Burek is a pastry dish comprising thin layers of dough and a variety of fillings—a quintessential Balkan breakfast staple, late night snack, or anytime-anywhere fast-food delight, really. Burek is also a metaphor that varies across the former Yugoslav lands. Burek is food is life is culture is politics is burek.
With Irina Janakievska, Ksenija Hotić, and Spasia Dinkovski. Featuring music by Ali En, Best Burek, Burek, Burek Brothers Trio, Dosh Lee, Las Balkanieras, Vlada i Teoretičari Zavere, and Voodoo Popeye.
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PETER KORCHNAK: This is Remembering Yugoslavia, the show exploring the memory of a country that no longer exists. I’m your chef Peter Korchnak.
PETER KORCHNAK: Once upon a time, emissaries from a faraway world set out across the universe in search of the planet where their civilization came from. The only guide on their voyage was the aroma of burek.
More than 2,600 days into the flight, the supplies of burek on board had dwindled to the point where they were kept in a safe. Drinking yogurt was running out as well.
The situation was dire. If the mission did not find burek soon, it would end in ultimate failure and everyone on board would perish.
[BACKGROUND MUSIC – “zaratustra kopanica (Strauss/trad)” by Burek]
One day, equipment detected the aroma of burek on the third planet of a small solar system.
Navigation zoomed in on where the burek aroma was the strongest: a place called Sarajevo.
Captain Zenit chose an ideal landing spot: the only building visible from space with a naked eye, the Holiday Inn.
The year on the planet of the expedition’s ancestors was 1984.
Burek is a pastry dish comprising thin layers of dough and a variety of fillings. It’s a quintessential Balkan dish, included in every Balkan cookbook. If you’ve been to any of the countries of the former Yugoslavia or Greece or Turkey and beyond, you’ve had burek (if you have not, I don’t know you). It’s a breakfast staple or a late night snack or an anytime-anywhere fast-food dish, really.
Burek is also a metaphor that varies across the former Yugoslav lands. There are songs and jokes and love stories about burek. Burek is food is life is culture is politics is burek. Layers of dough and filling, layers of meaning.
In today’s episode of Remembering Yugoslavia: burek and its position in our universe.
Let’s set the mood first.
[SOUNDBITE – “Don’t Worry, Eat Burek” by Las Balkanieras]
PETER KORCHNAK: That was Las Balkanieras with “Don’t Worry, Eat Burek.”
In addition to a lot of burek, you’ll hear a lot of songs, both vocal and instrumental, in this episode of Remembering Yugoslavia.
At the top of the show you heard the French quintet Burek with the composition “zaratustra kopanica.”
Please follow the performers on social media and most importantly buy their music. I’ve embedded all the videos and included all the social and purchase links on the episode page at RememberingYugoslavia.com/Podcast.
One other thing: you’re listening to the basic version of this episode. The extended version, with extra interview footage and full lengths of songs, is available to Remembering Yugoslavia supporters on Patreon or PayPal. Think of it as an audio burek with extra fillings. Visit RememberingYugoslavia.com/Donate and contribute to get more burek today.
Let’s begin at the beginning.
IRINA JANAKIEVSKA: Oof, okay, the burek origin story. I’m going to do my best to summarize what is a very complicated history.
PETER KORCHNAK: That’s Irina Janakievska, a London-based food writer (among other things) at Balkan Kitchen (among other places). You may remember her from last year’s food episode, Number 48, “Yugoslav cuisine.”
IRINA JANAKIEVSKA: A majority of people will assume that burek is an Ottoman dish. But as with a lot of food, it’s incredibly difficult to attest to these origins without undermining how interconnected these ancient food ways are.
You can obviously find so many variations of dough manipulated into a myriad of shapes and some sort of filling in most cuisines around the world. I would argue that the burek origin story is probably as complicated as the current Marvel Universe.
There is some suggestion that burek is descended from the Byzantines plakos, which is a sort of flat cake, which may have in turn come from Roman placenta. It’s essentially two sheets of pastry stuffed with honey and cheese or chopped nuts.
Now, at some point before the 7th century, the nomadic Turks of Central Asia started to try and recreate the fluffy-textured, thick, oven-baked bread that they could have obtained from town bakeries and markets and adapt it to the realities of their nomadic lifestyle. They layered dough as many times as possible before stuffing it with whatever savory filling they had. The limited foodstuffs available to them would have been things like butter and cheese made from milk from their herds or foraged wild greens and grains, which they could buy or barter for. And then they would have cooked it on a sač so like a flat iron griddle suspended over their open fire or placed on hot stones.
As the Turkic tribes migrated, this pastry started to spread with them and was adapted as needed. You see the Goktuks taking it from Siberia to the Aral, the Khazars took it across the Caucasus, the Bulgars to modern day Ukraine.
Around the 11th century, then, the Seljuks brought it to Persia in eastern Anatolia, parts that were formerly controlled by the Byzantines Empire. And this is probably—possibly—where it starts to become known as burek. You know, there’s a suggestion that the name is a combination of the Farsi word burak, which refers to any dish made with you you’ve cast, so thin pastry sheets, sort of like phyllo, and the Turkic root for bur, meaning to twist, which is obviously an allusion to the way in which those sheets of dough have to be manipulated in order to produce the layered effect.
But then we come to the Mongol conquests in the 13th century, where like all progressive conquerors, they adopted or assimilated the things they liked and adapted them to their preference. The nomadic pastry continued its travels through Central Asia and then reached the courts of the Mongol-ruled China. And here it seems to have taken on a sweet element, so it had walnuts and honey, perhaps, you know, perhaps an early form of baklava.
