Sour, potent and tender: Stories, taste of Serbian stuffed cabbage

I never know how I’m going to find my next immigrant-cooking teacher. This month I was getting my teeth cleaned when my dental hygienist told me about a Serbian friend who owns a bakery. Soon I was heading to a different kind of tooth appointment, turning left off Riverside Street onto 302, looking for building number 800. There was a sign for “World Cake Bakery” in front of a two-story cape. Next to the garage I entered the bakery door. Sladjana Opacic invited me past a glass case filled with trays of baklava, coconut rolls and layer cakes into her kitchen where she taught me how to make her favorite dish from home: Serbian stuffed cabbage rolls called sarma.

After sautéing ground beef with grated carrot, onions, rice and spices, she placed two tablespoons of the mixture into the center of a floppy, pale cabbage leaf. It had been fermented like sauerkraut except the cabbage had been kept whole. She folded the cabbage leaf over the meat filling and then rolled the leaf from bottom to top, making a fat cylinder about a quarter of the size of a burrito. She packed a pot full of these translucent rolls shoulder to shoulder, and covered them with water.

immkitchWhile the sarma simmered for hours, we talked about how she ended up living in Maine. She fled Serbia when she was 24 years old during the Yugoslav Wars. She lived in Germany for five years until German authorities told her she couldn’t stay. They told her she had to go back to Serbia or get permission to live in another country. Some people at a church helped her file an immigration request. She filled out an application that asked where she wanted to live: Canada, Australia or the U.S. “I checked ‘any,’” she recalled.

In 1999, after months of waiting and interviews, she finally received a letter. The U.S government had offered her permission to come and live in Portland. A nonprofit organization, Catholic Charities Maine, would meet her when she got off the plane. They would provide her with a place to sleep and food stamps. Sladjana packed two suitcases, all her money ($150 dollars), and nervously got on a plane to the U.S., where she knew no one.

When she walked off the plane in Boston, Catholic Charities wasn’t there. “I didn’t speak English,” she recalled, “I was nervous for my bags. Where were they? How would I get them? I thought I might have lost all my things.” Her misinformed brother on the phone advised her to get on a plane to Portland, Oregon. Sladjana found a security guard and pointed to an information card she wore around her neck. The security guard read the card and led her to a gate that said, “Portland, Maine.” When she got off the plane in Maine, a representative from Catholic Charities greeted her and took her to a big house on Danforth Street. “I was so happy,” she said. She had made it to a place where she was safe and allowed to be.

Finally she said, “We can try now, uh?” The sour cabbage with the rich meat was potent, tender and delicious. After we soaked up all the juices with bread, she brought out two pieces of baklava. Like sarma, baklava can be made many different ways depending on where you’re from and personal preference. Hers was soft, wet, dense and extra sweet.

For the sarma recipe, visit www.immigrantkitchens.com.

For baklava and custom homemade cakes, visit the World Cake Bakery, 800 Bridgton Road, Westbrook. www.facebook.com/worldcakebakery