Cevapi (or ćevapčići, if you want to be all diminutive and cute) are the seminal kafana food of the Balkans, cousins of the Turkish köfte and not too distant relatives of the Persian kebab.
Each area of the Balkans – from Romania to Albania and over to Greece – has its own take on the simple cevapi. There are variations on the kind of meat or seasoning used as well as the ćevap’s length (some two inches, some five). The one thing that holds them all together is their supremacy on the local menu… and how well they go with a beer!
Here, we present Bosnian rendition of cevapi, served on a flatbread (known as a lepinja) with a side of ajvar – the delicious roasted pepper relish.
And a beer, of course.
Cevapi: What the Ottomans Left Behind
In general, the people of the Balkans don’t look back too fondly on their four centuries of subjugation to the Ottoman Empire, but the remnants of Ottoman rule still live on in modern Balkan states and have morphed into deep-rooted parts of the cultural landscape.
From their conquest of Bosnia in 1463 to their departure in 1878, the Ottomans got deep under the skin of their Balkan subjects. Converting a great deal of the Bosnian population to their Islamic religion, the Turkic overlords also put in place an extensive infrastructure of mosques, schools, forts, bridges and other institutional and monumental buildings. Many of these survive today and were lovingly restored after the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s.
Another place the Ottomans really made their mark was in the local kitchens. Balkan food today reverberates with Turkish influence, with dozens of dishes from the Ottoman repertoire taken and adapted to Balkan tastes. Sarme (stuffed cabbage and vine leaves) and pastries like cheese or spinach burek are ubiquitous just like Turkish coffee and baklava.
When is a Kebab not a Kebab?
Etymologically, the word ćevap (the local term for cevapi) evolved from the Persian kebab, meaning “grilled meat” or “meat on a skewer.” This term was adopted by the Ottomans and taken with them to the Balkans. Cevapi in form most closely resembles Turkish köfte and Greek souvlaki, but it still signifies a grilled patty of ground meat like a kebab.
According to the 19th century Serbian literary hero (and we presume, a cevapi aficionado) Branislav Nušić, ćevapčići were beginning to make a show in Belgrade’s kafane by the 1860s, famously in the Rajić kafana in Serbia’s capital. Here they became a favorite with the drinking crowds and their popularity soon spread.
As you move through the Balkan region, however, the cevapi will vary. Leskovac in Serbia is well known as being one of the best towns to grab a plate of meaty fingers, and their namesake preparation has spread throughout the region.
Fueling the Rebellion
Another popular variation is the pork Hajdućki ćevap, a dish sprinkled with the salt of insurgency.
The Haiduks were bandits who resisted the occupying Ottoman forces by providing an alternative military presence in the Balkans as gangs of ersatz Robin Hoods. They would hide in the mountains and forests and pounce on traveling groups of Ottoman officials, as well as rich Christians and Jews, and rob them of their valuables. In the 19th century, many of them stepped up to join the Balkan National Liberation Movements.
All this banditry, rebellion and living undercover of the mountains worked up an appetite in the brigands, who, according to legend, would nourish their numbers by grilling small sausage-shaped pieces of minced pork and smoked lard over an open fire, thus spawning the Hajdućki Ćevap.
Ajvar: The Wintry Pepper Preserve
Ajvar is a type of food called a ‘zimnica’ in the former Yugoslav states, meaning a winter preparation. Come September, when eggplants and peppers are ripe and piled in sky-high abundance at local market stalls, cooks come and buy them up by the crate load to take them home and make various preserves for the coming winter months. So important is this ritual (and so enormous a task) that it’s not uncommon to see entire families out in the forested parks lighting fires and roasting their pepper harvest en masse to save on time and electricity bills.
The pepper traditionally used for ajvar today is called a ‘kurtovska kapija’ or ‘ajvarka’. So popular is ajvar that the ajvarka pepper – a red variety who’s skin peels off easily after grilling – has been mass-produced in the region from the 1960s onwards specifically for the purpose of making the relish.
Depending on how your ajvar comes out, you might find its thick, lumpy consistency reminds you a bit of caviar. The word ajvar is actually derived from the Ottoman-Turkish word havyar, or caviar. Caviar itself was a staple in the times of the Empire – the large amount of sturgeon in the Danube meant that roe was plentiful – and it was considered a poor man’s food. Overfishing has now made the fish a highly endangered species, increasing the scarcity and repositioning the value of caviar as a luxury item.
As such, ajvar is the new Balkan caviar, spread on bread or eaten as a side dish with your favorite grilled meat.
About the Recipe
If you’ve got time, the optimum time to start making cevapi would be the day before you need them. The best cevapi are mixed, prepared, then left in the fridge overnight to really work up their flavor before being grilled the following day. But if you don’t have several days to prepare dinner, rest assured that the whole thing can be done in one sitting and still taste marvelous.
We recommend starting with the ajvar by broiling the peppers and eggplant.
Switch your broiler on high and place an oven tray as close to the heat as possible, leaving enough height for the vegetables to fit in between. There is no need to cut the vegetables before grilling them; just go ahead and place them whole on a grill pan or a baking sheet lined with aluminum foil.
The grilling is a fast and assiduous process: stay present and keep an eye on the vegetables. They will need turning quite frequently as the high heat of the broiler burns their skin quickly. Do let them blacken and blister – this is the process that loosens the skin and will later allow you to peel the peppers and eggplant much more easily.
Once they’re done, take them out of the oven and leave them to cool.
Preparing Your Cevapi: A Meat Melange
For cevapi, beef is usually the base ingredient, but in many instances it’s mixed with either lamb or pork to add flavor and a different type of texture.