And then finally, we come to the Ottomans who by the 14th century began to emerge as the dominant Turkic tribe and started to conquer lands and expand their influence. They arrived to the Balkans around the late 14th century, starting with the capture of Adrianople, so modern day Edirne, and then Serbia. As their influence extended across Anatolia, Greece, and led to the eventual fall of Constantinople in 1453, the rest, as they say, is history.
The Balkans and much of the territory of the former Yugoslavia remained under Ottoman control until the late 19th century and the early 20th century. And it was, as we all know, the site for much toing and froing between the House of Habsburg and Osmanli.
Burek became highly fashionable in the Ottoman court. In the palace kitchens of Topkapi, you were likely to have had a very fancy savory burek with everything at the same time, so with cheese and herbs and chicken and minced meat and, you know, very luxurious and perhaps some vegetables, potatoes, spinach, leek, courgettes. And burek became a serious business: at one point around the 16th century workshops outnumbered bakeries in Istanbul and were regulated for quality.
As Ottoman influence over the conquered lands extends so does their cuisine and their customs. They adopted and assimilated indigenous foods and customs that they favored and also adopted techniques and fillings and and adapted to what was available in the region.
So, you know so then you will find references to work in Armenia, so Armenian bureg, in Crete bureki, Tatar čiburek. And then you have numerous versions along the North African coast in Egypt, Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco; of course, across the Middle East, for example, in Palestine, sviha, in Syria, a cheese burek.
This is where burek starts to take on new shapes and forms. So, when the Jews were expelled from Spain in the late 15th century, they settled in Constantinople, and they combined their Spanish preference for empanadas with burek and created burekas. Burekas were thicker dough, they were shaped as half moons, and had sort of religiously appropriate kosher fillings to avoid mixing of dairy with meat and any other kosher laws. Later on, when Istanbul became less accepting and the Jews were expelled, they took these burekas with them to Italy and so you get the birth of buricce.
And then of course, it also traveled through Central Europe. So Germany, Austria Hungary, you get strudel dough. Now, this was possibly acquired directly from the Ottomans, or it was perhaps taken to Austro-Hungary by Hungarian or Balkan cooks.
So given the particularly strong foothold of the Ottoman Empire across the Balkans, burek put down very strong roots in the region, especially in the areas that remained under Ottoman control longer. So obviously, Serbia, Kosovo, Bosnia and North Macedonia. And there it began to merge with local ingredients, pre-existing techniques, preferences, and it assumed various new forms and consequently various new names in the respective languages of the region.
PETER KORCHNAK: Influences flowed in the reverse directions as well, with the children kidnapped into the Janissary corps, with musicians and other nomads circulating through the area, with military troops invading and withdrawing…
IRINA JANAKIEVSKA: I think we have to be very careful because it would be almost too reductive to say that burek, as we know it in former Yugoslavia, was an Ottoman installation in the region. There was, yes, significant cross fertilization and culinary influences, but they traveled in all directions from and to Istanbul.
PETER KORCHNAK: And so, the long story short:
IRINA JANAKIEVSKA: The history of burek seems to have always been, you know, one of necessity, migration, evolution, reinvention, and probably its nomadic origin is why it has persevered.
So if you think about it in its conceptualization, it’s a food that’s designed to be transportable and transported anywhere. So it’s something that has traveled with us as a Balkan diaspora anywhere. It’s designed to be versatile and weather periods of scarcity. It’s basically a little bit of dough with a little bit of filling, you know, whatever you could find to sustain you. And it’s flexible enough to allow people to make do with what was available. So there’s nothing, to me, there’s nothing more humbling than thinking about burek in the context of that moment, when flour and water first met to create dough, which then may have accidentally fallen on a campfire centuries ago and been eaten to avoid wasting food. And then, you know, somebody had the bright spark to add filling in it, you know, like cheese or meat, and then that has persisted for so long.
So I suspect this is the reason why it has taken such a route across so many lands and cultures and ethnicities and religions. And that’s why it’s survived for so long, especially in the Balkans, you know, despite centuries of poverty, wars and conquest, displacement, migration, and I think why it will continue to do so and means so much to us.
PETER KORCHNAK: Burek also means a lot to the guys from Voodoo Popeye, who take burek with them to their dream paradise island where, when they’re not engaging in lascivious shenanigans with locals, they eat burek (and other Balkan delicacies) all the time.
[SOUNDBITE – Burek sa rajskog ostrva” by Voodoo Popeye]
Follow Voodoo Popeye on YouTube and elsewhere and buy their music!
PETER KORCHNAK: With all these migrations moving around, and displacements and all that, this is a complicated thing to make. Yes, it’s portable, of course, but it’s also complicated to make. And so that is a little mysterious to me.
IRINA JANAKIEVSKA: It just takes a little bit of practice, you know. It’s just about the dough. And once you’ve made it, you know, two or three times, then it becomes easy, and then you will never look back, I promise you.
PETER KORCHNAK: At Balkan Kitchen, Janakievska features a recipe for pita, along with some tasty details about the dish.
IRINA JANAKIEVSKA: This one is really special to me, because this is really my mother’s recipe for pita. It’s one of my favorite things that she makes and essentially, she always made it growing up. When I went on my son was born I was determined to learn how to make pita like her. And it took me a while practicing and COVID and the time to finally crack her skill with dough.
So pita is for me a very special thing. It was something that was made in our house, you know, almost weekly. I grew up watching and helping both my grandmother and my mother make it.
My mom’s pita she favored the yeast leavened one which combined with her quick version of katmer. This involves dividing the dough into six or eight dough circles and stacking them to create the lamination. She would then roll out the pastry in one rectangle divided in lines lengthwise, fill them and roll them and bake them as long rolls.
