Chicago River’s beautiful waters
You may have already guessed that this travel is a gastronomic one if you follow my Instagram. There is so much I want to tell you about our trip back in mid June 2017 but I want to focus on FOOD and where you can find them in this wonderful city called Chicago.
The city of Chicago was founded in 1833 and is the third most densely populated city in the United States with a population of 2.7 million as of 2016 census. The first place goes to New York City, NY at 8.5M and the second place goes to Los Angeles, CA at 3.9M. It is also in Chicago where you can find one of the largest diasporas of Serbians in the United States only following Pennsylvania and probably the largest diaspora of Balkan people in the United States. Some families lived there even before the wars in the 1990’s. It is also where you will be able to eat close-to-authentic Serbian food cooked by Serbian people. It’s been years since I dreamed of trying the authentic Balkan food. Everything else I knew about Serbian food culture was just based on my husband’s description of how delicious it really is and his stories about his favorite dishes. It took me a while to post this continuation of our travel. And now, I am having a baby girl so it’s time to publish this series so that one day when my baby learns to read the first adventures she will learn about is her parents’ adventures. Sure, we can tell her all about it and show her photos but having an online journal will encourage her to write her own journey in life.
Let me begin by saying… Chicago is a big and a lovely city! It’s full of life day and night and the skyscrapers’ lights at night remind of the UAE. Its beauty is different in the morning and at night. It’s a whole new place when the sun sets. The details blur out in the darkness accentuating only the lights that emanate from the buildings, the streets, and the cars passing by. When we came to Chicago it was the middle of June. The weather was a bit cool but not windy like how most people describe Chicago to be. In the morning it was good and sunny. Only by the lake Michigan was it chilly but not to the point that you couldn’t wear shorts. Although oddly I was also wearing a black turtleneck top. Confusing? May is in my opinion in Chicago. I just don’t know if it is always this way every year but 2017 was. I can tell you one thing I know is consistent in Chicago: delicious Balkan food!
Note 1: Photos entering Chicago
Chicago was more of a gastronomic experience for us and it was my husband’s roots in that city that made every corner of Chicago really special. My husband was working in Chicago for a few months before he finally moved to Northern Virginia. He didn’t particularly like Chicago back then. I remember him relating to me that it’s so cold and windy and the winter is unbearable. He had nothing really interesting to say about Chicago then except that he said the first time he went downtown he thought that the skyscrapers were towering over him and that he felt like an ant every time he looked up to see the sky. Many describe Chicago as a city of skyscrapers but the truth is it’s only in the city center that you will see these skyscrapers. It is not a city built upon thousands of skyscrapers that line the streets like in futuristic movies or cartoons like “The Jetsons”. Nope, think of it as a city with a few skyscrapers that you can see even from afar before entering the city and the rest of the space around the city center is more like the usual American neighborhood you see in every U.S. state. Houses and cafes line the streets with some alleyways and an ample amount of space for the front and the backyard. The suburbs look like any other American suburban areas in many if not all the 50 states.
Note 2: Part of La Grange neighborhood. Zip Code: 60525 is a suburb in Illinois with only over 15,500 residents based on 2010 census. Incorporated with the city of Chicago on June 11, 1879 founded by Franklin Dwight Cossitt
We started tasting Chicago in a neighborhood called La Grange. We stayed over my husband’s longtime friend overnight before we finally stayed at his brother-in-law’s place. His friend had a lot of stash of chocolates from Serbia like Bananica and Milka and some other other chocolates that my husband knew since he was little. He loves Bananica among all the chocolates. It was good on the first few bites but it was too strong of an artificial flavor for me. That evening, we went to Skadarliya (Skadarlija) a restaurant which was close by. It’s a modern version of a Kafana (Serbian cafe). It is more American in style but the warmth of welcoming another Balkan person is very much the Balkan way.
