The way to a man’s heart may be through his stomach, but only if the food is prepared by a true housewife
When one Bulgarian housewife wants to insult another, she doesn't accuse her in public of neglecting her garden – Bulgarian gardens grow tomatoes, not honeysuckle. She simply calls her a zagoritendzhera, a “woman who has burned her pot”.
“Bulgarian cuisine” is a vague and perhaps imaginary notion. A Bulgarian home will serve dishes resembling Greek moussaka, Turkish imam bayaldi or the sort of sarmi popular throughout the Balkans.
This lack of originality is made up for by a flavour so rich as to make the very idea of dieting sacrilegious. It stems from blending the cuisine of all who have lived in Bulgarian lands – Thracians, Proto-Bulgarians, Slavs, Greeks, Turks, Romans, Russians... An essential ingredient is the use of home-produced fruits, vegetables and meat still popular with many families. Add the generations of women who have passed on their culinary skills, the Our Cuisine cookbook, on every family's shelf during Communism, and the frequent economic crises, and you can understand why any woman unable to make a moussaka topping is regarded as an outcast.
Restaurant food can be abysmal. The only way to savour “Bulgarian home cooking” is as the guest of a true Bulgarian housewife. You will never look at your hosts in the same way again.
Perhaps you believe that a typical Bulgar breakfast consists of coffee and a cigarette - or tripe soup when hung over. This applies only in large cities. Visit the countryside and the repast is much more extravagant.
True Bulgarian housewives can make a long list of breakfast foods that includes brown mekitsi, deep fried dough cakes, sometimes stuffed with white cheese, yellow cheese or white cheese and egg; palachinki, or pancakes; sweet buhti, which are like doughnuts; and fried bread. Traditionally, they are served with cheese, different homemade jams and honey, but mekitsi can be eaten just with sugar. To wash down all of this dough, you can take coffee; a glass of ayryan, or whipped yoghurt and water (in summer); hot milk or herbal tea (in winter); or boza, a kind of millet ale invented by the Albanians and enjoyed all year round.
A true Bulgarian housewife, however, would probably make banitsa from sheets of pastry that she has rolled out herself. Such a breakfast may leave you feeling stuffed but there's a common belief among housewives that “all illness comes from too little food”. So they consider lunch hour, between noon and one o'clock, the best time to strengthen the health. Hence they serve three dishes, not counting the salad.
Lunch must begin with supa or chorba. The difference between the two soups lies not just in the origin of the name, French or Turkish. Chorba is thickened with flour fried with egg or some other ingredient. In spring, the lady of the house normally makes spinach soup, full of vitamins and iron. In summer, she serves cold tarator, made from yoghurt and cucumbers, or chilled soup with courgettes or French beans. Autumn and winter are the time for hot bean, potato or lentil soup; cream of tomato soup; leek soup generously sprinkled with pepper; and “ball soup”, which, you'll be relieved to learn, contains small meatballs.
Best of all is chicken soup, made from a home-raised hen. If you are lucky, you'll find a small golden unlaid egg among the meat, gizzards, liver and potatoes floating in the yellow circles of oil. After soup comes the main course, which sometimes consists of a stew. This can be anything from the thick white bean stew seasoned with mint and garnished with rissoles, to the aromatic chicken stew with potatoes, carrots, peppers, onions and lovage, to the humble but tasty garden stew made with onions, red and green peppers, aubergines, rice and generous lashings of parsley and celery.
But stew is often deemed too plain. You are more likely to be served moussaka, made of minced meat, potatoes, aubergines and tomatoes, and topped with a cream of whipped eggs and yoghurt. Other favourites are peppers stuffed with rice, baked mince-filled courgettes, sarmi with cabbage or grape leaves and, in winter, sauerkraut with roasted meatballs and pork ribs and chops. Portions are more than generous.
Can a man's stomach accommodate all this? One way to increase capacity is to give up bread. This is impossible, though, if the housewife makes pitka. In Bulgaria, this type of bread is considered the best and good bakers enjoy flaunting their expertise. Now's the time for dessert. A possible candidate is rose-coloured malebi cream, or milk with rice or semolina halva. But any cook keen to make an impression will serve caramel custard, tolumbichki, baklava, pumpkin pastry or sweet banitsa.
How can you thank this generous woman, who must have got up at five in the morning to prepare this feast? Eat everything, and polish off the last bits of the main course with bread. However, if you must loosen your belt midway through the meal, you can look at her admiringly and say: “Prastite da si oblizhesh!”, or “Simply delicious!” Don't worry about your accent. Your hostess may have given no sign, but all along she has been expecting a compliment to make her feel she has “lived up to her reputation”. Soon, she will be regaling friends with the story, modestly mentioning that she coaxed some Bulgarian out of you.
