Ćevapi – The Visitors That Came to Stay
An uninformed first-time visitor to Croatia might get the impression that ćevapi are our national dish because you can literally find them anywhere. Yet, some might frown upon the idea of writing about ćevapi in the context of our local gastronomy. Ćevapi are the most famous representative of the Balkan grill genre, a dish that entered south-eastern Europe during the Ottoman period. Their origin is oriental, deriving from the Turkish kebab. Deeply-rooted and elevated to almost an art form in Bosnia and Herzegovina and Serbia, ćevapi hit Croatia much later, in the mid-20th century, and became the most popular form of fast food. They are not authentic, but can't be ignored. Everybody eats them at least once in a while, for some they are the perfect comfort food or guilty pleasure. And let’s face it, they are a delicious meat specialty. Since I was a kid, the question “Where to find the best ćevapi in Zagreb” has been one of the most heated debate topics.
“Ćevapi in lepinja, an all-time classic” Image credit: Restoran Islamski centar
Ćevapi, or ćevapćići, as they are also called, are basically a mixture of minced meat (beef, lamb, pork, veal, mutton) with a bit of onion, garlic, salt and pepper, sometimes a bit of lard, shaped like little sausages, or fat fingers, and grilled to perfection. They are served with a flatbread called lepinja, soaked in the fat from grilling, with chopped onions on the side and a condiment of choice, either ajvar (red pepper and eggplant sprad) or kajmak creamy cheese. Sounds simple, but there are countless variations and styles. Zagreb is just an importer, we haven't really contributed to the craft of making ćevapi, but we're finicky consumers. Even though ćevapi were originally eaten in specialized grill shops (called ćevabdžinica), they are a little bit obsolete now, but far from being extinct. Ćevapi entered mainstream decades ago and you can find them in the majority of “generic” restaurants, especially those focused on meat. A platter of mixed meat in any decent carnivore place is unthinkable without ćevapi. We don't really eat them at home, except as takeout, because rarely anyone dares to prepare them from scratch. And why bother, even if you want to grill on your own, you can buy them from every butcher. That’s why outdoor barbecue parties will almost always include ćevapi.
“And you though ćevapi can’t be classy?!” Image credit: Brenner Grill FB
I remember where my parents took me for my first ćevapi, but that place doesn't exist anymore. For a kid in the 80s, it was a rare and special treat when your parents took you out for ćevapi. Nowadays they are more common, but I see that taking my own kid to ćevapi once in two months or so is still considered a special event. However, things have changed. Trends change and the ćevapi map of Zagreb is never the same. There are some places that are classics and then there are many challengers and newcomers. A lot depends on whom you ask for opinion, because even if they look the same, a plate of ćevapi from two different eateries can be like two different worlds. Here's my random list of some really good places for ćevapi.
“A close-up of ćevapi – try to resist them.” Image credit: Tvornica pljeskavica TPK FB
Prečko neighbourhood in the western suburbs is famous for several good grill shops specialized in ćevapi. The name you'll here most often is Stari kotač – a bit old-school, but reliable and popular for decades. The nearby Grana is one of my personal favourites. Also in this part of the city, Brener is one of those “artisan grill bistros”, as I call them, a new genre that successfully combines traditional grill with modern techniques, a bit of fusion and just the right amount of hipness. Their veal ćevapi are worth the visit. Chevo’s in Novi Zagreb is similar type of establishment, where you can munch on steaks and meat specialties from a smoker, but also have some good old old ćevapi. Many people praise ćevapi coming from Tomislav, next to Kvatrić farmers' market. By the way, the place is an institution for value-for-money lunchtime specials. Tvornica pljeskavica TPK in Cvjetno naselje was all the rage a few years ago, but they still deliver excellent ćevapi. Magazinska klet (with HQ and two branches) is another old-fashioned and simple grill shop, not losing its popularity. For some indigenous Bosnian flavours, many ćevapi lovers flock to the restaurant of the Islamic Community in Zagreb, by the Mosque, offering plenty other ethnic specialties. Not so hidden secret anymore, Kraljice, a small grill shop just off Savska Street, are a one-woman team delivering delicious Travnik-style ćevapi. I’ll end it here, but trust me, I’ve just scratched the surface.
“In Batak grill restaurant chain you can have a trio of ćevapi – regular, filled with cheese and chicken ćevapi filled with cheese.” Image credit: Batak Grill FB