Three years ago, Sanela Biloglavic came to Chelsea from the historic Bosnian city of Zenica, and in that short time she has become renowned among some of her countrymen in this area for her skills in preparing pita, a specialty that in Bosnia is both a staple and a delicacy.
“She makes the best,” says a friend, Danijela Mehic, originally from Sarajevo, and visiting Biloglavic and her boyfriend Almin Pivic for a pita dinner on a recent Wednesday night.
Not to be confused with the rounds of bread common on Middle Eastern tables, this pita refers to several types of stuffed phyllo pastries, each with a specific name. They’re called burek if filled with ground beef and onions; sirnica for cheese; zeljanica for spinach and cheese; krompirisu for potatoes; and tikvenica for zucchini.
Stuffed phyllo is relatively common in central and southeastern Europe — many Americans are familiar with spanikopita, Greek spinach pies. Bosnian pita (pronounced pee-ta) holds a special place in the tiny country, where it is a ubiquitous street food, restaurant mainstay, and family tradition. It is celebrated in song, literature, and countless YouTube videos of kitchen wizards skillfully spinning giant sheets of thin and delicate dough like gyroscopes, nary a tear. “In Bosnia, everyone knows how to make burek,” says Biloglavic, 28, who made her first pita when she was 8 years old.
The Bosnian War in 1992-1995 sent tens of thousands of refugees fleeing to Europe and North America, where it didn’t take long for pita to gain popularity and even make it into pop culture, getting mentioned in Lonely Planet’s 2012 “The World’s Best Street Food Book,” and Stieg Larsson’s popular “The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest.” “Instead of turning down towards Södermalm she kept going straight to Kungsholmen,” the heroine, Lisbeth Salander, says in the book. “I don’t know what the restaurants are like in Söder, but I know an excellent Bosnian place in Fridhemsplan. The burek is fantastic.”
In cities with large Bosnian populations, such as St. Louis, Chicago, New York, and Burlington Vt., Bosnian pita is in restaurants and groceries. In Boston, the curious can find burek, sirnica, and zeljanica at Sabur restaurant in Somerville, though not daily. Frozen varieties are at Five Star Market in Revere and Elma Market in Everett, where a 500-gram (about 18-ounce) pita to serve three or four people costs about $8.
Those determined enough to make pita themselves can also buy jufka, as phyllo dough is known in Bosnia, at either Five Star or Elma, or make it from scratch, like Biloglavic does.
Unlike phyllo sheets used to make spanikopita, store-bought jufka from Sarajevo comes in 11-by-13-inch sheets, and is thinner than paper. A 500-gram package contains 12 sheets which hold about 2 pounds of filling. It’s important that the sheets are long so that, after being sprinkled with filling, they can be rolled into long cylinders, about 1 inch in diameter, which are then typically shaped into snail-like spirals.
Well-practiced veterans like Biloglavic make jufka look easy. “I do this and Skype with my mom,” she says. Biloglavic learned watching her grandmother, who would flatten a mound of dough with a thin, 3-foot-long rolling pin — some families use broomsticks — creating an ultra-thin sheet that could easily measure 4 to 6 feet in diameter.
Today, Biloglavic forgoes the long rolling pin and stretches the dough by pulling along the edges until it is translucent. Somehow it doesn’t break. The secret is kneading, she says. The more you knead it, the less likely the jufka will tear.
Phyllo, not as thin, but still fragile, can be intimidating for novices. Fillings, on the other hand, are simple and can be adapted. To make sirnica, or cheese pita, for instance, choose cottage cheese, ricotta, hard grated cheeses, feta, sour cream, or yogurt, and combine two or three.
For each pita variety, Biloglavic sprinkles the filling along the edges of the jufka, rolls it snugly three or four times, and then cuts the cord of dough and filling away from the big sheet of dough. Some cords she forms into small snail shapes, while others become giant spirals. After baking, the result is a golden brown, moist pastry. The meal is typically completed with a side of yogurt, or washed down with kefir.
Biloglavic acknowledges that the pita takes a lot of time, and therefore she makes it only a couple of times a month.
“But when we have it, it’s special,” she says. “And we always try to have friends over.”