I’d heard tale of the mythical burek before I’d even purchased my first plane ticket to the Balkans. As a group of us sat discussing another mouthwatering regional dish, cevapi, and bemoaning its absence in our lives, a friend rolled her eyes. Everyone always talks about those little sausages, she pointed out, rather dismissively. No, what we were really lacking was easy access to burek.
Burek — also known as börek, byrek, byurek, boureki and brik, just to name a few variants — is a pastry made of thin, flaky dough and usually filled, quite often with a savory stuffing but sometimes with a sweet. In the Balkans, the most common burek fillings are meat, cheese and spinach, while potatoes and mushrooms often make appearances. It sounds so simple, yet the delicious result leaves no doubt as to why this dish remains incredibly popular, even hundreds of years after it was first assembled.
A brief history of burek
Burek, like so many foods in the Balkans and indeed throughout the world, has a long, convoluted and often disputed history. It is usually said to have originated in what is now Turkey, during the Ottoman Empire, but others go back even further, tying the dish to placenta, made of many layers of dough alternating with cheese and honey and popular in Ancient Rome.
In fact, as NPR notes, filled pastries date back to prehistoric times and eventually spread throughout the world, which is why pasties can be found in England, samosas in India and empanadas on the Iberian peninsula. But in countries once touched by the Ottoman Empire, versions of burek are given particular importance, often eaten on an almost daily basis. From North Africa on through to Central Asia, the dish remains a popular street food.
Unlike pasties, samosas and empanadas, the foods derived from Turkish börek almost all have a thin, flaky crust rather than a more substantial bready dough. But that’s not to say those once governed by the Ottomans all conformed to their rulers’ way of making börek. Turkey today presents a wide variety of shapes, sizes and fillings, but its former subjects also vary their offerings. In Tunisia and Algeria, the brik filling most often includes tuna, because that’s their main catch. In Muslim countries minced beef might be combined with lamb rather than pork. Israeli bourekas often use margarine rather than butter so they might better align with the rules of kosher. The end results are nearly all recognizable as börek, but each is infused with both the flavors and the cultural traditions of a certain region.
Burek in today’s Balkans
Shortly after moving to Sarajevo, I forced myself to learn a tongue-twister of a Bosnian word: zeljanica. Pronounced zel-yan-ee-tsa (or at least, that’s the pronunciation an American can manage, and is close enough to convince a native to fork over the goods), this is a rolled dough stuffed with spinach and cheese. About five times a week I’d buy one from one of the best buregdzinica, or shop devoted solely to burek, in town. Along with a glass of runny yogurt, my lunch cost less than $2.
It wasn’t until I left Bosnia that I realized just how lucky I’d been. In 2012, when Lonely Planet named burek as one of the top 10 street foods in the world, they acknowledged its ubiquity throughout the Balkans, yet it was Bosnia’s version they praised. There’s no denying the country takes burek-making seriously. The thin dough is often wrapped tightly around the filling rather than arranged in an alternating manner, a far more time-consuming process. Often it is cooked ispod saca, literally meaning “under the bell” but referring to a giant cast iron pan with a dome-shaped lid. And rather than requesting burek-with-meat, or burek-with-cheese, in Bosnia burek is simply the meat-filled version, while all others have a specific name, like the zeljanica mentioned above. People in Bosnia are deservedly proud of this culinary tradition, and won’t hesitate to take your arm, pulling you along to their favorite buregdzinica.
This attention to detail pays off in the finished product, which almost always manages to be somehow both crispy and creamy while letting the flavor of the filling edge through. Unfortunately, that’s not always the case in other countries. When living in Herceg Novi, Montenegro, I was forced to let go of my beloved spinach burek, as the greens were inevitably undercooked, overcooked, or both. And while I could find decent cheese pita, there were only certain bakeries that made a genuinely tasty pie.
Just to make this burek thing even more complicated, many places in the former Yugoslavia seem to use burek and pita interchangeably. Apparently there are differences but few seem to agree on what they are. In Bosnia, many argue that “pita” is the name for a round pie cut into wedges, while “burek” is a rolled meat pastry (that is also often cut into wedges). In other countries you can find “cheese pita” and “cheese burek” sitting side by side in a bakery, looking exactly the same. There it may be that the burek uses more oil than the pita. Or maybe there’s a different ratio of cheese to egg – who knows? It may be best to buy both, just to try and figure it out.
Because, despite my aversion to Montenegro’s spinach burek, it’s rare to find a truly tasteless pita. I’ve gambled on unknown bakeries in five countries now and I’ve enjoyed nearly every taste. Some might be just adequate but usually– particularly when you keep a close eye on which of the bakeries on a particular street are drawing the majority of the traffic — what you find will be delicious. If you’re able, ask which of the pies is freshest from the oven, as colder pita might have a tougher crust or become a bit soggy.
Some bakeries stick to cheese and meat. Some throw in pumpkin or mushroom, depending on the time of year. Others throw in something a little more fancy, like shredded turkey, or attempt a healthier pie by using wheat flour and less oil. The low cost means visitors are free to sample different versions from different bakeries (and, if they’re lucky, different cities and countries) before settling on their favorite. And because burek can be eaten at almost any time of day, as a meal, snack, or late-night pick-me-up, there are plenty of opportunities to discover why it’s so beloved.