What Do Vegetarians Eat in Eastern Europe? Part 1: Burek!

10 May

I travel to eat. I’ve planned entire itineraries around trips to markets and street vendors, restaurants and cafes. Upon landing in Croatia, the very first outing Mike & I took was to the corner bakery. As in, I set down my backpack, then we went to the corner bakery. He summed the situation up well on my Facebook page ” i am taking a burek break for 24 hours. a man cannot constantly live in a state of nirvana.”

Burek. The defining pastry of the Balkans (and Turkey!) How have I come to be in my mid-thirties without you?

Cheese burek, Skopje.

Cheese burek, Skopje.

A quick introductory lesson – burek is a flaky stuffed pastry dish, sometimes in cut sheets, sometimes round and cut in slices, sometimes shaped in tube-like rolls, sometimes shaped in tube-like rolls rolled in spirals – all depending on the region. The pastry has a crispy, slightly oily, golden crust and a wonderful chewiness on the inside, in the same way that crispy-chewy quality makes Asian potstickers so addictive. At every corner bakery you’ll find pizza, cherry stuffed pastries, and burek with meat, spinach or cheese.

Cheese burek, Sarajevo.

Cheese burek, Sarajevo.

Though my introduction to the Balkan delicacy of burek began on my first day in Zagreb (burek is one of the reasons I was here – I’ve devoted a photo gallery to it!), my Sarajevo burek experience was nonpareil. We choose a burek restaurant in the middle of town that sold only two things: 4 kinds of burek and the yogurt sauce to pour on top.

Burek shop, Sarajevo.

Burek shop, Sarajevo.

The shop must have been unchanged for at least 50 years. Cut from large pans and sold by weight from an antique scale at the front of the windowed cases, we devoured our treat off of utilitarian metal plates, seated on fixed diner-style single stools at a curved formica counter. There was a certain efficiency about the meal, as the establishment seemed to have singular purpose. Much like a hot dog stand, patrons didn’t linger; they ate their fill, and moved on quickly, or took paper-wrapped pieces to go. In Bosnia, the dough is wrapped in long tubes around a singular filling – either ground meat, crumbly cheese, spinach or (what came to be our favorite) spicy shredded potato and onion.

Spinach pastry in Zagreb.

Spinach pastry in Zagreb.

I’d anticipated difficulty for a vegetarian in such a meat-loving corner of the world, but easy access to spinach and cheese pastry made instant breakfasts, snacks, side dishes and travel meals. Better yet, it’s very difficult to tire of the stuff. It’s comfort food – filling and buttery, hot and salty.

Cheese burek & sesame simit, Istanbul.

Cheese burek & sesame simit, Istanbul.

Like all products better made by tradition, the best burek came from burek specialty shops. This simply isn’t an experience that can be mass-produced by a bakery chain or (gasp) supermarket. Other burek highlights from the trip: being guided to a Skopje old town traditional burek shop (burek is round, crunchy fried phyllo wheels in madedonia), 6am Istanbul arrival burek with tea (the burek shop was the only thing open on Istiklal Street that early in the day), and selfishly hoping to get the last bite of room temperature potato burek that we shared on our bus trip to Dubrovnik – via picture-perfect Mostar.

The bad news? I never reached my burek breaking point (Mike had a month’s head start on me!)

The good news? We have two(!) locations within walking distance of our Charlotte, NC home that proudly serve burek: a fantastic Serbian pizzaria (best pizza & tiramisu in town, easily), and a Bosnian deli which recently expanded to have a full cafe. Be sure to try them out –


Sarajevo Roses

11 Dec

Shame on me.

In 1995, I was in high school. I was a competent, conscious human being who was learning about history and mathematics and language. I was old enough to understand what was going on in the world and the impact it has on us other humans. Granted, the Internet was in its infancy, but I was old enough to follow the news…and I didn’t.

Sarajevo - on our walk into the old town.

Sarajevo – on our walk into the old town.

