BOOK REVIEW: Burek, a tasty snack and a loaded metaphor

BOOK REVIEW: Burek, a tasty snack and a loaded metaphor
Burek has long been popular across the former Ottoman empire.
By Clare Nuttall in Bucharest June 1, 2016

Since kiosks that sell burek first appeared on the streets of Ljubljana in the 1960s, the cheap and filling snack food has taken on a wider cultural and political significance.

In “Burek: A Culinary Metaphor”, Jernej Mlekuz, a research fellow at the Slovenian Migration Institute, charts the evolution of the burek – a flaky pastry usually filled with cheese or meat – and its elevation to a symbol of southernness or Balkanness, as opposed to the Slovenian national ideal.

Burek has long been popular across the former Ottoman empire, which covered most of the former Yugoslavia (though not Slovenia). Bosnians in particular have embraced burek as their national cuisine. However, in the last half century, burek has made its way from fast food kiosks and the kitchens of immigrant families to Slovenian households and industrial food processing plants, which often produce a low fat version of the notoriously greasy snack.

Burek first went mainstream in Slovenia in the 1980s, becoming popular among punks, students and other urban youths. Initially, this had no political significance. As Mlekuz points out, “the burek... represented calories and not symbols”. Burek was warm and cheap, something to soak up the alcohol late at night when most shops and cafes were closed.

It was only later that burek began “to take on the role of a signifier of culture, cultures, the populations of the other republics of the former SFRY [Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia] or the Juga (the south).” In short, “the burek... connotes something which is other, foreign to the Slovenian essence.” It becomes, Mlekuz says, the “metaburek”.

While this phenomenon started to emerge in the 1980s, according to Mlekuz, “independence... was the historical event which... placed the metaburek into a new, much more complex field, and in my opinion, also caused it to flourish”.

The book is based on an extremely detailed examination of consumerism, pop culture and politics in Slovenia. While this is a serious cultural analysis, there is something playful about the way Mlekuz makes this basic fast food item the subject of an academic discourse; in addition to the “metaburek” he also coins the terms “burekalism” and “burekdenial”, among others.

Mlekuz uses the explosion of references to burek in daily life to illuminate Slovenian values and beliefs, in particular vis a vis immigrants from the other former Yugoslavian republics. Branko Duric’s 2003 romantic comedy “Kajmak in maremlada” (Cheese and jam), for example, is the story of a Bosnian immigrant man and a Slovenian woman. The title is a reference to the difference between the southern Yugoslavian cheese burek and the central European jam-filled strudel traditionally popular in Slovenia.

Nationalist discourse

Often, however, the connotations are negative. Mlekuz points to the way burek is still shunned by most Slovenian chefs and cookbook authors, who embrace foods imported from Western or Central Europe. Many Slovenians use the burek to signify greasiness (lard is a key ingredient) and its unhealthiness is decried in the media. 

Meanwhile, objections to burek kiosks in Ljubljana’s old town seem to go beyond simply aesthetic considerations. The growing visibility of the burek both on Slovenian streets and in popular culture has clearly concerned nationalists. “The Balkan, southern burek had found its way onto Slovenian streets, and insinuated itself into the hands and mouths of the non-immigrant, indigenous native population,” writes Mlekuz.

“There was and still is a national or nationalist discourse at work, which couldn’t and didn’t want to take the burek as its own, as “ours”... it was affronted by the presence... of the burek on Slovenian streets.”

This also explains the appearance of the nationalist “Burek? nein danke” graffiti, and skinhead group SLOI’s song “Anti Burek System”.

Conversely, immigrant groups have increasingly adopted the burek as part of their identity, and it also achieved cult status among young, educated urban Slovenians in the 1990s, as they became ambivalent to Slovenian independence. This was expressed through the embracing of all things Balkan from hosting “Balkan parties” to eating burek, which became a “signifier of something cool”. The era even saw the release of rapper Ali En’s hit “Sirni & mesni” (Cheese and meat), with the memorable lyric: “Meaty cheesy it don’t matter burek burek you delicious thing I eat”.

“These alternative burek meanings... were more or less diametrically opposed to the nationalist discourse,” writes Mlekuz.

The conflicting emotions towards the burek in Slovenia are perhaps best summed up by a comment attributed to Tone Vogrinec, the Slovenian ski team’s coach, about champion skier Jure Kosir back in 1999: “I admit that I love Jurek more than burek. Anyone who thinks Jurek is a burek, is a burek.”

Burek: A Culinary Metaphor” by Jernej Mlekuz, published by Central European University Press.