Cevapi: Balkan Grilled Minced Meat

There are times when you are elbow deep in minced meat and onions, carefully and lightly rotating the meat bit by bit to blend everything in without toughening the fibers, when all of a sudden you start to doubt yourself.  You start to wonder if you’re doing things right, if its supposed to feel like this, and if your lofty dinnertime ideals will come crashing down in the form of dryly sub-par kebabs in a stale pita.  This is the time to phone a friend.

Admittedly, I’m usually the friend who gets phoned, and I love it.  I can imagine no greater pleasure than waxing poetic for 20 minutes over the various ways to salvage an over-salted soup while my anxious friend starts to hem, haw, and then anxiously murmur her goodbyes so that she can finish making dinner.  But wait!  Have you tried a potato?   Just kidding, that actually doesn’t work.  But WAIT!  Have you tried thinning it with dairy and then thickening it with beurre manie?  WAIT, WAIT! I HAVE MORE!!  Okay…..say hi to the hubs for me…….

Halfway through making cevapi, a Balkan style minced meat kebab which is grilled and then often served in pita, I started to worry.  Could I really call this a Balkan or Bosnian dish if I hadn’t asked my favorite Balkan or Bosnian friend about what she would do differently?  What if I was rapidly veering off track and making a mockery of the char-grilled delights of Balkan barbecued meat?  Heck, there was no way that I was going to let that happen!  I hastily wiped the beef fat from my fingers and start fat-padding the keyboard of my cell to call one of my best girls, Maja, my favorite Bosnian in the whole wide world.

Tina“Maja? It’s T. I’m making cevapi -”

Maja: “OOOOH! You’re making CEVAPI! That’s GREAT!”

Tina: “…but I don’t know if I’m doing it right.  I want to know how you do it.  I have about a pound of beef and a pound of lamb…”

Maja: “Okay.  Beef and lamb.”

Tina: “And I’ve got two cloves of minced garlic and some really finely chopped onion…”

Maja: “NOT TOO MUCH ONION!  YOU CAN’T ADD TOO MUCH ONION! BE CAREFUL OF –”

Tina: “Okay, okay! Not too much onion.  Cool.  So does your Dad add baking soda?  Or soda water?  Because I was going to add some…”

Maja: “Yeah, you can add some soda water.”

Tina: “Huh.  But would YOU add some soda water?”

Maja: “Yeah, you can add some soda water.”

Tina: “Wait, but would YOU– “

Maja“Is your water hot?  Your water needs to be hot.”

Tina: “Why?”

Maja: “It’s a science thing.  There’s proteins and amino acids and they change and stuff.
Note:  I met Maja in a university biology class.  She is both a brilliant person and an excellent science teacher.  “Proteins and amino acids and they change” INDEED.

Tina: “I also have about two tablespoons of chopped parsley.”

Maja: Fine.  That’s fine.”

Tina: “So…anything else?  Other than salt and pepper?”

Maja: “Yeah!  Tell me how they turn out!!!”

Lord love a duck, and lord love Maja even more because I certainly do.  But hey, good news:  they were delicious.

Four hours later, by text message….

Maja: “My Dad says that he uses baking soda.  How did the cevapi turn out?”

Tina: “They were DELICIOUS.”

Cevapi, or cevapcici, are small minced meat kebabs that are commonly made of ground beef or a mix of beef mince with other meats such as pork, veal or lamb.  The flavors are reminiscent of one of my favorite kebab, Lebanese kafta, but the rolls are much smaller and more delicate.  The Turkish influence on this dish is clear, and there are many regional variations that play with the size, shape, meat mince and blend, flavorings, and final presentation.  In Bosnia, the cevapi are  short, squat and slightly fat.  Each one is a mere hungry mouthful or two full of meat.  Croatian cevapi are slightly longer, and Bulgarian cevapi are thick and fat like short sausages.

