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Feature 12 Apr 16

Homemade Serbia

Cooking classes in Serbian capital Belgrade offer a taste of Balkan culture and cuisine.

J.D. Hildebrand
BIRN
Belgrade
Cooking is a family affair at Vladimir Gurbaj's Serbian Traditional Cooking School. Photo: Vladimir Gurbaj

“There’s no better way to learn about a country and its culture than to experience its cuisine,” says Vladimir Gurbaj, proprietor of Serbian Traditional Cooking School in Belgrade neighborhood Zemun.

It is a philosophy he’s put into practice in both his professional and personal life.

“I’ve travelled extensively,” Gurbaj says, “and I always try to squeeze in a local cooking class if I can.”

On a recent trip to Bangkok, he says, he devoted three days to purchasing, discussing, cooking, and eating traditional Thai dishes with a local teacher. “It was a revelation,” he remembers.

Experiences like that have inspired Gurbaj and a handful of other entrepreneurs to offer classes in Serbian cooking to English-speaking foreigners. Belgrade-based cooking teacher Lily Pomar says food can help newcomers to acquire a sense of place.

“I like to explain all the foreign influences on Serbian food,” Pomar says. “For example, in northern regions of Vojvodina, where I come from, there is a German influence. People like to add a bit of sugar or fruit with meat. In southern Serbia, people would be appalled at the idea of mixing sweet and salty flavours in the same dish.”

Pomar likes to include regional cuisine tastings for students in her classes. “Prsut from Uzice, Montenegro and Dalmatia vary a lot in flavour and texture, and they are all different from the sunka served in Vojvodina. It’s all smoked ham, but every locale has a distinct flavour.”

Gurbaj and Pomar both offer cooking classes to individuals and small groups. Gurbaj’s Serbian Traditional Cooking School convenes at an outdoor grill in a Zemun garden.

Crafting the perfect cevapi is part art and part science, says Serbian Traditional Cooking School proprietor Vladimir Gurbaj. Photo: Vladimir Gurbaj

“My goal is for classes to be informal, relaxed, and fun,” Gurbaj says. “We meet in Zemun and visit the shops together so students can experience the farmer's market. Then class begins. It's not like a school - it's more like cooking with a friend. We cook a good meal and eat it together. Every student leaves with a booklet of recipes.”

The Serbian Traditional Cooking School’s primary offering is a four-hour class in which foreigners cook and eat traditional Serbian foods.

“No matter what else we cook, we always make cevapi,” Gurbaj says. “We also make Karadjordjeva snicla, which is a variation on chicken Kiev that is made with a veal or pork cutlet that is stuffed with kajmak. The dish was created by Marshal Tito's chef to honour a visiting Soviet official in 1959, and it has become a classic part of Serbian cuisine.”

Students also cook pasulj (baked beans), a selection of Serbian salads, and plum dumplings or apple cake for dessert.

“When the meal is done we all eat together and talk about the recipes and Serbian culture,” Gurbaj says. “We charge €30 per participant, with discounts for groups.”

The Serbian Traditional Cooking School has an indoor alternative classroom for bad weather, but Gurbaj prefers the garden. For that reason, classes are held from mid-April to early October, with a break during the winter. Lily Pomar is happy to recommend a traditional menu, but she finds that many students come to her with specific requests.

“Often they’ve had a meal in a restaurant or at a dinner party,” Pomar says, “and they want to learn to cook that particular meal.”

For that reason, Pomar customises the menu for each student, accommodating vegetarian diets, food allergies, and so on. She is happy to arrange single sessions or multiple-day courses that cover a wide range of dishes.

“Some students just want to learn to make sarma or pasulj,” she says, “while others want a 20-day full course in Serbia cuisine. I’m happy to brainstorm with them and come up with a set of recipes to meet their needs.”

Pomar prefers to teach in students’ own kitchens when possible. “I have found it more productive,” she says. “People learn better if they are in the comfort of their own environment.”

She recommends individual and smallgroup classes. “Any more than that, and somebody doesn’t get to knead the dough!” she says.

Like Gurbaj, Pomar starts with a trip to the market. “I explain about ingredients and help foreigners figure out what substitutions they can make so they can prepare the same dishes when they return home from Serbia.”

Pomar draws upon her experience as a language instructor and translator to teach cooking students some Serbian along the way. Pomar charges €12 per hour for lessons, but offers a discount rate of 10€ to students who are members of Face book’s Belgrade Foreign Visitors Club group.

“Cooking with a local friend is a great way to learn,” Gurbaj says, “not just about food, but about culture, about life in the spot you’re visiting.”

This article was published in BIRN's bi-weekly newspaper Belgrade Insight. Here is where to find a copy.

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