Story by Lindsay Sterling
Illustrations by Margaret Owen
A cooking lesson with an immigrant is like love. It comes when I least expect it. This time I was getting my teeth cleaned. The accent I was listening to was my dental hygienist’s, Sanja Bukarac, her golden green eyes upside-down next to her face mask: “How about next Friday?” Turns out, she is not only the best dentil hygienist I’ve ever had – not a moment of discomfort – she also grew up in what used to be Yugoslavia (the part that is today Bosnia and Herzegovina) and would be happy to teach me how to make her favorite meal from her childhood: burek, a meat pie wrapped in phyllo dough.
At her house in an outer Forest suburb, she continued, “It’s like a pizza place here. Burek, there.” She rolled sautéed ground meat and scallions into sheets of phyllo dough to make the shapes of dinner candles. Then she bundled three of these together by rolling them all inside another sheet of phyllo. She put this roll-of-rolls with two more into a greased casserole dish, then sprayed the top with oil and popped the dish in the oven for forty-five minutes.
Question: where’s the ghastly amount of butter that usually goes with phyllo? Phyllo dough is basically like tissue paper made out of flour and water. Once baked, it’s fun to eat – crunchy, delicate and flakey. But without something moist to hold it together, like butter, the phyllo dough would just flake apart into a mess. Sanja mixed raw egg and yogurt together and drizzled that mixture with a spoon onto the meat before rolling each tube, and again onto the three tubes before wrapping them into a bundle. Substituting butter with a small amount of egg and yogurt... my cholesterol hygienist will not believe how clean my arteries are!
While the meat pie baked in the oven for 45 minutes, Sanja shared the story of how she got here. The power had been out for two whole years. Normal teenage stuff like romance went completely missing. She’d been shot at twice by snipers for simply existing. Then she met a guy. Guess where. Just guess. In a dentist’s office! She was in her twenties, working. He came in for an appointment. They dated and fell in love in the middle of the Bosnian War, got married, and escaped together to Serbia, where his mother lived. Serbia turned out to be troubled too. People were being thrown in jail and beaten because of the sound of their names. After three years of displacement, Sanja finally moved to the U.S. with her husband. When they first arrived here, they took a picture of a refrigerator filled with groceries because they’d never seen that before.
Once the top of the burek was crispy and golden brown, she served slices on small plates and glasses of kefir with spoons in them. She instructed me to take a bite of the burek and then a spoonful of plain kefir. I was hesitant. Plain kefir? Straight? It was delicious! So this is what plain kefir was made for! Since the pressure is on this week for love, I might suggest making burek and remembering as we eat it: if we are with loved ones and not being shot at, life is good. And if you’re looking for love, it can’t hurt to visit the dentist.
Recipe coming soon.