In addition to size, how to serve your cevapi varies enormously.  In some regions the cevapi might be served on a bed of fresh hand cut potato fries.  In other areas, cevapi (which is a traditional street food) can only be found in a pita smothered in sauce.  On the counter I had a jar of Balkan red pepper spread, a tub of sour cream and a little bowl of finely sliced onions, but I had to ask Maja how she ate hers.  She was barely halfway through telling me, “You put them in a pita and there’s a bit of onion and some kajmak –” when her husband, a Scotsman but still a cevapi afficionado, grabbed the phone to say, “Ajvar.  You spread your pita with ajvar, pile on the cevapi and top with onions and sour cream.  It’s the BEST way to eat them, in fact, it’s the ONLY way that I’ll eat them and nothing else compares even if Maja –”

Maja, grabbing the phone back: “Yes, sweetie.  She heard you.  You like ajvar on cevapi.  She can add whatever she wants.  Tina, you can add whatever you want.”

So, with my direction straight from the horse’s mouth, I set off to make my cevapi.

Cevapi: Balkan Grilled Minced Meat

Cevapi:  Balkan Grilled Minced Meat

Serves 6

  • 1 lb lean ground beef
  • 1 lb lean ground lamb *
  • 1 small yellow onion (1/2 cup finely chopped)
  • 3 large cloves garlic
  • 4-5 sprigs parsley (2 tbsp finely chopped)
  • 1/4 cup hot water
  • 1/2 tsp baking soda
  • salt and pepper to taste

* Mixing your meats will enhance the flavor and texture of these sausages.  If you prefer, you can use all beef or a combination of pork and veal if you don’t like lamb.

Cevapi: Balkan Grilled Minced Meat

Finely chop the onion it is almost minced.  Chop the garlic and parsley as thoroughly as you possibly can.  Add these to the meat in a mixing bowl and season with salt and pepper to taste (I used about 1 tsp of kosher salt and slightly more than 1/2 tsp of freshly ground black pepper).

Cevapi: Balkan Grilled Minced Meat

Mix baking soda with 1/4 cup of hot water (not boiling, just hot) and pour that into the meat.  Gently start to turn the meat with your finger tips, working the seasoning through the meat and combining the two varieties.  When you do this, have a fairly light touch.  You’re not digging in and kneading the meat, squeezing it through your fingers, or pounding it down.  Imagine that your hand is like one of those automated claws in an arcade game (you know, the one where you spend twelve bucks trying to grab the digital camcorder, and all you end up with is a plastic pompom that has a face even your cats won’t deign to play with).  Reach down, turn, lift up.  Reach down, turn, lift up.  You want the meat to stay fairly loosely packed, airy, and coarse.

Put the meat mixture back in the fridge and let it sit for at least 2 hours, or overnight if possible.  This will allow the garlic and onion to penetrate and tenderize the meat, as well as making the whole mass easier to shape.

Cevapi: Balkan Grilled Minced Meat

After the meat is sufficiently chilled, pinch off a piddly amount that is about the size of a small meatball.  Pat and form this into a small sausage (it would kill me to say “small log of meat”, so sausage it is) which is just slightly smaller than a breakfast sausage.  If they’re a little bit big or a little bit small, not to worry.  In certain parts of the Balkan area you will find cevapi that are long and spindly like fingers (or merguez sausage), and in other areas the cevapi will be as short and stout as a thumb which was hit with a hammer.  I opt for an in between, forming the cevapi about the length of an index finger, and just slightly fatter than the thickest digit on my meaty paw.

Cevapi: Balkan Grilled Minced Meat

Heat your grill to medium high and cook the cevapi for about 2-3 minutes per side, turning once, until they are cooked through and a gorgeous deep brown color.  Remember that the meat is lean, so do your darnedest not to overcook the wee lads.

Cevapi: Balkan Grilled Minced Meat

Cevapi, like kafta, can be eaten on a platter with salad and fries or wrapped in a pita.  A good mix of accompaniments on the side would be red or white onion (finely sliced or chopped), ajvar and kajmak.

And yes, I keep saying “ajvar and kajmak” as if everyone knows what they are.  Ajvar is a roasted red pepper spread which can be sweet, hot, or somewhere in between.  You can make a po’ man’s version of ajvar by pureeing roasted red peppers with a bit of onion, a tiny bit of garlic, a glug of vinegar and a touch of oil.  As for  kajmak, it is a thick and slightly sour fermented dairy product, which can be both an acquired taste and also difficult to locate.  My Bosnian girl swears that manufactured kajmak tastes nothing like it’s supposed to, and I do trust her, but frankly I’ve never had “real” kajmak so I don’t know any better.  Store bought is perfectly fine.  If you can’t find kajmak, sour cream or a thick Balkan yogurt can substitute nicely in it’s place.

