At the Panegyri – Cevapi, the Bosnian Coney Island

A common Bosnian cevapi.
Harka doted on me like an Eastern European grandma.  She refilled my mini coffee cup at the free breakfast lounge at the Atlanta Holiday Inn, even before thinking to ask.   A colleague and I discussed how last night’s Brexit would affect our OEM business with the German manufacturer who we were about to promote to said hotel chain later this morning.
Conversation quickly led to types of coffee with Harka, as I thanked her for the generous java pours.
She said, “I could tell you’re coffee guy, ’cause you like our coffee. I’m  coffee  connoisseur myself.”
Like a truffle sniffing swine, Harka admitted her super power  was smelling out good coffee even before tasting it.
“We use only good European coffee here,”  she said.
After revealing we were in the food biz,  I asked her where in Europe she was from, given away by her Balkan accent.   When she said Bosnia, I told her my city was having their annual Panegyri festival this weekend, which had one booth serving Bosnian and Serbian food amongst the standard Greek delicacies.    I asked her what was her favorite Bosnian dish
“Do you eat pita?”  Harka asked.
 I said, “Yes, but only the dry store bought kind.  I’ve never had home made pita.”
Harka proudly pulled out her iPhone and showed me a photo of her wonderful homemade Pita.   It was so much more than the pita I knew.   It was about the size of a medium LaRosa’s hand-tossed pizza and filled with a white cheese.
“All Bosnian dishes start with good pita,” Harka said.  And then she said cevapi (pronounced chevapee)  was her favorite dish.
“You walk out of train station in any city in  Bosnia and you smell it in  air.  Cevapi is everywhere .   It’s national dish of Bosnia.”
I asked her to explain it.  Her eyes lit up and she began her cevapi soliloquy.  Cevapi is a dish of small finely ground skinless  beef sausages, grilled, and stuffed into fresh pita with grilled onions.    They are usually sold on the street in varieties of 5, 10 and 15 sausages, all the size of our American breakfast sausage.     Think of them as the coney islands of the Balkans, because Bosnians dress their cevapi with a variety of toppings similar to our coneys.    They can be topped with dairy –  like sour cream, and cottage cheese;  or a  savory sauce reminiscent of Cincy chili – like adjvar (a spicy vegetable puree – the Balkan salsa) , or minced red pepper.    She said , nearly tearfully, one bite of a cevapi and you can taste the history of Bosnia.   I thought her explanation was beautiful.
A more coney island-looking version of cevapi, topped with sour cream and spicy adjvar.
After a quick search on the Panegyri 2016 app, I confirmed the Bosnian/Serbian booth was indeed offering cevapi this year – score!!   I could taste this national dish Harka gushed over.   I learned also cevapi comes from the Persian word kebab, and the ‘i’ is the Slavic diminutive meaning ‘little’ – so in the end cevapi means ‘little kebab.’
In addition to being found in Bosnia and Serbia, you can find this street food in all the countries that made up the former Yugoslavia – Macedonia, Croatia, Slovenia-and neighbors Bulgaria and the Czech Republic.   It’s been a street food in Serbia and Bosnia since the 1860s .  During the Ottoman empire, it was a convenience campfire food of the hadjuks or freedom fighters.    Like a coney, it could be easily made, topped, and, swaddled in pita, could be carried around for eating on-the-go.
So if you go to Panegyri this weekend, step out of the Greek box and like Harka exclaims, taste the history of Bosnia (and perhaps the Balkan great grandmother of the coney island)  with a cevapi.

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