Last week I travelled to Sarajevo, Bosnia to visit a friend of mine. As we walked through the streets the various smells of spices and meats filled our nostrils. In the south of Sarajevo, named Old Town there is a traditional, rustic market with jewellery stands, rug shops, leather stalls and tourist shops for knick-knacks, as soon as you hit Old Town you smell the salivating smell of frying onions.
During my time in Sarajevo I had the rare opportunity of seeing how a city that experienced such terrible warfare and was subject to the monstrosities have managed to rebuild after all the suffering they were subject to. From 1992 until 1995 Sarajevo was kept under siege, trapped as they found themselves surrounded by Serbian military forced. The Sarajevan people had to adjust to a way of life that saw daily bombings, sniper attacks, torture, rape and starvation. Due to the siege, supplies were sparse and the locals had to survive on whatever basic ingredients they could there hands on. Common dishes were basic dishes; one could create with ration packs. Vegetables became the key ingredient to almost every meal. As there was no food coming in or out of the city, the Sarajevan's made allotments in spare patches of dirt, the onion was the most hardy of vegetables and therefore families would grow these in abundance.
Above is the national dish of Bosnia, Cevapcici. It consists of three elements: small seasoned beef sausages, finely diced raw onions that are held in pitta style dough bread. The combination of the three made for a delicious and comforting meal. The meat was tender, the onions were fresh and the bread was soft and warm. The dish was so filling it took two of us to finish the whole thing, and for the equivalent of £3, this was even more impressive. The dish spoke volumes about the values of the Bosnian people; they survived for almost four years on rationing with sniper fire overhead. And now, they have access to more desirable ingredients they still insist on using minimal ingredients.
Cevapcici is eaten throughout Bosnia. It is remarkable that such a simple food can speak to the solidarity and resilience of the Bosnian people. The fact that the nationals choose to eat this simplistic dish, twenty years after the end of the war shows the integrity of a country still recovering from the atrocities performed on them. For Sarajevans this dish is one not to be shared worldwide, although anyone may eat the dish, as a tourist, they will never be able to understand the emotion and sense of community behind it.
I found this poem from a local poet of Sarajevo, in the Sarajevan historical museum. I think the poem encapsulates the horror of living through a war but also draws parallels between food and camaraderie and similarly equating food as a proxy for love. I also love the gendered role of women as being the 'floury hands' that caress men during the period of war.
A NEWSPAPER REPORT ON PARCELS
When the war broke out, I believe that all
good people has stayed in the penitentiary
Sarajevo had become, and I secretly missed my
friends, who did not have enough nerve for this
theatre of death.
Then the first parcels from my brother arrived,
and on the lacquered surface of the kitchen table,
I saw my mother with a can opener in her hands.
Later, when the parcels of flour from friends
arrived, their letters hurt me more than the sight
of the dying town. I looked at the bottom of the
parcels as at a border beyond which I believed
that many good people moved into the world
The very morning the first parcel of hunger
arrived, my mother caressed me with her floury
hands, and then vanished into the kitchen sink.
And I still look at my reflection in the smooth
surface of the kitchen table, and ask myself what
I have asked myself a thousand times: have only
the good and brave people stayed in Sarajevo, in
this city where one must not whistle because it
resembles the sound of shells? Where my wife
looks at the blocked kitchen sink every day, and
doesn't understand why I won't clean it?
Goran Simic, was born in Bosnia in 1952 and has lived in Toronto since 1996.
Simić, Goran, and Amela Simić. From Sarajevo, with Sorrow: Poems. Windsor, Ont.: Biblioasis, 2005. Print.