In most Serbian variations, for example, all three meats often come together to make a delicious hybrid sausage. In Bosnia, pork is used much less due to the country’s halal eating habits, though you’ll see that we’ve decided to go with it as the second meat in our recipe. However, do feel free to replace the pork in our recipe with lamb – it will work just as well.
Whatever meat you choose, start your cevapi preparation by mincing the onion, garlic and parsley and mix them in a bowl together with your meats.
This is no time to be squeamish about raw meat – clean your hands and get them in there, kneading and squishing the meat and other ingredients together. Use a ladle if you have to, but we prefer the manual method!
Once those ingredients are evenly mixed, add the smoked paprika, black pepper, cayenne and salt to the meat and mix, knead and squish once more.
For the third round, add the remaining ingredients – the egg, baking soda and sparkling water. And mix.
Before you start shaping the cevapi, start warming up your pan so that it gets nice and hot.
Now take a small ball of the meat mixture and hold it in the palm of your hand. First, roll it into a ball, then start to lengthen it out, molding it with your fingers so that it ends up long and round, just like one of your own meat-covered digits.
Place each ćevap onto the grill pan and grill until the meat starts to get seriously brown and grill marks form. It should not take more than three to four minutes. When they’re done, take them off the grill and let them cool off for 5 minutes while you finish preparing the ajvar.
The peppers and eggplant should be cool enough not to scald your fingers and the skin should fall off with ease. In case it doesn’t, or you find it sticks to your fingers too much, try peeling them in a bowl of water.
To get the desired, lumpy ‘caviar’ effect, the peppers and eggplant would traditionally have been put through a mincer, or even finely chopped by hand. However, we’ll understand if you use a food processor in chop mode or a blender (which is what we actually did) adding the chopped onions, lemon juice and parsley. The result is simply a much smoother paste.
When you’re done, one of the most traditional ways to consume a plate of cevapi is alongside a mound of chopped onions and with a fat, white bread roll. However, we prefer ours with flatbread and a dollop of ajvar – and, if you like, some sour cream and pickled peppers – which is another habitual way of serving the dish.
And did someone mention a beer?
Helpers for this Recipe
Our Take on the Recipe
During our research, we were pleasantly surprised by the amount of available resources from Bosnian sites for preparing true ćevapi. In the end, we chose this recipe as our source because it ended up being most consistent with what we found elsewhere.
That said, we did take a few liberties and made some adjustments where we saw fit. As mentioned before, we decided on mixing beef and pork for the meat, and a pound of each definitely yielded a good amount.
We also included the ajvar preparation in our recipe since it’s another classic Balkan staple and the two fit so nicely together. We cut down the overall portions of the recipe (and it still made for four very generous helpings), and we added paprika and cayenne to the cevapi and parsley to the ajvar.
For such a straightforward and already-delicious recipe, however, we did little else and let the recipe speak for itself.
Yield 4 people
- 1 lb minced beef
- 1 lb minced pork
- 3 cloves garlic
- 1/2 onion finely diced
- 1/2 cup sparkling water
- 2 sprigs parsley, finely diced
- 1 teaspoon smoked paprika
- 1/2 teaspoon cayenne
- 1 teaspoon black pepper
- 2 teaspoon baking soda
- 1 egg
- Olive oil
- 6 red peppers
- 2 aubergines
- A bunch of flat leaf parsley
- Juice of 2 lemons
- 1 onion, chopped
Serving As a Sandwich
- 6 flatbreads, to serve
- Sour cream, to serve
- Pickled guindilla peppers, to serve (optional)
Stage 1 - Prepare the Ajvar
- To prepare the ajvar, start by preheating your oven broiler to its maximum heat and setting an oven rack as close to the top as possible
- Lay your eggplant and red bell peppers on either a grill pan or a baking sheet lined with aluminum foil
- Place your red pepper and eggplant into the broiler for 3-4 minutes, keeping a keen eye on how each vegetable (particularly the pepper) is blackening
- When one side has blackened, use tongs to flip your bell pepper and eggplant over to cook the other side
- After another 3-4 minutes - once you've confirmed everything is cooked and nicely blistered - turn off your broiler, take your roasted vegetables out of the oven, and let them rest.
Stage 2 - Mix Your Ćevapi Ingredients
- Combine your ground beef, ground pork, minced garlic, minced onions and minced parsley together in a mixing bowl
- Mush everything together, either with your hands or vigorously with a ladle, until the meat and aromatics are well combined
- Next, add in your smoked paprika, black pepper, cayenne and salt to the meat and mix around again
- Finally, add the baking soda, egg and sparkling water and mix into the ćevapi mixture
Step 3 - Mold and Grill the Ćevapi
- Start by preheating your grill pan over medium-high heat on your stovetop.
- Take a ball-sized piece of your ćevapi mixture in the palm of your hand.
- Mold your ćevapi with your fingers into the shape of finger-length sausages.
- Place each ćevapi onto the grill pan.
- Grill your ćevapi until the meat is browned and grill marks start to form (nearly 3-4 minutes each side)
- Once cooked, take your cooked ćevapi off the grill and let rest for 5 minutes
Step 4 - Finish Preparing Ajvar
- As your ćevapi rest, peel the skins off your blistered and cooked bell peppers and eggplants, then place them in a blender
- Add your chopped onions, lemon juice and parsley, and blend everything together until you have a smooth red paste. And you're done!
To serve, take a flatbread and stuff it with some ćevapi. Top it with ajvar, sour cream and maybe some pickled peppers, and enjoy!
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