First Roma restaurant opens in Slovenia
By Borut Mekina
Traditional Balkan dishes like goulash, sarma or burek can be found all over Europe, but not traditional Roma goulash; Roma burek, known as picinta; Roma sarmave or sah mas, traditional Roma food made of cabbage and meat.
"Roma food is different. It is better. Its distinctive taste comes from slower cooking and a specific way of preparation, different kinds of herbs and, of course, love, all at an affordable price," says Roma cook Ajsa Mehmeti, explaining what Europeans have been missing until now from their international cuisine.
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This is now set to change as the first Roma restaurant was opened in the Slovenian city of Maribor earlier in April.
If the restaurant – which has been partially funded with EU money - proves successful, explains Fatmir Beciri, the local president of the Roma society, Romano Pralipe, more will be opened.
Beciri recently met with a delegation from Zagreb, the capital city of Croatia, and he has been invited to Graz, Austria, where politicians are also interested in the project.
Even the US ambassador to Slovenia, Joseph Mussomeli, came to the opening ceremony in a limousine embellished with Roma flags. "We are really deeply moved by the public and we hope that the Roma will prove themselves in this story," Beciri told EUobserver.
The Roma restaurant, which is called Romani Kafenava, is a pilot project in Maribor. It should employ up to 15 people, mostly local Roma who have never had a job.
They were educated at a local high school in a project organised by the local non-profit institution, EPEKA. The project leader, Stefan Simoncic, explains that it aims to create socially responsibly businesses that promote cultural understanding.
"This is also a test for the Roma. It is also a test if they can, with their particular understanding of time, run a successful business model," he said.
The opening of the first Roma restaurant has already brought excitement to Maribor's Roma community, members of which paid a visit to the EU institutions in Brussels some months ago. There they presented themselves to those who also helped them during their first steps in opening the restaurant.
Nevertheless, the path has not been easy.
Like in other member states, nationalism in Slovenia is on the rise. The latest opinion polls ahead of the May EU elections show a sharp rise in the popularity of right-wing parties.
The Slovenian nationalist party (SNS), currently absent from Slovenian Parliament and known for its racist statements against the Roma, is the second most popular party in the polls for the EU vote.
After the announcement that the Roma restaurant was to open, there were protests by the local community in November last year, culminating in the collective resignation of the district council.
The demonstrators argued there were already too many restaurants in the region. The Mayor of Maribor, Andrej Fistravec, came out in support of the Roma prompting many of the protestors to change their minds and apologise.
Yet on the restaurant’s opening day the neighbours called the police on the pretext that the music played by popular band Sukari was too loud.
Nevertheless, the restaurant is going well.
Next weekend, besides food and drinks – such as the powerful rakija – live music and coffee will be on the menu. Not any old coffee though, but the kind from which the Roma can predict the future. "This service will be pro bono for our customers," said Beciri.
Their own research into the future, adds Beciri, gives them reason for optimism.