My dear Ambar and Kumkum,
Greetings from Sofia: a place you have been to, briefly and only once, 24 years ago, during your extensive travels around the world! As for me, I am here for the second time in my career on my eighth assignment abroad. The first time was as a first secretary in 1988-1990, a time of crucial political and socio-economic changes in Europe and particularly in this region. The effects of those changes are still continuing today.
So, the first question that pops into my mind – still, even after being back for slightly over a year – how has it all changed in the last 20 years? How quickly has it changed? Has it really changed? In your last email, you particularly asked, as a gastronome of repute, about the changes in the cuisine. So, I will attempt to list our experiences in this fascinating field.
Well, the last time I was here, the shops were almost empty throughout winter. We had to drive to Pirot in Serbia (then Yugoslavia) or, if we had more time, to Thessaloniki in Greece to get the essentials. Now, of course, particularly since Bulgaria joined the EU nearly four years ago, everything is available throughout the year and people sometimes come in from surrounding countries for supplies.
In my opinion, Bulgarian cuisine is one of the best in Europe. This is like my fond saying about the land's charm: simple but delicious(ly) beautiful! While 20 years ago there were few restaurants worth going to, today there are hundreds of excellent places in Sofia itself... so we are just making a beginning!
OK, OK: I'll get straight to the point instead of rambling on! Bulgarians are avid salad eaters! When you enter a house you will find the table already laid with several types of salads. My favourite is the one with pink tomatoes with grilled capsicum and parsley sprinkled on top. I had the best one at a tavern on our drive to Troyan. The sarmi, stuffed vine leaves, are also delightful. This is basically a dish of Turkish origin, so I tried some at a Turkish restaurant in Sofia where they also served other salads, like bulgur, and excellent kebabs and grilled food.
The soups are my favourite: vegetable, pork, mixed – all of them. A particularly soothing one in summer is tarator, prepared from yoghurt, cucumbers, garlic, walnuts, dill, vegetable oil and water. It is served chilled. Local variations may replace yogurt with water and vinegar and omit the nuts or dill. I have tried several variations and have liked them all.
The main course: our choice is a little limited because we do not eat beef or veal, but Bulgarian pork is some of the best in Europe. The children are brought up on this: their vision of a celebration is clouded if there are no pork chops! I also noticed that they have this dish with lemon, as we do with fish. I tried it and found it simply adds to the flavour and the taste. Lamb (not goat) is another favourite here: mainly grilled, St George's style. Of course, in this category the mouthwatering Bulgarian casseroles, like the kapama, are beyond compare ‒ but they do require a lot of time to prepare in the oven. Many Bulgarians will hoot with derision if told that you have not yet eaten musaka: minced meat and potatoes with a covering of yoghurt and eggs.
Before I get to the desserts (or my choice of them!), I must mention the fresh bread which accompanies most meals. My choice is simid – eaten with honey or sharena sol (salt with herbs) and parlenka (with garlic or butter). Incidentally, if a restaurant smells of fresh bread, I take an instant liking to the place! Unlike Indians, I notice the Bulgarians eat sweets sparingly: that perhaps explains the svelte figures the young girls have! Since I have no such figure problems, being on the verge of obese, I have tried out some sweets and have particularly liked the roasted pumpkin with walnuts and the sutlyash (rice boiled with sweetened milk, spiced with cinnamon). There is, of course, the world-famous baklava as well as the tulumbichki, the latter reminding one of Indian gulab jamun. I personally also particularly like munching on homemade salzitsi.
The salad is traditionally accompanied by grape or plum brandy called rakiya – potent stuff – and the best one I have discovered is the Slivenska Perla 12 year-old. However, one of these is enough for me. And how could I (Ambar, my apologies!) have forgotten to mention the excellent wines that Bulgaria has always produced? They apparently just don't do enough PR for the produce! The red wines are more popular here, with several songs dedicated to their praise. The wines I prefer and serve at meals (I always serve Bulgarian wines) are Katarzyna and Santa Sarah (the Chardonnay of this vineyard is particularly superb). The meals are finished off with old brandies – Black Sea Gold 33 year-old or Pliska 15 year-old.
Whenever I am asked about the Indian restaurants here, I give cautious replies (none of them apparently have Indian cooks, I believe: though their cooks have been trained by Indians). There are five in Sofia which come to mind: Taj Mahal (11 11th August St, phone 987 3632), Koh-i-Noor (3 Han Asparuh St, phone 0882 532 541), Ramayana (5 Arsenalski Blvd, phone 0884 609 982), Saffron (Studentski grad, François Mitterrand St, next to bl. 42B, phone 0896 179 986) and the relatively new Gurkha (Lozenets, 56 Tsvetna gradina St, phone 0884 939 100) where Indo-Nepalese cuisine is served. As you know very well, the job of a diplomat, particularly of an ambassador, involves the serving of the cuisine of his country. So, in our house, which is resplendent with Gayatri's acrylic and water colour paintings, we always serve Indian meals to our guests. Recently at the Diwali day celebrations (5 November), we served a variety of Indian dishes and snacks: poories, channas, basmati rice, tandoori chicken, pao bhaji, pakoras, samosas, and for the sweet part gajjar ka halwa, several kind of barfee and some of the sweets I mentioned above.
Some of the excellent restaurants which Gayatri and I have visited offer a wide variety of scrumptious adventures. A few traditional ones – Edno vreme (the Borisova Garden, next to the Ariana lake), Hadjidraganovite kashti (75 Kozloduy St, phone 931 3148) and Vratata (Lozenets, 13 Kokiche St, phone 0889 235 866) even have ethnic folklore music and dance. The first one, which I have only recently visited, has subsequently welcomed German Chancellor Angela Merkel as well as Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, hosted there by the Bulgarian PM. The more modern but still traditional ones, like Pri Yafata (28 Solunska St, phone 980 1727; Iztok, 40 Rayko Aleksiev St, phone 971 3078) and Prikazka (6 Kopernik St, phone 700 007), Cactus (20 Hristo Belchev St, phone 986 7431; Lozenets, 2 Pope John Paul II Sq, phone 865 7420), Krim (17 Slavyanska St, phone 988 6950), Grozd (21 Tsar Osvoboditel Blvd, phone 944 3915) and the Clock House (15 Moskovska St, phone 932 7595) concentrate on good wines and food and are great for taking guests to. Then there are the casual drop in places like Zhadnata Lamya (2 13th March St, phone 964 0640) and Limoncheto (45 Sevastokrator Kaloyan St, phone 959 0192) in Boyana where we have dropped in for delectable fare with a few friends after outings in and around Sofia.
So, enough of this build-up! Do try and make a visit to Sofia during our stay here!