Little Roses of Sarajevo

Little Roses of Sarajevo

John E Lueth, D.D.S.*:

In choosing our cover feature for this issue of Northwest Dentistry, we found ourselves in one of those infamous editorial eddies that takes you through a 355-degree twirl only to leave you high, dry, and not quite there. A change of plan courtesy of the well-known “circumstances beyond our control” postponed the scheduled cover article and left us asking, “What do we want? What do we need? And what do we have?” Which is exactly what life’s larger “circumstances beyond ... “ have left so many of us asking recently.
As is so often the case, something had been waiting, patiently, quietly, until we could see it. A small story on the surface, this is, we think, one with a world of meaning, especially now.
May we suggest you pour yourself a cup of tea, carry it with you to some place you won’t be interrupted, and clear your mind. Watch the vapor rise and curl. Then join us for the journey of the final five degrees, and complete the circle. The Editors

Just About Now
It was about a year ago, just about now actually, that I had one of those days in the office that was good — you know, just good, so good, and it set me thinking.
It has been said that people come closer when they share a meal. It binds us in the enjoyment of something so essential to life ... food. It doesn’t require a common language to appreciate. And it may afford the opportunity to share an intimacy of a universal experience through that food. In another way, I have often been interested in sharing experience relating to food with others; in particular, with my patients through the sharing of recipes.
Over the years of chatting with patients, I have delighted over conversations that I have often had with them which related to food, specifically recognizing and appreciating the role of food in traditions within families and cultures. I come from German and Norwegian heritage, with extended families steeped in those food traditions. So very many patients have told me about customs relating to food from their own food heritage. And many times we have exchanged recipes.
I have always liked to ask my patients, especially around Christmas and other holidays, if they have any family food traditions or ethnic dishes they prepare. It’s fun. It’s energizing. It’s fattening.
And food just may be the ultimate unifier! You really know you have connected with a patient and are sharing in his or her genuine everyday life when that person feels at ease to share with you some most favored recipe. My favorite recipe shared is the one accompanied by a story, a story which relates why it is so special to the giver. It may be that, for them, the recipe has the best taste ever. It may hold a special place in a family because it honors or remembers a beloved family member, or it recounts an origin or occasion. Maybe it has special family or cultural significance. It might be for reasons humorous, serious, or sacred. Or it might carry the significance of gratitude. These and other little bits of sharing family or cultural traditions through food are universal themes.
First ingredient? Two people feeling comfortable with each other. Then comes the magic: doors open, long conversations begin, and memory runs smack into invention as if they both went diving for the first tray out of the oven. But of course there’s always more. And that day a little more than a year ago there certainly was.

A Long Day’s Journey
Because dentistry itself is an intimate encounter between persons — physically, psychologically, emotionally — beyond providing treatment, we as caregivers may be given the opportunity for sharing more deeply in the personal lives of our patients. It can become an invitation to learn of deeper values and traditions; an opportunity for communication more than that strictly necessary to provide care. Patient relationships, having developed over time, may reach to a deeper, personal, human level which leads to sharing of stories, philosophies, worries, and celebrations.
At that time about a year ago, a patient of mine required a biopsy. This tall, dark-haired, lumbering man with the booming, deep voice always lightens the office with his gregarious cheerfulness. Along with the twinkle in his eye, the fact that Drago still carries a Bosnian accent to accompany his firm handshake adds to the reasons everyone in the office likes him.
Two suspicious small white spots on the side of Drago’s tongue were new since his last visit, and he had been unaware of their existence. I asked him about them, showed him their location in the mirror, and recommended we have him see the oral surgeon as soon as he was able — all the while reassuring him that it was more than likely not a serious problem. But of course the small possibility of oral cancer was there, and we talked about how we wanted to know for certain by having them removed and checked. There naturally was concern on the part of the patient. But given the clinical appearance of the lesions, along with other details, I worked to allay his fears. He left the office to arrange an appointment with the surgeon.
In the meantime, while we awaited the pathology report, his wife (also Bosnian) stopped by the office, worried sick about the news her husband had brought her that he needed a biopsy. The staff member’s description had left her overwrought ... she said she wasn’t sleeping. She was frightened that this might mean her husband was going to die of cancer. This patient, here in our rural practice, having lived in a calm, safe environment for many years, who had come here from a region of the world which in the past we have associated with fright and fear and terror, had escaped those possibilities only to find a different kind of terror.
Visnja told us she really appreciated the calm reassurances by staff, but was still so very concerned. Speaking to her by telephone, once again I carefully explained what I had observed and what we were doing for her husband. While her fears were lessened, we still had to wait for the report. She thanked me for explaining to her that a biopsy of her husband’s tongue did not mean he was going to die of cancer.
Shortly thereafter the results did come, and we were able to describe the favorable report of a benign diagnosis. And shortly after that, Visnja appeared with a plate full of the most delicious little pastries. She had baked them especially for the office as a thank you for all of the explanation, care, and concern expressed for her and her husband. She called these delicacies “Little Roses of Sarajevo”. They had the delicate sweetness I associate with European pastries — not the overpoweringly sweet flavor so common in American recipes. They literally melt in your mouth.
The gesture of these delightful “Little Roses of Sarajevo” got me to thinking once again of the significance of special foods, and how we humans go on creating joy and beauty out of even the most harrowing events. It was the impetus to write about these relationships among foods, traditions, cultures, and human interconnectedness which are important to us all.
On the next day I called Visnja to ask if she would share with us the recipe. And just as important to me, I told her, was whether these wonderful treats with an evocative name had for her or her culture any particular significance. Rarely have I met a traditional recipe I didn’t appreciate!
When I received the recipe, it came with all the tell-tale touches of the well worn, well loved tradition of genuine generosity in sharing. There is no “secret recipe” here — it’s all on the page, and in her words. Especially having experienced a story that speaks to the beauty of a city, a culture, a nation, and a cherished person, and which can remind, restore, and refresh our spirit in a trying time. We wouldn’t change a thing.