…Let me tell a little bit about the Balkan and Serbian people. They are warm, gleeful, with lots of hi and hello, and of course the famous intro: “Brate, Kako si”? (Brother, how are you?) With a very firm handshake and a big “Dobro”! (Good!). I love the warmth of the Balkans especially Balkan men because they are very easy to get along with and doesn’t have prejudices about ethnicity and skin color. Those are just a matter of jokes to laugh at for them. They are more into having a good time conversing and talking about their lives of course with a lot of food in front of them. I am not saying that all of them are good. Everywhere you go no matter where you are in the world there are good and bad people. But what I’m saying is most Balkans just want to have fun and enjoy life. Women and men are equally sensitive but I find women to be more kept within their group like Asian women are. While the men are more outgoing and cool. I even met someone before who said she didn’t think Serbian women are nice. To me, it’s all about one’s personal experience because I know my husband’s friends who have also become my friends are all very warm and helpful people. They don’t abandon each other. And again there are of course those who are the opposite but mostly Balkans are very helpful people. They would help you and give you whatever they can give with both hands. I warn you though, Serbians are very patriarchal! But the men work hard and protect their women with their lives…
Note 3: Serbian Food and Beer at a restaurant called Skadarliya – Located at 9237 W Ogden Ave, Brookfield, IL 60513
Our friend knew every person in that place I think because the moment we came he was greeted like a patron. The person who tends the valet parking shook his hands, took our keys and parked it. When we went inside the waitress was nice to us and our friend made a little conversation with her. My husband ordered for me his favorite teleca corba (veal soup), pljeskavica, and some drinks to try. My apologies for the low-quality photos above. We forgot our professional camera that time because we were so hungry. Serbian food is all in big servings so just the soup made me full, to be honest, but I had to try everything because we were there to try Balkan food. I can tell you their food is probably the best food in the world. I am not saying this because I am married to a Serbian but really because their food tastes good. Although if you do eat Serbian food every day you might end up with high cholesterol.
This is the facade of Skadarliya, the dining, and the bar inside. Take a look at this review of Skadarliya from Yelp with photos to entice you.
Note 4: These photos were taken by a Yelper called Tom S. you can find their page on Facebook here.
What is good food (for me) anyway? To me, good food is tasty, flavorful, satisfying, with the right amount of serving, and healthy. Balkan food is all of these that I mentioned except for the last one. It’s almost sinful that it tastes so good it makes you think should I eat more? Maybe you will because they have really good tortes! Most of their cakes that I’ve tried are not really baked cakes but of unbaked plazma (equal to Graham crackers) layered with jelly, chocolate mousse, and all sorts of nuts. Their dessert cakes are not like the French, German, or the Italian cakes with a few layers of genoise or other types of sponge cakes layered with chocolate or buttercream. Their desserts are more on the side of variety of flavors and sweetness. The icing they make is not too buttery and just right. My husband loves this type of sweets and he is crazy about his mother’s torta with berries on top layered with ladyfingers and chocolate fluff inside. In the beginning, I was shocked that this was considered a cake because I am used to the professional way of baking cakes. But I can tell you they are easier to make and less time consuming but equally good! It’s really a matter of preference. Once I get to know more how to make their version of torte I will make an entry in the Sweets section of my blog. I guess I have to ask my Kuma (Godmother)!
I seriously loved the veal soup. It was rich and tasty. The broth wasn’t too thick like a stew but is very filling. After the soup, I was done but there was more to try so I did. The next one was pljeskavica. It just means burger. If you are a meat lover, you will love the Balkans! They make outrageously delicious variations of the same pljeskavica. I have to say the best I’ve tried so far is my husband’s very own recipe. The meat they use is not just minced or ground. It is a mushy texture of pork and beef meat combined. Authentic Serbian recipe calls for the meat to be fermented for at least 3 days. Some say that villagers even leave the meat covered for 30 days in the fridge so that the meat is completely infused with the flavors of the spices. The best way is to cover it with a clean towel and make sure that you mash it with clean hands at least once a week. Cevapi is made almost the same way. It’s more like a burger-tasting short sausages.
I was so thrilled to finally try pljeskavica and I liked it but not loved it. This version of Skadarliya has bacon inside the patty and it made it a bit too salty for me. Balkans in general like salty food that even their cornbread recipe is salty. For me, my husband’s pljeskavica recipe is still the best because it doesn’t have bacon and the taste is just perfectly right. For me, when I make my version, I add mozzarella and parmesan in the middle of the patty. Real swiss cheese is good too! After pljeskavica I couldn’t breathe anymore. The portions are just too large for me. So anyway, I took a sip of the Serbian pivo (beer) called Lav. It was okay. It tastes like beer of course but since I don’t know how to identify a good beer, I can’t tell you more than that. However, it definitely tastes better than Heineken. Alcohol had not much appeal to me ever since. The taste is just too offensive for my taste buds. No offense to beer lovers! Sparkling grape juice is the closest I can ever get to liking bottled beverages. I’m a water and real fruit juice person.
If you’re into trying new cuisines and if ever you are headed towards Indiana, try visiting Chicago and explore as much Balkan food as you can. If you like eating in an American style restaurant with a bar, Skadarliya is where you should start your gastronomic journey. It’s a place with a modern American twist but the food is definitely Serbian. You will love it! The next place we visited is called Dunav or Danube in English. See you next week. Ciao!
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