It’s been exactly a week since I got back from Belgrade, Serbia, where I attended an international theatre critic conference, covered the Belgrade International Theatre Festival, and did some sightseeing. And in between all that, I ate, of course. It was only a six-day trip, but there’s so much to tell. So without further ado:
Of Food and Fear
On my flight to Belgrade (Bangkok–Abu Dhabi–Zurich-Belgrade), I watched Julie & Julia and Chocolat. That was not my first time watching these two movies. I love them. I love them to death. They’re my favorite food movies ever. But I realized for the first time the common theme that ran through both films: fear. Perhaps I’ve been mulling over the subject of food and fear a lot since I started the blog, but while watching the two films on the plane, the ways the characters use food and cooking to temper fear—of themselves, their potential, and of others—really stood out to me.
Julia Child’s bravery earned the respect of her male teacher and classmates at Le Cordon Bleu. By cooking through Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking and blogging about it, Julie Powell was forced to overcome her fear of eggs, boiling lobster live, boning a duck, and never becoming a writer.
Chocolate in Chocolat, too, was used to overcome fear, but also to incite it. The dinner, hosted by Armande Voizin (Judie Dench) and cooked by the lead character Vianne Rocher (Juliette Binoche), bounded the villagers with the village’s outcasts. I suppose food is so inextricably linked to desire—base, common, and lofty—that it is also inevitably close to fear. Both movies are about identifying and facing our desires, and then learning to succumb to and harness them at the same time—pretty scary stuff. Pretty exhilarating, too.
Birthday Love and Loss
I turned 33 in Belgrade. My boyfriend Sascha flew in from Germany for the occasion. I haven’t been big on birthdays since my mid-twenties, so it was more than enough that Sascha was there. In the four years since we’ve been together, this was the first time we celebrated our birthdays with each other—his in Germany in August, mine in Belgrade in September. We didn’t do anything grand, just a pretty glass of Aperol Spritz for me and a bottle of Coke for Sascha to ring in my 33rd year of living.
For the birthday dinner, we had reserved a table at an Italian restaurant highly recommended by the hotel staff. But once we got there, we turned back immediately. The foyer was a riot of colors and cartoon sculptures. It was probably the tackiest restaurant either of us had ever seen. So we made do with a rushed dinner on the terrace of the hotel’s restaurant before I had to leave for a play. I later suggested we go back to the Italian restaurant just for the fun of it. But I was the only one who had recovered from the visual assault.
I had so little time to explore the restaurant scene in Belgrade or even got to know the Serbian cuisine. I was feeling desperate until I noticed that there were bakeries everywhere in the city center. I had a great time trying a couple of them out. Belgrade is not the most beautiful of cities and doesn’t rake in tourists, but its people are friendly to outsiders and willing to speak English, so exploring the city was a breeze.
I went into this bright and sleek bakery a few times but never saw what I had always known to be pita. Through At the Immigrant’s Table blog, I learned that this is what the Bosnian pita pie looks like. It’s also called burek, according to Wikipedia. The ones on the blog look flakier than the ones at Pita Break, which contain both sweet and savory fillings, from meats and vegetables to chocolate and jam.
I’m disappointed I didn’t have time to go back and try their sweet pita pies, especially their oozing chocolate one, but I loved their chicken pie (left)—tender, herby, and comforting like the chicken curry puff in Thailand, just less peppery. The other pie I bought was stuffed with falafel, one of my favorite things in the world, but their falafel was rather one-note.
I also had a few bites of their lepinja, a Balkan flatbread. I bought this in the evening, so maybe that’s why it was tough to eat. The bread is used for sandwiches, usually like a pita pocket, but also cut into two pieces to form the base and the top.
I passed by this bakery a few times and even bought a few of their goodies, but I’m not sure what it’s called, frankly. The signage was very confusing. EM? Food EM? Well, in any case, it exists on Kralja Milana Street, just a few steps away from Pita Break, if not on the Internet. This is their bag:
Pekara means bakery, and Hvala na poverenju means Thank you for your trust. (And thank you, Google Translate!)
This is a Serbian-Croation version of burek. The bakery has beef and cheese burek. I got the beef one. It was hearty and flavorful, if very greasy.
Baklava can be found in most bakeries in Belgrade. This one was surprisingly not very sweet. If I had known, I would have gotten a few more!
The Belgradians love their ice-cream, especially gelato. There are two gelaterias on the little square across from my hotel. Sascha told me that when he landed in Belgrade, the Serbians immediately headed for ice-cream at the airport! On my last day in the city, I peeked inside I Scream Rolls and saw two young men hard at work, rolling ice-cream on a pan for excited children. It looked beautiful. I just wasn’t in the mood for ice-cream with gimmicks, so I settled for a raspberry (one of my favorite fruits and fruity ice-cream flavors) gelato at Bacio Gelato. The taste didn’t blow me away, but it was still highly enjoyable. The silky smooth texture, though, I will never forget.
For my last lunch in Belgrade, I stumbled upon Manufaktura, a hip Balkan restaurant in the shopping area. It was Saturday, sunny and breezy. The atmosphere was convivial, the restaurant packed with large tables of family and friends. The servers seemed simultaneously overwhelmed by the crowd, but they delivered a friendly, if not always efficient, service.
Zucchini seems to be the star vegetable of the region. I found them everywhere, wrapping a piece of feta, stuffed in pastry, or piled in layers in a salad bowl, like this one here. The juicy zucchini sang with flavors of garlic and vinaigrette. And everything tastes better with feta, so this was a big winner.
This is grilled chicken with yoghurt. They actually no longer serve it with yoghurt but had forgotten to correct the menu. When I bit into the chicken, I understood why it didn’t need yoghurt, or any sauce for that matter. It was smoky and succulent, perfect in itself.
When the bill came, I found out that the bread—warm, crunchy on the outside, airy on the inside—was not complimentary, even though I had not ordered it.