You know, so as a child, I grew up loving being in the kitchen and and you know, something was always going on being prepared. And whenever my grandmother or my mom were making pita, I was always given a little bit of the dough to knead to play with it and shape it in[to] whatever, and it was always baked along with the main pita, and it was always almost inedible because of how much it had been tortured by my tiny hands. But I was always so proud to see my pita come out of the oven. So I now do exactly the same thing with my son in London to continue this tradition of making pita in our family.
Although my family never generally made burek, we made pita. Burek in North Macedonia was a bakery treat. For me, it was always a homecoming welcome, you know, procure it from my favorite bakery in Skopje and everybody has a favorite bakery, right? Everybody has different preferences for burek or even pita, your type of filling, the quantity of the filling, the quality of the pastry, you know, so there are bakeries across the former Yugoslavia that cater for all these tastes and they all are loved.
Then when I was older burek was also what you ate after a night out, you know, you stayed out dancing until the bakeries opened at 5:00 a.m. and then you went to have a burek straightaway. I remember my cousin telling me about a lady in Skopje whose name I wish I could remember. She apparently made burek in her house and sold it through her window very early in the morning. And it was colloquially known as going kaj babata, like at the grandmothers, for a burek.
PETER KORCHNAK: With all the influences and meshing and back and forth and all that, here’s probably how we come up with the fact that there’s different shapes, different fillings and maybe most importantly, for some people, different names for the same thing or for the variations of the same thing.
So let me start with a joke.
Man walks into a bakery in Sarajevo and orders a burek with cheese. And the baker says, “It’s not burek, it’s sirnica.” And the man says, “It’s not sirnica, it’s a pita with cheese from Bosnia and Herzegovina.”
Bosnian people when you call it a “burek with spinach” pic.twitter.com/mftBpWtyjL
— Dragana (@draganakaurin) November 30, 2022
PETER KORCHNAK: It’s a complicated story. What is the difference between burek and pita, what is the difference between burek and sirnica in some places, why is it what I can with cheese and cabbage or whatever in some places, and not in others? What’s the story there?
IRINA JANAKIEVSKA: It’s much more helpful to look at the techniques of making it and that’s where you find the similarities. So I, as a cook and a food writer, will look at how a thing is made and almost ignore the name. Because, you know, it’s all about the technique, really. And it is that that has traveled, and then how it becomes adapted with different fillings and so on is rather unique and points to the wonderful geographic diversity of the region.
For me burek is two things. There is burek from Bosnia and Herzegovina. So many Bosnians will tell you that the only pastry you can call burek, as your joke alluded to, is a pastry filled with meat and onions and seasoning. It is made of unleavened dough, which is hand stretched, rolled around a filling, and then twisted into a spiral.
In the rest of former Yugoslavia, so Serbia, Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Kosovo. burek, is again, unleavened, it’s stretched until paper thin—and then layered. And by that, I mean rather than rolling it to form long rolls and then coiling it, you make layers with the dough, with the filling between the layers. It’s usually cooked in round baking dishes, and then it’s tipped out upside down when it’s ready. And it can be anything, it can be meat, it can be cheese, it can be spinach, or other greens or vegetables and it will still be called burek because of what it looks like. And so when you’re buying it from a bakery, you generally ask for like an eighth, a quarter, or half of a round, depending on your appetite and stomach capacity.
PETER KORCHNAK: You put a lot of emphasis on the methods and techniques and all that but the truth remains that terminology and the fillings are still kind of important to a lot of people. And I’ll underscore it with a joke again.
A Bosnian, a Croat, and a Serb arranged to meet at a park to hang out. The Croat and the Serb arrive, late, of course, but the Bosnian is nowhere to be seen. And so the Croat asks, “Where’s the Bosnian?” And the Serb says, “Hang on, I’ll get him,” and he yells, “Burek with cheese.” Of course, the Bosnian pops up and says, “It’s not good a sirnica, very emphatically.
IRINA JANAKIEVSKA: And then both in Bosnia and the rest of the former YU, you always have it with yogurt.
[SOUNDBITE – “Burek i jogurt” by Vlada i Teoretičari Zavere]
PETER KORCHNAK: That was Vlada i Teoretičari Zavere, praising the holy duality of burek and yogurt.
In the burek-plus version of this episode, Janakievska ventures further into the burek universe, with more details on the differences between burek and pita as well as some techniques for making burek, pita, and other Balkan culinary delights. Go to RememberingYugoslavia.com/Dough, I mean Donate.
PETER KORCHNAK: You’ve traveled all over the former Yugoslavia, all over the Balkans, most recently, in Slovenia, as you mentioned. These differences are obviously pronounced, whether it’s names, whether it’s fillings, whether it’s techniques. Give us a kind of an ethnographic overview, as simple as you can make it, of what you’ve seen what you’ve experienced, on your travels.
IRINA JANAKIEVSKA: Before I travel, on my Instagram I usually ask for recommendations and almost without fail, I will get at least 10 recommendations for the best burek in whatever city I happen to be going to. And that always outnumbers whatever other recommendation I get.
So in Slovenia, the best burek I had in Ljubljana was— there were two. There was one in a Bosnian owned restaurant called Sarajevo 1984, a restaurant, which is not, as you know, not just an homage to Bosnian specialities but to Sarajevo’s 1984 Olympics, and this was Sarajevski burek, so Sarajevo burek, you know, meat coiled, you know, cooked under the sač, exactly as you would get in Sarajevo.