Somehow, though I knew there was war going on somewhere in the world, I knew it was far from me. Not my war. And I missed the longest siege in modern history. Modern genocide. Many of us missed it. I missed news of the Balkan War, but we visited Sarajevo this time.
Retribution is still going on. As we were in Sarajevo on this trip – in summer 2012 – the war crimes trials had just begun in The Hague for Ratko Mladic, 17 years after being indicted for war crimes in Bosnia-Herzegovina. And I still had to be informed of this by the volunteer at the museum.

Overlooking a graveyard in Sarajevo.

Overlooking a graveyard in Sarajevo.

I’ve visited sites memorializing other tragedies – Nazi work camps in Hungary, the Union Carbide gas leak in Bhopal, the American Cemetery at Omaha Beach. I broke out in tears on the top floor of the Holocaust Museum in Washington DC. A lingering, sad reverence hangs over these sites. Visitors whisper in hushed, library tones. The air is heavy, even on sunny days.

I expected Sarajevo to feel sad.
I was wrong.

The Miljacka River, Sarajevo.

The Miljacka River, Sarajevo.

Sarajevo feels young, and vibrant, and full of life. It’s a gorgeous city full of history and ornate architecture, nestled in a valley between lush hillsides. Surprisingly less conservative than many of the places we visited in the Balkans, young people hold hands on sidewalks, the shopping malls boast all of the Western brands and restaurants (we ate at Vapiano), children stay out with their parents well past dark. Even the kitschy “Caffe Tito” – a tongue-in-cheek theme bar behind the history museum – has a corner filled with children playing on playground equipment.

Near the old town, Sarajevo.

Near the old town, Sarajevo.

Even when I know I’m planning to write about a place, there are times that I’m so moved that I consciously choose to not take a photo. I just want to be a participant, instead of a documentarian. As if the camera lens puts too much distance between me and what I was there to see.

I’d read about “Sarajevo Roses,” the recognizable crack patterns in the pavement left from the mortar bombings of the city. The residents later filled many of them in with a glossy red paint epoxy, making a bright, flower-shaped exclamation mark in the middle of the sidewalk. Many of them are now fading, or disappearing as the roads get replaced and repaired. I was looking for them, and they’re there. They’re haunting: circular and spattery. But I don’t have any photos.

Sarajevo - on our walk into the old town.

Sarajevo – on our walk into the old town.

The bullet and mortar holes are still there. There are still vacant, bombed-out buildings in the most unlikely of neighborhoods. We dodged construction scaffolding and weaved around as the old sidewalks ended and the new ones began. The modern city is busy renovating and rebuilding; there are just so many holes to fill. Seventeen years later, and they’re still filling holes. Or maybe they’re consciously not filling holes, I’m not sure. We stayed in an apartment a short walk down the river and upon each walk into town, remarked how the center of the city is strikingly intact – and all of the walls facing the hills are eerily pockmarked and crumbling.

The city history museum is in the most unassuming possible building. Intentionally left to ruins – the entrance stairs are broken in pieces and wobble unsettlingly as you step on them; the ceiling tiles are gone; the landscaping is untouched and overgrown. Drafty and abandoned, there are entire floors cordoned off with flimsy plastic tape. A lone elderly woman mans the front door holding a worn cash pocket to take your admission fee. It is as if the building is to be condemned any day. The siege exhibits are an unembellished string of preserved everyday objects – identification cards, plastic sheeting taped to windows, mortar shells, cans of food, newspaper articles. Devoid of any glossy museum packaging, it is an exercise in immersion. Even the chairs in the entrance hall are cracked down the middle.

Surf 'n Fries Sarajevo.

Surf ‘n Fries Sarajevo.

In contrast, the city bustles with activity and modern amusement. We watched an argumentative group of old men shuffle pieces around an oversized chess board in the square. We treated ourselves to the Eastern European fast food craze “Surf ‘n Fries” (a hisbiscus-flower-surf-themed french fry take-out restaurant with your choice of about 10 sauces). We tried out busy Vegehana – the hippie-friendly all-vegetarian restaurant as well as a trendy Asian restaurant. We peered into the bowling alley on the top floor of the mall in the middle of town. The old town has too many silver jewely shops and trinket vendors to count.

The Sarajevo Brewery restaurant.

The Sarajevo Brewery restaurant.

