The National Dish of the Balkans: Ćevapčići

From the U.S. to Ljubljana to Triglav National Park in Slovenia, south on the wine route and into Croatia, east to Bosnia through Mostar to Sarajevo … this is the road-trip-by-car route that would steer us to Sarajevo’s best local restaurant for Ćevapčići – the life-altering dish of the Balkan region that we would continue to seek daily during a month-long adventure through Bosnia and Croatia. …The dish any of us at WOAF would dance on hot stones for to eat again and again in its pure form.

Simple Ćevapčići from Sarajevo’s Zeljo

What it is: meat, herbs and spices molded into link-sized sausages then grilled. Served with pureed red pepper, raw white onion,  and chopped parsley on fluffy mnjami bread. There are of course variations of this, but this is its purest form.

Lovers of a cheap meal – take note! It cost less than ten euro for two people.

The Best Ćevapčići (or ‘Ćevapi’ for short) in Sarajevo

At Cevabdzinica Zeljo, there are no hosts, few outside tables, no smoking, no alcohol and just a spoonful of chatter.  This is a place without pomp, without much circumstance, just where to come eat the best authentic “quick food.”  Don’t be surprised if you share a table with locals sitting across from you, plainly watching you eat.  We sat across from a young couple. They ate quickly and left. A Bosnian mother and her adult daughter took their place. We sat across and looked at them and they looked at us. It was the kind of place where there is just one or two items on the menu at different quantities. We couldn’t pronounce it, just pointed to the top item

Menu at Sarajevo’s Famous Ćevapčići House: Zeljo

(usually the spot reserved for the specialty dish of the house), and finished with a shot of liquid yogurt.  There was a certain languidness of movement here – sort of like watching Baraka, or ordering a cheesesteak from Pat’s – “order fast, we’ll do the rest, food will come fast, don’t dawdle, and get the f&@* out. Next!”  

Best meal of our lives. 

We recanted this story with traveling friends from Slovenia as round two of Rattlers (pre-mixed beer and lime juice) came and storytelling commenced. “Best meal of our lives,” I said. “You really are Balkans!” Neja laughed, “that’s the best Ćevapi in Sarajevo!”

Ćevapi in Split, Croatia

Days later, we descended upon Kantun Paulina.  Ćevapčići, Split style.

We sat at a table in an alley off of a side street on the outside of the city center. The bar was on the west corner, the restaurant on the east. We ordered beer and Ćevapi, respectively – two different vendors, one terrific meal.  A man passed us holding a crate stacked with fluffly flatbread, a bun fell onto the street, and he picked it up and put it back into the crate. Mmm. Street dirt – delicious.  This is what really goes on in restaurants worldwide, a cautionary tale and fact we must deal with and largely ignore if we want to eat the best food on earth. He wheeled the crate to the back door of the restaurant.  A few minutes later came a woman out of a different door, a door blind to the eye. She carried a baking sheet platform cradling mounds of meat and wandered into the restaurant behind the man with the bread – this alley was not owned by pedestrians or motorists, but by purveyors of Ćevapčići. This restaurant in Split, a favorite of the locals, and now us.

Croatian Ćevapčići – from Kantun in Split

Recipe for Cevapcici (Balkan love not included)


  • Flatbread – the heart of the meal is the fluffy mnjami bread. This Bosnian style Pita is extremely difficult to replicate, but can be picked up at speciality bakeries. 
  • 5-10-or-15 link sausage-sized pieces of formed ground meat
  • Chopped white or red onion
  • Ajvar – roasted red pepper, eggplant and tomato puree
  • Optional toppings: Kaymak (spreadable cheese similar to ricotta,) sour cream, tomatoes, mild peppers

Ingredients: (Apologies in advance for not including measurements – often when getting a recipe on the go, you are lucky to procure the ingredient list!)

  • 5-10-or-15 link sausage-sized pieces of formed ground meat (Bosnian ćevapi is made of minced beef and sometimes lamb; Croatian, Macedonian and Serbian styles add pork.)
  • Egg white
  • Minced garlic
  • Minced fresh herbs (parsley, sage, oregano – nothing too potent)
  • Salt and freshly ground pepper
  • Cayenne pepper
  • Hungarian paprika (red)
  • Finely chopped white onion

Directions: Combine meat and egg and mix with hands. Incorporate all other ingredients and mix well. Form into small sausages, (and 3/4 inch thick.) Arrange in a mound on a plate, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate to let the flavors settle for one hour (or one day like they do in the Balkans if time permits.)  Grill on a lightly oiled grill pan on medium-low heat. Cook until cooked through, turning as needed (about 30 minutes.)

For Avjar: (Again, no exact measurements or instructions included, but this is what you’ll need:)

  • 2 large eggplants
  • 6 large red bell peppers
  • 2 Roma tomatoes
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 minced garlic clove
  • ½ cup olive oil
  • ¼ cup, fresh lemon juice

Serve on warmed flatbread with chopped onion and Avjar, and optional toppings if desired.

In Bosnia and Croatia, the Cevapci meat is “dry” (formed by hand and grilled.) In Serbia, it is formed in a funnel and served “wet.”

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Categories: Food + Drink, On a fork, Recipes

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