And in another bakery called Burek Olympija, which it turns out was owned by Macedonians from Tetovo.
In the name of research, we also tried a few other bakeries, there was one called Domača Peka, Slovenian bakery, and they were often shaped like banički. So overall small and oval sort of hand shaped or round, in one I had a cheese and spinach, which was grilled and that was delicious.
The camp for burek is exactly summarized by this: you have the coiled with meat and then you have all the other burek which are layered and with any filling that you can think of. So interestingly, the one Burek Olimpija had a pizza flavored one which seemed to be selling like hotcakes. And you know, why not? We cannot and should not be precious about what makes an authentic or traditional burek because authenticity can only ever be accurate at particular points in history. So if you have new and creative flavors and that is what inspires people to try burek, then they may be convinced to try the rest of our incredibly rich and versatile cuisine across the region.
PETER KORCHNAK: Das ist Burek.
IRINA JANAKIEVSKA: Das ist Burek, indeed.
PETER KORCHNAK: Let’s keep eating burek in Slovenia. You wouldn’t necessarily associate burek with that country, but stay with me.
In his book, Burek: A Culinary Metaphor, published in 2015, ethnographer Jernej Mlekuž outlines, in an entertaining philosophical narrative, the multiple layers of meaning burek has in his homeland. If for Bosnians burek is a marker of identity, that is, if you believe burek is only with meat, you’re Bosnian, for Slovenians burek does similar identity work but in a quite a bit more complicated way.
Burek came to Slovenia in the 1960s with people from eastern parts of the country. These predominantly Albanian and Bosnian quote unquote immigrants sold burek in kiosks and windows and stands and such. Soon this immigrant dish became a widespread, popular fast food, particularly for those who didn’t have a lot of money, like students, or people on the move, in transit, in a hurry.
Over time, burek became more than food, acquiring layers upon layers of meanings and interpretations.
In 1984, when the skier Jure Franko won Yugoslavia’s first medal at a Winter Olympic games, silver in downhill, people would say, “Volimo Jureka više od bureka” [“We love Jurek more than burek”]. The aphorism alluded to Franko’s Slovenian nationality and to the fact that burek came from Bosnia, a republic many Slovenes thought was so backward it couldn’t possibly put on the Olympics.
As nationalism took hold across Yugoslavia in the 1980s, burek took on additional, cultural meanings in Slovenia: it exemplified Juga (Yugoslavia) and the Balkans, it was eastern and oriental and plebeian, it was greasy and unhealthy, in other words foreign or opposite of the Slovenian essence, of Slovenianness.
Particularly students, punks, and urban youth consumed burek not just as a late night snack, but also in rebellion against adults, against Yugophobia and mainstreamed Slovenian nationalism, exemplified in what Mlekuž, referring to a traditional Slovenian dish, calls “the dictatorship of the Carniolan sausage,” and in part also against American fast-food imports.
In the 1990s, writes Mlekuž, “burek” also became an insult, as in, “you look like a burek” or, more forcefully, “you’re a burek,” meaning a slow-witted, incompetent fool, kind of like those southerners within Yugoslavia.
Finally and perhaps most famously, in this country bordering Austria, what said it all in mere three words was the graffito, “Burek? Nein danke.”
“Food or junk food?” Mlekuž writes. “Foreign or Slovene? Worthless fast food or trustworthy traditional food? Cool or crap? Slovene food or non-Slovene food? Something to be denied and excluded, or honoured and glorified? Patrician food or plebeian food? Urban cuisine or country pie? “The shit” or just shit? Something to get rid of and forget about, or something to put on the coat of arms and the flag?”
Burek also made it into Slovenes’ ears, in the song “Sirni & mesni” [Cheese and meat (burek)] by the rapper Ali En. “I got a friend, his name is Frank, to eat a burek he robbed a bank,” goes the opening. “Burek keeps your belly from cold and strife,” goes another line. “These guys are strong, these guys are wild, they eat nothing else but cheese and meat burek.”
I’m playing the song here with the kind permission of its author Dalaj Eegol AKA Ali En himself.
[SOUNDBITE – “Sirni i mesni” by Ali En]
PETER KORCHNAK: Man walks into a bakery and says, “One burek.” “With pleasure,” says the baker. The man replies, “No, not with pleasure, with meat.”
Should Captain Zenit and his crew visit Earth in this millennium and seek burek in locales outside Bosnia and Herzegovina, they might follow their nose and track burek-making Bosnians to North America.
KSENIJA HOTIĆ: My name is Ksenia Hotić. I was born in Bosnia and I left during the war in ‘92.
I come from a town called Ključ, which is in the northwest of Bosnia. I am a freelance photographer and food stylist and I live in Toronto, Canada.
PETER KORCHNAK: A trained sociologist, Hotić worked on the corporate side of psychiatry for 11 years.
KSENIJA HOTIĆ: As I felt that I was burning out, I felt a little bit, you know, dry in my soul, as I like to say, and I went into cooking full force and started to experiment.
PETER KORCHNAK: With a group of friends Hotić ran, from 2011 to 2014, the Toronto Underground Food Market, a showcase featuring a variety of global cuisines.
KSENIJA HOTIĆ: And through that, I realized that there’s absolutely no representation of Balkan cuisine. And I just started to cook here and there. And then one thing led to another Peter, I don’t know how all this happened.