Cevapi: Balkan Grilled Minced Meat

We followed the James approach for cevapi and slathered thick pita with ajvar, piled on a heap of steaming grilled meat, sprinkled it with onions and dolloped a goodly amount of sour cream on top.  It was divine.

Cevapi: Balkan Grilled Minced Meat

We’re heading into grilling season, folks.  Why not put the burgers and dogs aside for a minute and try something different?  Something delicious and Balkan?  Something like CEVAPI.

Cevapi: Balkan Grilled Minced Meat

Cevapi: Balkan Grilled Minced Meat
  • http://www.daveronica.com Veronica

    These look tasty! And akin to “mici” a Romanian grilled meat. My husband and I are living in Romania currently and can’t wait for “gratar” season (grill). Mici will be everywhere and I hope an old bunica (grandmother) will teach me how to make them. I have a feeling there’s less beef and more pork (since pig is the meat of choice in these parts). Thanks for the recipe. I mean, you really can’t have too many recipes for meaty goodness.

  • http://www.daveronica.com Veronica

    and that should be a “theirs” not “there’s.” My English is suffering!

  • http://www.eatingclubvancouver.com _ts of [eatingclub] vancouver

    Ah, minced meat; so dreamy. Your cevapi look like very nice skinless longganisa in shape and size!

  • http://Thespitefulchef.blogspot.com Kristie

    I love that you’ve just got a “balkan friend.” Just right there, on tap. I don’t have that level of specified cultural diversity in my phone, but I’d like to.

    The other day Chris was talking about this med school buddy of his who now lives in Colorado. He said that we could pack up our small thing and take it over to their house sometimes to hang out. I asked about the guy’s wife, “will she be nice to me?” He answered “I don’t know, she’s Armenian or Lebanese or something and really into family.” I got really excited. “CHOOSY BEGGAR TINA IS LEBANESE!! And she’s awesome. Okay. I’ll be friends with the wife.”

  • http://messycook.blogspot.com Isabelle

    I loooooove cevapi. In fact, I think I might have to make some this weekend, considering we’re supposed to be BBQ-friendly weather and I’ve been craving something vaguely kefta/burger/cevapi-ish.
    Thank you for including the highly entertaining chat with your Balkan friend, BTW. Since I don’t have a Balkan friend I can consult, it’s nice to have access to yours by proxy. :)

  • Maja S

    As another Bosnian girl,… have to say, this made my freakin day (night?) You HAVE to try Somun, it’s much chewier than a pita and a little thicker, but it’s perfect for cavapi, and just about everything else? …oh goodness, goooood memories of Bosnia in the summer…cheers =)!

  • http://www.choosy-beggars.com Tina

    (in reverse order) Maja S – so my girl? Her name is Maja S., and you got me totally confused. “Does she have another email address that I don’t know about?” She was also in Bosnia last summer, so I seriously scratched my head for about 5 minutes!!!
    I LOVE somun and was going to make some to go with the cevapi, but I was feeling lazy and not in the mood for the 4 risings. Sad, I know. Thanks again for stopping by the site, and I’m glad to see that this recipe got your seal of approval!

    Isabelle – how beautiful was Toronto weather today? Seriously. It would be a tragedy NOT to grill.

    Kristie – I snorted vodka up my nose when I read that. It kinda stung. But hey, you could bring your little thing over here ANY TIME, girl. I’m really good at holding, rocking, lullaby singing and adoring. I kinda fall short at the feeding and burping thing though (panic! panic!), so meals are reserved for those of us who are 2 feet tall or more.

    TS – can you believe that I’ve never had longganisa? I saw your recipe when it was posted last year though, and my first thought was, “OOH, those look like delicious long, thin kafta!” What a wonderful world we live in.

    Veronica – thank you so much for checking out our site!! Ooh, you’re living in Romania right now? I would love to visit Romania, and one of the reasons is actually for the meat. Is that wrong? But hey, you’re right, it’s all about meaty goodness.

