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Food&Wine

The yeast elixir – Boza

North Macedonia is one of the few countries that can offer a traditional, refreshing non-alcoholic beverage, a soft drink with a popularity equaling today’s global fame of Coca-Cola or Pepsi, but reached without the modern techniques of marketing and sales. It is the soft drink with a strange name: “boza,” probably of Turkish-Persian origin. At the level of acquaintance with the local culture it is a real Indiana Jones adventure and can serve as an initiation process. Not only the name is strange, but the look as well. It has a yellowish, muddy color, and a thickness resembling more muddy water than a refreshing drink. At the first taste it provokes more dislike, even disgust, than satisfaction and excitement. A newcomer is surprised by the enthusiasm with which the locals are drinking it, not only from large beer-like glasses on the spot, but how they take off with full two-liter plastic bottles for the whole family.

In Skopje, the most famous shop making and selling boza is called “Аpce,” which means “pill.” The store was founded in 1934. People called it “Аpce,” as a kind of joke about its healing effects, believing that drinking Apce’s boza is a panacea for all diseases. So, in 1940 the owner renamed his shop “Аpce,” and at this point no one even remembers the original name.

But, popular beliefs are often later proved by scientific data. So, boza is recommended for drinking, as it improves blood pressure, reduces headaches, and provides benefits for pregnant and breastfeeding women, because it stimulates the mothers’ milk.

Boza can be found in many pastry shops around the country. Of course, the locals know where the best one is produced and never miss the opportunity to buy it when passing through another neighborhood or town. The traditional craftsmen of boza are the local Muslims, be it Albanians, Macedonians, Bosnians, or Turks. In ex-Yugoslavia, they spread out over the whole country, developed their businesses and their shops, and even today, they are still adding an oriental nuance to the modern, westernized towns.

People who prepare this drink are called “bozadzii.” The recipe is hundreds of years old, and it is believed to have spread in North Macedonia after it became part of the Ottoman Empire. Thus, apart from Macedonia, this drink can be found in other countries in the Balkans, such as Bosnia and Herzegovina, Albania, Serbia, Turkey, Bulgaria, Montenegro – all those which were under Ottoman rule. In Macedonia boza has a different taste than its traditional version; it is much lighter and sweeter.

Boza has a lengthy preparation, a finesse which demands mastery. It is made of water, flour, yeast, and sugar, but these are just the ingredients. Every master of the drink keeps the magic only for himself. It is known that first it is baked, then boiled in a pot of 300 – 400 degrees. Fermentation lasts for about 60 hours, and only after that is it ready for consumers. The rest is magic.

The first production of fermenting grains mixed with flour is recorded by the population living in Anatolia and Mesopotamia in the 9th or 8th millennium BC. Xenophon mentions how the locals kept a cool drink in ceramic pots buried in the ground.

In Sumerian texts this drink was referred to as “fermented millet.” In the 10th century it was named boza and began to be used as a common drink among the peoples living in Central Asia and Turkey. Later the beverage spread over the Caucasus and the Balkans. The heyday of boza happened during Ottoman times when making boza or selling it became one of the main trades in the cities. By the 16th century boza was drunk almost everywhere. There is curiosity about the production of a special type of boza, the so-called Tartar boza mixed with opium, which was prohibited by the sultan Selim II. During the reign of Mehmed IV in the 17th century, together with the ban on alcoholic beverages, boza became a forbidden drink as well, and all stores that sold boza were closed.

The famous writer and traveler Evliya Çelebi noted that in Istanbul at that time there were over 300 shops selling boza. Boza was the preferred drink of the famous army of janissaries. Due to the low percentage of alcohol it contained it could never cause drunkenness; therefore it was tolerated by the Turkish army and served as a warming drink to boost the troops.

The secret of the popularity of boza in the past when modern soft drinks were unknown was the refreshing effect of the drink. After the painstaking hard work people were cooling themselves with the favorable boza. The drink was a favorite equally among adults and children. The seller of that drink with an apron, tin bucket and pot was a common picture on all city streets in North Macedonia in the past. The vendors walked through the narrow streets, calling people to try their elixir with the words, “Come on people, taste my sweet and cold drink,” or “ledena, medena.” The same phrase was found in the first Macedonian drama text from the beginning of the century, where the boza seller is used as a leitmotif in the drama and the hard decisions to be made are contrasted with the freshness of the drink. Boza has also found its way into some customs in Macedonia. For example, in Trimeri, recently engaged young couples drink only boza, believing that boza gives prosperity and health to the newly formed family.

The prevalence of this drink and the popularity in these areas was so big that in Bulgaria a monument was built and dedicated to one of the most popular makers, a bozadzija called Radomir.