I was born in the town of Novi Pazar in southwestern Serbia, very close to the border with todayâ€™s Montenegro and Herzegovina. My parents were newlyweds when they moved there, Father a young doctor, Mother the high school German and Art teacher. Their apartment was on the second floor of a building overlooking the main street that became the promenade at night, filled with young men and women walking in a lazy, elongated circle, casting surreptitious glances at their secret crushes, shy and apprehensive, with many awkward giggles hidden behind a hand.
The town was a mix of Christians and Muslims with early 10th century solid rock churches on the outskirts looking over the slender minarets in the center. Four centuries of Turkish Ottoman rule left a significant imprint on the area changing forever the religious and cultural milieu of the land. The Turks rode back east in the late nineteenth century, but a big part of their culture stayed behind.
We moved to central Serbia when I was a baby, and went back to Novi Pazar only occasionally to visit relatives and friends. I was always fascinated by this town which reminded me of 1001 Nights with its mosques, narrow cobble-stoned streets, small shops selling hand-made copper dishes and filigree gold, the smell of freshly roasted coffee beans, the high brick and mortar walls with gates facing the street, men in red fezes smoking unfiltered cigarettes and drinking tea for hours, the busy markets crowded with haggling shoppers, and people with strange sounding names.
We looked forward to these weekend two-hour trips by car, feeling as if we were going not only away in space, but back in time. The language had a different rhythm, the pace was slower, the sounds exotic, and the smells coming out of the kitchens unusual and romantic. The breads were flatter, the meat was definitely lamb, and thick yogurt accompanied many restaurant dishes.
Around noon, housewives would leave their chores at home and venture out into the streets, the yards of silk undulating around their legs, long, curly locks hidden behind a colorful scarf. They would visit each other, spending a leisurely hour drinking freshly ground and brewed Turkish coffee and spreading the neighborhood news whispered in confidence over the walls separating the houses.
Turkish coffee is strong, and wise women knew many tricks to prepare the gullet for enjoying it. Sometimes there were only sugar cubes to dunk into a small fildzan of hot, dark liquid. Sometimes there was rose or bergamot flavored rahat-lokum* on a saucer with an accompanying glass of water served as a refreshment before the coffee. Sometimes the hostess would offer her latest homemade fruit preserves, watching with hawk-like attention for her friendsâ€™ reactions.
And sometimes there would be desserts cut into small squares and drowned in sweet, lemony syrup. As kids, we learned quickly which houses promised the best feast and ran behind mothers, aunts, friends, and neighbors, eagerly anticipating the flavorful, exotic sugar rush.
Every time I go back to Serbia, I try to go to Novi Pazar to visit my relatives. The town has joined the 21st century with power lines swooping overhead and cell phones at every other ear, but if you squint, you can imagine yourself embraced by a sleepy, romantic air of bygone days, filled with smells and sounds reminiscent of the East. To bring that feeling to my family in America, I try to introduce all my friends to the wonderful ritual of drinking Turkish coffee. I offer sugar cubes, rahat-lokum, and home-made fruit preserves. And sometimes I even make the sweet, simple desserts, covered in lemony syrup.
- 6 medium-sized apples (choose firmer apples that do not fall apart under heat)
- 400ml (1 ½ cups) water
- 400gr (15 oz) granulated sugar
- juice of 1 lemon
- 150gr (5 oz) ground walnuts
- 250ml (1cup) heavy whipping cream
- 1-2 Tbsp sugar
- Peel and core the apples (make the hole 1 inch in diameter) and lay them in a pot.
- Cover with water, sugar, and lemon juice, and cook for 15-20 minutes until softened, but still holding their shape.
- Take the apples out of the liquid and place them in a serving dish with walls at least 2 inches high.
- Continue simmering the liquid until it slightly thickens, another 10-15 minutes.
- In the meantime, fill the holes in cooked apples with ground walnuts.
- Pour the hot liquid over the apples and nuts.
- Add more nuts if necessary.
- Chill in the refrigerator.
- Whip the heavy whipping cream until the soft peaks form, add the sugar, and serve on top of the apples.
*rahat-lokum is known in English as Turkish Delight, a candy made of powdered sugar, starch, and aromatics, often containing nuts.