The city brewery boasts an eerie, majestic, two-story restaurant with opulent chandeliers, polished wood banisters and an extensive Western-centric menu. A handful of ex-pats and tourists rattled around in somewhat hushed tones in a dramatic scene fit for The Shining.

We wandered many historical sites and still left Sarajevo with more to come back and see. There are hills and hiking and the tiny, unremarkable tunnel that sustained the whole city during the siege. There’s the site of the assassination of Franz Ferdinand and the start of WWI (and a succinct, but well-kept museum next to it). We visited a stark exhibition of the events in Srebrenica, and spent some time absorbing its haunting, oversized images and listening to a resident (younger than us) who lived through it.

Tram in Sarajevo.

Tram in Sarajevo.

This visit put Sarajevo on the map for me. I hope I’ll continue to follow the region and its re-growth. I hope now that I’ll be able to name all of the former Yugoslav republics and their capitals. I’d like very much to visit again in several years and see the transformation again. I’m off now to search the news for the outcome of the war trials, as I still don’t remember seeing it here in the news…

The Latest Journey

20 Sep

There’s a new postcard on my fridge – a foreshadowing of stories from the most recent journey!

Thanks Mikey! Though I won’t be exactly here, I’ll be nearby…

Your Blog Has Too Many Words. I Just Look at the Pictures. . .

7 Apr

That’s OK, I don’t mind! This post’s for you –
SendMoneyPlease says, “You take pictures of lots of things I wouldn’t.”
Here’s some pix from each of the places I visited:

Ode to Thali

2 Apr

Mmmm. Thali & lassi. Mumbai.

Oh dear foodies, a poem, to help me relate,

The adventures that brought me the food that I ate.

Southern style thali. Aurangabad.

Across traffic, and mayhem, and down sidestreet allies,

Just to discover my favorite new thalis.

Fast food thali. Bhopal.

They’re hot in the north, and sweet in the south,

Guaranteed to satisfy foreigners’ mouths.

Vegetarian thali, Varanasi.

A neat row of shiny hot and cold dishes,

Presented to quench your comestible wishes.

The way thali should be done. Mmmmm. Udaipur.

Sauces and gravies presented with papad,

Chapati and rice and a fresh little salad.

Train station thali. Kolkata.

The chilis burn. The spices excite.

My appetite grows with every big bite.

Vegetarian thali. Varanasi.

Okra and peppers and spicy chickpeas.

The server arrives and I answer “more please!”

The coconut chutneys, the curd and the dhal,

The cloves and the pickles are incredible!

Fenugreek leaves and fill-you-up puri,

Gobi and channa and vegetable curry.

Potato and lentil and bright red masala.

How well you can eat for less than a dollar!

I slurp lassi up. Roti wipes my plate.

I now can’t believe how much food I just ate.

India, help! Export this delight?

Well, with some luck, I predict I just might.

This is What India Feels Like.

30 Mar

Check out this great promo for a contest The Times of India was hosting. Really, this is what India felt like for me, complete with elephant. Love it! (The tagline is “Celebrate a Circus Called India.”)

And here’s the actual contest site with the photo/video entries. Enjoy.

More Cowbell!

30 Mar

Rearview icon, Aurangabad.

When SendMoneyPlease asked me why in the world I wanted to spend 5 weeks in India, I replied (in addition to the food, bien entendu) “to see color and chaos,” a response with which he couldn’t argue. Now, while both “color” and “chaos” exist in India in innumerable forms, the population has elevated one artform to a superlative level: auto decoration.

“Blow Horn,” Bikanir.

I’ve long maintained that we’re very conservative when it comes to our choice of car colors, but this is one topic which I can assure you, no amount of written words or photos can do justice (partly because I usually spotted the best examples from our own careening vehicle). I simply cannot capture the vast variety and creativity with which professional (and not so professional) Indian drivers have decorated their modes of transport.

Bumper flower. Kochi.