  • Maja S

    OH wow, nono, i can promise you, you’re not insane. I’m a university student in Edmonton (The city of champions, or rather…. Siberian-like snowstorms? *dies a little*)
    And please I know your pain, i let my mother do the somun making, she has the patience, i have a mountain of calculus to do (ow..my brain) :)

  • http://theglossgoss.blogspot.com Tali

    I love cevapi but in the UK the balkan cafes are RUBBISH. ALways making them too greasy. THanks for the recipe Ill try making them at home! I have a new pot of Ajvar so its perfect timing!
    Bosnians make the best Cevapi for sure. Im from Croatia and when I went to Sarajevo for the first time 4 years ago i thought i was in food heaven.. i got so fat!!

  • http://gonnawantseconds.blogspot.com Kathleen

    These sound really delicious. Funny you should mention kefta because when I saw this on foodgawker thats exactly what I thought these were! Haha. I love kefta and I’m looking forward to giving these a try. Thanks for sharing ;)

  • http://www.myonlinemeals.com kathy

    Thanks for the recipe. These look so tempting. I must try this sometime. :-)

  • Nina

    Tina

    I would be more than happy to provide you with a recipe for “mici” or “mititei” how they are called in Romania. The taste is superior to cevapi, it is in fact a recipe created by a chef in 1880, definetely with Turkish influence, but there is absolutely no lamb in the original, beef, maybe pork and … wait…. pork belly fat! Plus the spices and the kneading time (yes, kneading!) are usually family secrets, as there are probably as many recipes for “mici” as residences!

  • http://www.chichoskitchen.blogspot.com Cherine

    Just came across your blog, I love kefta and yours look absolutely yummy!!!

  • Nhiro

    Awesome, I’m bookmarking this recipe. I recently ate a Bosnian restaurant when I went home and they have this amazing dish with cevapi in a creamy tomato-based sauce. I sopped it up with plenty of pita-like bread (maybe it’s somun?). I don’t remember the name of the dish, but it was delicious. Thanks!

  • Justine

    Tina, (and Mike!)

    First off – LOVE the website, recipes (great detailed instructions and pics!), and your writing styles. I found your blog a few days ago and have spent too many hours wiping drool off my chin and laughing enough to scare my kitten as I browse through your recipes.

    Secondly – I lived in Macedonia for 3 yrs, left for 2 years (working in Kuwait, Germany and Spain) and returned to Macedonia in January of this year. One of the things I was most looking forward to on my return was going back to my favorite kebapi restaurant.

    They’re served here with Pogacha bread, coarsely diced white onions, and crushed red pepper and salt to sprinkle on top. “My” restaurant serves a ‘salad’ of thinly sliced tomatos and cucumbers with just a splash of white vinegar on them. And that’s it. That’s all they serve. But they’re always busy. Most be because they serve the best kebapi in Skopje!

    I went a few years ago to Sarajevo to see some friends and they were quite excited to take me downtown for traditional Bosnian food. Yep, kebap. Served much the same way as in Macedonia. I’ve never tried them with ajvar (which I love, spicy and just a little sweet. I really intend to learn to make it while I am here this time!) so I plan to try that.

    Lastly – I’ve already been inspired by you two, and haven’t even decided which recipe to try first. Last night I stopped at the market on my way home and in their TINY international foods section I found sambal oelek from Indonesia AND a spicy garlic chili sauce from Thailand. Never noticed them there before, maybe because I tend to try to shop/cook/eat like a local when I go somewhere. Too many of my colleagues spent way too much money ordering groceries through the mail from the USA and get only processed, preserved, tasteless cardboard. So whichever delectable I try first will be sure to be a spicy one!

    Many thanks and I look forward to more of your fab recipes!

  • Snezana

    Well,
    I have to congratulate to you for this recipe!!!!
    I know how real kebab should taste, cose I am from Balkan:),
    and this is it!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
    I just cant stop making them its so… Its easy and its tasty and reminds me on home:)
    thank you

    • Edo

      Gdje ima cevapa?