PETER KORCHNAK: She cooked, people appreciated it; she photographed the food, people liked it; she organized food events, people showed up…
Hotić had her first breakthrough when she was commissioned to make The Great Shellfish Cookbook, which came out in 2018. She has since made—styled and photographed—the cookbook My New Table, which came out last year, and she has two more cookbooks in the works. The first one—
KSENIJA HOTIĆ: It’s coming out next year, we hope. In there is a collection of global foods in Toronto. So we have 80 different nationalities by 100 different contributors. That was done over COVID, it’s probably the most important cookbook I’ve ever done. In there. I’m also being featured as one of the contributors. And I actually included cabbage roll, sarme, which is kind of what I’m known for in the city in terms of Bosnian food. They call me the Cabbage Roll Queen, which is hilarious, I’ll take it.
PETER KORCHNAK: Would you rather be the Burek Empress?
KSENIJA HOTIĆ: Oh, that’s a good one. That might be my next empire.
PETER KORCHNAK: The food events Hotić organized took place, until recently, at the culinary hub and chef collective, the Depanneur. These were drop-in dinners, supper clubs, and cooking classes.
KSENIJA HOTIĆ: In the beginning, of course, Bosnian people or Balkan people, ex-YU people, were super excited about this, because you know, it also played the music, sometimes I would bring in an accordion player or a singer. So we had fun.
Over time, however, everyone started to bring their friends. And then very quickly, I’d say, you know, in like five or six supper clubs, I started to recognize that I had people coming back that were not Bosnian or Balkan, so I thought that was interesting. And then over time, you know, it was also visually representative that everybody was interested in this food, they liked the food. And then I realized that this is the beauty of Toronto that people actually enjoy each other’s food, but they also support, you know, different diverse cultural groups. That kind of was fuel for me to keep going. And then I realized, it’s a collective of all of us diaspora kids, as I like to call us, because that’s what we are, you know, the cross cultural building started happening over food, but very quickly, people would tell me, Hey, I have a Bosnian friend, or hey, this Serbian artist, or whatever, blah, blah, blah. And, you know, politics were kind of left out, it was a really healthy place for everyone. It was more about joy.
But we don’t really have a gathering ground for youth and we don’t have a gathering ground for, you know, necessarily positive creative discussion. So, for me, it’s bigger than making sarme or burek, for me it carries a really important social responsibility, right, to gather people.
PETER KORCHNAK: So you do say and you point out rightly that food is something that unites people, something that people have in common, and obviously, Balkan food as a grander category is not only diverse, but very relatable to people from there and other places. And it is apolitical and a sense that it’s food, it’s part of—
KSENIJA HOTIĆ: History.
PETER KORCHNAK: —all these cultures, history, everything. Yeah.
I mean, at the same time, there are disputes, and we’re getting to burek here about what burek is, what burek’s called? You’re from Bosnia, so you know that there’s only one way to do burek so tell me about that. Are there any burek battles or anything like that going on there?
KSENIJA HOTIĆ: We don’t allow any battles, it’s not debatable. Burek is with meat, my friends.
PETER KORCHNAK: Okay, so can I have a burek with cheese [burek sa sirom]?
KSENIJA HOTIĆ: Not here. Not here. Not while I exist.
PETER KORCHNAK: See, that’s what I mean. We’re battling already.
Anyway, what does burek mean to you personally?
KSENIJA HOTIĆ: Oh, gosh, it’s the gathering. You know, it’s gathering. Burek for me is an occasion, when you make burek it’s an occasion whether I make it, I make it if somebody dear is coming or there’s a celebration of sorts, or gathering. You know, just like you gather the jufke and roll it. It’s sort of like the same thing. It’s like collective energy being shared. I’ve never made pita or burek for myself, just for myself.
So that’s what it means to me. And then of course, you know, the smell and the making of it. It just brings you home, it calms me down, first of all, when I make it, I give myself time for it to stretch the jufka. And then, you know, you pick your meat and stuff. So for me, it’s a bit of a ritual. I don’t really like layering things with those readymade phyllos, it’s not my cup of tea, never has been, but you know, there’s been the occasional time that my mom and I are like, hey, brother is coming by, and he’s bringing a few buddies, and let’s just make a burek. But the real deal is takes time.
PETER KORCHNAK: So speaking of making it, is there a recipe that you brought over from your homeland? Do you try different ones? What kind of burek do you make?
KSENIJA HOTIĆ: Well, again, burek for me really means, you know, made with meat, whether that’s beef and veal, whether that’s beef and lamb, which I love to do. I mean, we do a lot of the traditional when we are at home, meaning, you know, it’s usually beef and lamb, sometimes it’s chopped meat and minced, sometimes it’s just chopped. And then you know, just with onions. We like a lot of black pepper. So for me, you know, I load it up on black pepper and then onions. Now that’s a traditional, right?
Do I experiment and make other kinds? Absolutely, big time. I mean, I do it with pita as well. With burek I like to experiment with smoked meat fat. My dad and I have a smokehouse and my, well, the whole family, we build it every year, and we experiment smoking different things. And we’ve been smoking a lot of lamb. And I take, you know, the fat off the ribs and then that gets chopped and goes in there. So yeah, I do like to experiment but not too far from what you would have in the Balkans anyway. I love experimenting and eating global food, and that’s probably the thing I love the most, but I wouldn’t necessarily make like, I don’t know, a beef curry burek. You know, although it has intrigued me and I may one day.
And then, I think smoked meats are really interesting, cured meats are really interesting. I worked in a in a German deli for seven years so I really have a high appreciation of what you can do by smoking or curing something. Wild game, we also grew up eating a lot of wild game. All those things, I think, that we already have can definitely be stretched a bit further.
PETER KORCHNAK: In terms of psychology, mental health, what does eating food from your country, from your culture, from your family do for someone who is in the diaspora far away from home? In your case, obviously, across the ocean? And especially for people who left not necessarily willingly or would not have necessarily left for otherwise?
