Bosnia & Herzegovina

Encounters with Bosnian coffee

If traveling through Bosnia, there will come a time when you’ll be pulled into a street café or someone’s kitchen, seated, and offered a thimble-sized cup of what looks, smells and tastes like hot, sweet, thick bitter mud.

This is bosanska kafa. Bosnian coffee. Hot, thick and strong, it’s a staple in the region and brings people together every day and has the miraculous power of drawing conversations out of people.

Meals, entire afternoons and evenings can slip away over the table as you sip with family, friends, strangers and those you’ve only just begun to know. In Sarajevo especially, you are never out of sight of a coffee shop.

People will sit for hours, chatting or arguing. Everything and anything in a person’s life can be raked over a cup of coffee. I had a lot of Bosnians tell me their high unemployment rate is also why so much time is spent in coffee shops, so it’s both a social and economic imperative.

In modern Bosnian cities of course you can find espresso and drip coffee, but the heart of the culture really lies with this brew that matches their sometimes-dark sense of humour.

I drank more coffee during the four weeks I was in Bosnia than I had the entire year before.

The sweet comes with the rest of the coffee service on a silver tray. You’re meant to dip the sweet into the coffee to be sucked or nibbled on like a cookie. Kuca Sevdaha, a café in Sarajevo’s old town, Baščaršija, serves sugar cubes and Turkish delight. (Mel Hattie/Mel Had Tea)
The sweet comes with the rest of the coffee service on a silver tray. You’re meant to dip the sweet into the coffee to be sucked or nibbled on like a cookie. Kuca Sevdaha, a café in Sarajevo’s old town, Baščaršija, serves sugar cubes and Turkish delight. (Mel Hattie/Mel Had Tea)

The coffee arrives on a tray — often made of etched or imprinted copper, one of the country’s traditional crafts. Bosnia’s mines provide the metal and people here have been working with copper it since before the Ottoman era, although it was the Ottomans that advanced copper

Nijaz Jažić runs a copper etching shop with his son Kenan in Baščaršija. I bought a Bosnian coffee set from him (the one blurred in the foreground) and, naturally, as I was watching him finish an engraving he brought some Bosnian coffee for me. Their shop is called Kazandžijska Radnja and is at 71000 Sarajevo, Kazazi br. 13. Nijaz creates all his own designs (they’re on the corkboard in blue). (Mel Hattie/Mel Had Tea)
Nijaz Jažić runs a copper etching shop with his son Kenan in Baščaršija. I bought a Bosnian coffee set from him (the one blurred in the foreground) and, naturally, as I was watching him finish an engraving he brought some Bosnian coffee for me. Their shop is called Kazandžijska Radnja and is at 71000 Sarajevo, Kazazi br. 13. Nijaz creates all his own designs (they’re on the corkboard in blue). (Mel Hattie/Mel Had Tea)

Bosnians also have a delightful tradition of serving their coffee with a glass of water. You don’t have to ask for it, it just comes on the tray, de facto. This is perfect, because your mouth often feels dry after the astringent bitterness. I wish all coffees came with water.

Bring me all the water please. (Mel Hattie/Mel Had Tea)
Bring me all the water please. (Mel Hattie/Mel Had Tea)

When you take the coffee, don’t drink the last sip. You’ll get nothing but a mouth full of thick sludge.

Because of their shared Ottoman history, it’s understandably similar to Turkish coffee (some would call it the exact same) and Greek coffee, for that matter.

No matter what you do, do not — I repeat: Do NOT, call it Turkish coffee in front of a Bosnian person.

Bosnian names for coffee things

On the tray you have your džezva (‘jezz-va’), the larger pot with a flared base. This is what your coffee comes in.

Then there’s the fildžan (‘phil-john’), the tiny ceramic cup without a handle, into which you pour your Bosnian coffee.

Rahat lokum is the name for the sweet we’d call a Turkish delight, and the lump of sugar is called grumen šećera.

The Doctor’s House hostel in Sarajevo offers this handy guide in their kitchen. There are many džezvas and small ceramic cups — no respectable Bosnian house is without them. (Mel Hattie/Mel Had Tea)
The Doctor’s House hostel in Sarajevo offers this handy guide in their kitchen. There are many džezvas and small ceramic cups — no respectable Bosnian house is without them. (Mel Hattie/Mel Had Tea)

How to make Bosnian coffee

  • Boil water
  • Add the hot water along with a few spoonfuls of fine-ground coffee into your džezva.**
  • Stir it around, like you would a hot chocolate.
  • Put the džezva on the stove and turn it up medium-high. We want to heat it up so that a thick foam called the crema forms on top of the coffee, but we don’t want it to boil.
  • When the crema forms, take it off the stove and spoon a bit of crema off the top and put it into your cup. This is the good stuff. If you’re drinking with more than one person, each one should get a bit in their cup.
  • Then pour from the džezva to finish filling each cup.
  • Sip slowly and smile.

** This is actually what distinguishes it from Turkish coffee, where the grounds are mixed with cold water.

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So that’s the spiel on Bosnian coffee. Even for a tea drinker like myself, a small but mighty cup of bosanska kafa in the morning just felt like the right way to say hello to the day in Bosnia.

Have you tried Bosnian coffee? Have you been to Bosnia? Did I get anything wrong? Let me know in the comments below!

Hi, I’m Mel, blogger and tea sommelier at Mel Had Tea. I love to explore, learn, and meet new people. Nothing inspires me more than reading, traveling the world, talking to strangers, and drinking tea.

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