Cooking without Water in Bosnia, 1996

Music – National Anthem Bosnia and Herzegovina (Narodna Himna)
Kpm National Anthems



During the summer and fall of 1996, I had the privilege of working for a human rights organization, under the auspices of the United Nations and ICTY (International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia), as a Forensic Anthropologist. I spent two months in Bosnia-Herzegovina, housed in Tuzla and working in Kalesija. Tuzla is the economic, scientific, cultural, educational, health and tourist centre of northeast Bosnia.

This international / multi-disciplinary group of experts in all fields came and went throughout my stay, some for a week, some for several months. All of us were housed in several rented homes in Tuzla, courtesy of some wonderful families, who let strangers into their homes and lives.

The Dayton Peace Accord had been signed in December, 1995 to end the atrocities and genocide in Bosnia, which had been perpetrated since 1992. When I arrived in August, 1996, war was still fresh in everyone’s minds and as a Forensic Anthropologist, I was one of many, whose goal was to identify the victims of the war and how they died, in order to bring justice to the perpetrators.

Our rented accommodations were very comfortable, except for the inevitable repercussions from the recent wars. I learned in the first few days that water in the area was only available between 5:00 a.m and 7:00 a.m., and no water was available at all on Wednesdays. Anywhere from five to eight of us were housed at any given time at a residence. We soon learned to ensure that we were all awake by 5:00 a.m. to start filling up our preciously hoarded (now empty) wine bottles, beer bottles, plastic containers, buckets, and anything, which could be found to hold the water until it was cut off until the next morning.

The kitchen at the residence I was housed in was very small, and at any given time, the floor was cluttered with containers of water. The water was precious, not only for drinking and cooking, but was necessary to use to facilitate toilet flushing as well. Nonetheless, I had always taken for granted the ready availability of H20, no matter where I had lived and it was strange and rather unnerving to now have to plan the day’s activities around it. Bathing (other than a cold splash of water on the face in the morning), was out of the question. Luckily, however, we were provided with water tanks and portable showers at our work location, at least until the tank ran out before the day was over. When that happened, we just waited until the next day or two, until the tank was refilled.

We had a wonderful cook at our residence, who had been hired to make sandwiches and dinners for a weird variety of scientists, from all over the globe. Although none of us spoke her language, and she, none of ours, we managed for the most part to get things done. I always marveled at how she squandered enough water to cook daily meals for a dozen people, in a small kitchen, stepping between bottles of water on the floor and cooking on a tiny old gas stove that was somewhat recalcitrant and downright frightening. Yet, she did.

Since the time I spent in Bosnia in 1996, I have thought often of the people there, the horrors they experienced and how inexplicable it all was to me. I recently located a cookbook entitled ‘Cooking in Croatia and Bosnia’, by Karmela Kis, published in 2005, long after the wars ended. I wanted to cook some of the recipes made for us by our cook in Tuzla, although she was constrained by the lack of fresh produce and many grocery items, due to war shortages, not to mention the lack of water. Fortunately for me, I had no restraints such as the lack of water for preparation and cooking, nor did I have fear lurking in the background every time a car in the neighbourhood backfired.

Below is a recipe for ‘Stuffed Paprika’ from Karmela Kis’ cookbook, which is very similar to the dish our Bosnian cook made, when the ingredients were available (namely water!). Thank you Karmela!:

Stuffed Paprika

8 fresh green paprika (essentially, a bell pepper, green but you can use red)
1 egg
300 g. ground beef
2 tablespoons oil
1 onion
1 teaspoon finely chopped parsley leaves
50 g. rice

For the Sauce:

1 kg. tomatoes
2 tablespoons oil
2 tablespoons flour
1 teaspoon sugar
½ cup sour cream

Cut off the top part of the paprikas, remove the seeds and soak in boiling water for ½ minute. Sauté finely chopped onions in oil, add ground beef, stir while simmering, salt, and add rice. Let cool, then add egg and stuff paprikas. Place paprikas upright in the pot, pour tomato sauce, add water if necessary to cover the ingredients, bring to a boil, reduce the temperature, and simmer for 40 minutes. For the sauce: cut and crush tomatoes, and simmer. When tender, strain the sauce. Brown flour lightly in oil, add sugar and tomato sauce.

In the years following the wars in Bosnia, I have often thought of my time there. I hope the people of Bosnia-Herzegovina have recovered from the atrocities and the wars. I hope that the cooks have a reliable and steady source of water to drink and cook with….something that I had never given a thought to in my own kitchen. How much we take for granted.

About vintagecookbookery

Cookbook lover and collector with a burgeoning collection of cookbooks. Reading and researching food trends, history of cooking techniques and technological advances in cooking, what we eat and why and cookbooks as reflectors of cultures is a fascination for me. As of November 7th, 2013, I hold the current Guinness World Record title for the largest collection of cookbooks: 2,970 at the official count on July 14th, 2013 (applaud now, thank you very much!) The current (unofficial) number is now 6,500. What next? More shelves?
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