Just about every vehicle that moves in India contains at least a small photo, postcard or sticker for luck or remembrance – of gods and prophets – prominently placed near the steering wheel or on the dashboard or tucked where a sun visor would be. Professional drivers have even more lucky charms – icons and bangles and tinsel and something uncannily resembling a ‘70s macramé plant holder hanging from the rearview mirror (some so long or numerous that you have to wonder if the luck simply counteracts the fact that they obstruct the view of the driver in the first place). There’s the truly baffling either real or synthetic “hair tassels” (yep, I had to ask what it was too) dragging from the front grill. And the decorative (or is it for safety, hmmm. . .) covering of any windshield cracks with bright red tape and flowery stickers.

Cute rickshaw kitty (?!). Beypore.

Now, so far, these items appear to be for luck or safety on the roads, something which after having ridden around Indian roads for several weeks I can thoroughly appreciate. And the wedding vehicle decorations are impressive as well – colorful ribbons taped in endless bumpy waves, flashy metallic tinsel and mylar flowers. Again, something that is in my visual vocabulary for celebrations and festivals and parades.


Tire fish! Beypore.

But then the auto and truck decoration enters the truly artistic realm. And like art, personal taste is individual and unlimited. There are countless photos of Indian and western film and pop stars (Oh, if Angelina Jolie only knew how many photos of her are pinned up in Indian rickshaws!). There were leather (not cow, mind you) dashboard covers for every make and model of car, truck or rickshaw – all with perfect cutouts in just the right places to open the dash compartment and allow the air vents to still function. We were rocked and popped by the most happening of sound systems fitted into tiny tuktuk trunks.

Bus baby. Calicut.

There are custom-installed cushions and slick vinyl covers in every color of fake tiger print and plastic roses. Entire (one square meter) interiors of rickshaws had been meticulously hand sewn with so much plastic and dangling tassels from the ceiling that any swinging bachelor pad would be put to shame. Austin Powers would be so proud! Metal flowers were soldered onto siderails and hubcaps. Multi-colored airbrushing abounds. There are the photos of cute animals and landscape scenes and (?!?) light-skinned babies. (No, not goddess-babies. Just regular babies. Clearly.)

Back window. Jaipur.

And the horns! The constant horns! No boring “beep-beeps” here. The horns each have characters of their own – tiny cartoon sirens, undulating mechanical whistles, huge overpowering airhorns, vaguely musical melodies that trail off on their own until pressed again (and again, and again, and again).

“Goods Carrier,” Kochi.

The professional truck drivers have a style all their own. Every inch of a semi is brightly colored: hand-painted with gods and landscapes, symbols and the declaration of their united profession “Goods Carrier” emblazoned across the front. Carefully painted written warnings read “Blow Horn,” and “Use Dippers at Night.” Multi-colored tassels and tinsel flash and dangle in the truck’s constantly changing motion. I’ve never seen so much colored electrical tape – wrapped around every corner in garish patterns and stripes.

Truck undercarriage. Kochi.

I’m not entirely sure what motivates the collective drivers of India to fill their lives and streets with such color and fancy displays. It’s an intangible over-the-top quality that makes a ride in India unforgettable and difficult to describe. I keep thinking back to that old Volvo in town that you’d spot every now and then (every town had one) – with the artificial flowers hot-glued all over it? Maybe they had the right idea all along. May we all be as festive with our transport!

I Now Know Why Celebrities Crack

23 Mar

University students, Aurangabad.

One of my first jobs was to be a costumed cartoon character at fairs and tradeshows. I’d come ready for a long, athletic day – walk behind a curtain or into a back room, and emerge a full, fuzzy, loveable cartoon: plush suit, fuzzy shoes, big mask with huge ears and googly eyes.

Checking out their photo, Varanasi.

I had a repertoire of characters, but the most striking memory for me was the instant celebrity status that the costumes brought. The moment I put that oversized smiling mask on, I could go anywhere, get free anything – all eyes were on me. Sometimes it was good: adorable small children wanting to be held and hugged and hold hands and high-five. Sometimes it was terrible: teenaged boys wanting to hit me on the head and pull my tail, sticky cotton candy stuck in my fake fur. Cameras clicked, crowds waved, doors opened.

However, as soon as I once again dipped behind those closed doors and removed that magical mask, the difference was startling – I could walk completely unnoticed anywhere. The anonymity was so calm, so relaxing, so quiet.

Charming Punjabi ladies, Varanasi. Betcha can’t spot me. . .