The disadvantage is that she will be adamant you join the other diners at four or five p.m. – for an afternoon snack. This usually consists of bread with a thick layer of butter and homemade lyutenitsa, or else several slabs of homemade cake.
After so much food, it's little wonder that supper, which begins at about eight in the evening, is a leisurely affair. It begins with salads and other meze accompanied by glasses of rakiya. Eating out will have prepared you for this. In a Bulgarian home, however, the number of salads is limited. Besides Shopska salad, green salad, cabbage and carrots, dry tarator or “Russian” salad, the housewife may serve some strange concoction, like fried French beans with ham and cheese or couscous mixed with mayonnaise and yellow cheese, usually named for the friend who came up with the recipe.
In winter, however, rakiya accompanies pickles. The art of pickling vegetables dates from a time before the invention of fridges and freezers. In Bulgaria, however, it reached its apogee under Communism, when fridges were common but shops were regularly bare. Luckily, most Bulgarians were able to find thousands of traditional recipes for pickling just about anything, including watermelon. The most popular are for “royal pickles”, consisting of shredded sauerkraut, bell peppers and carrots; “ordinary”, but equally tasty, pickles; marinated or newly pickled gherkins; stewed peppers with cloves of garlic; and sauerkraut salad with lots of oil and red pepper. You'll get to try them all at the table.
The meze, or appetiser, includes white cheese, yellow cheese or dried sausages from the local butcher. In the winter you may find the table laden with homemade bacon, sausages and salted fillets, or black pudding prepared from a country hog.
The meze is a meal in itself, but you haven't finished yet. The main course normally includes more meat: pork chops, shish kebabs, kebapcheta or homemade rissoles, which, unlike the kind you get in pubs, are fried. The vegetarian version includes fried courgettes and aubergines with garlic and yoghurt sauce; peppers filled with white cheese and egg paste and fried in breadcrumbs; yellow cheese fried in breadcrumbs; or potatoes, French beans, peppers, onions and other vegetables stewed in earthenware pots with egg and copious amounts of white or yellow cheese.
This gastronomic extravaganza could soon be a thing of the past. A growing number of young women would rather pursue a career in banking or, yes, Public Relations, than make the perfect moussaka topping. Supermarkets are full of instant soups, ready-to-serve meals and hothouse vegetables; white goods shops carry microwave ovens; and magazines are full of foreign recipes that some prefer to those handed down from their mothers-in-law. True Bulgarian home cooking is an endangered species, and will disappear with the last Bulgarian woman to take offence at being called a zagoritendzhera.
HOW TO COOK...
Cut several medium-sized aubergines lengthwise and scoop out the flesh with a spoon. Continue till they look like boats with about a centimetre thick hull. Sprinkle with salt and let them sit so that their “bitter water” is drawn out. Finely chop the flesh and fry in butter together with one or two grated carrots. Add some minced meat, a grated tomato, salt to taste, and seven to 10 crushed cloves of garlic – the dish needs to have a distinctive garlic flavour. When the mixture turns brown, remove and use it to fill the “boats”. Arrange the aubergines in a baking dish coated with butter or tomato juice to keep them from getting too dry. Roast them in the oven. Once ready, add some grated yellow cheese on top and roast some more untilthe cheese forms a crust.
Brown a tablespoonful of flour in a cooking pot containing 50-60 ml of hot oil. Add a litre and a half of water and chopped dill stalks for flavour. If you don't have dill stalks, you can use ordinary dill. When it starts to boil, reduce the temperature to a low heat and add diced courgettes. Add two tablespoonfuls of crushed white cheese and more chopped dill. Once the courgettes turn soft, remove the soup from the fire. Use a mixture of one egg beaten in half a cup of yoghurt and pepper to thicken.
Get some filo pastry sheets from any Bulgarian grocery shop. Make a filling from one kg, or two lbs, peeled and grated pumpkin mixed with one cup of ground walnuts and 1/2 to 2/3 of a cup of granulated sugar. You can also add a pinch of cinnamon powder and a handful of raisins. Roll the pastry sheets out. Add two tablespoons of sunflower oil to one sheet and spread over the surface. Cover this with a second sheet. Apply a thin layer of the filling, leaving some space at the edges. Roll the two sheets together. If you have followed instructions, you will be handling a rapidly softening cylinder. Quickly place it in a baking pan coated with oil and sprinkled with flour. Some proud Bulgarian women arrange the pumpkin pie in a round dish, coiling the cylinders like a snail's shell. This is how, traditionally, a beautiful pie is meant to look. If you want something more contemporary, arrange the pieces in a square pan. Make sure to preheat the oven and bake. Don't judge by the colour of the crust. Do as proud Bulgarian women do: check with a straw plucked from the kitchen broom. Once the pie is done, spread or sprinkle caster sugar and let cool.