KSENIJA HOTIĆ: It does many things. I think, initially, what it does is it soothes that longing, the nostalgia—we all love that word from Yugoslavia, don’t we?
The ritual is in your body, it’s in your heritage, right? It’s in your generation, and so on, and so forth. So you have that. The scent is a huge memory trigger. It can be a very positive memory trigger, it can of course, also be a negative trigger, triggers do that, they’re good and bad.
So there are those two things that I think are very important for somebody to identify with who they have been all along and to do it in a place that’s safe, in a place where you have all those ingredients. It’s also a really positive increase of a memory that may have been, I don’t want to say a ruined but definitely disrupted, right. Like every war, every flight of every refugee is forced, and we cannot undermine that, that’s a very hard thing to go through. So eventually, when you’re safe and you have your store and you have your ingredients, you start to feel at home. And then when you feel safe, you let your roots down again, right, and then you can continue that interrupted period. And for me, that’s really what I hope to do.
You know, half the time, it’s really for myself, because as I write about this, I’m writing a Bosnian cookbook, I’m realizing how difficult it can be sometimes, and I don’t want to overlook the things that we all went through. But at the same time, we need to be able to feel safe and to go backwards. And I mean, really pre-’92. I was born in ‘81 so there’s a good decade there, 11 years. So you allow yourself to heal through making this food and to remember all the good times. So when you make this meal, you’re extending those good times, which I think is very important. When something’s interrupted, how do you heal it so it can grow back again?
PETER KORCHNAK: How often do you visit the homeland? Where do you go for the best burek on your travels.
KSENIJA HOTIĆ: Okay, well, I have an aunt who makes a mean burek. She has restaurant in Ključ, it’s called Kula and they make really good food.
However, however, I love to go to Sarajevo, to Baščaršija, a place called Bosna and I go there with my darling friend, Ivan, who I love and adore and miss so much, and I hope he hears this. We go there and we go with super stretchy pants. And then we sample through all the pitas, and I love it. And then we take some to go and eat it on the couch.
PETER KORCHNAK: Super stretchy pants—an important accessory for this adventure.
KSENIJA HOTIĆ: But it’s like breakfast, fine. Lunch, perfect. Dinner, absolutely. Midnight snack. Hello! I mean, it’s one of these things right? Like, do I want to have a burger at 10 a.m.? Not really? Do I want to have a krompiruša at 10? Absolutely.
PETER KORCHNAK: Nice.
KSENIJA HOTIĆ: So for me, it really works.
PETER KORCHNAK: The rest of my conversation with Hotić is in the extra serving of this episode, available to Patreon and PayPal supporters. Visit RememberingYugoslavia.com/Donate to get your extended episode fill.
[SOUNDBITE – “Burek Stajl” by Las Balkanieras]
PETER KORCHNAK: Las Balkanieras again. Buy their music and, even better, sweet t-shirts.
Mujo is standing on a bridge crying. Haso walks by and asks him, “What happened, Mujo?” “A burek fell into the river,” says Mujo. “And you’re crying over burek? What was it with?” asks Haso. “With my brother.”
Captain Zenit wouldn’t have to fare across the Atlantic for more burek. He’d find some nowadays in London where Spasia Dinkovski makes burek under the moniker Mystic Börek. Dinkovski was born in the UK in 1986 to Macedonian parents.
SPASIA DINKOVSKI: It’s something that I’m really grateful for, having two homes and two cultures and two languages. But of course, there were times growing up where I felt a little bit displaced, not feeling British enough for people here and not Macedonian enough for people when I went back there.
PETER KORCHNAK: Dinkovski has 16 years of experience in the food industry. She confesses that everywhere she’s worked, she would incorporate Balkan dishes, or her takes on Balkan dishes, into the menu.
PETER KORCHNAK: Of course, the inevitable question here, what does burek mean to you?
SPASIA DINKOVSKI: What does it mean to intervene so much? So much, so much, so much. It’s just so quintessential and such a big part of our identities, as anyone from ex-Yugo would know. It’s like the first thing I want to eat when I go home, it’s the food that I think about, it’s the food that I make now. So I think that’s a good reason to keep making it and make sure that it lives on and in whatever kind of form I come up with. I’m totally obsessed with it and it holds so many memories, as do so many traditional foods.
PETER KORCHNAK: I would imagine that you ate a lot of it when you were growing up.
SPASIA DINKOVSKI: Yes, my mom has always made various forms have burek pitta, anything with phyllo pastries I’ve always eaten it, it is the kind of the food that she would always make to greet any guests or take into the office on a Friday, she was always like famous for her spinach and feta pie. So yeah, I ate a lot of it, definitely.
PETER KORCHNAK: So you grew up with burek, obviously, you grew up eating it, your mother makes it. And then you said that when you go to your motherland, literally, your parent land, you have some more over there. So are there any differences? What do you see in terms of that? And what do specifically do you seek out? Is there a particular place that you go to? Or is it just family members who make their own versions?
SPASIA DINKOVSKI: Burek from a burek shop, from a burekdžinica, is a very specific thing. And there are so many of them, but everyone has their favorite. I think that probably applies to a lot of lot of our foods, because there’s only so many. So there’s lots of the same thing but everyone knows where to go, where their favorite burek is, or favorite ćevapi or whatever is. And near to our flat in Skopje in Macedonia there’s a tiny little shop that doesn’t even have a name. And that’s my favorite burek shop. I’ll go there at six o’clock in the morning and wait for them to open up just to have the fresh slice.