I always likened the experience to what it must feel like to be an A-list celebrity: that constant spotlight, that constant scrutiny of being recognizable. I had the luxury of being able to transform back into my unremarkable self – that is, until I came to India.

Even more so than in Africa, I can’t escape my foreign-ness here (at least I’m not blonde!). What is it exactly that’s so head-turning? I’m not entirely sure. I mean, there’s plenty of western media. I guess it’s curiousity. It’s the unknown. It’s the exotic. (Imagine that! In a sea of multi-colored saris and sparkling forehead bindis, my wrinkled jeans are exotic?) Maybe it’s the years of indoor fluorescent lighting that have left my arms and legs a delicate shade of nuclear-winter-white. It’s the novelty of seeing several western women – gasp – drinking beer outside.

University students, Shimla.

It’s been an assault of attention on this trip. Oh sure, the usual vendors and taxi drivers and snake charmers trying to convince you to choose their guides and services, an onslaught of men wanting to “practice their English” or beg or offer prayers of good fortune or lack of bad fortune by giving them rupees or offering casting in Bollywood films.

But I also encountered a fair amount of harmless attention I wasn’t expecting: school children and university students, newlyweds, army recruits, random people hanging out of windows snapping photos on their cell phones, men unabashedly staring from 3 feet away, security guards, and just plain average Indian tourists stopping to say hello and ask our names and where we were from and if they could take a photo with us.

Seriously? This is going in your honeymoon album? Shimla.

Now, why any newlywed couple would want a photo of my disheveled, travel-weary self in their honeymoon album is completely beyond me – but I guess I’m happy to oblige. And fortunately, unlike a real A-list celebrity, my notoriety is short-lived: I can remove my celebrity status at the end of the trip.

In the 500 Yards Between India and Pakistan, I’m a VIP

15 Mar

Outside Amritsar.

This is the road to Pakistan.

Lahore: 23km.

Somehow, when our Indian friend asked which of us might be interested in visiting the India-Pakistan border, I was the only one to speak up. I mean, Pakistan? When am I ever going to have that opportunity again? Now – cold sweat in check, I’m curious, but I’m not crazy. Knowing this is a somewhat delicate political territory, I’d looked this one up in the guidebook, and I had a small idea of what we were about to see. But even I was surprised.

The welcome sign at the India-Pakistan border.

We rented a car for the hour or so ride to Wagah, site of the only open border crossing between India and Pakistan. With a somewhat hesitant mood, we piled in and went for a drive. The cars and motorbikes heading in the same direction seemed to thin out the farther we drove, their turban-clad drivers seemed increasingly somber. We passed army base after army base for several miles. I pictured barbed wire, and lookout towers, and the typical “no-photography under penalty of imprisonment” signs you find at immigration and military zones the world over. Images of utilitarian government waiting rooms and holding rooms and stacks of official forms filled my imagination.

You can buy border souvenirs! And Coca-Cola!

We were warned before stopping the car that any bags would be confiscated and that we needed to leave anything valuable behind. We drove past a roadblock protest and stepped out into a sea of people. We walked along border fences, lookout posts, glass booths, and were pushed into a fast moving crowd, then quickly ordered by a horse-mounted official with a whistle to separate men from women, not something we wanted to do. We continued along – through a security pat-down, past confiscated bags and bottles of water, into. . .a festival arena grandstand.

Pakistan is just on the other side of this gate.

Now, hold on a moment. Those were bags of confiscated popcorn at the gate. Popcorn? Of course, from the lines of snack vendors just outside the gate. Snack vendors? Yes, fruit and tea and nuts and candy – and families with small children and school field trips and teenage girls in bright-colored, sequined scarves. We weren’t headed to impending doom. . .we were headed to a full-out, stand up to the blaring pop music, wave your mini-Indian flag, and cheer along with the track-suit clad emcee political rally-come-dance party that is the nightly India-Pakistan border closing.

Fancy border guards!

Not at all what we expected. We were pulled out of the crowd by a guard and directed to a different gate – the VIP gate. Special reserved seating for visiting officials and foreign tourists (Guess we didn’t look very Indian. No surprise there.) That’s right, somewhere on this soil between the India-Pakistan border, I got picked out of the crowd as a VIP.

