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Opinion | A Rockville restaurant brings the Balkans back to the district

Opinion | A Rockville restaurant brings the Balkans back to the district

When you mention Bosnia, many Americans think of the brutal ethnic wars that tore the country apart in the 1990s. But just off Rockville Pike, a Sarajevo-born entrepreneur is hoping to change that association in customers’ minds, one layer of puff pastry at a time.

Bosnia has a population of 3.2 million, almost as many live in the diaspora. The largest group of Bosnians outside Europe now lives in the Midwest. However, with the wars of the 1990s, many also came to the Washington area. Among them was Edin Saracevic, the co-founder of MezeHub.

MezeHub in Rockville in November. (Hector Emanuel for The Washington Post)MezeHub in Rockville in November. (Hector Emanuel for The Washington Post)

(Hector Emanuel for the Washington Post)

Geraldine Hoyos Postigo prepares bureks at MezeHub. (Hector Emanuel for The Washington Post)Geraldine Hoyos Postigo prepares bureks at MezeHub. (Hector Emanuel for The Washington Post)

(Hector Emanuel for the Washington Post)

Bureks at MezeHub (Hector Emanuel for The Washington Post)Bureks at MezeHub (Hector Emanuel for The Washington Post)

(Hector Emanuel for the Washington Post)

Part restaurant, part specialty grocery store, MezeHub’s mission is to bring the Balkans closer to Washington.

MezeHub prides itself on its burek, a savory filled pastry that it makes in a kitchen in the center of the salesroom.

Connoisseurs argue about the origin of the dish, about who prepares it best – and even about which version of the pie has the right to bear the name “burek”.

“Burek actually originated in Iran,” Saracevic told me. “The Ottoman Empire was an ambassador for burek – it spread it all over the world.”

But the fact that this dish can be enjoyed throughout the Balkans is telling: shared culinary traditions are more widespread here than age-old hostilities.

Jason Rezaian: What are the challenges of being a restaurant owner with a migrant background?

Edin Saracevic: The beauty of the United States is that it is truly a land of opportunity. That said, it doesn’t really matter what your last name is. In Europe, you may have a harder time making a living if you have a last name that doesn’t fit.

In America, you have to be determined. You have to know what you’re trying to do. All the other things that are obstacles elsewhere just don’t exist here. But you have to put in the work and be patient enough to see the results and hone your concepts and best strategies every day.

MezeHub owner Edin Saracevic at his store in Rockville. (Hector Emanuel for The Washington Post)

Is there a food item from home that you can’t get here?

Two things. First, Ajvar, made in every household – a vegetable spread that we loved so much as children that we would eat a whole jar in one sitting. And we always had limited quantities of it because it required hours of hard work to make.

Then there’s something called suho meso, which is a kind of smoked cured meat. The Food and Drug Administration has banned the import of smoked meat into the US. So a guy in Pennsylvania started a company that makes suho meso, dry goods and things like that. It’s a multimillion-dollar business right now. It’s doing really well.

Is there a scent that takes you back to Bosnia?

Sarajevo is very famous for two products: ćevapćići (grilled meat skewers) and burek. Their taste is simply unique. The smell is an absolute trigger, whether you are full or have just had dinner. When you walk through the old town of Sarajevo, the smell is always there, no matter what time of year it is.

There is this part of town, Baščaršija, which means “real market”. It is easily two or three square kilometres in size, not just one or a few streets. As soon as you cross the Austro-Hungarian part of the city into the Ottoman part of the city, you are immersed in a universe of smells.

Do you remember your first burek?

Not me, because burek was always homemade.

The first one I ventured out for, however, was a shop near my high school. There was a guy on the corner who made bureks. When we had a long break during the day, we would walk there and get a burek as a snack or lunch. The shop is still there.

What ingredients do you need for your dish that are not so easily available here? And are there any ingredients that you discovered here that have changed and reshaped your cooking?

I think the hardest thing to replicate is something that is made on a small scale – in a household. Kajmak is something unique. It is a fresh cheese that can be sweet or salty. There are varieties that I have never seen outside the Balkans. You skim the cream from boiled milk every half hour. It is a meticulous, lengthy process. It is labor-intensive and very expensive to make. We get kajmak from North Macedonia.

You always ask yourself, “If we change this original recipe or the traditional approach, are we doing the quality of the food a disservice? Or are we actually improving it?” I struggle with that. But the quality of the flour, the (basic) ingredients that are available here – if you get the recipes right, I think you can make not only good versions, but sometimes even better products.

How do these two worlds – your old world and the new world – come together in one dish?

Our Pljeskavica — I call it a Balkan burger. It’s a big, massive patty, but properly seasoned – not just beef. We put all kinds of spices in it. Traditionally you get Pljeskavica with some onions, in a baked bread that we call Somun.

But we make it look more American, more appealing to the American consumer. They want a piece of lettuce in it, a piece of tomato, a pickle – things like that. So we’ve fused both approaches together – and it’s very popular! It blurs the lines on both sides.

An American comes in and has a burger, but with a beef patty that tastes unique. And people from the Balkans say, “What is that?” But they don’t complain too much.

He was a filmmaker who came to America as a refugee during the Bosnian war. Now he wants to introduce the public to the “King of the Pie,” as he calls him. (Shih-Wei Chou and Jason Rezaian/The Washington Post)

There are more than 400 Mediterranean restaurants in the DC metropolitan area

MezeHub

11508 Schuylkill Rd. Rockville. (301) 246-0517.

Opening hours: Monday to Thursday from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m., Friday to Saturday from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. and Sunday from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.

Prices: $5 to $17 on the delivery menu.

Post Opinions wants to know: What foods and ingredients remind you of your own childhood and the place where you grew up? Share your thoughts with us.