Transilvania European Food Store owner Dorina Holban doesn’t mind going in the red for her customers, especially if it means it’ll bring a “sparkle in their eyes.”
There are no vampires lurking inside this market. But there isa vast spread of spices, dairy products and salami from the Balkans, a region of eastern Europe. The biggest hits are products that customers remember from their childhood, said Holban, who came to the United States from Romania more than two decades ago and has lived in the Coachella Valley for 10 years.
There’s Smoki, which is a puffed peanut snack, as well as chocolate bars with rice and mushroom-shaped chocolates scattered throughout the shop.
Customers will often let Holban know what items she’s missing, and she’ll write them down on a list to buy so she can surprise them when they return.
“They feel like a spoiled child,” Holban said. “Sometimes I’m losing money because they want something that is very expensive and I have to buy the whole box, but I want them to be happy. For them, it’s something.”
Holban estimates there are more than 2,000 families from the Balkan region in the Coachella Valley, including residents from countries including Albania, Bulgaria, Croatia, Serbia and more. Her store has become such a popular spot that she’s decided to open a second location this fall in Palm Desert, only this one will be called Balkan Food Store.
As a Bosnian immigrant, and now one of those frequent customers myself, I too feel spoiled with all the food from my childhood. The food market has been the place where I’ve felt the closest to home since moving to California three years ago.
Nowhere else have I been able to find the products I grew up on, and every bite brings me closer to family and our history.
Holban first opened a shop about a decade ago in Cathedral City, where she made pastries. Many customers would often ask her where they could find seasonings and food items from Europe since there really weren’t any options nearby, she said.
So Holban decided to open up her Palm Springs store with an expanded selection,right behind the Romanian Orthodox church. The niche market has been bringing back childhood memories among local residents for eight years.
It’s a one-woman show inside Transilvania. Holban is behind the counter from open to close seven days a week. She rarely takes time off, mainly because she wants to be there for her customers.
The first two years were very difficult, she said, as she tried to find a clientele base. Now, she says her “best customers are Bosnians, Croatians and Serbians.” People from Los Angeles and Temecula even make the trek.
But this store isn’t just for eastern Europeans. Holban’s eyes light up when she talks about her American customers who get to experience traditional food for the first time, like ćevapi, which are grilled sausage-shaped kebabs made from beef and lamb.
“They see some of the products, they wonder how they can cook it,” she said. “Sometimes they mess up, maybe they burned the ćevapi, but then they come back with a friend and they try again, and then the next time they come in, they’re experts.”
Whenever I think of summer barbecues with my family, ćevapi were always on the grill. To make them, you mix together ground beef and lamb, then add in Fant seasoning, which has flavors like dried onion, dried garlic, and black and sweet red pepper. It gives the kebabs a kick.
My parents would always buy kajmak, or a cheese spread similar to cream cheese, to dip the kebabs in, and we’d warm up some lepinje, or a puffy-looking pita bread.
I tried making them myself a few times when I lived in Bakersfield, where I was a reporter and editor at The Bakersfield Californian, but I always came up short. Without a Bosnian food market in town, I was missing the ingredients that really made them taste like home.
Food for thought
Step inside Transilvania, and you might feel like you’ve traveled to a different country. Immediately to your left, you’ll find Fant seasonings for a lot of traditional foods: pljeskavice, which is our version of hamburger patties; goulaš, or a slow-cooked stew; and grah, or beans.
The refrigerators have the kajmak you need for ćevapi, which has a saltier and lighter taste than typical American cream cheese.
You’ll also find large slabs of suho meso, which is dry cured and smoked beef, to enjoy as part of a charcuterie board or on its own. If you enjoy beef jerky, this is a whole new smell and flavor that blows it out of the park.
As I made my way through the market for the first time, I found myself recalling a memory connected to almost every item. I pictured my mother preparing dinner using one of the seasoning packets. I could see my father enjoying every bite of suho meso, ultimately ruining his appetite for dinner because he ate too much.
Everything my parents did instilled this deep appreciation for my culture, and I’ve only fully realized it these last few years that I’ve been on my own.
My parents were born and raised in former Yugoslavia — my father in the city of Banja Luka, and my mother in the small town of Goražde. For the most part, they never pictured being too far from home.
But when different states within Yugoslavia wanted to declare their independence, war broke out. Suddenly, staying home didn’t seem like an option for my parents and other family members. Bombings became a frequent occurrence near my mother’s town, and Serbian soldiers ordered my grandparents on my father’s side to leave their home, where they had lived for 40 years.
