Duja’s Kitchen: Lessons in Bosnian history, culture and hope, with fork in hand

Dušanka Dojčinović stands at the gate to her garden. The greens in her hand will be prepared
and on the table in just hours. Photo by Charish Badzinski.

From the moment I entered Duja’s kitchen, I knew I was standing at the hearth of Bosnia.

Quince ripened on the shelf; tomatoes bursting with summer and deep purple eggplants sunned themselves on the balcony overlooking concrete high-rises and an abandoned building in the city of Banja Luka. In the corner sat a small wooden stove, which, once fed with pinecones and broken crates, was often the family’s lone source of heat and cooking during the Bosnian War in the early 1990s.

It is here that arguably all national healing begins: with wholesome nourishment for the family; women serving in the role of healer.

Tomatoes sun themselves on Duja’s balcony in Banja Luka, Bosnia. Photo by Charish Badzinski.

Duja’s kitchen itself is small and simple; the food that emerges from it impossibly fresh and local. It was set before me: orahovac, homemade walnut liqueur; burek, stuffed with freshly ground veal; savory home-canned vegetable chutneys, such as pindjur (made of roasted red peppers, garlic and tomatoes) and ajvar (red peppers, eggplant and garlic); and homemade cheese called kajmak. The setting, the food and its preparation offer a sensory-level understanding of the country’s culture, its enduring wounds and its future. It was, in fact, a far deeper understanding than I’d ever gathered from school or network news during the nation’s war.

It is one thing to learn about a country through its restaurants; it is quite another to taste history, prepared from scratch, in someone’s home.

Duja’s veal burek. Photo by Charish Badzinski.

At the stove was the gifted cook Dušanka Dojčinović (Duja to her friends–pronounced “DOO-ya”). When she cans the vegetables and fruits she harvests from her own garden, she’s preserving a tradition she has known since childhood, one handed down through the generations. My first night in Banja Luka, she cooked a chicken from her sister’s farm–one she had killed and cleaned herself. And while in modern Bosnia it’s possible to buy the dough to make burek, Duja makes it by hand, rolling the dough so thin it’s transparent.

Breaded chicken, which Duja killed, cleaned and cooked herself. Photo by Charish Badzinski.

“I always loved watching others cook,” Duja explains through her daughter, who interprets. She got serious about cooking when she married at 19, and since then she’s learned many lessons, among them, “Everything has to be balanced perfectly. Nothing should be overpowering.”

To accomplish this, she tastes dishes as she cooks. “The majority of foods are not going to be the same from year to year. Even tomatoes and peppers will have different water content and flavor, so you must taste and adjust as you go.”

Duja stretches the dough for burek over a dowel to get it as thin as possible.
Photo by Charish Badzinski.

Her recipes, therefore, are guidelines, and the most successful cook will taste as she prepares the dishes. In a culture where it is difficult to get foods off season, preserving and freezing are vital to enjoying the winters, and burek and chutneys are still staples for the family.

Homemade vegetable chutneys commonly grace Duja’s table. Pictured here: pindjur and ajvar.
Photo by Charish Badzinski.

Duja stresses the importance of buying local or growing your own produce. “I’m retired now, but even when I was working full time I had a garden and orchard, and was always trying to preserve the food for when we didn’t have fresh ingredients.”

Grapes ripen on the vine in Duja’s garden, outside of Banja Luka.
Photo by Charish Badzinski.

Whether trying her hand at recipes in this first tender years of marriage, cooking over pinecones on a wood stove in a tie of war, or navigating her sweet kitchen today, Duja’s overriding philosophy of cooking is as simple as her kitchen. “The most important thing is that everyone enjoys themselves, enjoys the food and that there’s good socializing,” says Duja with a meaningful smile and glance in my direction. “And that we do it again.”

This article was originally published in Coulee Region Women magazine, and is republished here in part with permission. For Duja’s original recipes for pindjur, ajvar and veal burek, read the full article here.

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Charish Badzinski is an explorer, foodie and award-winning travel and food writer. When she isn’t working to build her blog: Rollerbag Goddess Rolls the World, she applies her worldview to her small business, providing strategic communications, media relations and writing support to individuals and organizations. 

Find Charish on Twitter: @charishb
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Creative Commons License
Rollerbag Goddess Rolls the World by Charish Badzinski is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
Based on a work at rollerbaggoddess.blogspot.com.
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