In 1972, Crown Publishers introduced a new installment to their “International Cook Book Series” with Inge Kramarz’s The Balkan Cookbook. To the best of my knowledge, this collection was the first of its kind ever to be published in America. Unlike some of the other offerings in the catalog, this book was not a translation of an already popular cookbook, but rather, like with Wallace Yee Hong’s The Chinese Cook Book, this was an entirely original work.
What is Balkan cuisine? Before you can approach that question, another, more daunting one stands in your path: what are the Balkans? Put simply, the Balkans are the collective group of peoples and cultures that comprise what was once referred to as the Balkan Peninsula, coined as such by August Zeune in 1808. However, this term is driven more by geopolitics than geography as the area in question is not confined to the technical definition of a geographic peninsula.
Largely a part of the Ottoman Empire in the 19th century, a significant portion of the Balkans later became a part of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia in the 20th century. Today, when referring to the Balkans we are talking about a group of countries that include: Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Croatia, Greece, Romania, Hungary, Serbia, Slovenia, and Turkey. However, in 1972 when Inge Kramarz wrote her seminal The Balkan Cookbook the geopolitical landscape still included the country of Yugoslavia.
“How then, you may wonder, are these diverse peoples able to produce a true Balkan cuisine that is universally admired for its uniqueness? The remarkable geography of this peninsula holds a clue to the history that the Balkan settlers share and the disparate cultural influences that guided the development of Balkan cooking.”Inge Kramarz The Balkan Cookbook | 1972
The Balkan region is an ethnically and politically complex piece of history and geography, however for the purposes of our culinary adventure, I think Kramarz’s assertion that the Balkans acted as “a corridor between East and West” is a fair assessment. Because of this, the cuisine of the Balkans could be described as a type of proto-fusion cuisine. One where, as Kramarz, puts it “combines the subtly spiced culinary delights of the East with the robust heartiness of Western fare”. An excellent example of this type of culinary fusion can be seen in the signature dish of Hungary which combines the hearty beef stews of the nation’s cattle herdsmen, the ‘gulyas‘, with the smoky hot paprika cultivated by the Turkish beginning in the 16th century. A dish commonly referred to as “goulash”.
Aside from a vague familiarity with some of the flavours and ingredients common in Central and Eastern European cooking, I really wasn’t sure what I was getting myself into with this book. However, my expectation was that there would be a fair amount of overlap with the Polish cuisine I had explored in the translated version of Marja Ochorowicz-Monatowa’s Polish Cookery, also from the “International Cook Book Series”. This expectation was borne out in many of the recipes I encountered in the book, like the Bulgarian dish “svinsko s kiselo sele” or Pork with Sauerkraut that closely resembled the Polish dish bigos.
Who is Inge Kramarz is, is somewhat of a mystery although from what I can tell, Inge is more commonly used as a masculine name. What I can say is that I very much appreciate the work they did in compiling this cookbook, as they took particular care in labelling each individual recipe with its direct country of origin and hence the ability to zero in on a particular countries culinary eccentricities is possible. I cannot understate how valuable I find this feature, which is also how Elizabeth Lambert Ortiz’s superlative The Complete Caribbean Cookbook was organized.
There are certainly some notable differences from the recipes found in Polish Cookery. For example, the influence of Greek cuisine is quite pronounced in The Balkan Cookbook with ingredients like yoghurt, eggplant, and olives along with recipes like moussaka and baklava revealing a strong Mediterranean influence less apparent in the Polish cuisine.
A small highlight was the “Beverages” section which included recipes for things like Romanian blackberry brandy, Bulgarian sour cherry brandy, and Hungarian fig wine. I have already tested the Romanian blackberry brandy which turned out wonderfully with a rich infusion of baking spices and vanilla and I eagerly anticipate the opportunity to test the other homemade liqueurs on offer. Another highlight of the book is an extensive “Preserves” section which outlines a variety of homemade sausage recipes and pickled preserves. I’m not quite at the level of hanging up cured meat for weeks on end myself, but I appreciate the documentation available for those willing. Another highlight was an extensive dessert section including recipes for cookies, cakes, pastries, and other sweets. From what I can tell, the Balkans were a perfect storm of European cakes and Mediterranean pastries. Midcentury sweets, from my experience, can be hit and miss, but, for this cookbook at least, the Balkans seem to come out strong.
Here are some of the recipes that I’ve tested and enjoyed so far, but I will definitely be returning to this book again in the future.
- Blackberry Brandy (Romania)
- Cheese Soufflé (Romania)
- Potato Soufflé with Cheese (Dalmatia)
- Liptoi Cheese Spread (Hungary)
- Goulash (Hungary)
- Meatballs with Eggplant Sauce (Bulgaria)
- Pork with Sauerkraut (Bulgaria)
- Chestnut Cake (Romania)
- Assorted Balkan Cookies and Candies
- Easter Cheese (Russian)