Raising two children and working full-time, my mother managed to create fresh meals from her tiny kitchen in Bosnia every day. “Roux soup” was often on the table for supper when I was little, made of not much more than flour, oil, and some seasonings. Our family sat together for big weekend lunches, always beginning with some kind of soup. It isn’t Sunday lunch unless it begins with a spoon.
But I hated helping in the kitchen—chores such as cutting the onions, peeling the potatoes, or stirring the pot were no fun—and I didn’t even want to eat. My mother always tried to present a pretty plate; she tried spoonfuls of fish oil in the middle of the night; she tried bribery. But nothing made me hungry.
It wasn’t until I was pregnant with my own daughter that my appetite changed. I have no medical confirmation, but I believe that hormonal changes affected my metabolism, and suddenly I found myself ravenous, the flavors exploding in my mouth. I was on a mission to eat the world. But soon after, the civil war in Bosnia started, and now that I wanted to eat, there was no food.
Many people were in denial that the war would affect us. Located in the very center of what was then Yugoslavia, Bosnia was a mix of different ethnic and religious groups, nicknamed "The Little Europe." Just like my parents, many Bosnians intermarried—Catholics, Muslims, and Orthodox. But the war made life a horror. With visas for Germany, obtained with the help of an aunt, my family managed to escape, carrying just one suitcase each—mostly important documents, a few photos, and clothes for the season. We started a new life, learning the language and adjusting to the culture. Food was now widely available, and my mother provided a homemade meal every day. I believe cooking was her escape and a safety net. If there's food on the table, everything is fine. It comforted her and gave her a purpose.
After the war ended, Germany didn't extend its welcome to the refugees. But home was no more, and there was no returning. We immigrated to the United States, almost 20 years ago.
My mom is 79 and still cooks daily, although she lives by herself. Leaving everything behind for the second time and starting another new life has taken a toll on her. Her knowledge of English is basic, not enough to have conversations with friends or neighbors. It saddens me to see my once lively, cultured, and happy mom so isolated. But she finds joy in cooking the same traditional meals she's cooked for 60 years. It is still her escape, or maybe a connection to her past and the only familiar thing left.
(with my daughter and granddaughters)
I never taught my daughter to cook, and the poor left-handed girl had to figure out on her own how to cut onions. Onions are very important in our cuisine. It is said: "You know you're a Bosnian if you first chop the onions and then decide what's for dinner."
But my granddaughters (now almost three and six) will have memorable kitchen adventures with their grandma, and I'm making sure they have plenty of proof (they occasionally roll their eyes at my constant picture-taking).
It’s ironic that a once skinny little girl who couldn’t eat is now on a quest to taste the globe, one country at a time. Roux soup was the most despised dish of my childhood, and yet the one that makes me most sentimental. Although I'm really nothing like my mother, food is definitely my escape too and my cure.
Jas Brechtl is a Bosnian expat who has lived in northern Indiana for 20 years. She is a writer and photographer, the author of Balkan Comfort Food, and creative director of All That's Jas food blog.
1/2 c. vegetable oil
1/3 c. all-purpose flour
2 t. paprika
1/4 t. cayenne pepper, or more to taste
1/2 t. caraway seeds, optional
4 c. water
3 t. Vegeta* (substitute with 2 vegetable bouillon cubes)
salt and pepper to taste
croutons and sour cream (optional)
*Vegeta is a Croatian condiment (much like bouillon in powder form), which is a mixture of spices and various dry vegetables. We like to season everything with Vegeta and use it instead of salt.
Heat oil in a medium-size pot.
Stir in the flour.
With a wooden spoon or whisk, continue to stir over low heat until flour is golden.
Mix in paprika, cayenne pepper, and caraway seeds, if using.
Slowly add water, continuing to stir as it thickens.
Add Vegeta or bouillon.
Simmer, stirring frequently, for 15 - 20 minutes.
Add salt and pepper to taste.
Serve with croutons (preferably homemade) and sour cream.