If someone handed me an unlabelled geopolitcal map of Europe and challenged me to start identifying countries, I'd be done in, oh, about 22 seconds. Twenty-eight if I'm feeling especially smart that day.
You see, that's how ign'ant I am.
Aside from the unmistakable shapes of Italy, France, the Iberian peninsula, and the UK (though admittedly, I wouldn't be able to separate the UK into its component countries - and don't even ask me about the difference between Great Britain and the British Isles), I couldn't identify the rest of the European countries to save a game show. Okay, I think I might be able to find Switzerland because it shares big, obvious mountains with France and Italy. Perhaps I could do a Vanna White wave at the Scandinavian region, too, but there's no way I'd be able to tell you that Norway is on the left, Finland is on the right, and Sweden rides it right up the middle. (I cheated and looked at Lonely Planet.)
And what about Eastern Europe? Forget it. First of all, I don't even understand why the region is called "eastern" Europe. If we take into account that the European portion of Russia alone butts up against the center line of the entire continent, then the countries popularly known as eastern Europe are actually in the middle of Europe. The region should be called mid-Europe. Why is it called eastern Europe?!?! Probably the same reason why Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Illinois, are part of the Midwest (which will be a long, therapeutic post for a future date).
What an idiotic premature rant. Is this why it's also called central Europe? Probably. Duh.
Eastern Europe confuses me because the entire region has undergone continuous, drastic geo-politico-historical change, much of which has been at a severely accelerated pace in the last few years. Alliances dissolve, borders shift, names change, entire countries magically appear or mysterisoualy disappear. I still haven't been able to figure out where the hell Czechoslovakia went ;) And even with all the turmoil through the 1990s between Serbia and Croatia, I never quite understood exactly what happened to Yugoslavia.
It finally took lunch at Aroma Cafe, a small Bosnian restaurant in West LA, to educate myself.
From the history that I studied in school, I only remember Yugoslavia and do not even recall Bosnia-Herzegovina. Yugoslavia was one sort of "uber-country" made up of Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Serbia, and Montenegro. Sarajevo, which is located in Bosnia-Herzegovina, was the capital city of the entire Yugoslavia. In the early 1990s, which is where my interest and understanding in the region started to fade out, Yugoslavia as a super-identity eventually broke down into its sub-parts. I guess if your one crowning glory was the Yugo, you'd want to dissolve yourself, too. LOL!
Without going into too much more detail, Bosnia-Herzegovina has a rather diverse cultural and political and religious history. With Italy just across the Adriatic Sea, Romans settled around what is now Sarajevo for the natural mineral springs in the area. There is quite a bit of Turkish influence, as the country was a province within the Byzantine Empire for more than 400 years in its early history, accounting for the now predominantly Muslim population. In the mid 1800s, the Turks gave up their hold on Bosnia-Herzegovina to Austria-Hungary.
The cuisine of Bosnia reflects the various influences throughout its history. The Mediterranean/Middle Eastern history appears as pita bread, feta cheese, various meze, and the use of flaky phyllo dough in the preparation of burek. Phyllo dough is filled with a spiced meat mixture or cheese or both, then rolled into a long tube that is coiled then baked. Recipes and descriptions for burek filling make me think of the spiced ground beef filling for Greek moussaka. There are kebabs as well as sarma, which sound exactly like Greek dolmades wrapped in grape leaves. But when sarma are wrapped in sour cabbage and served with sour cream, there begins the Balkan and eastern European influence. When it's all said and done, though, all of the cuisines from Greece, up through Albania, around the Balkans and over to the Middle East are similar, with slight variations in recipes and names.
From its somewhat hidden corner location in a mini-mall across the street from Westside Pavilion, to its simple exterior and sign, to its name "Aroma Cafe," I'd never have guessed that Aroma Cafe is a Bosnian restaurant. It sounds like a coffee shop. Parking is tight and scarce as is expected of any westside mini-mall. We meter-parked on the street. There is a small patio out front with umbrella-ed tables and chairs, but what looks most important are the ashtrays for smokers.
When we first walked in, I was confused. Were we supposed to seat ourselves at one of the half dozen or so wooden tables and chairs? Should we wait for a hostess? Do walk up to the counter and order out of the glass-enclosed deli-like case from a cashier? And I didn't know what to do about that mini-mart in the far corner. A tall, dark-haired girl appeared through a back doorway and told us we could sit anywhere.
We sat down next to the front window. Aroma Cafe is small, but the large windows that let in natural lighting and pale yellow walls make it feel bright and airy. The girl was svelte and graceful, going against all the antiquated stereotypes of big, hearty eastern European women. She glided from behind the counter with menus and a small basket covered with a deep red cloth. I could smell the softly sweet, yeasty bread before I slowly uncovered it, the way I open a gift when I know it's going to be something good. It was a perfect, lightly powdered dome that filled the basket with warmth. "Ohmigod. Can you smell that?" I was bent over the table with my entire face not more than a half inch from the bread. I eagerly pulled a piece apart from the loaf. The inside is white, and with big cavernous holes, airy and soft. The crust is lightly chewy. I forced myself to tear off small, lady-like bites and chew, but my natural instinct was to rip off giant hunks and shove them into my mouth. Too bad I had already filled up my neanderthal-ette quota when I sniffed the bread like a hound dog puppy.
The menu had a lot of food items that sounded new to me - cevapi, raznjic, plejeskavica - but the descriptions were familiar. I also couldn't believe that goulash was an actual item on the menu. Goulash is a food item on my distant past. In middle school, when I ran a babysitting monopoly in my subdivision, the mom at the far end of the street used to prepare tiny tupperwares labelled with "goulash" for me to heat up and feed the kids. I thought her conconction of ground beef, tomato sauce, and elbow macaroni was something whe made up! Obviously, I learned later that goulash was a real food, but I never thought I'd see it on a restaurant menu. It's kind of the way I wouldn't expect to see Dinty Moore beef stew or mayonnaise sugar sandwiches in a restaurant either. They are foods I associate with kids and eating in the comfort and privacy of your own home.
A Greek salad was fresh and pretty in a small wooden bowl, and introduced me to my new favorite way of eating Feta cheese - in large, broad slices. Glossy lamb meat wrapped around a small center circle of bone, looked juicy, but wasn't as tender as expected. We chose grilled vegetables on the side, which were nicely done and lightly charred, over potatoes. Thick slices of that bread with the Feta cheese and grilled vegetables would have been an incredible sandwich.
Somewhere in the lapse between placing our order with the girl and the arrival of our lunch at the table, I wandered over to Aroma Cafe's back corner mini-mart. Cheap wooden garage storage shelving held packages and bottles and jars of all kinds of imported food items.
Lunch tasted good, and we had eaten in a pleasant environment. Throughout the hour or so we were there, a few individuals had come in, ordered sandwiches at the counter, and took them to go. For a Greek salad or slightly tough lamb, I probably wouldn't go back to Aroma Cafe. But I'd go back to taste some of the real Bosnian type foods that I should have tried. And I'd definitely go back for that bread.
2530 Overland Avenue (2 ½ blocks south of Pico)
Los Angeles, CA 90064