3 mins

Serbian food beginner's guide: 11 dishes and staples you must try

From platters of grilled meat and peppery relishes to unusually spicy salads and fruity, alcoholic delights – there's every reason to explore Serbia's take on traditional Balkan cuisine...

Serbian food should accompany Serbian wine (Shutterstock)

Serbia doesn’t immediately spring to mind Europe’s ultimate foodie destination – but its certainly no slouch, offering Balkan classics, pepper-based side dishes and doughy desserts, among other delights.

Serbians love to eat, and food is an important part of the home. When visitors arrive, you can expect to be offered treat after treat, and when you sit down to eat anywhere in Serbia you can expect portions to be large. While travelling, sample the local dishes in a cosy kafana (a traditional tavern serving coffee, drinks, snacks and small meals), or go for tradition-with-a-modern-twist at a trendy restaurant like Ambar, sat on the River Sava in buzzing Belgrade.

Add in some sweets, a cold-clearing swig of the local fruit brandy, and a glass (or two) of wine from one of the country’s breathtakingly lovely vineyards, and you’re guaranteed a memorable culinary experience.

Here are 11 Serbian dishes and staples you absolutely must try...

1. Sarma

Sarma (Shutterstock)

Sarma (Shutterstock)

Sarma is eaten all over the Middle East, Central Asia and the Balkans, but Serbia’s version of this cabbage roll involves stuffing the cabbage with minced pork, rice, sauerkraut and tomato sauce. It can be made veggie with alternatives to the pork filling.

It’s a popular dish, traditionally eaten during winter months and mostly served during celebratory events. A summery version can be cooked with vine leaves instead of sauerkraut. Originally, it was believed to come from the Ottomans, and the name sarma comes from the Turkish word for ‘to wrap in’.

2. Ćevapi

Ćevapi (Shutterstock)

Ćevapi (Shutterstock)

In a nutshell, ćevapi is grilled meat eaten in the Balkan countries. It’s actually considered a national dish in neighbouring Bosnia & Herzegovina, but you’ll find plenty of ćevapi to try in all parts of Serbia.

Typically, you’ll be trying minced beef and pork, shaped to look like small sausages or kofte kebabs. They’re best served with flatbread and sour cream, though you’ll often find them with ajvar and kajmak (see below).

3. Gibanica

Slices of gibanica (Shutterstock)

Slices of gibanica (Shutterstock)

To summarise gibanica in a few words would be tricky – there are so many different types! This filo pastry pie is filled with cottage cheese and egg and eaten in slices – though it can be made in a number of different ways, enjoyed hot or cold, and for a number of different occasions.

Serbia’s version is usually eaten cold and accompanied by some type of yoghurt. In other parts of the Balkans, you may come across a sweeter version of gibanica, perfect for dessert. Either way, the filo pastry is usually deliciously soft yet crispy, the filling very more-ish.

4. Ajvar

Ajvar (Shutterstock)

Ajvar (Shutterstock)

A simple relish made of blended red pepper, olive oil and a lashing of salt, ajvar usually comes in a small dish and is the ideal condiment for the many platters of pršuta (like prosciutto) and cheese you’ll be eating during your stay. Perhaps you could consider it Serbia’s answer to hummus.

It is lip-smackingly savoury, and some recipes add in a touch of black pepper or white wine vinegar to make it even more so. It will be on the starter list of most menus, or if you’re shopping in supermarkets during your travels, you’re likely to find a number of different ajvar brands from basic to gourmet depending on where you shop.

5. Urnebes

Urnebes (Shutterstock)

Urnebes (Shutterstock)

The meaning of the word urnebes is akin to the English words ‘disorder’ or ‘mess’, so that gives you an idea of what this salty, at-times fiery, salad looks (and tastes) like.

Some may find the term salad for this dish questionable, and prefer the word 'spread' to describe the unusual consistency of mushed-up salty cheese, sour cream, spicy chilli peppers, salt and garlic – plus any other spices the chef wants to throw in.

Regardless of how you choose to classify it, urnebes certainly unique. It’s often enjoyed in Niš, Serbia's third largest city, though in other parts of the country it will likely have its own combination of flavours.

6. Kajmak

Kajmak (Shutterstock)

Kajmak (Shutterstock)

In essence, the popular Serbian dairy product kajmak (sometimes called kaymak) is effectively a type of clotted cream, though it’s actually a raw, unpasteurised cheese made from cow, goat or sheep milk. We’ve even heard it can be made from buffalo milk.

