One of the things I struggled with the most during our European trip was the relaxed attitude towards smokers. Unlike Australia where smokers are relegated to areas away from the rest of the public, there are parts of Europe where it’s not unusual for a thick haze of stale cigarette smoke to be a permanent fixture in most restaurants, bars and even offices. The Balkan countries are particularly permissive, and I struggled with smelling like a used ashtray by the end of every day, just by virtue of walking through clouds of second-hand smoke.
Still, if you want to go out for a meal rather than stay in your hotel room eating sandwiches, cigarette smoke is just something you have to get used to. While we were staying in the spa town of Nis in Serbia, our B&B was just around the corner from Kafana Galija, a local favourite reputed as being a meeting spot for anyone who’s anyone in the small town.
The Serbian word ‘kafana’ translates roughly to ‘tavern’, but as our tour guide in Belgrade said, it’s much more than just a tavern. The word kafana encapsulates everything about Serbian eating, drinking and partying culture. A kafana is more than a place you go to get fed and watered – it’s a destination for meaningful connection with friends and family.
In our case, we managed to make a strong connection to our very helpful waiter that evening who spoke impeccable English and gave us some fantastic guidance, suggesting particular dishes over others. For example, don’t bother ordering the Cooked Vegetables as it’s just a mix of potato and carrot – he suggested ordering the Grilled Vegetables instead which had more variety. That’s the type of waiter you want to have in a restaurant where you’re unfamiliar with the cuisine!
Luckily the Serbians are very much into their side salads – we ordered a Serbian Salad to share. Tomato and cucumbers feature prominently in almost all salads in this part of the world (quite often a salad is just chopped tomatoes and cucumbers with a sprinkle of feta cheese on top!), but this salad was really made excellent with the addition of some sweet spicy capsicum, a light dressing and some fresh parsley on top. While I’m normally not a big fan of raw onion in salads because of the aftermath of onion breath, the few slivers of onion in this salad actually helped to add a bit of extra bite without overwhelming the other ingredients.
I also wanted a soup to warm us up as it was cold and snowing outside – the Fish Chowder fit the bill perfectly. I was expecting an American-style fish chowder using plenty of heavy cream, and was pleasantly surprised by this dairy-free chowder which somehow didn’t manage to lack any richness or thickness. They must use a starch to thicken the soup and make it as faux-creamy as it was. The chowder had amazing depth of flavour – from an initial spicy hit to a burst of herbed freshness mid-sip to a lingering richness of earthy fish flavours. Absolutely amazing.
The grilled meats is what Kafana Galija is really famous for though. We wanted to try a few of the options on their extensive grill menu, but the servings were quite large at about 400gm each. Our waiter helped to organise some half-serves so we could try two different types without over-ordering – the Chicken Skewers and the Pljeskavica gurmanska!
The pljeskavica gurmanska is, as our waiter said, ‘Like a hamburger, but better. Not an American hamburger’. Like the burger patty we had at Fast Food 7 in Macedonia, this delicious smoky burger patty was made of a mix of beef, pork and lamb mince, spiced and then topped with some melted shredded cheese. Interestingly, it also came with a serve of raw diced onion on the side which we decided to skip. The chicken skewers were particularly yummy as well, with each piece of tender chicken thigh wrapped in a layer of fatty sizzling bacon. A must-order!
Here’s the Grilled Vegetables I mentioned earlier – much nicer than a potato and carrot mix! I loved the smoky grilled eggplant and zucchini, but found the thick onion slices a bit more challenging with their strong flavour.
We topped off our meal and sopped up the meat juices with some House-Baked Bread as suggested by our waiter – large round fluffy and doughy bread rolls freshly warm out of the oven which were perfectly sized for a DIY burger with the hamburger patty and the grilled vegetables. Note – while we didn’t assemble our own burger at the table and had each dish separately, there’s no reason why you couldn’t do it yourself!
As we left the restaurant, groups of locals were still puffing away on their cigarettes, drinking shots of rakia and glasses of beer. The musician covering some classic love ballads was just getting underway (he starts around 8pm – and this was a Monday evening so I expect he plays most evenings), and the night was just getting started for most of these locals. For us though, it was back to the B&B and into the shower to try and wash the smell of smoke away!
Kafana Galija is a great local hangout offering delicious food at an extremely reasonable price right in the heart of Nis. While grilled meats are the house specialty, the friendly waiters can help guide you in ordering healthier side dishes to complement the heavier meat dishes. Just be prepared to sit in a haze of cigarette smoke!
Kafana Galija is located at 35 Nikole Pašica in Nis Serbia.