“Bey’s Soup is the ultimate comfort food of the Balkans,” Dalida told me, as she began chopping onions. “We eat it in every season, at the holidays, for special occasions — all the time really.”
“Who is Bey?” I asked.
“Ah, that would be Gazi Hüsrev Bey,” she said, smiling the way you do when someone mentions your absolutely most favorite uncle. “Bey was his title; it means governor. Gazi Hüsrev Bey was the great benefactor of Sarajevo.”
You can’t spend more than a few hours in Sarajevo, capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina, without hearing about this man. His name is still, respectfully, on the tip of every tongue — which is not bad considering he lived 500 years ago, in the dark ages before social media.
Hüsrev came from money and power, grandson to one sultan, and after a string of successes on the battlefield, chosen by another — Suleiman the Magnificent — to govern Bosnia for the Ottoman Empire. As fans of Game of Thrones know only too well, wealthy titled grandsons and war heroes don’t always make the best rulers. But to this day, Gazi Hüsrev Bey is generally viewed as a mix of Santa Claus, Jack Bauer, and the prime minister played by Hugh Grant in Love Actually. In other words, exactly the right person for the job. On Hüsrev’s watch, Sarajevo became known as “a flower among cities.”
Walking around the city this past week, I have been astonished at the scope of the Bey’s projects. He not only built a gorgeous mosque but helped finance the Old Orthodox Church and a Franciscan monastery. Rich and I visited the school he founded (originally for boys, although later open to all) with plenty of scholarships and an emphasis on “the rational and traditional sciences.” Nearby we saw the Bey’s library, housing the most important collection of manuscripts in the country, many from Hüsrev’s personal collection. He built public bath houses, drinking fountains, parks, and a caravansary where visitors to the city could stay for several days for free; sadly this last is no longer in operation and Rich and I had to pay for an Airbnb.
I was staggered to discover that the public toilet he’d had installed in 1530 is still in operation, and I felt I owed it to my readers to pop in for a look around so I could report on its condition. You’ll be glad to know that the plumbing has been upgraded since the Bey’s day. There are stalls, clean ceramic squat toilets, modern sinks, and an optional donation tin.
The Bey also fed his people. “He opened a soup kitchen, a free place to eat,” Dalida told me, as she finished chopping the vegetables and brought out a large soup pot. “It was meant for the poor, but the food was so good everyone went. They say even Gazi Hüsrev Bey himself ate there.”
Dalida and I were in the kitchen of her friend and employer, Uliana, co-founder of Balkantina, a small company organizing food tours and cooking classes out of a gourmet shop behind the Sacred Heart Cathedral in Sarajevo. Rich and I had dropped by the shop one day, and when Uliana heard about our Mediterranean Comfort Food Tour, she invited us to her home to see Begova Čorba (Bey’s Soup) prepared as part of a traditional Bosnian dinner.
When we arrived at her apartment, Uliana welcomed us with a platter of cheese, tomatoes, paper-thin ham, olive oil, and honey. “We always begin with a meze plate,” she explained. “And of course, rakija.” The traditional tiny servings of high-octane, homemade fruit brandy were poured and we toasted the occasion.
After we’d nibbled our honey-dipped cheese, sipped our rakija, and been introduced to Uliana’s enormous Maine coon cat, Max, Dalida showed me the first, most characteristic ingredient in Bey’s Soup: a long string of dried okra.
Now, I’ve had okra dishes that I loved, but I’ve run across a few that, as one writer so delicately expressed it, had the consistency of snot. Not to worry, it turns out that dried okra, commonly sold hereabouts on a string, eliminates sliminess, leaving a delicious vegetable bursting with vitamins and minerals. (If you’re pregnant or have asthma, high cholesterol, diabetes, or a compromised immune system, check out the medical benefits of okra.) No dried okra in your supermarket? Here’s how to dry it in your home oven.
Bey’s Soup likes to simmer as long as possible, an hour and a half at least. While Dalida’s pot bubbled away on the stove, filing the air with the scent of onion, chicken, okra, and lemon, she whipped up a batch of dolmas (grape leaves and small yellow peppers stuffed with ground beef and rice). Then she tossed together a salad of tomatoes, cucumbers, and sour cream. By this time the soup had simmered sufficiently, and she removed the chicken from the bone and thickened the broth with a roux. Dinner was ready.
The results were marvelous, a thick, delicious chicken soup for the body and soul. Just the sort of food to nourish a weary traveler newly arrived in the city, yet fit for any special occasion, such as getting to know new friends.
Did Gazi Hüsrev Bey ever actually eat this soup? Who knows? But like the city of Sarajevo itself, Bey’s Soup will forever stand as a testimony to his generosity. And I like to think he would have enjoyed knowing that. One year into his reign, he set up a vakuf (endowment) to make sure the city would have the policies and funds it needed to keep his legacy going. Part of that document says:
"Good deeds cause evil to flee, and the loftiest of all good deeds is charity. The loftiest of all charities is the one that lasts forever, while the most beautiful of all good deeds is the one that keeps on giving.... The efficacy of the vakuf will persist for as long as this world exists, and its work will continue until Judgment Day.”
Not all the Bey’s good works are intact; the bath house and free lodgings closed long ago, and the school and library have relocated to larger quarters. But it’s pretty clear that if anything can survive until Judgement Day, it’s the pleasure of sitting down to a nice warm bowl of Bey’s Soup.
Want to try this at home? Get Bey's Soup Recipe here.
YOU MIGHT ALSO ENJOY SOME OF MY OTHER FAVORITE COMFORT FOODS
AND THESE STORIES ABOUT REMARKABLE PEOPLE
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I'm an American travel writer based in Seville, Spain and my home state of California. Right now I'm on a Nutters' World Tour seeking eccentric people, quirky places, and wacky food so I can have the fun of writing about them here.
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