My parents packed whatever they could into a bag or suitcase and left the only home they’d ever known, becoming refugees overnight.
They met at a refugee camp inside a stationed icebreaker ship in Copenhagen, Denmark, in 1991. Conditions were cramped, and my parents recall often feeling like animals crammed into a cage. They transferred to different camps before they made their way to Germany in 1993.
They always thought Germany would be their “forever home” — they got married and I was born. Then the German government ordered all Bosnian refugees to leave. There were only three options for my family: Australia, Canada or the U.S.
With the help of a family member who moved to America, we made our journey to Chicago in 1997. The Midwest metropolis touted the highest number of Bosnian immigrants during that time, according to a 1998 story in the Chicago Tribune.
Missing pieces of myself
For breakfast every Sunday morning, my parents and I had a little jetrena pašteta, or liver pâté, on toast. It’s a delicacy that most people are not fond of, but one that I immediately grabbed several containers of when I saw it at Transilvania.
Growing up in Chicago, I never had to question my heritage. Bosnian was the only language spoken at home. We often met up with family friends who were also Bosnian. My mother made traditional meals almost daily, such as burek. She rolled out the dough so thin that I could almost see through it, then she’ddivide it lengthwise into wide strips, fill it with ground beef or cheese, roll it into a cinnamon bun shape and bake it.
When I graduated from college and moved to California, I was no longer surrounded by my native language all the time, except when I call my family. No more traditional meals, mainly because I don’t know how to make a lot of them. If you meet me on the street, you have no idea that I’m Bosnian because I don’t have an accent like my parents, nor am I wearing an eye-catching “Hi, I’m Bosnian!” shirt.
Then I found Transilvania, with frozen food sections stocked with cheese-filled bureks. I passed on some ajvar, which is a roasted red pepper spread for ćevapi or vegetables, because I’m not fond of the taste.But picturing my parents go through jars of it so quickly made me smile.
The candies scattered throughout Transilvania really did it for me. Just the other day I saw a small chocolate bar called Animal Kingdom that my dad used to buy all the time when I was little. I was always so excited to open one up just because I wanted to see what sticker I would find inside.
When I saw my favorite layered almond and hazelnut nougats, Bajadera, I let out a gasp. I remember thinking, “I can’t believe they have this” in Palm Springs, of all places.
I ripped open the plastic wrap around the box immediately once I got home. That first bite, which always tastes like heaven, made me think of all the times my parents and I sat on the couch together, munching on these chocolates and watching a movie.
Naturally, I put on “Big Trouble,” our favorite comedy, and laughed a little harder during the rewatch.
A store for all
Holban sees a lot of customers like me, longing to be a little closer to home. Many haven’t been back to their native country since they left, she said.
Bosnian and Serbian young women who miss their mother’s cooking come in wanting to make burek, searching for prepared filo dough. When they come back to the store, “They’re so proud they did it, they show me pictures,” Holban said.
Holban is looking forward to the new possibilities with her second location. Many customers drive 40 minutes to get to her Palm Springs store, she said, so she wants to bring a closer option to them. She is even looking to provide delivery options for older customers who can’t travel as frequently.
She hopes to bring in more products, as well as serve hot coffee and pastries. An official location has yet to be determined, but she hopes to open the store by September or October.
“I appreciate every customer, and I try to keep them,” Holban said.
Now that I have the Fant seasoning, kajmak and lepinje, I’m going to be grilling ćevapčići all summer long. I’m excited to share the dish — and Transilvania — with friends and hopefully coworkers, and teach them different words in my native language.
I might even try to make some burek. I can find ground beef in any grocery store, and the prepared filo dough from Transilvania takes out the most complicated steps in the process — rolling it out super thin is a skill I don’t possess.
I can already smell them as they come out fresh out of the oven, though nothing will ever beat my mom’s cooking.
If you go
If you’ve never tried Bosnian food before, Desert Sun reporter Ema Sasic encourages you to see what Transilvania has in store.
What: Transilvania European Food Store
Where: 4556 E. Camino Parocela, Palm Springs
Hours of operation: 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Saturday, and 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., Sunday
Information: (760) 899-7909
Ema Sasic covers health in the Coachella Valley. Reach her at [email protected] or on Twitter @ema_sasic.