What is the best street food in the world? That’s a tough question. But, if like me, you have spent any amount of time traveling around the Balkans, be it Serbia, Croatia or Bosnia and Herzegovina or any country in the general vicinity, then the grilled meat specialty that is Ćevapi may rank pretty highly on your list.
In what was certainly a cultural experience of a lifetime, I spent a short but scorching two weeks road tripping with friends high and low through both urban and rural Croatia, Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina. It was a magical trip full of unfamiliar scents and flavors, quite a few drinks and the flat-down greatest hospitality I’ve ever seen. Somewhere along that trip, like so many men before me, I fell in love – not only with the beautiful women and the amazing culture, but also with Ćevapi: Spicy, grilled meat patties, usually served dirt cheap with a side of flatbread and various dips.
So insanely good and so wildly popular throughout the region are these meaty miracles that they are actually considered a national dish in all of the above-mentioned countries but are also common and loved in several surrounding countries, including but not limited to Montenegro, Slovenia, Macedonia, Kosovo, Albania, Bulgaria and even parts of Austria.
What are Ćevapi?
Ćevapi are often described as skinless Serbian sausages or sometimes even as spicy meatballs. A more fitting description may in fact even be a Balkan version of Turkish Köfte kebab, a dish that – as we shall soon see – is widely believed to have inspired the dish that is a piece of Balkan pride.
If you’re not quite sure what to make of this description, then let’s put it into milder terms: At the end of the day, Ćevapi are essentially ground meat seasoned with a combination of onions, salt, pepper and paprika, shaped into traditional sausage-like shapes and then grilled to perfection over piping hot coals. They also are, quite literally, the soul of Balkan cuisine and one of the best street food items you will ever have.
The problem with Ćevapi, though, is that it remains a holiday treat for most tourists and a sorely missed aspect of their trip – something they remember fondly and dream of having. Because, really, how could you possibly cook something so wonderful, so magic and so exotic in the comfort of your own home. I know, right? Well, not content with this, I decided to find out how to make this wonderful Balkan street food in the comfort of my own, slightly cooler and more rainy home climate.
Who likes Ćevapi? This guy!
So, fret no more, fellow returning Balkan-travelers, we’re here to help. Our subject of today is the few (if any secrets) to homemade Ćevapi – and we’ve got the perfect Ćevapi recipe waiting for you, right after our usual history lesson. Can’t want? You can skip along right here!
A brief history of Ćevapi
It is very commonly believed that Ćevapi has its roots during the Ottoman period in which the Balkans were part of the Ottoman empire. The dish is, whether or not anybody likes to admit it, obviously greatly inspired by Turkish köfte kebab – a type of skewered grilled meat dish made from ground meat.
The Balkan version of the dish is believed to have been pioneered by Hajduks (literally: rebels outlaws), a form of local highwaymen cum partisan freedom fighters who were, according to whom you ask, either proud national heroes of the fight against the Ottoman oppression or a bunch of common thieves. Whatever their role in Balkan history, these bandits of the wild, quite interestingly, developed their own form of köfte kebab, quite conveniently known as hajduki cevap, consisting of pieces of seasoned meat and smoked lard roasted on skewers over an open fire… Which, incidentally, looks and sounds a lot like a dish cooked by their mortal enemies, the Ottomans.
Making Ćevapi on a home grill
This early version of Ćevapi, sources believe, turned into a more modernly recognizable version of Ćevapi when, in Serbia, traditional plejskavica (seasoned meat patties comparable to and often referred to as Serbian burgers) were eventually formed in the way of Ćevapi. This particular rendition is known as “Leskovacki Ćevap” after the town in which it was invented but quickly spread through Belgrade in the 1860’s and subsequently across the country – supposedly owing to the immense popularity it enjoyed with the drinking crowd.
By the early 20th century, the dish – in a number of regional varieties – had already spread across all of then Yugoslavia and began it’s trek for reginal domination in the early 1930’s when it started to spread across the rest of the Balkans.
Ćevapi, today, are as popular as ever, serving as a traditional, National dish for locals and, as mentioned, a much enjoyed and often sorely missed holiday staple for tourists to the region… Before we get along to recreating those holiday memories at home, however, we’ve got to talk a little about ingredients and varieties. The thing about such wildly popular and widely spread regional dishes, though, is that it can be difficult to nail down one codified recipe – as apparently the rather simple word Ćevapi can carry a lot of different meanings depending on whom you ask.
Ćevapi ingredients: What goes into traditional Ćevapi?
The subject of what ingredients go into Ćevapi are a matter of controversy and debate. There are, essentially, as many regional varieties of Ćevapi as there are regions of the Balkans – and then probably a few more than that owing to various local family adoptions of regional varieties.
