SARAJEVO – At first, eating cake every day doesn’t sound so bad.
But then you take a closer look at the names: Rice Cake. Bean Cake. Trebevic Cake.
“That’s named after the mountain,” says Alma Alic, running her hand over a worn, leather-bound diary filled with recipes written out in ballpoint pen. “The point was to make something as big as possible, from just a few ingredients.”
The book is Alic’s wartime cookbook, a collection of improvised recipes passed from neighbor to neighbor as Sarajevans searched for ways to scratch together a meal as food supplies dwindled dangerously under a nearly four-year blockade by Serb forces.
Alic’s neighborhood of Dobrinja was one of the worst off, geographically. Surrounded by enemy soldiers on all four sides, it was a siege within a siege, cut off from the rest of Sarajevo.
But Dobrinja’s proximity to the airport gave it exclusive access to a much-valued wartime bargaining chip: flour.
“The UN gave us flour as humanitarian aid because they wanted us to stay in Dobrinja,” says Alic, 57. “We got three kilos of flour for each member of the family. For three kilos of flour, I could buy a pack of cigarettes. Or one egg. Five kilos could buy half a kilo of powdered milk.”
Dangerous Walk To Market
With a son in the army and a young daughter and gravely injured husband at home, Alic was in charge of managing the family’s food supplies.
Often this meant a treacherous 15-minute walk through hastily dug pedestrian trenches to a nearby neighborhood where a market traded flour for goods smuggled in from the center of town.
“Feta cheese was the thing we wanted the most,” says Alic. “You could get it, but it was very expensive.”
Back at home, women would meet in the relative safety of the courtyard to vet new recipes. As their innovations grew, so did Alic’s cookbook, with new recipes recorded under the name of their creator. (Trebevic Cake, for the record, is also known as Hida’s Cake.) When the neighbors built a communal kitchen on the ground floor of their apartment bloc, they even shared their ingredients.
"One time, my friend Gordana – she was a Bosnian Croatian – got a tube of tomato paste. All the food was kind of tasteless at that time. So there was a big stove with five or six pots cooking at the same time, and she took the tube and squeezed a little tomato paste into each of the pots. So that there would be at least a little flavor.”
Still, many of the recipes left much to be desired. Alic turns to the recipe for Bean Cake, a personal invention.
“You never heard of bean cake?” she asks in mock surprise. “Me neither.” But after the UN began providing small allotments of Vietnamese wafer cookies – six for each child in the family – Alic discovered that she could make a small cake by mashing the wafers together with cooked navy beans and some sugar.
“Very clever,” she says drily.
Asked for the worst recipe in her book, Alic points to a concoction called simply “pashteta,” or pate. The ingredients? Flour, powdered milk, water, yeast, and salt and pepper. Boil on the stove, cool in the fridge, and then spread on whatever flat, edible surface you have on hand.
“My sister-in-law said this was her favorite recipe because it was self-replenishing,” says Alic. “You could scoop a little out of the pan and when you came back later, the yeast would have made some more.”
Alic pauses for a moment, suddenly unsettled. Her wartime cookbook has remained buried in the kitchen for 20 years, and seeing it again is harder than she expected.
“There was no water, no gas, no heat, no electricity. No glass in the windows. But we were very sociable and friendly at that time. We looked after each other," she says. "One time a neighbor made me a little pie for my birthday, not baked, and gave it to me wrapped up with a string for me to bake for my birthday dinner.”
Now her refrigerator may be filled with fresh produce and meat, and birthdays are once again lavish affairs. But the spirit of community, says Alic, is gone – along with many of the neighborhood women whose signature dishes are preserved in her cookbook. Many have left Sarajevo, others have simply drifted away.
“People are just focused on their work, not on each other,” she says. “It’s just money, money, money. You forget how it was, and you take things for granted.”
'I Don't Feel Any Pain'
But some things have changed, at least for Alic, who before the war suffered from heart arrhythmia and stomach pains and made frequent trips to the doctor.
“I haven’t been to the doctor since before the war, and I feel fine,” she says, as her chubby 3-year-old grandson clambers toward her.
“I saw how children died. Lots of children. Without legs, without…it was terrible. I still have these problems, but I’ve seen so much worse," she says. "So I don’t pay attention to it, and I don’t feel any pain.”
Does Alic, with her wartime memories, now expect her peacetime grandchildren to clean their plates? Never, she says firmly.
“I’m a picky eater myself, and I understand them,” she says. “When I make stuffed cabbage rolls, they only want the meat, so I throw away the cabbage. It makes my husband crazy, but I think people should eat whatever they want. When my grandson has a roll he can’t finish, I tell him to give the rest to the pigeons.”