A Little Taste of Bosnia in BG

Aug 11, 2021 | Lifestyle

By Casey McCarthy

On the corner of Old Morgantown Road and Parkhurst Drive, between slender white, wooden columns, in mesh black chairs, hazed by cigarette smoke and steamy espresso, two older gentleman converse, speaking softly, in a language I don’t recognize.

Inside the window panes, between yellow walls with olivine stripe, past ashtrays stacked by the propped open door, down the tannish-gray tile hallway splitting green-striped booths and simple black tables (salt, pepper, and sugar on each) similar conversations take place.

The language, menu, and culture are Bosnian.  The city is Bowling Green, Kentucky. The Behar Cafe, a Bosnian restaurant and grocery, provides one of the few places the area’s Bosnian residents can find traditional food and atmosphere, making home feel a little closer for a displaced community.

Zejna Haleba opened the Bosnian cafe with her husband four years ago, Previously home to Novo Dolce, a Bosnian-owned gastropub now located off U.S. 31 W, the cafe provides a quiet atmosphere for the Bosnian population to come, connect and catch up over traditional dishes.

Haleba, with the help of her son Dastin, 23, translating between us, said opening a restaurant felt like the natural thing to do. Before coming to the United States, Zejna was a cook. With the cafe, she could create her own job.

“I’m boss, myself,” Zejna tells me in English.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, approximately 12 percent of the population in Bowling Green is foreign-born.  With The International Center located here, Bowling Green has seen a large number of refugees over the past decades as a result of conflicts across the globe.

Bowling Green became the home of a large Bosnian refugee community in the early 1990s as a result of the Bosnian War,  a series of ethnically charged conflicts and genocides between 1992 and 1995 after the dismantlement of former Yugoslavia. Mortars, rockets, snipers, and “ethnic cleansings” left estimates of between 90,000 and 300,000 people dead and over 2.2 million displaced. Haleba and her family came to the United States around this time but she said she now doesn’t remember the year exactly.  They moved to Bowling Green about seven years ago.

Zejna says Bosnians in the community come in the cafe to catch up, find out about deaths, illnesses, and events in the community. She calls it a traditional place that feels like home to them. Passing into the more dimly lit grocery, products mirror the patrons, foreign to me, yet reminiscent of home in their eyes. The cafe and grocery offer a lot of items not found in many other groceries in the area.

Near the register there are packages of bananko, (a chocolate-covered banana dessert), boxes of anti-hairloss  hijab shampoo, and griski (peanut-filled pretzel treats), to name a few things. In the middle, fresh tomatoes and baby cucumbers; against the wall and on the shelves, Turkish coffee, beef goulash, and a variety of jarred peppers, pickles, and okra. Freezers are filled with Jaffa cakes (chocolate-covered, orange flavored treats), veal rolls, whole cabbages, and Thomy mayonnaise.

Becir Par and Hasiv Mujezinovic enter the cafe, joining their friends for lunch on a weekday afternoon in November 2017. Par pulls a chair up on the outside of the booth.  With Zejna’s help I ask Mujezinovic about the cafe as he walks into the grocery side of the building. Mujezinovic, a stout bald, elderly man smiles as he turns to respond.

“Clean,” Mujezinovic says, holding a thumb up as he turns to grab a bottled soda from the cooler against the wall.

“Food, perfect,” he continues.

Pointing toward the espresso machine: “Drinks, good.”

Motioning towards Zejna, then the kitchen behind him: “Personnel, good.”

“I don’t know about the kitchen,” Mujezinovic says with a smirk.

Returning to the booth, Par jokes with me as I ask him about the cafe. Par, a stout older gentleman, tells me he’s recently divorced, asking that I make him sound good so that he can find a nice American woman. The table bellows with laughter when I tell him I’ll do my best.

Par called the Behar Cafe “a little different,” serving traditional Bosnian cuisine in Bowling Green.

The most popular dish, according to Dastin, is the cevapi, an original Bosnian dish consisting of sausage cooked, then stuffed into freshly baked bread, traditionally served with kaymak, similar to sour cream, and onion.

Dastin was born in Bosnia, but doesn’t remember much of it, since he moved to the United States before he can remember.  The family lived in various locations around central California, including just outside Sacramento, before moving to Bowling Green around seven years ago.

Dastin attended high school here in Bowling Green, and now helps his parents working in the cafe. Growing up, Zejna would make traditional Bosnian dishes for the family at home. While it’s stuck with him growing up with it, Dastin said he understands why some people might not like it.

“It’s kind of plain,” Dastin said. “During the war, they didn’t really have much stuff.  Just the basics. So they made what could out of that. They tried to spice it up here and there.”

Over 80 percent of the people who come to Behar Cafe are Bosnian, mostly older, with many of them speaking little to no English, Dastin said.  He added that he’s not sure what the customers think of the cafe, but said he guesses it’s just a taste of home.

“They get more of a home feel here than they would going to Cheddar’s or somewhere like that,” Dastin said.

Two tables of people converse on a chilly, late afternoon inside the cafe. At one table, two men argue as they’re getting up to leave, pushing each other playfully, jostling ahead of each other, perhaps arguing over who will pay for whom.

Across the center hallway, Bill Traugott, a resident of Bowling Green, discusses travel over Bosnian dishes and espresso with a pair of friends visiting from Great Britain. They discuss trips to Shanghai, Ireland, Scotland, and Argentina over Bosnian dishes and espresso.

Traugott and his friends continue their conversation as they get up from the booth, heading toward the register. Traugott, a regular, enjoys the quiet atmosphere of the cafe. While taking classes at his leisure at WKU in the past, Traugott said the cafe provided a great place to get work done, away from his two kids.

“It’s my hangout,” Traugott said. “You can come get some hearty Bosnian food. They have the best bean soup in Bowling Green.”

Grah, a Bosnian bean soup, is typically made with white, cranberry, or pinto beans, Traugott praised the sarma, stuffed cabbage filled with beef and rice, and gulas, or goulash, a beef stew with “a lot of paprika,” and the most popular dish, the cevapi.

Emma Carmichael, owner of Travelling Through, a hybrid bookstore, cafe, and art space in Waterloo, England, spent a year living in Bosnia between 2010 and 2011, volunteering for a cultural heritage project in Vareš, a small town of around 10,000 people. Carmichael, visiting Traugott in Bowling Green, said the food is similar, but not exactly the same, in her first trip to the cafe.

“The ajvar was very good,” Carmichael said.  Ajvar is a red pepper-based condiment served as a side, or spread. “The sausage in the cevapi was similar.”

The kajmak, Carmichael said, was a little different. She described it as being “much thicker and less buttery” than what she’d had in Vareš.

While the food wasn’t exactly the same, she said you get a sense of the country and culture from the place.

The place is Bowling Green, seen clearly through the pane glass windows in the front, yet the inside feels like Bosnia.  While not exactly the same, it’s just a little taste of it. For the Bosnian residents of Bowling Green, even a small taste in a small cafe on the corner, can mean the world.

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