  • Steve

    Cevapcici should have vegeta in them

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  • http://www.familyfreshcooking.com/ Marla

    I have never made kebabs with minced meat but must try soon. These look great.
    It is Kebab week at Get Grillin’ we would love if you submitted up to any 3 recipes (they don’t have to be grilled) to our link up. This one would be perfect!
    This week we have a Rosle Grill Utensils giveaway. http://su.pr/1BZGKK

  • Slavica

    oh-la-la even ajvar included. ANd don’t spare on onions ;) The genuine pita-bread used in Bosnia/Serbia is different then the one you used (more like a flat bread, than also mocked in grease) .. so if you come to Bosnia, or Serbia one day, I am sure you will love it.

    Greetz, Slavica, Belgrade

    • http://www.choosy-beggars.com Tina

      Slavica – thank you so much for the comment!!! Yes, I’ve heard tales of the “right” bread, which sounds so pillowy and perfect. The other thing that we can’t get here is good kajmack, because according to my good Bosnian friend, it is “NOTHING like home!”

  • 馬羅伯 ( Rob)

    This was a pleasure to read as well as informative and insightful. As a lifelong enthusiastic amateur culinaire – I found this account invaluable in my quest to produce a reasonable iteration of cevapi, which I have never had before but they reminded me much of kefta which I have had on several occasions and enjoyed immensely. Though I am not a baker, I may also attempt Lepinje or Somun to try to reproduce the classic bread with which these are traditionally served. Most of the pita readily available here seem not nearly fluffy enough and too thin. As much as I love a good unleavened lavash, I think these require a lighter, airier bread with a bit of crust exterior. Kudos for an excellent recipe and account of its creation!

  • Edo

    I made cevape all the time in the summer on a charcoal grill, pretty much same methods as yours but slighlty different ingredients. Mix them really good then leave it over night. Then throw them on the grill and cook carefully. After they’re done add some black pappers and all the sides such as ajvar and kajmak.
    I make kajmak different two spoons ricotta cheese and plain yoghurt, mix them together. Tastes very good.
    Somun bread are not easy to make.

    Sretan lijep dan

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  • Ruth Hoernig

    I made cevapi last summer and swore I wouldn’t do it again. Your blog revived me; I will use your recipe and instructions but with all beef. I think it was the smell of the lamb that put me off. We were taught to eat them with raw onion and feta cheese while living in Cicero IL.

    • http://www.choosy-beggars.com/ Tina

       Ruth – thanks for the comment and YES to giving them another shot!  Raw onion and feta sounds delicious :)

  • Mr071

    Good job! Just $0.02 from the Sarajevo perspective: the meat should not be all that lean. As a matter of fact, it should be fatty enough to drip on the coals to give off a generous amount of smoke which adds to the flavor. Just walk any street in the old part of Sarajevo and you will not be able to escape the smell (and the smoke) of chevapi being grilled all over the place.
    They should be grilled fast and furious, definitely not “tortured” on the fire. For that some fat in necessary so that they don’t come out dry and chewey.

    Anyway, good job, thank you for sharing this with the world :-)

    • http://www.choosy-beggars.com Tina

      Mr071 – great advice, thank you! We know that fat means flavor, so that is definitely something to bear in mind!

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  • Vesna

    Hi guys!
    Where is good place to eat cevapi in London? Had tried to make them at home, but the meat is too lean and the result was not ok.
    Thank you.

  • Cory Thomas

    I had these while in Croatia this past summer, and they looked exactly how you prepared them, except they were on some sort of light, airy roll. Any idea what that bread or roll might be called?

    I am planning on trying this recipe this weekend and I expect it will turn out excellent!

    • http://www.choosy-beggars.com Tina

      Hi Cory,
      I think that what you’re talking about is probably some version of lepinja? Was it a bread that is kind of like a thick pita but softer and lighter with a really tender crumb? I haven’t tried this recipe specifically, but from what I know about lepinja it is basically a yeast dough made with a bit of enrichment via some milk in addition to the water. The key is in the triple rise which really drives the texture. Anyway, you could try giving this one a shot: http://notoverthehill.com/forums/display_group_topic/id_61329/Lepinja—Serbian-Flatbread/

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  • Due Fratelli Italian

    Cervapi available at Due Fratelli Chorlton M21 7GJ Manchester Call us on 0161 881 6444