I was sitting in a busy restaurant in the centre of Sarajevo discussing the merits of frozen peas and carrots. “Really,” said Armina Pijalović, who gives food-focused tours of the city for Funky Sarajevo Tours. “Frozen vegetables unify.”
Everyone is contributing to this stew
We were deconstructing a hearty stew called Bosanski lonac – translated as ‘Bosnian Pot’ and pronounced loh-natz – and all its ingredients. A national dish of Bosnia and Herzegovina, it’s viewed as a metaphor for the Balkan country’s diverse population, which is mostly made up of Bosnian Muslims (known as Bosniaks), Serbs and Croatians (with a smaller population of Jews and Romany).
Pijalović mentioned that you can buy bags of frozen vegetables in supermarkets that are made specifically for making Bosanski lonac at home. “And it turns out, the carrots are from Croatia, the peas are from Serbia, and so on,” she said. “So, in this regard, everyone is contributing to this stew.”
The bowl of Bosanski lonac in front of us contained, I hoped, no frozen vegetables. It was bobbing with ultra-tender lamb and beef, carrots and potatoes. The gravy the ingredients were swimming in was rich in flavour, as deep as the gorges that exist in the countryside just outside of Sarajevo. The meat, having been simmered for hours, separated at the touch of the fork and melted when it hit my mouth.
Finding a dish that was unique to Bosnia initially proved to be a challenge. Thanks to the 6th-Century Ottoman rule across the Balkans, culinary offerings are quite similar throughout the region, from the ubiquitous ćevapi (minced meat sausages) to burek (flaky savoury pies). After scouring menus and asking Balkan-based friends about the best dish to explore, I finally came upon Bosnaski lonac, a ‘melting pot’ of delicious stew.
Bosnia is in between east and west, in between religions, in between cultural spaces – it’s the space where everything meets
My journey began in the town of Tuzla where I met with Jasmina Husanovic, professor of cultural studies at the University of Tuzla. “The dominant metaphor for Bosnia is ‘crossroads’,” she said. “Bosnia is in between east and west, in between religions, in between cultural spaces. It’s the space where everything meets. In a way, Bosanski lonac works as a metaphor because everything is together.”
But whether I was in Tuzla, Sarajevo or other parts of the country, Bosanski lonac was always different. The only consistencies were the ingredients – usually potatoes, carrots and two or three kinds of meat – and the method of preparation in which each ingredient is layered in a terracotta pot (or in many cases these days, a steel pot) and then set over a fire (or in modern versions on a stove) to cook for three to five hours. As I ate it around Bosnia, I found bowls chock-full of peas, broccoli, cabbage and green beans, among a garden of other vegetables.
It may look like an ordinary bowl of meat and vegetables but there’s a lot simmering underneath the surface. After all, there’s a certain irony to Bosanski lonac being a metaphor for Bosnia’s ethnic, religious and cultural diversity. After the Bosnia War of 1992-1995, the country that was once very mixed – with each town sprinkled with Muslims, Serbs and Croats – became splintered. The Serbs fled to the newly created Republika Srpska, and the Croats migrated to Herzegovina. The Bosnia of 2017 is less of a pot and more of a TV dinner, with each section separated from each other – even within cities and towns. Sarajevo, for example, is split between its Muslim and Serb sectors and Mostar is sectioned off between Muslims and Croatians.
It may look like an ordinary bowl of meat and vegetables but there’s a lot simmering underneath the surface
Yet, Bosanski lonac persists. “It’s so diverse in its ingredients,” said Pijalović. “You can’t call it Croatian lonac or Serbian lonac because they are more homogenous nations. That is why it has to be called Bosanski lonac.”
Everyone I met up with said the same thing: the best Bosanski lonac is made in the home.
I connected with Aida Ibišvić, who writes her Sarajevo-based food blog Balkan Lunch Box, which is focused on the cuisine of the region. I hoped to meet up with her to discuss Bosanski lonac but she took it a step further by inviting me to her mother’s house for a homemade version. Two days later, I was sitting with Ibišvić and her mother, Rajka, with an urn-looking object in front of us.
They began ladling out the stew, which had been cooking for six hours under low heat. I studied the contents of my bowl: beef, lamb, potatoes, cabbage, peas, garlic and black peppercorn. I got a little bit of everything on a plus-sized spoon and commenced eating. The stew had a more earthy quality to it than others I’ve tasted, perhaps because of the terracotta pot it was cooked in – and because Rajka cooked it for such a long time. The inclusion of cabbage added a nice crunch that I had not experienced up until this point.
But it made me wonder: if the stew can be so diverse and flexible in its ingredients, what makes it a true Bosanski lonac then? “It’s like ratatouille,” Ibišvić said. “There are 20 different varieties but you always recognise it as ratatouille. Bosasnki lonac is the same way.”
This further deepens the idea of the dish as a metaphor for Bosnia and Herzegovina. Case in point: Aida lamented the splintering of Bosnia along ethnic and religious lines. “It gets complicated,” she said, “when you take into account all of the mixed marriages and their children. I’m the product of a Serbian and Muslim marriage,” she added.
So, just as one might encounter Bosanski lonac with several different ingredients, you meet Bosnians with different mixed ethnic make-ups. Yet, in the end, the people here, like the dish itself, are still Bosnian.
Then Rajka chimed in. “I’m Serbian but two of my best friends are Croatian and Muslim. We call our group ‘little Bosnia’.” We laughed and lifted our glasses of red wine and toasted to Bosanski lonac with the hope that the future brings a lot more ‘Little Bosnias’ to this wonderful and fascinating country.
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