What most agree on is that Ćevapi are made using a combination of ground meat (or meats), onion, salt, pepper and paprika. The meats used for Ćevapi are traditionally either beef, pork, lamb or any combination thereof whereas slightly less uncommon choices such as mutton or even goat have shown up in more rural varieties such as Bosnian Travnički ćevap (mutton) and Serbian Novopazarski ćevap (lamb).
As far as aromatics, spices and other ingredients are concerned, the jury is often out as well: onion are used as a classical variety in all varieties I have personally come across, while garlic seems a hugely popular albeit optional ingredient. Salt, pepper and paprika, however, are absolutely traditional and help define the flavor of Ćevapi, and are usually the main flavor components of Ćevapi while some recipes do call for parsley or other herbs to be added. In general, however, ingredients of Ćevapi are few and simple with very few seasonings going into the mix and very little more than that, aside from maybe an egg and/or a bit of baking soda as a textural component, but more on this culinary sorcery later on.
Regional varieties of Ćevapi
Regional varieties of Ćevapi are numerous and surprisingly diverse. As is often the case with local, traditional dishes, slight variations might well occur from one geographic location to another based solely on local preference. In a region as ethnically and culturally diverse as the Balkans, this adds up to quite a number of local varieties. In the grand scheme of things, though, Ćevapi ingredients and styles are dictated by the culture, history, culinary preference and sometimes even the religious prevalence of the region from which they come, and can – if one dares – be split into a few major categories.
Bosnian Ćevapi, for example, rarely list pork as an ingredient as Bosnia harbors quite a large Muslim population. Instead a mix of different kinds of beef or of beef and lamb is most often favored to make Ćevapi. Across the border in Serbia, however, pork is seen as perhaps the most important of all edible beasts – and traditional Serbian Ćevapi are often made using a mixture of beef, pork and lamb.
Ćevapi on the streets of Sarajevo
These, as we have seen, are usually referred to as Leskovački ćevap from the region from which they came and are believed by culinary historians to be the source of modern Ćevapi, though the wonderful people of Sarajevo with their beef and sheep-based Sarajevski ćevap or the proponents of Banjalučki ćevap from Banja Luka may well tell you exactly the same.
At the end of the day, the grand list of regional styles of Ćevapi is entirely too large and largely too confusing even for me to dive further into, but for those interested a very much non-exhaustive list can be found here, courtesy of Wikipedia.
One thing they all have in common, though, is that they are – in fact – all delicious and whichever road you head down, your meal will be delicious.
How to serve Ćevapi
Regardless of ingredients and form-related details, Ćevapi are traditionally served quite simply: Usually a traditional plate of Ćevapi consists of either five or ten pieces served with a simple side of chopped, raw onion, a popular spicy dip of red bell peppers known as Ajvar and (depending on your geographic locale) either pita or an even more traditional Balkan flatbread known as somun.
Other methods exist, of course: during our visit to the Balkans, we’ve had them with potatoes, as a sandwich filling, with salad, as a part of a mixed grill patter and even with rice. Heck, in fast food establishment dishes such as Ćevapi with French fries are hugely popular as well… Thank you, bar dwellers!
Cevapi and potatoes in Croatia, because why not?
In the end, though, most people will tell you to KISS and chow down your Ćevapi quite informally with your fingers using a torn of piece of flatbread used as a scoop and not forgetting to pile plenty of ajvar (the hot variety, please) and a dragon-breath inducing pile of raw onion on top… Perhaps a bit of sour cream or kajmak (fresh cheese) as well.
But enough about that, let’s throw caution, tradition and local preferences to the wind and cook our own perfect homemade Ćevapi!
Ingredients for our Perfect Ćevapi recipe
So? How do we cook the perfect Ćevapi? How do we encapsulate the culinary soul and the taste of the Balkans at home? Well, it’s easier than you may think, my fellow Ćevapi-longing world traveler.
First things first, we should – with all due respect to the wonderful local communities of the Balkans – mention that we are not bound by any particular style and tradition, so we are allowed to shake things up a notch while still starting true to tradition and the flavors of the Balkans. Our homemade Ćevapi will not be of any particular regional variety, rather they will try to encapsulate the dish and Ćevapi tradition as a whole. Ćevapi as I have tasted them across the Balkans and as I dare say my fellow travelers and even Balkan-born friends will recognize them as well.
What meat goes into Ćevapi?
