Long before my plane hit the tarmac at Belgrade Airport, I knew exactly what I am going to cook.
But first things first.
Spending a week in the city of your childhood takes a great deal of preparation and planning. The moment you buy an airplane ticket, you realize that there are 77 friends and relatives you desperately want to see, but there are only seven lunches, dinners and coffee breaks at your disposal to fit them all in -- which add up to twenty one -- and -- well, I guess you can do the math. You arrive light as a feather and eager to dig in, to attack all those signature foods of your homeland, kaymak, čvarci and burek, grilled meats, fisherman stew, Domaćica cookies and liver stew in Skadarlija, just to name a few, but alas, there are so many foods and again, only seven lunches and seven dinners at your disposal. And what a bummer it is that you do not eat breakfast!
And then there are all those dishes you would like to cook, the ancient dishes of your homeland you so very much hated as a kid, but now crave so badly... Kapama, bamija, chiken paprikash, biscuits with cracklings, pihtije... The dishes you never cook on the other side of the ocean, because they do not taste the same.
One needs to be a strategist extraordinaire to fit all of this in a single week. Needles to say, I've spent countless hours, no let met take that back, I've spent countless days preparing for the visit. I've spent more days preparing, that the actual duration of my stay in homeland was supposed to be. And once I took off, I spent the entire plane ride to Belgrade, all fifteen hours of it, stopover included, thinking about what to cook.
As soon as I arrived in Belgrade, on an unusually warm November Friday, I grabbed Mr. Stan and rushed to the market. "Let's go Dad," I said, "we are cooking Soldier’s Beans."
I wonder how many folks still remember SFRY, the country I was born in. Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia to be precise, or Yugoslavia for short, was a small country in the Balkans lost to history a long time ago, a country that ceased to exist everywhere but in Wikipedia articles, stamp collections and out of print maps. I bet many have never heard of it. It is nothing to be embarrassed about, because knowing about SFRY is not exactly a part of general education, apart for the ugly war it once created. Those who go back long enough to remember, might recall a couple of facts about good old Yuga, as we now call it with nostalgia. We were good at basketball. We gave birth to Tesla. Not the car, but the scientist. Although, we did create a tiny car called Yugo, and even managed to export it to the United States once! Yugo quite successfully entered the TIME Magazine list of the 50 worst cars of all time, being described as "Mona Lisa of bad cars" and "a car that had the distinct feeling of something assembled at gunpoint." The gunpoint also should not come as a surprise, because guns (and arms) were (sadly) other articles we successfully exported, while our army, the Yugoslav People's Army (Jugoslovenska Narodna Armija - JNA), was country's pride and joy. No wonder then that one of the most frequently cooked dishes in the army kitchens across our lands, a cheap and fulfilling bean stew known as the Soldier's Beans, became one of the signature dishes of Yugoslavia.
Almost every nation has a bean dish in their national cuisine. A dish they are proud of, a dish that represents their country. French have the cassoulet, named after its traditional cooking vessel. Italians have pasta e fagioli. Feijoada is Brazilian black bean stew. Fasolada is Greek bean soup. Frijoles de la Olla, or "beans in the pot," is probably the most common dish in Mexico. In the United States, there are the Boston Baked Beans of the North East, and the Hoppin John of the South, and then there is -- now universally bellowed -- Chili Con Carne, the official dish of the great state of Texas, designated by the House Concurrent Resolution Number 18 of the 65th Texas Legislature during its regular session in 1977. (Although, one of my readers recently pointed out that the real Texan chili does not contain beans at all, and even the Wikipedia acknowledges this to be a matter of frequent disputes among chili aficionados, some of whom insist that the word "chili" applies only to the basic dish, without beans and tomatoes.)
Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia, Bosnia & Hertzegovina, Macedonia and Montenegro, the six republics, the six pieces of Yugoslavia, ended up disagreeing on many things, but one thing they had in common was the mandatory military service at age 18 and the necessity to feed hungry army youths as cheaply, but nutritiously, as possible. And this is what propelled a modest plate of stewed beans into a dish of national proportions.
I did not serve in the Yugoslavian army. Being a female I did not have to, women were not required to serve, it was a duty and honor reserved only for the members of the opposing sex. Although, much to my relief, I had been relieved of the honor, to this day, I consider myself to be one of the greatest living experts on JNA because of the letters -- hundreds and hundreds of letters -- I had received from my friends while they served their duty in the army posts all over Yugoslavia.
The military service did not come easily to my friends. Being carefree city kids from middle class families, who up until they turned 18 led a happy-go-lucky life that included school, girls, basketball, fun, summer holidays on the Dalmatian coast and winter holidays in the Slovenian Alps -- my friends took a year of army life pretty badly. Back then, there were no Internet and cell phones, and my buddies had no options left but to pour their misery into letters. The letters arrived on a daily basis, in massive quantities, and documented their struggles with the regimen, discipline and food, and most of all with the legendary army philosophy.
"We now have a new code of values," wrote Ivan from Army Post 1519/20 in Mostar, "Letters. Money. Beer."
