A traditional Albanian-style ćevapi.
Although the kebab is often associated with the Mediterranean, Middle East and South Asia, there is a relatively unknown, centuries-old kebab tradition with firm roots in Europe too.
Ćevapi is a grilled meatball kebab dish found across the Balkans. The dish usually consists of several meatballs on a plate or in flatbread called somun or lepinje with sour cream, a clotted cream known as kajmak, a pepper-based sauce called ajvar, cottage cheese, red pepper and salt.
Ćevapi is considered a national dish by several countries including Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia and Romania and is also enjoyed as a traditional meal in other Balkan countries including Albania, Kosovo, Bulgaria, Croatia, Montenegro, Slovenia and North Macedonia (where they call it “kebapi”).
The dish is growing in popularity in the UK too, and has even attracted attention from international culinary household names such as Jamie Oliver who has released his own recipe for Bosnian-style ćevapi.
Herbs and charcoal grilling are key for flavour
“Ćevapi is really delicious,” says Qaza who runs Balkan Taste, a West London café, burger joint and pizzeria that also serves traditional Balkan dishes. “There are lots of options from all over the Balkans. In Albania we make it with lots of herbs, which we actually put inside the meatballs while preparing them. After that we grill them on charcoal to really release all the flavour,” he adds. The diner, which is located on College Road, just a short walk from Harrow on the Hill station, gives customers the chance to enjoy the mouth-watering Balkan kebab wrapped in flatbread in the classic fashion.
As Qaza explains, ingredients vary from country to country. There can also be differences within countries as well. Owing to the country’s significant Muslim population, Bosnian-style ćevapi is usually made from minced halal beef, veal, mutton or lamb, sometimes combining more than one of these. In largely Christian Serbia on the other hand, the dish is made with beef, pork, lamb or a mixture of all three.
Ćevapi can be traced back to the Ottoman Empire
The origins of ćevapi can be traced back to the Ottoman Empire which first established a presence in the Balkans in the 14th century. The Ottomans ruled much of the region until several countries including Serbia, Romania and Albania gained independence and Bosnia was annexed by Austria-Hungary during the 19th and 20th centuries.
The empire’s legacy however is still visible in many Balkan countries today, particularly when it comes to cuisine. The Ottoman Turks’ culinary influence is shown in that the word “ćevapi” itself is derived from “kebap” the Turkish word for kebab. The dish particularly resembles köfte, a popular Turkish meatball, enjoyed in kebabs throughout Turkey to this day. Other dishes common throughout the Balkans such as dolma (stuffed vegetables) and the popular dessert pastry baklava also have roots in the Ottoman period.