Having a ball with Balkan cuisine
ARTMAGEDDON - Igan D’Bayan (The Philippine Star) - July 29, 2015 - 10:00am

Serbian basketball player turned restaurateur Marko Batricevic remembers playing hoops when he was a teenager in his home country and the sirens would go off. 

“Every day, there would be different sirens,” he says. “During the NATO bombings in ’99, I was 13 years old, and all we kids were doing was playing in the fields.”

Batricevic came to Manila in May 2003. He played power forward for De La Salle Greenhills High School and De La Salle University, and was part of the Green Archers team which won the UAAP tile in 2007. His teammates were JVee Casio, Rico Maierhofer and PY Tang, among others. But injuries put an abrupt end to Marko’s basketball career. He says, “I had four surgeries in two years — for ACL twice, meniscal tear once. I also had notchplasty, a procedure where doctors help you extend your knee by scraping off the bone.” 

While basketball brought Marko to Manila — his heroes being NBA legends such as Peja Stojakovi? and Vlade Divac, two members of the Yugoslavian team that won gold in Indianapolis, USA in 2002 — love for Serbian food would take over Batricevic’s life and make him stay in our fair city.

Marko was born in northern Serbia, toward the Hungarian border. His father bought a World War 2 German-style house, converting it to a restaurant filled with antiques. Marko’s parents operate a restaurant in Serbia called Gradska Kafana (which means “the pub in town”). His grandma and his mom loved to cook. Food, he says, is very important in Serbian culture. Each family has a patron saint (for the Batricevic Family it is St. Djurdjic), and on every feast day, the patriarch of the house would invite guests to partake of all kinds of food on the table. The celebrations lasted up to two to three days.

When Batricevic gave up basketball altogether after his stint in La Salle, he decided to put his marketing degree and hearty appetite to good use by going into the restaurant business. In 2010, he opened Balkan Express along Jose Abad Santos Street in Little Baguio. It was a hit, frequented by diners who love all things Balkan. The 6-5 ex-baller was able to put up three more branches in Makati (Perea in Legaspi Village), RCBC Plaza, and Bonifacio Global City (BGC).

Serbian fare is a delightful medley of influences, explains Marko at the Balkan Kitchen & Bar in BGC where the man has invited us over for lunch.

“It’s a mix of Austro-Hungarian, Mediterranean, Turkish influences. We try to keep things simple and straightforward at the restaurant — big servings, value for money. We serve dishes similar to local dishes, but which are also unique in their own sense. Filipino diners are more open to trying new things.”

Similar to kaldereta is the Serbian goulash: beef stew served at Balkan Restaurant & Bar with just the right amount of thickness, spiciness and counterpointing onions and paprika. The goulash has hundreds of variations depending on town or country of origin, he points out — well, just like adobo. This particular incarnation comes with pasta. One of the restaurant’s bestsellers.

“Pinoys are known for barbecue, so we do a lot of minced meat also. We Serbians are not heavy on sauces or extreme seasoning. What we do in Serbia is to cook meat in way for its meat flavor to come out.”

The national food of Serbia, informs Marko, is a roasted pig dish similar to lechon called Pe?enje.

“What we do instead is to cut open the pig like a butterfly and oven-roast it — and we want to offer it here at the restaurant someday,” says the Serbian who counts sinigang and sisig as among his favorite Filipino dishes. “I love kinilaw!”

“It’s rare for Eastern  European cuisine to have similarities with our own local dishes,” explains TV5 weathercaster Ice Martinez, who is Marko’s girlfriend and a regular at Balkan Kitchen. “Serbian cuisine may be packaged differently but the taste is so familiar.”

Ice’s favorite — aside from the restaurant’s gourmet burger (patty stuffed with mozzarella, chili flakes and bacon) — is the Kobasica pork sausage, which she compares with Vigan longganisa. “They serve it here with mashed potatoes and mustard, but what I do is request for vinegar and garlic — and it’s so tasty with rice. Filipino-style talaga.”  

Marko Batricevic concludes, “Serbians and Filipinos — we both grew up not being the conquerors in history. So, we have this survivalist mode. Creativity is a big part of that. Basically, just being able to take what life throws at you.”

That last line could sum up Batricevic transition from power forward to restaurant owner. Doing a cool crossover from court to kitchen.

* * *

Balkan Kitchen & Bar is at the Crossroads Bldg., 32nd St. cor. 9th Ave., Bonifacio Global City, Taguig. For information, call 403-8364 and 846-0744, or SMS 0917-8898821.

ACIRC AUML BALKAN EXPRESS BALKAN KITCHEN BALKAN RESTAURANT BATRICEVIC BATRICEVIC FAMILY BONIFACIO GLOBAL CITY MARKO MARKO BATRICEVIC RESTAURANT
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