Metaphor: Between Globalization and Fragmentation. Bjeli, Duan I. and Obrad Savi, eds. (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2005). Vasiljevi, Jovan Hadi. Muslimani nase krvi u Juznoj Srbiji. 1st Ed. Beograd: 1924. Qtd. in Aleksov, Bojan. Historijski Mitovi na Balkanu Zbornik Radova. Ed. Kamberovi, Husnija. Institut za Istoriju u Sarajevu. (Sarajevo: 2003).