Sarajevo Little Roses Pastry
100 g lard (I use sunflower margarine)
3 egg yolks
1 cup milk (have milk ready and only add what’s needed, it rarely amounts to 1 cup, depends on weather, elevation, etc.)
300 g flour (best: sifted)
3 egg whites
250 g sugar
150 g finely ground walnuts

Powder sugar mixed with vanilla sugar (now available at Market Place and Lueken’s in foreign food isle — little glass jar) for finishing touch
Mix margarine and eggs with wooden spoon and blend as well as possible, add flour and about ½ cup of milk, adding more if necessary, mix and kneed to get smooth and non-sticky dough. Divide into two or three parts, roll one at a time into thickness of dull side of a kitchen knife. Spread the filling (recipe below) and roll as tightly as possible, cut into a little less than one inch (about two cm) pieces, lay them on the non-stick or greased and floured cookie sheet cut side down (if crooked fix with fingers and knife), bake in pre-heated oven about 20-30 minutes (I heat to 400 F and then lower to 375) until lightly brownish. Roll while still warm one at a time in a mixture of powder sugar and vanilla sugar.
Filling is made by beating the egg whites at high until stiff, then adding sugar and beating some more and only then adding walnuts slowly by folding them in with spatula.
This amount of the filling is too much (at least when I make it) so I usually make double dose of dough. That way you have enough roses for you family and neighbors.
As I used to say when I loved in Bosnia: Prijatno! (pronounced: preyutno, meaning: enjoy!)This is only one version of the cake but it works for me. The most common version is actually, when syrup made of sugar melted in water with slices of lemon is poured over the roses while still hot and in the baking pan, then left to soak up the liquid.
Obviously this version (and I assume the original) is of Turkish or Middle Eastern origin, and when you know that Bosnia was under Turkish rule for 500 years, then it makes sense. However, when you omit the syrup you get more of a Central European pastry, which is where Bosnia is almost located. This tells you that in Bosnia these are two main influences to the cuisine and traditions of all kinds; additional influences would be Sephardic Jewish, Hungarian, Italian, and of course the Balkans, where Bosnia is almost located, too.
As for my family traditions in food, this cake is not part of it — it is rather my best friend’s mother who was an expert in making it. She used to make them so that each “rose” was identical to the other one — not me!
The syrupy version of the roses was made and eaten mostly in winter months when it’s cold and the body needs heavier foods. This particular cake was not made for a specific holiday in my circles but on Sundays when all families had better foods on their table as well as sweets to go with them. However, Muslim families would make syrupy version of the roses during holidays like Ramadan along with other sweets of Turkish origin. Sarajevo used to be a cosmopolitan city with eastern and western influence that did not clash but rather complement each other, very colorful and beautiful city and this was reflected in its traditions.
I should say that I cook and prepare all our food the way I saw it done in my family and my friends’ families not because it has a sentimental value to me but because it is tastier (for us) and healthier than the way its done around here now.

So here we all are, just as my patients from the other side of the world found themselves, looking at a future we couldn’t prepare for. These are big, frightening things: cancer; war; eons-long hatreds that scar generations even as borders change; finding a place in a new country; finding a place in ourselves where we can feel the things we want to feel without having to guard against being hurt by them.
I was so moved to be able to make this connection with my patient. It is the “circle closing” to experience how much this meant to me even though her gesture was intended to express how much mine had meant to her. Who we are is, in part, who we are to each other.
The next time you sit down with a cup of tea, put something on a plate to go with it. Make it your own. Then pass it on.
Prijatno! n

*Dr. Lueth is a general dentist in private practice in Bemidji, Minnesota. E-mail is