To hopefully please the palates of all nostalgic travelers, our homemade Ćevapi will feature three kinds of meat:
Beef – for that classical, deep, beefy flavor that forms the basis of all Ćevapi recipes found across the Balkans. Beef is the foundation of all Ćevapi recipes and if there is but one trick here, it is to use a fatty grind of at least 15-20 % fat. This to ensure not only good flavor but also texture as lean ground beef has a disappointing tendency of getting quite firm and tough when cooked.
Pork – pork, to some, is a controversial ingredient in Ćevapi. For the simple reason that it is not used in Ćevapi across large parts of Bosnia – for obvious, religious reasons. I have found, however, that pork not only adds a deeper, more diverse taste but also a bit of texture. Ground pork, when cooked, is a lot lighter in texture than beef and will add a fair bit of airiness to the mix.
Lamb – If ever there were a secret ingredient to great Ćevapi, this is it. Lamb is a hugely popular, often luxurious and special ingredient eaten with great pleasure across every country of the Balkans. Adding even a bit of ground lamb to Ćevapi adds a certain depth of character and gamey funkiness to the mix that is very recognizable and very Balkan-like.
Ćevapi spices and aromatics
When I originally posted my recipe for perfect Ćevapi over at Gastromand.dk – few readers believed that something so perfect and so tasty could, in fact, be so simple. The fact is, however, that most renditions of Ćevapi are seasoned very, very simply with a combination of salt, pepper, paprika, onion and about enough garlic to kill off a minor Transylvanian village of undead blood-suckers. No secrets, no housewife tricks, no magic… just a good sprinkling of quality spices and some finely tuned aromatics. And believe me. This is about all you need to recreate a true and authentic Balkan experience!
The rest is all up to a bit of work and a bit of time… You will need to mix your ingredients carefully and thoroughly, but more importantly, you’ll need to rest them well before cooking, but hey, let’s jump straight into it:
Perfect Ćevapi Recipe
Authentic recipe for Balkan Ćevapi
- 500 grams ground beef about 15% fat
- 500 grams ground pork about 15% fat
- 500 grams ground lamb
- 1 large onion
- 4 cloves garlic
- 2 teaspoons salt
- Black pepper freshly ground
- 1 tablespoon hot paprika about 15 grams
- 1 teaspoon smoked paprika about 5 grams
- 1.5 teaspoon baking soda
Put all the meat into a large bowl
Finely grate the onion and garlic and add to the bowl
Add all dried spices and the baking soda
Using very clean hands, carefully and gently mix all ingredients till thoroughly combined, but avoid overmixing (see section below)
Cover bowl and place in the fridge for at least 1-4 hours, but preferably overnight
When ready to cook, remove the bowl from the fridge
Grab one scoop of meat mixture at a time (about what you would use for a standard meatball). And, using your hands and a flat surface, shape it into a sausage slightly thicker than your index finger.
Repeat the above step until all your Ćevapi are formed. Allow them to rest at room temperature while you fire up a charcoal grill or heat a grill pan to as hot as it will go.
Grill Ćevapi for a minute or two on each surface or until they’re nicely browned and showing grill marks on the outside but are still juicy and tender in the center.
Serve your grilled Ćevapi with pita, ajvar and chopped, raw onions.
The exact cooking time will depend on the temperature of your grill or pan and the diameter of your Ćevapi. I recommend grilling and timing one Ćevapi, then cutting in half and checking for doneness – that way you’ll have a general guideline to go by before putting a large batch on the grill.
If you’re using a grill pan, by the way, make sure not to crowd the pan as it will decrease the temperature of the pan, inhibit browning and greatly increase the cooking time.
Tasting homemade Ćevapi: As good as the real thing?
So, how do our homemade Ćevapi measure up to the real deal? Well, I’m not going to lie, when I first tasted these, I was pretty much transported back to the bustling, noisy streets of Sarajevo, eating Ćevapi fresh off the grill from some small, crammed stall. That’s how good and legit they tasted to me.
But then, I am but a returning tourist in love with Balkan tradition, and a more thorough test was needed and luckily I knew just the person. In my case, I decided to run my efforts by my beautiful friend Ana, who is not only an appreciator of spice and flavor, but also quite vocal about her opinions… Oh, and she just happens to be born on the beautiful city of Sarajevo. Ana was the perfect guinea pig: her longing, loving stories of her home country, their tastes and traditions is what first helped me develop an interest in the Balkan region and it’s unique tastes, smells and culture. If my Balkan Chick, as I call her, approved, I thought, I’m pretty sure the world at large would approve.
Naturally, it was with a fair bit anticipation and lots of trepidation that I served her up a batch one cold, winter night. I’d kept it simple: Ćevapi, pita bread, ajvar and onion. Oh, and a bit of Champagne on the side, because who doesn’t love Champagne. It looked legit, I thought, but would it pass the test.
