Burek’s 1,000-year journey to Merle Hay5/15/2013
Two new Balkan cafés sprouted last winter on a stretch of Merle Hay Road that already hosted Estrada and Tropik. Both new cafés specialize in burek, an historic category of baked foods. The world’s most popular travel publisher, praised the dish last year in its guide to “The World’s Best Street Food.” For the western world, that represented a coming-out party for a thousand-year-old dish created for sultans.
Tour guides in Turkey eagerly inform culinary visitors that the world’s only truly “classical” cuisines are Chinese and Turkish. The glory that was classical Roman cuisine hid from the Dark Ages in Constantinople until it was sacked by the Ottomans. Those wily diners were already using most of the tools of the modern pantry by the 11th century. They then developed “The Spice Route” to refine their sense of taste. When the French were subsisting on gruel, Ottoman sultans employed 1,300 chefs in Topkapi Palace alone, many devoted to the baking arts. Turkish burek spread throughout the Ottoman Empire. Jews took it to Eastern Europe, where it became pierogi and piroc.
Basically, the word “burek” refers to all forms of stuffed pastry made with folded dough. Folding dough laminates a pastry, creating flaky layers like one finds in scratch-made croissants. Depending upon what is stuffed inside, burek are eaten at any meal of the day.
At 3B Grill I found extremely flaky burek, coiled like an inflated cinnamon roll and stuffed with beef, sort of a Maid-Rite-stuffed croissant for the uninitiated. I also tried nicely crusted gyros on conventional pita, lavished with tzatziki sauce. Chicken kebabs needed tzatziki to cover their dryness. Cevapi (beef sausages) were much better. Like older Americanized Balkan cafés in central Iowa, 3B’s menu included burgers, onion rings, fries and several kinds of chicken wings. Turkish and espresso coffee were available. Loud Balkan rock and pop music played on big-screen TVs, which were watched intently by my waitress. Questions were barely answered, if at all.
The café Burek seemed less Americanized and much friendlier. Their walls, logo, menu and staff T-shirts all resembled the bright yellow-and-sky blue flag of Bosnia-Herzegovina. Unobtrusive folk music played gaily. Questions were cheerfully answered in detail. The place buzzed on my visits, with one person after another stopping in mostly to pick up carryout orders, even though the café delivers.
I tried a “slagani zeljanica,” a layered, round burek filled with soft feta and spinach with eggs as a binder. (When ordered with only cheese, it’s called a “slagani srinica.”) It was delightful but heavy as a deep-dish pizza. Twelve inches in diameter and nearly two inches high, its leftovers alone weighed a couple pounds. It was light, though, compared to my “motani burek,” a pastry that was coiled and stuffed. Though laminated nicely, it was much denser and more buttery than the similar burek at 3D. “Zyrkovi,” a much smaller burek, were also offered with beef, cheese and spinach as well as “krompiruša”-style, a vegetarian form with potatoes.
Chicken kebabs, cevapi and apple pie pastries were also offered but no burgers, wings or fries. A bakery case carried breakfast burek not on the menu. Utensils and dinnerware were exceptional. Turkish coffee was served in copper “cezves.” “Tulumba,” laminated pastry soaked in simple syrup, were as sweet as any dessert I’ve tasted. Balkan sodas, mineral waters and buttermilk were sold at domestic soda prices.
Side Dishes Rock Bottom offers daily specials through Sunday to celebrate Craft Beer Week… Maryland soft shell crab season begins May 22 at Waterfront with four versions offered in the dining room. CV
Jim Duncan is a freelance writer who has penned nine different columns for Cityview and its sister publications beginning in 1987.