The patriotic crowd runs flags back and forth.

The event was really a non-event. I mean, they close this gate every night. The ceremony itself was full of pomp – (very, very tall) Indian border guards dressed in their fanciest official uniforms doing unintelligible prolonged chants and fancy high-kick synchronized marches. Pakistan had its respective grandstand and music and fancy-uniformed guards. They opened the gate. They brought down Indian and Pakistani flags. They closed the gate. You know – border closing.

The India crowd at Wagah.

But the surrounding interest and festive atmosphere was really surprising. A crowd of thousands of enthusiastic Indians had made this hour-long drive to witness this nightly event, cheer along with their countrymen, and shout positive nationalistic chants over a megaphone, a shout that carried far on the wind and echoed off the less-filled stands on the other side of the gate.

These “Temple Socks” Aren’t Coming Home

11 Mar

Karni Mata Temple, Deshnok.

In an earlier post from India, I started writing about “suspending my general (Western) perceptions” of how this world works. I was back on the Ganges, trying to wrap my brain around the idea of a holy-deity-river being the site of simultaneous bathing, prayer, laundry and cremation.  Welcome back folks, here’s another example of how my Western perception has been expanded.

Happy rats! Deshnok.

Prepare yourselves, this one’s not for the squeamish. In today’s “you’ll only find this in India” installment, I visited Deshnok’s Karni Mata Temple – a.k.a “The Rat Temple.”

(I also tried pistachio camel milk ice cream, but that’s another story. It was a full day. . .back to the rats.)

Beautiful silver door. Deshnok.

The subject of several television documentary stories, my travel friend and I decided we had to see this one for ourselves. A good 45-minute drive outside of the up-and-coming desert city of Bikaner, you’ll find a unique Hindu temple. As the story goes, Bikaner’s patron deity was asked to perform a resurrection and spoke with the gods, only to find out that all of her male descendants would come back as rats…in her temple…in Deshnok. Or, something like that. In short, it’s a beautiful out-of-the-way temple in a tiny town with thousands of holy rats running freely alongside the (human) worshippers.

Big line of penitent followers. Deshnok.

Now we knew what we’d signed up for, but as we stepped up to the door, our Indian friend turned to me and asked “Are you OK with this?” Well, we were about to find out.

Before you get all freaked out, let me say – these are without a doubt the happiest rats in the world. They’re tiny, not un-cute, and pretty well-behaved. They lounge around with a thousand of their closest friends and relatives sipping milk, nibbling on holy sweets and nuts, and in an interesting turn of the tables, having the humans worry about not stepping on them all day.

They’re arguably cute. Deshnok.

It’s an easy imaginative jump to, say, “The Rats of Nimh,” or “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” (Splinter was a rat, right?)

A huge (real) silver door leads a line of patient, penitent hundreds along a marble floor to catch a quick glimpse of a fiery (yes fiery!) icon set deep within the temple. The scene is complete with offerings and chanting and blessed food and lots of rats running around.

I mean really Indiana Jones type stuff here. For being basically in the middle of nowhere in the desert, we were surprised just how popular the temple was. Easily a thousand or so people returning from a nearby festival decided to stop in by the tourbus-full to pay their respects to the deity.

Adjacent snack stalls sold souvenir pictures and keychains of the icon – and the rats – along with sodas and gum and CD’s of Hindi pop music. It was downright festive.

All socks and wet wipes. Deshnok.

Though decidedly foreign,  the experience wasn’t quite as terrifying as those tv shows would have you believe…except maybe for one thing: I don’t think I’ve mentioned yet that to enter Hindu temples you have to take off your shoes. Yep. That’s right. Picture yourself, tiptoe-ing barefoot or in your little knit socks across a cold marble floor, sticky holy sweets and grains stuck to the bottom, weaving your way around thousands of holy rats.

Needless to say, that pair of socks is not coming home. It didn’t even make it back to the car. Plus, the pair of clean socks I put on after them may not come home either.

In my comic-relief moment of the afternoon, I spotted only the second public trash bin of my entire India trip – right next to the temple shoe stand – chock full of socks and wet wipes.