She dug in eagerly, grabbed a bite, started chewing and closed her eyes. I knew what flavors should be running through her mouth at this part: hot and smoky paprika notes, a blast of pungent garlic, sweet onions, beef, lamb, pork fat and smoky charred note from the grilling process, but her eyes and mouth remained closed as an unusual quiet had fallen upon my friend.
“Say something,” I beckoned silently as a small smile eventually spread across her lips. “Oh my God,” her trembling verdict eventually read rather loudly, “these, these are pretty fucking legit, dude! I, I think my mamma needs to try these!” and that settled it. Honestly, if they’re good enough for a Bosnian mamma, they’re good enough for me – and for the world! I couldn’t ask for better praise.
And on that closing note, I hope you’ll give this recipe for homemade perfectly legit, authentic Ćevapi a shot – and that it will remind you as much of the Balkans as it did me.
How to make Ćevapi like a Balkan housewife: Five tips for better Ćevapi
So… Wonder why this seemingly simple recipe hits the spots so well with locals and tourists alike? I’ll tell you: Because it’s simple! It’s not about numerous, fancy ingredients or complicated procedures. Like so many other traditional recipes, it’s all about taking the few, right, simple ingredients and treating them just right.
There really aren’t many secrets to it if any, but for those looking, here are my five tips that I used to make perfect homemade and authentic Ćevapi.
The best part about these tips? They work not only for Ćevapi, but for all other seasoned meat patty-based recipes like burgers, meatballs and more.
Tip #1: Never be afraid of a bit of fat
If you want perfect Ćevapi, this first step is pivotal: Use fatty meat! Like, really fatty meat! There. I said it. There is a bit of a tendency in our modern world to shy away from and be afraid of animal fat. In the grand scheme of things, this is, probably, generally, a good thing. The fact is, however, that fat equals flavor and texture and one reason why many classic dishes – be they of American, Danish of Balkan origin – taste so well is that they contain a fair amount of fat. Cut out the fat and the results quite simply will not be as good. Keep the fat and your results will be much tastier, less dense and much juicier… This goes for not only for Ćevapi but also for burgers, meatballs and a lot of other things as well, by the way. And you know what? It’s perfectly okay. Just don’t eat Ćevapi every day. You’ll be just fine!
Tip #2: Onions should be grated not chopped
My beautiful friend Anne often tells me, I remind her of her late father. Well, guess what, honey, I’m going to do it again… If you’re using onion in any type of meat patty recipe: be they meatballs, burgers, Ćevapi or any such thing, you should never chop your onions. You grate them. Grating the onion (and the garlic) will offer a much finer texture to the Ćevapi, add moisture to the patty and save you the possibly surprising and uncomfortable experience of having to bite down on large pieces of onion mid meal. More than that, though, it will help distribute the flavor of the aromatics more evenly throughout the meat and create a more flavorful Ćevapi.
Tip #3: Use quality spices
This should be obvious but unfortunately, to many, it is not. Salt is not just salt, black pepper should be freshly ground and quality paprika is actually a thing. I fondly remember a very drunk winemaker in an ancient wine cellar in rural Serbia telling us stories from his time in Germany and how more than anything he loved getting presents from his mom containing paprika from his home country as the stuff in stores was absolute shit. And he’s mostly right, you know? Supermarket spices are mainly colored dust and not worth even the budget price tag that they carry. If you want to make quality ethnic food then go out (or go online) and get yourself some quality spices, some quality sea salt – oh and if you haven’t already, get a pepper mill while you’re at it and some quality black pepper that you then grind just prior to use. Your taste buds will thank you!
Tip #4: And a little bit of chemistry
Okay, so here’s the only real secret and weird part about this recipe. Noticed the call for baking soda? We’re not baking here, we’re grilling, so what’s the deal? Well, it’s pretty dang simple: The baking soda acts like a leavening agent during cooking which sounds a bit weird until you consider that meat patty products containing beef and lamb have a tendency of ending up a little on the, shall we say dense, side? Adding baking soda is entirely optional and does nothing on the taste-side of things. It does, however, add a bit of extra lift and tenderness to the final product.
Tip #5: Exercise just the right amount of pressure
Speaking of texture, have you ever had dense, dry meatballs? Of course you have! And that means that you, too, have been the victim of overmixing. Overmixing occurs when ground beef especially is mixed too much or too hard, creating a dense, tough eating experience. The key here is to mix your Ćevapi ingredients just enough for them to combine and evenly distribute – but no more than that. You’ll get all the flavor (especially after a rest in the fridge) but none of the dreaded dense, dry texture. Incidentally, this trick works for both Ćevapi, meatballs, seasoned burger patties and more. Another two for one tip right there.