Written for Expat.rs by Ksenija Nikoli? and Nicholas Comrie
Shopping for food in a foreign country can be a daunting prospect. There are labels to decipher, prices to calculate and then there is that dreaded question at the cash register you have no idea how to answer. Then there is the choice of where best to go, how much things cost and will you find what you are looking for? In Serbia however, things are – thankfully – relatively simple. What follows are a few simple clues about how best to fill your fridge, and survive the shopping madness.
The best and cheapest - if not the most efficient - means of shopping in Serbia, is shopping around. There are plenty of individual stores and markets specialising in food produce – from dried foods to meat – so it is often worthwhile trying a number of places for the best food and at the best value. If this isn’t for you, you can always try one of the larger supermarkets (Maxi, Vero, Mercator, Rodi?) as they boast everything you might need under one roof, although the food is generally more expensive and sometimes of a poorer standard. So if you are willing to hunt for your food, it may well be worth trying your individual butchers and fruit sellers as quality food and a friendly rapport can go a long way.
Buying produce - One of the best places to find produce is the local piazza. Belgrade is dotted with them, every municipality has got one (Zeleni venac, Kaleni?, Bajlonova), and most Serbian towns will boast at least one for you to sample. They are a great place to find more or less organic seasonal fruit and vegetables and all at very reasonable prices. They are also a unique opportunity to meet Serbia’s rural community and help them economically, although at times you may find their overzealous piling-on of the produce obliging you to buy more than you had bargained for. But with prices being so reasonable and all produce being grown locally, the piazza offers up an interesting and worthy alternative to the supermarket.
Buying meat – Undoubtedly the best place to buy meat is at an independent butcher. Again, these are fairly commonplace, and most parts of town will have their own shop, a lot of these being located on local piazzas. There are also a few chain stores that are spread around the city, like Big Bull - which boasts one shop in the heart of the city working late even on weekends – Matijevi? and Agrimes. On display will be an extensive range of meats and butchers are only too willing to cater to your specific carnivorous needs. Serbs are renowned for their appreciation of all things meat-orientated so prepare to be impressed by what is on display. Prices tend to be better than those found at the meat counters of larger supermarkets and butchers can often order in specific cuts and pre-cooked meat to make shopping at your local butcher even more worthwhile.
Buying dried goods – There are specific stores dealing in dried foods, sauces and other similar products. They are not as commonplace as others, and as such are often busy, although they are the best opportunity to track down local specialties and ingredients that are sometimes lacking at the supermarket. A lot of these stores stock foreign brands and ingredients providing you with a greater opportunity to experiment in your kitchen when you get home. You can find macrobiotic food and spices, ingredients for Japanese or Mediterranean cuisine, food for diabetics, exotic teas, juices and a lot more. Such stores are usually given a “Bio” prefix, the most famous being Bio Špajz which is even available online at www.biospajz.rs. And if you fancy creating a Chinese, Mexican or traditional Serbian dish then it is likely you could come up with all three in just such a store.
Vegetarians - Vegetarians and vegans need to be resourceful in Belgrade, but nevertheless there are a few places they can eat out. These are specialized restaurants such as Joy of the Heart in Svetogorska or Priroda in Batutova street in Belgrade, and the Green House in Novi Sad, but you can also check out Asian restaurants for their selection of vegetarian food. There is also an excellent shop serving fresh juices and salads - the Juice & Salads Bar near Sremska shopping mall. These are good places to start your search for other veggie-friendly shops and eateries.
Local supermarkets – There are numerous local supermarkets dotted around Serbia, run by both supermarket chains and individual owners. Prices vary considerably, with some local supermarkets offering up food at very reasonable prices, whilst others will me taking you to the cleaners. It is worth comparing their prices against your local piazza and larger supermarkets before opting on making them your choice for anything more than the essentials, but they can be a good place to go for a limited shop.
Being understood – Knowing Serbian is obviously helpful when shopping, but most food is fairly self-explanatory and product names are thankfully generally written in the Latin rather than Cyrillic alphabet. Not all food vendors speak English and so there are occasional problems, but it is amazing what hand signals and rudimentary Serbian on your part, or English on theirs, can achieve.
Preferential treatment – One of the great advantages of being a foreigner in Serbia is that you often receive preferential treatment whether it is looked for or not. Serbs are a hospitable bunch, and once they realise that you are foreign, they will often provide you with better service than those around you. This can be a little embarrassing at times, but accept it and appreciate it, as it isn’t often you can say the same when abroad.
The best way to shop in Serbia is to dive right in, trying out what is on offer in your local area rather than immediately turning to your supermarket. Ask for advice from co-workers, friends and neighbours about where is best to shop, and you will soon find yourself tracking down the best produce, reminiscing about a time when everything wasn’t under one roof.