I left my hometown of Sarajevo nearly 20 years ago but have since been going back twice a year to visit. Each time I return, I perform a set of rituals that make me feel I am indeed at home. I stroll down Ferhadija, the street that serves as a downtown promenade. I take a drink of water from the Gazihusrevbegova fountain in Bašcaršija, Sarajevo’s old town. And I have morning coffee at a place from which I can monitor pedestrian traffic.
One of my essential rituals is visiting Hadžibajric’s, my favorite ašcinica, a storefront restaurant serving cooked (as opposed to grilled or baked) Bosnian food. Nested in the heart of Bašcaršija, Hadžibajric’s is a small place, so unassuming it is easy to miss. Inside, there are but a few shareable tables, a menu with (low) prices hanging by the cash register, framed articles praising the food on the wall, and a quote from the Quran above the entrance. The same family has run the place since the 1860s, when one of the ancestors cooked so well (the restaurant was then owned by an Ottoman official) that everyone began calling it after the cook—Hadžibajric’s. Eight generations later, the ašcinica is run by Mersiha, the first woman in its history to be in charge. She spent nine years learning the trade as an apprentice to her late father, Namik. He kept no written recipes for any of their dishes, so the secrets of preparation have been passed on from generation to generation, until the dishes have been so perfected that it’s hard to imagine how they could ever get better.
Hadžibajric’s offers traditional Bosnian fare—various stews and soups, meat, potatoes, and vegetables—whose names carry the sound of ancient Ottoman poetry (papaz cevab, krzatma, šiš cevab, ekma, sitni cevab, and sogan-dolma) and might, in fact, be obscure to many Bosnians outside Sarajevo, or indeed Bašcaršija. Mersiha takes great pride in possessing such an exclusive knowledge. Once I noted the prolonged absence of papaz cevab (a veal stew that includes a sublime touch of cinnamon), and she said: “And who is out there to cook it for?” Fortunately, next time I came by it was available—apparently, there were enough people out there who could appreciate it.
The Hadžibajrics have cooked for royalty. Mersiha’s grandfather was, some time before World War II, summoned to the royal court in Belgrade to cook Bosnian specialties for the Yugoslav king. He had to taste every one of the dishes before His Majesty to show they were not poisoned. One of the pictures on the ašcinica wall features Otto von Habsburg, a descendant of the family that once ruled over the vast territory that included Bosnia. In another, Namik and a couple of staffers stand next to the Spanish king Juan Carlos and his wife, looking comfortable in their distinguished presence. The royal couple visited the restaurant in 1985, and Mersiha, who was just a child then, remembers the narrow street outside being packed with secret-service agents.
Royalty notwithstanding, the ašcinica is a fundamentally democratic space. Because Bašcaršija used to be a market where people came down from the hills above the city to sell, trade, or buy, Hadžibajric’s was a place to stop by for a quick bite. To this day, people from the neighboring stores who have been selling tourist trinkets drop in for a meal. As far as Mersiha is concerned, everyone—“from the poor to the bosses,” she says—is equal before a shallow stainless-steel bowl in which the restaurant serves its inexpensive fare. (In an ašcinica, dishes might be combined, but everything is served in a single bowl.) The only ones who might expect better treatment are the regulars, who by all accounts make up the majority of patrons. Mersiha does not always remember their names but identifies them by their usual choices. There was a surgeon once, she said, who would rush over between surgeries, complete with a bloody overall, to replenish himself with pace, a nourishing tête-de-veau soup, perfect for a hangover.
All the dishes are prepared very early in the morning, and Hadžibajric’s stays open until all the fare is sold, usually by the late afternoon. In the old days, everything was cooked on a wood-burning stove, which meant that the fire had to be kept going overnight. Even if a gas stove does the job today, the fire is still burning. This fire is what warms my heart when I return home.
Hemon is the author, most recently, of Love and Obstacles.