It might give some people pause to step into a St. Louis bakery and have their order taken by a woman dressed in something that looks like a 1960s-era bathrobe, complete with clogs and a hair net. But being served by a kitchen maven who resembles your grandmother is not an unusual sight in St. Louis – and here, your grandmother will also have a Bosnian accent.
When we walked into Zlatne Kapi, we were greeted by such a woman, and met with curious stares from men in construction clothes who were watching a Bosnian sporting event while speaking the language of their home country.
We ordered tulumbe – gloriously tender, airy, and syrupy pastries that look like bloated eclairs and taste like the lovechild of baklava and funnel cake – and hurmašice, moist coconut cake slices doused in sugar syrup. On our way out, we gave our hostess a hug as the men looked on. Though she appeared stunned, she squeezed back.
Just a few decades ago, such a scene would never have existed in the U.S. But it’s quite common now in St. Louis, which boasts the largest Bosnian population outside of Europe – an estimated 50,000 to 70,000. The south St. Louis neighborhood known as Little Bosnia has played an integral role in the city’s evolving culinary landscape.
Little Bosnia has bakeries, grocery stores, butcher shops and restaurants stocked with food from the former Yugoslavian country. But once upon a time, this neighborhood was blighted and struggling mightily. Its transformation into its current state is a bittersweet story, as most Bosnians who call St. Louis home had to escape devastating circumstances during the Bosnian War between 1992-1995, and rebuild their lives in an unfamiliar country.
Ben Moore, director of the Bosnia Memory Project at Fontbonne University, who documents stories of genocide survivors, says the first Bosnians arrived in St. Louis in 1993, and were mainly concentration camp survivors.
“There was a steady flow of Bosnians into St. Louis – and cities such as Denver, Grand Rapids and Chicago – because of decisions made by bureaucrats in Washington that the Midwest would be a preferable destination, because the cost of living was low, and there wouldn’t be as much competition with other immigrant groups for jobs,” he says,
In 1998, when Bosnian refugees who lived in Germany were told they had to leave, Madeline Albright made arrangements for them to come to the U.S. By that point, St. Louis had become an attractive destination. Add to that a secondary migration of Bosnians from other parts of the U.S., and St. Louis soon developed the largest Bosnian population outside of Europe.
“When we look at Bosnian immigration,” says Moore, “we see the very worst that humans can experience and then we see the other side – the best that humans can be. They’ve brought out the best in south St Louis.”
Sulejman and Ermina Grbic, who own Grbic, St. Louis’ longest-running Bosnian restaurant – as well as Lemmons, which their daughters, Senada and Erna, run – have also brought out the best in the community by offering Bosnian refugees jobs at their restaurant and a taste of their homeland.
Lemmons was a long-time fried chicken restaurant before the Grbic family took it over. Senada and Erna were born in St. Louis, but grew up steeped in their mother’s homecooking. Rather than go the traditional route, though, the sisters decided to infuse their menu with their experience of growing up in America into the Bosnian homecooking they ate as children.
“Growing up, we wanted to eat what other kids at our school were eating,” remembers Erna. “They had chips and sandwiches, but my mom said, ‘You are never going to eat a bologna sandwich.'
“We were bringing sarma (stuffed cabbage with beef and rice), sauerkraut and fresh bread to school,” says Senada, laughing. “We’d tell our mom our friends ate tacos and she wouldn't let us eat tacos. Finally she made veal tacos with Vegeta seasoning, and we’d use Bosnian farmers cheese instead of cheddar. They were delicious. That’s where the fusion started.”
The sisters represent a new crop of chefs who are putting their own stamp on an already-established Bosnian food scene in St. Louis – keeping to tradition while innovating in a way that’s unique to the needs of the community they serve.
Lemmon’s serves dishes like traditional kabobs, but glazed with sweet chili sauce, as well as flatbread pizza with cevapi – minced meat in the shape of a sausage – feta butter and mozzarella, which confuses Bosnian customers, since cevapi is commonly served in the pita-like Bosnian bread, lepinja. They also make their own spin on fried chicken – Bosnian schnitzel brined in buttermilk and battered – as well as chicken wings marinated in plum rakija (brandy).
“One of the reasons Bosnians have been so successful in St. Louis is because they can fuse things from their own culture with existing components of St. Louis culture,” says Moore.
Perhaps no one knows this better than Loryn Nalic, a St. Louis chef without an ounce of Balkan in her blood, who worked at restaurants across the city before stumbling into a love of all things Bosnian. Her husband, Edo, who is from Zvornik, came to St. Louis via Germany with his family in 1998. After Loryn's first meal at Edo's house, she was so hooked on Bosnian food, she went to Bosnia for two months to study with chefs and home cooks, then opened a food truck, the Balkan Treat Box, so she could make Bosnian food full-time.
Though not based in Little Bosnia, she’s a roving representative for the cuisine, and spreads the Bosnian food gospel across her city.
“We were recognized as one of the best new restaurants in St. Louis,” says Nalic. “It’s a food truck…and it’s Balkan food. When has that ever happened?”
Nalic says her chef friends have started sending her photos of their own home-cooked Bosnian meals, inspired by what she’s doing.
“It’s huge to know how this is touching people,” she says.