"Last Tuesday, I failed a subject titled First Aid and Mathematical Logic," wrote Shacko from Army Post 8297/59 in Pirot. "The thing did not make any sense, plus I was too tired to think, I've been serving the night service for three days in the row. I've been guarding your sleep. No wonder you do not sleep well."
"In your last letter you complained how Experimental Physics course you’ve been taking is a total brainwash," Pedja wrote from Army Post 2416/19 in Sarajevo. "Hey my dear, wait until you experience a computation of daily menus for soldiers and cattle in a time of war!!!"
Although I empathized with my friends, truth to be told, their letters provided first class entertainment and every day I looked forward to opening the mailbox, consumed with anticipation of their new adventures. My friends spared no words to depict their hardships, but their creativity was unmatched when it came to describing army food.
"God forbid you have to eat what we ate today," Shacko wrote, "it is called DDM -- Dry Daily Meal. Dry is the only word that describes it correctly. But as we all know, humans can endure quite a bit, and thus I ate it. And I lived to tell the story."
"I refuse to eat the slops they serve us. It is a matter of principle," wrote Shole, from Army Post 4100/2 in Novi Sad, "I need to protect my tastebuds."
"We have grilled sausages on Wednesdays," reported Ivan, "but instead of bread, they ought to be serving fire extinguishers."
But as Shacko said, humans can endure quite a bit, and humans adapt, hence as time progressed the life in the army got better, my friends found their footing and learned the art of survival.
"I've come to conclude that I do not look so bad in army greens," Pedja boasted, "and the coats of arms on the shoulders give me an aura of authority."
"Today we played war a little. In the mud." Shacko wrote, "They gave me a shovel, though we had never met, something told me that the shovel is used for digging, hence, with a speed of light I forwarded it to a soldier next to me, who, poor thing, figured it out when it was too late. I was right! While he dug, I supervised and when it was time to change roles, they gave us a new military task."
And they grew to accept the army food. They stopped complaining about it; as a matter of fact, the mentions of food almost disappeared, except for the words of praise for Soldier's Beans.
"Life in the army is reduced to counting days," wrote Djole from Army Post 1448/2 in Varazdin, "you count days until they serve Soldier's Beans again."
"I look forward to being in the Army," Dejan, who perpetually struggled with weight, wrote from Army post 1737/1 in Ljubljana, "I am eating only once a week, on Wednesdays, when they are giving us Soldier's Beans. The rest of the week I starve. I will come home looking like Apollo."
"Here they serve Solder's Beans on Mondays," wrote Misha, from Army Post 8897/4 in Podgorica, "Last Monday, before lunch, they lined us up in front of the cafeteria to inspect personal cleanliness. The boy next to me had hair too long, so they took him out of the line and sent him for a haircut without lunch. He cried like a baby."
Many claim that the official recipe of JNA was a military secret. But truth be told, bean stews had been cooked by generations of peasants, solders, farmers and construction workers across the Yugoslavian lands.
Solder's Beans is a communal dish. A dish that's impossible to make for two, or even for four. It is traditionally made in a large pot, "to feed an army", as another popular saying goes. In the States, I make the stew in my gigantic red Le Creuset Dutch oven, my pride and joy. In Belgrade, I cook it in my grandmother's beaten up enameled pot, the one she used in making jams, ajvar and stuffed peppers. But no matter how much I swear by my red Le Creuset, and no matter how hard I tried to get it right, I have to admit that my New York City bean stew and my Belgrade bean stew do not quite taste the same. And perhaps they never will.
* 1 lb small white beans (such as cannellini or great Northern beans)
* 1 yellow onion (about 5 oz), chopped finely
* 4 cloves of garlic, crushed
* 2 bay leaves
* 1 dried sweet or mildly hot red pepper (like poblano), chopped into strips crosswise
* 1 medium carrot (about 3oz), shredded finely
* 4 tbsp lard or sunflower oil
* 1 tbsp sweet Hungarian paprika
* 6 black peppercorns
* 2 tbsp flour
* 4 oz bacon
* 8 oz smoked ribs, smoked ham bones or ham hocks
* salt and freshly ground pepper
Soak the beans overnight in plenty of water.
In a large pot over medium heat, heat two tablespoons of lard. Add the onions and cook for about five minutes, until onions begin to soften. Add the garlic and carrots and continue to cook for another five minutes or so, until the garlic becomes fragrant and carrots begin to soften.
Add the beans, bay leaf, bacon, ribs and peppercorns. Cover with water -- the beans should be covered in water by 2-3 inches (or about 2:1 ratio of water to other ingredients). Season with salt gently.
Bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Once the liquid starts to boil, reduce the heat to a simmer, and simmer, half covered, for about two to three hours, until the beans are fully cooked and quite soft, but not falling apart.
In the meantime prepare the roux. Over medium heat, heat the remaining two tablespoons of lard. Add the flour while whisking vigorously. When the mixture starts to bubble, reduce heat to low and cook until you can smell a toasty aroma. Add the paprika, mix well and cook for another minute or two, stirring occasionally. Slowly add a little bit of the liquid from the stew and stir well, then add some more liquid, and some more, until the roux is fully incorporated into the liquid. Pour the roux into the beans, while stirring non stop. Cook the beans for another 15 minutes. Taste and adjust seasoning if needed.