What's it like having a father who once was a chef for the Serbian army? Well, it means having a childhood home that was never short of food.
"We'd always have a mountain of everything he was cooking," says Jovan Curic, who currently runs Pub Life Kitchen in Sydney's Ultimo. A 20-litre pot was his dad's weapon of choice, rather than the standard size. His father's typical serving of pasulj (a Serbian white bean soup) was so big, it had to be divided into two pots of leftovers afterwards – one for the fridge upstairs and one for the fridge downstairs. At one point, there were three fridges and a freezer to store his excess cooking.
There were times when the leftovers never seemed to end. "Ugh, I can't look at it again, I can't eat it three days in a row, I'm done!" Curic would think, after facing another big batch of pasulj.
"Everyone in the Balkans makes it. Each region has their own, depending on their culture and what’s available."
He remembers one record-breaking streak where he consumed the soup, non-stop, for more than a week.
"My mum and my siblings were all overseas, it was just me and my dad. Basically, there was a good 10 days where that was all we ate," he says. Their diet was essentially reheated pasulj with bread from his dad's bakery.
The white bean soup was on the menu once a week in his household, and seeing the beans soaking in a bowl was a familiar after-school sight. "You're like, 'ugh! Are we fasting, is there going to be meat in there or not?' Then you moved further into the kitchen and you're like, 'smoked hocks, yes!'"
Curic remembers how entrancing the smell was: the aroma of smoked hocks simmering with the beans would overwhelm the home.
"It's one of those dishes that you hated as a kid, but when you grow older, you couldn't get enough of it," Curic says. "I guess it reminds you of those times. It's a warm hug from your childhood."
His family would serve it at the dinner table with a vinegar-dressed cabbage salad and crusty bread. "My dad used to love eating really stale bread. That was his thing. He'd have stale bread for pasulj day."
Was this because the old bread would soak up the flavours better than a fresh loaf?
"I wish there was a romantic reason!" says Curic. His dad simply hated to waste anything.
Case in point: the time he worked at Bill & Toni's, a classic red-sauce restaurant that first opened in 1965 and is located in Sydney's first Little Italy on Stanley Street, Darlinghurst. "My dog used to eat all the leftovers from that restaurant," says Curic.
He can remember his earliest shifts at Bill & Toni's at around age six. "I used to be the little chubby boy with the tea towel, sweeping off all the crumbs from the table," he says. Curic remembers being at the restaurant while dressed in his "ninja showbag outfit," because he'd been at the Easter Show. His father was prepping and Curic was cutting bread and serving the complimentary orange cordial, which is still a staple of Bill & Toni's today.
His father also worked at other institutions, including famous Balkan stalwarts (Village Grill in Double Bay; Balkan in Darlinghurst) in their "super early days". Curic is convinced his dad was the "only real Serbian chef in the country at the time".
Later in life, their roles reversed and Curic's father worked for him when the chef-restaurateur began running Pub Life Kitchen. "My dad would cut all the steaks, do all the schnitzels, do all the burger prep. We used to age all our own meat," says Curic. "He'd be getting here at five in the morning and smash it out. Mind you, with two missing kneecaps as well." They were gone, thanks to his dad's days of being a professional European handball player: he tore the cartilage out of his knees while competing.
Pub Life Kitchen has undergone various incarnations over the years and the current version, at The Lord Wolseley Hotel in Ultimo, marks Curic's return to the venture after four years away. He opened it just before Sydney entered lockdown in June 2021 with a menu that features Serbian classics such as cevapi and yes, pasulj.
He credits a visiting schoolmate for first changing his mind about this dish. Curic was a teenager and embarrassed his mum was serving it, so he told his friend he didn't have to eat it. Instead, his schoolmate savoured it and said, "This is incredible! This is so delicious, Mrs Curic!"
Curic's view of the dish evolved as he started to cook professionally. "I was doing a consulting gig for a Serbian restaurant out west. I worked with these beautiful old ladies, who were chefs in the kitchen. We were trying all these specials and I was like, let's do this [cook pasulj]."
This suggestion made him think of the traditional kafana – Serbian bistro – and how the soup is a sign of whether a restaurant is good or not. "If you can't cook a good pasulj, how else can you cook anything else well?"
"If you can't cook a good pasulj, how else can you cook anything else well?"
He recalls his many visits to Serbia in "food beast" mode, where he'd eat as much as he could endure. "I usually just drive around the outskirts of Belgrade, to all these little roadside kafana, which were on the highways. I would hear, 'this guy has got good pasulj'". They were timeless institutions that insisted on their versions – and would essentially tell you to get lost if you wanted them to change anything. "They've been there forever," he says. "Even though your mum might make it better, you'd still go to the local famous kafana to have a bowl."
There are also pasulj variations – a Bosnian version might use smoked beef instead of pork, for instance. "Everyone in the Balkans makes it. Each region has their own, depending on their culture and what’s available," says Curic.
He credits his mother-in-law's version of pasulj for galvanising him to put it on the Pub Life Kitchen menu. Curic cooks her recipe with a few of his own tweaks, in 20-litre pots, just as his dad did during his childhood. Serbian neighbours have even tried the menu and given it their approval. Yet it was only recently that Curic felt he had the courage to offer food from his culinary heritage at Pub Life Kitchen.
"I've purposely put a photo of my dad up in the bistro," he says. "I look at the pic and go, 'Yep, I'm back'." Curic had promised his dad he'd leave the industry, because of the stress it caused him. "I was like, 'Yeah yeah, don't worry', which I did. But unfortunately, I'm back," Curic adds and laughs. "We've all got our vices."
Start this recipe the day before.
- 450 g white beans (soaked in cold water overnight, drained, removing any discoloured ones)
- 1 medium onion, chopped
- 2 garlic cloves, roughly chopped
- 2 bay leaves
- ½ red capsicum, diced
- ½ green capsicum, diced
- 1 carrot, chopped
- 1 half stick celery, chopped
- 300 g smoked meat (pork hock/belly or ribs)
- ½ tsp ground pepper
- 2 tsp turmeric
- 2 tsp sea salt, plus more to taste, if needed
- 30 ml olive oil, plus more to taste if needed
- 2 tsp smoked paprika, heaped
1. Place the beans in a large pot. Add water to the pot until the beans are covered by a few centimetres of water on top. Cook on medium-high heat and bring to boil.
2. Cook for about 10 minutes then strain the water off. Some people pour it out, others keep cooking with it. Pub Life Kitchen throws it away and starts again.
3. Refill the pot with hot water from a kettle – make sure you have enough to cover the beans. Cook the beans on medium-high heat.
4. While beans are cooking, add chopped onion, garlic, bay leaves, red and green capsicum, carrot and celery, and stir through.
5. Add the smoked meat to the beans. We use pork hock, but you can also use smoked ribs or smoked speck.
6. Cook on low heat for a minimum of 2-2½ hours or until the beans are cooked, stirring occasionally. You may need to add more hot water halfway through the cooking process. If you prefer a thicker texture, this amount should be enough, but if you want your pasulj to have more broth, add more hot water as you go. The pasulj is ready when the beans are soft in the mouth, and the broth very fragrant.
7. Once cooked, add turmeric and season with sea salt, adding more to taste, if needed. Stir through.
8. In a small frypan, heat oil and add smoked paprika, stirring until fragrant. Add to the pasulj and stir to combine. Cook for another 5 minutes and turn off.
Note: This is best served with crusty bread and a cabbage side salad (when Curic was growing up, his family would make a salad from thinly sliced cabbage, with a dressing of equal parts vegetable oil and vinegar, plus salt and pepper to taste).
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