In places such as the Balkans, Central Asia, Turkey and Georgia (where it’s usually consumed), you can kind of have it with anything. You could enjoy it on bread, with breakfast, as an accompaniment to ćevapi or sarma. Whatever you fancy.

7. Anything fruity

Raspberries galore! (Shutterstock)

Raspberries galore! (Shutterstock)

Nobody travels just to try the jam, though when in Serbia you should make a concerted effort to seek out as many of its fruitiest breakfasts and desserts as possible. Serbia is one of the world’s most important producers of fruit; currently, it provides 8% of the world’s raspberries.

The jams in particular are excellent, available in supermarkets or at most eateries serving breakfast (apricot and berry – delicious – though we must admit, plum & cocoa was a rather unusual flavour). Slatko, a soft and warming fruit preserve, has historically been served as a welcome drink or treat in Serb households – it’s made with berries, cherries or again, plums – this time peeled, almost ripe plums, along with sugar, vanilla and lemon juice.

Though sadly Serbia's many orchards and fruit farms aren’t open to the public, we hope one day they will be, because they’re certainly interesting to visit, and any opportunity you have to go fruit-picking in Serbia is one you should absolutely take.

8. Uštipci

Uštipci (Shutterstock)

Uštipci (Shutterstock)

You’ll never be stuck for savoury flavour in Serbia, but what’s for dessert? Uštipci (sometimes called miške) are fluffy, fried doughnut balls, again enjoyed throughout the Balkans. If you’re in Novi Sad or elsewhere in Vojvodina in northern Serbia, keep your eyes peeled for these treats. They’re much-loved.

The recipe for these balls couldn’t be simpler. All it takes is flour, egg, milk, yeast and oil, and a good fry. You could just eat them as a plain snack, or sprinkle with icing sugar or smother in some of Serbia’s finest jam for a burst of sweetness.

9. Vanilice

Vanilice (Shutterstock)

Vanilice (Shutterstock)

Your sweet tooth will thank you for trying Serbia’s classic cookie, vanilice. Unsurprisingly, the main flavour is vanilla. They’re walnut-and-vanilla cookies, made with lard, sugar, flour, egg, lemon and walnuts, all smushed together and baked, and finished off with a dollop of raspberry or apricot jam.

They’re rather petite, bite-sized treats, and usually they’re only made in the winter months around Christmastime. Nevertheless, if you gather the ingredients, you won’t need to wait until the festive season rolls around.

10. Rakija

Plum rakija (Shutterstock)

Plum rakija (Shutterstock)

Prepare to have all your senses alerted and the inside of your throat burned when you take a shot of rakija (sometimes called rakia) – the potent fruit brandy which serves as Serbian’s national drink. At 40% ABV, you won’t need more than a shot or two at dinner to feel a buzz, especially since the ‘shot’ is typically quite large, served in a miniature wine glass or beaker of sorts.

Rakija can be made with many different fruits. The most common are apricots, grapes and plums (there’s those plums again!), though it could be made with just about any fruit, including sour cherries. For a smoother ride, honey-flavoured rakija goes down with ease. And yes, if you’re in a big city, it’s very likely you’ll be able to find a rakija bar – Belgrade's are a lot of fun. Bottoms up!

11. Wine!

Fruška Gora's vineyards (Shutterstock)

Fruška Gora's vineyards (Shutterstock)

For the wine connoisseur, Serbia is already on the map as a must-visit destination, with some of its wine-producing regions – Fruška Gora, Timok Valley, Subotica and Šumadija – already on their travel to-do list.

Head deep into the countryside to find the best vineyards and winery tours, where you can sample Serbia’s leading wines. Fruška Gora – the lush, green mountainous national park in Vojvodina, northern Serbia – offers incredible wine tasting experiences at Vinarija Kovačević and Bjelica in particular, while Aleksandrovic Winery – near Oplenac in Topola, central Serbia – is home to one of the country’s most famous world wine exports, the crisp white Trijumf.

Typically, there’s no need to choose between red, rose and white when you’re tasting – they’re all a speciailty. In Fruška Gora, you must make sure to try Bermet, a super-sweet dessert wine local to the region, which was originally created for medicinal purposes.

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