PETER KORCHNAK: Dinkovski later amended her answer. It turns out the bakery does have a name, on a tiny sign at the top that she’d never noticed. It’s called “OKI”.
What’s special about that one, other than everything you’ve already said, because it sounds amazing already.
SPASIA DINKOVSKI: I don’t know what’s so special about it, it’s really hard to pinpoint why it’s so good. It’s like the perfect— like burek has to be greasy, right? And you want greasy paper in your hand when you’re eating it. But it’s almost like the perfect level of greasiness and the pastry is really thin and the fillings are really balanced. And it’s so simple, but just so yeah, perfect, delicious.
PETER KORCHNAK: How did you cook up Mystic Börek?
SPASIA DINKOVSKI: Initially, even when I set out to work on it, it was more of a project than a business at the beginning. And I didn’t kind of set out to make a bunch of money, it was just a way of me exploring my identity. And through it, I have, as I say, I guess if you want to be really cheesy, found myself. And celebrating kind of both parts of me through food has been really fulfilling, I would say, and really exciting.
It was just a project because I had loads of time on my hands, I wasn’t working. I think we’re all looking to connect back to something else in some way, because everything just felt so empty all of a sudden.
And my grandmother, my maternal grandmother, when she passed away, she left me a recipe book. And it was just a bit too painful for me to open it for a really long time so I kind of shoved it under some other books. And then when the pandemic hit, I guess I was more homesick than ever, and had a lot of time to think. And I was like, hang on a minute, why haven’t you open this? This is ridiculous, like, just have a look, like enough time has passed. And I opened it onto the page for the recipe for gibanica.
So yeah, I open it on that recipe and didn’t have much money at the time, but decided to take myself to the shops and recreate it. And I did and as a chef, it set something off in me and I thought about how— what other things can I put inside phyllo pastry like what, you know, how can I experiment with this? How can I, you know, put all my experience and knowledge and all the different cuisines that I’ve tried, like there must be— Phyllo pastry just feel so versatile, that it’s a bit of a shame to not play around with it a bit more. So I started experimenting.
I wasn’t really using social media at the time, but I guess everyone was because there was nothing else to do. So I started putting pictures of it up on Instagram and people were sharing it and then re-sharing it and messaging me and asking me if they could buy it. And I thought hang on a minute, I might be onto something here. I did a test run and dropped it off to a couple of friends, got their opinion, [it] went down really well. And then pretty much, you know, registered quite quickly, formed a business and started selling them. And I used to make them at home in my like little two-shelf domestic oven and then take them around in a trolley and meet people at collection points that had pre-ordered. And did that for quite a while during lockdowns. Yeah, it was a pretty intense experience, but very special. And yeah, since then, I’ve just kept going and moved into a professional kitchen, I now do home delivery, and I throw events all over London cooking, kind of my own take on Balkan cuisine.
PETER KORCHNAK: There are burek essentialists, or fundamentalists, if you will, who will say only this in burek. Or obviously in Bosnia, burek is only with meat, etc. So, and I actually played around a little bit with making burek, which, of course, it’s very amateur and not great. But when I mentioned to a friend in Serbia that I’m putting like some vegan fillings and blah, blah, and she was like she you’re going to start a war. So what are some of those non traditional fillings that you may have made up? Or are they from your grandmother or from your mother’s recipe books? Tell me about those experiments. And how are those going over with the fundamentalists?
SPASIA DINKOVSKI: Obviously, it goes down well enough for me to have a business that, you know, I survive off. And it’s worked, like what I’m doing does work. But I definitely have encountered a lot of gatekeeping when it comes to burek. I don’t even call it burek because I know it’s not burek. I call it börek for a reason.
PETER KORCHNAK: That’s B-Ö-[O with an umlaut]-R-E-K.
SPASIA DINKOVSKI: It’s a pie I’m making out of phyllo pastry. And it was something I really struggled with at the beginning. But now I’m like, “You know what, if you’re not into it, then it’s not for you, and it’s for someone else.”
My top seller is creamed spinach, potato, parmesan, and chili. I’ve had that on the menu since Day One. That’s all in one filling. It’s wrapped round as a spiral. My pies are quite heavy, quite rich. But that’s just how I like to cook. I think if you’re not cooking in a way that’s kind of natural and instinctive to you, then you’re going to struggle.
So I have a lot of fun coming up with the fillings actually. Yeah, I’ve done like lamb sausage, feta with apricot and spring onion.
I have a lot of people that come to my events and will say, Oh— I say a lot of people, a couple of people have come to my events and said, it’s really nice, but it’s not burek. And I’m like, I know. The name says that nowhere on the tin.
Like I said, there are gatekeepers, and I know that they probably think I’m really inauthentic. But maybe I am, maybe that’s the definition of me, I’m inauthentic. I’m not. I wasn’t born there. I was born here. I’m you know, I’m very different. And I definitely don’t claim to be traditional and I’m very vocal. Specifically, when it comes to people that are trying it for the first time, I never say, “Hey, my parents are Macedonian and I’m making Macedonian burek.” It’s not traditional at all, but you’re gonna love it. It opens a door.
Yeah, as I say my most popular is probably the spiral, when it’s all rolled up, but I do layered pies. I do little, you know, bite-sized spirals for events. I make baklava, pretty much like whatever I can figure out trying out with phyllo pastry, I’ll give it a go. I mean, I’ve made phyllo pastry doughnuts, and they were delicious. Yeah, I do like to experiment, definitely.
I have other ways of educating people on culture. And I use Instagram for that, I go back to Macedonia and I, you know, meet people that are making cheeses and big batches of ajvar, and I film it, and I talk about them and their stories. And I think that’s a good way of exploring culture, through people and through stories.
