A taste of the Balkans in Ljubljana

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Some of our best memories of Slovenia have to do with food. We even took home a tall, starched chef hat for 10-year-old “W,” our aspiring chief cook.

The boys tried a little of everything on the culinary spectrum on this trip: American-style burgers that reminded them of home, sugar-toasted almonds that smelled so good we had to buy them from a street vendor, and sushi for lunch at a restaurant where plates came by on a conveyor belt.


All of that was before our official excursion on the Ljubljana Food Tour.

The food tour is how we met Mirzeta, a Bosnian-born woman who married a local, lived for a while in Malaysia and returned to Slovenia to follow her dream to give tourists a taste of the Balkans. We met her on a Sunday beside three birch trees in front of Prešeren’s Monument, a landmark on the city’s main square. Mirzeta wanted to show us the city and its traditions. She wove stories of art and architecture throughout her food tour.

Forget the burgers and sushi. This was the real cultural experience. And these are some of the foods that define the country:


Seafood salad: I’ve tried this all over Croatia, and each restaurant puts its own spin on the taste and presentation. Sometimes, it’s octopus served cold like a potato salad with   olives, onions and capers. At Ribca, Ljubljana’s best-known seafood restaurant, fresh ingredients come from the fish market right next door.


Sausage and cabbage: Next, Mirzeta took us to Gostilna Sokol (the Eagle), a tavern in the city center with a rustic look and waiters dressed in traditional national costumes. We tried a local dish of kranjska klobasa (pork and bacon sausage) with sides that included buckwheat, cabbage and mashed potatoes. Here, the city’s Austrian influence comes through, and it goes down well with beer.


Pickled turnip stew: One of my favorite tastes of the tour was something between a soup and a stew. I like to try dishes I normally wouldn’t make at home, and this fit the bill. It’s a pickled turnip stew with pork and tastes a little like Chinese hot-and-sour soup. In Slovenia, tradition has it that it was a way to use the abundance of pork meat at slaughtering time. They call it “bujta repa.”


Chocolate, honey, salt flower and wine: Mirzeta made sure we tried a little of everything, so we also stopped at shops for a sample of chocolate, honey, salt flower and wine. “Chef W” liked the salt flower, salt that forms as a thin delicate crust on the surface of seawater as it evaporates. The shop owner told us to sprinkle it on finished food instead of table salt. We have since added a flower salt container to our dinner table.


Mushroom dumplings: One of the most interesting restaurants in Ljubljana we visited was a place called Druga Violina (which means “Second Fiddle”). It serves Slovenian dishes and a season menu, but the most interesting thing about the restaurant is that it is accessible to the disabled, hires people with special needs and raises money to support local events. Knowing that made the already delicious food taste a little better. Here, one of the samples we tried was a ravioli-like pasta, kind of like a dumpling, with mushroom sauce. It tasted rich and filling. By then, we were stuffed, but we had to save room for dessert.


(Photo: The window at “Second Fiddle” restaurant)

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Layer cake: Our final food stop in Ljubljana was at Gostilna Šestica, the oldest restaurant in the city, which has been operating since 1776. We ended our tour with coffee and caramel apple layer cake that they call a “moving cake.” It’s a spiced  cake with layers of apple, poppy seeds, walnuts and ricotta cheese with a caramel sauce that tastes like everything that makes you think of autumn.

As the leaves began to fall in Ljubljana, we admired the scenery, got a taste of a new season and an appreciation for the Balkans. Comfort food here is different and familiar at the same time. I already know I will be coming back for another bite. My mom and aunts are in town, and we are heading back to Ljubljana next week. I may have to catch up with Mirzeta for a coffee.