And I also sell things like Cockta and Smoki. And I am introducing people to, you know, Balkan food and snacks. And I do cook some traditional foods at my events, but in general, I would say it’s my own style of cooking with a Balkan accent.
PETER KORCHNAK: As for the name of her burek-making venture, maybe you saw it coming.
SPASIA DINKOVSKI: —a film in the 1980s, which I’ve just really love the aesthetic of and kind of shaped my whole brand on that.
And I called it börek because börek is probably the most familiar name to a lot of people. Here we have a massive Turkish community.
I think there’s so many foods that are just up for constant debate as to who owns it and who started it. And I think all of that is just a bit silly, to be honest.
And I just wish that everyone realized that there’s enough room at the table for us all and we’re all very different and have different backgrounds and different experiences. As I said, like I think food is— everyone has their own opinion on it. But I wish people would come together a little bit more on that.
PETER KORCHNAK: Let’s just eat and be happy, right?
SPASIA DINKOVSKI: Yeah, let’s celebrate eating similar things.
PETER KORCHNAK: Dinkovski dreams of opening up a brick-and-mortar for Mystic Börek. For the time being, she does a monthly delivery, and you can find Mystic Börek across London as a pop-up in various stores, restaurants, and bars. Follow Mystic Börek on social media or subscribe to their newsletter to learn where they’ll be serving burek next.
PETER KORCHNAK: So how is business?
SPASIA DINKOVSKI: Business is good, business is also terrifying. Everything that’s going on, it’s probably the scariest point I’ve had in two years, which is insane considering that I did this through a pandemic.
A lot of people that I’ve spoken to like to ask me whether I think I benefited off the pandemic, which is something that I really struggle with. Because although I feel lucky to have kind of found my calling, it definitely has never been easy, and I started my business during a time where everyone was all of a sudden very, very obsessed with food and didn’t have anything else to do but think about what they were going to eat and what they could buy if they could buy it and that’s when this all kind of kicked off for me.
As someone that does everything on their own with no financial backing, it’s definitely scary but it just makes me want to work harder and just makes me want to really make this work because I don’t really want to do anything else.
[SOUNDBITE – “Burek” by Dosh Lee]
PETER KORCHNAK: What’s a Bosnian roulette? Five bureks with meat and one with cheese.
Back in Sarajevo, all those years ago, Captain Zenit finally found what he was looking for.
Even though his mates abandoned him for Earth’s other delights and misadventures and he found himself alone, he ate all the burek he ever wanted.
Decades later, in 2013, the Top Lista Nadrealista sketch series, “Burek in Space,” inspired two model rocket enthusiasts from Sarajevo, Adnan Pašić and Emir Hašimbegović, to send burek to space. They launched a balloon carrying a camera and a slice of burek to the stratosphere, some 25 kilometers or 15 miles up. After some 100 minutes of flight, the balloon fell back to Earth, near the village of Gornje Vršinje.
The joke was, this was proof that not all those who leave Bosnia don’t return.
[BACKGROUND MUSIC – “Krivo Sadovsko Horo” by Burek Brothers Trio]
PETER KORCHNAK: In my side quest to teach myself Balkan cooking, I attempt to make burek at home using store-bought phyllo dough. I stuff two sheets at a time with a variety of fillings—beef, mushroom-leek, and cheese-spinach—and coil each into a convenient hand-held pie. I’m getting better at it with each making, though I’m still working to get the greasiness right. Not enough butter!
In the former Yugoslavia, in the Balkans, I eat burek a lot. It’s delicious, it’s filling, and it’s cheap. I’ve done burek-for-every-meal days in Sarajevo. I haven’t tried enough to have a favorite burekdžinica but I’ll say that Sarajevo ‘84 in Ljubljana indeed has a good one, and in Belgrade there is a tiny bakery on Bulevar Maršala Tolbuhina, near Hotel Jugoslavija in New Belgrade, that makes the greasiest burek I’ve had, thanks to the recommendation of my local friends. Ćao, Ivana i Marija!
And that’s the way burek goes, with family and friends. I’m sure Captain Zenit will find some soon.
[BACKGROUND MUSIC – “Rainmaker” by Petar Alargić]
PETER KORCHNAK: Next on Remembering Yugoslavia:
MARINA ORSAG: As you probably know in ex-Yugoslavia Croatians are the most humorous people.
PETER KORCHNAK: It’s the end of the year, time to get serious about having fun. What was humor in Yugoslavia like? Was Tito funny or are looks not everything? What are people laughing about in the very serious region today? On the next episode of Remembering Yugoslavia, jokes and sketches and standup in the former Yugoslavia.
Tune in wherever you listen to podcasts and subscribe to make sure you don’t miss out.
[OUTRO MUSIC – “Jugoslavijo / Od Vardara pa do Triglava” by Horn Orchestra]
PETER KORCHNAK: That’s all for this delicious episode of Remembering Yugoslavia, thank you for listening. Find additional information, links, song embeds, and the transcript of this episode at RememberingYugoslavia.com/Podcast.
And remember, there’s more burek in the extra serving, available via Patreon or PayPal. Visit RememberingYugoslavia.com/Donate for a few seconds to get the burek seconds.
Outro music courtesy of Robert Petrić.
Additional music with permission by and courtesy of Ali En, Best Burek, Burek, Burek Brothers Trio, Dosh Lee, Las Balkanieras, Vlada i Teoretičari Zavere, and Voodoo Popeye. Follow them all on social media and buy their music!
I am Peter Korchňak.
Prijatno, dobar tek, te befte mire.
* Featured photo by Irina Janakievska.