Expedition to Bulgaria I: Deep Roots, Broad Branches

Bulgaria is an interesting mix of eastern European and Mediterranean cultures. It shares borders with Romania, Serbia and Macedonia, but also with Greece and Turkey, and there’s a taste of the Black Sea thrown in. Add the lingering influence of the Ottomans, and stir…

Shopska - © whereismyspoon.coShopska Salad: Bulgaria’s National Salad. They eat it with almost everything…

There’s a scene in Casablanca, where casino owner Rick (Humphrey Bogart) briefly shows his softer human side. A young man is sitting at the roulette table trying to win enough money for exit visas from Morocco for himself and his fiancée. Rick asks his girlfriend why the guy is playing the wheel. She explains. “We are from Bulgaria. Things are very bad there, monsieur…” Well, the movie is set in 1941, when the Nazis were occupying Bulgaria. After the Second World War, the country fell under the Soviet sphere of influence, and things didn’t get much better until the Berlin Wall came down and the Soviet Union fell in 1991. Since then, Bulgaria has been doing very well, thank you!

Some of us already know Bulgaria for its top-notch red wines. But that’s about where our knowledge ends. As in other Eastern European countries, Bulgarians have imported dishes, or share them with neighbouring nations. Thus, they have their own take on Stuffed Peppers, Baklava, Pancakes, Scrambled Eggs, Meat Balls, Musaka and Shish Kebabs, and Dolmades (Stuffed Vine Leaves). But they also have a whole secret cookbook of hearty, flavourful dishes you’ve probably never heard of before. And they especially love their soups and salads.

Bulgarians’ favourite ingredients include pork, chicken and lamb; roasted grilled or fried. Fresh veggies, cheese and yogurt are also commonly enjoyed. Spices are used generously, but Bulgarian food is generally mild, heat-wise, though bold in flavour.

On our menu today

Shopska Salad: Fresh Chopped Salad. A simple mix of small-diced cucumbers, tomatoes, onions and peppers with grated cheese on top. A popular accompaniment to almost any meal!

Jatvarska Salata: Farmer’s Salad. The featured ingredient is fresh, dead-ripe beefstake tomatoes, accompanied by cucumbers, red onions and green or red bell pepper strips, and crumbled Feta Cheese for topping. The dressing, as for many Bulgarian salads, is a simple oil-and-vinegar vinaigrette.

Kebapche: Meat Rolls. Actually, more accurately, similar to ‘ground meat on a skewer’, versions of which pop up in many national cuisines. This is a favourite in Bulgaria requires only a few ingredients and no skewer.

Kebapche - © foodieadvice.com

Just mix ground pork, sunflower oil, cumin, salt and pepper. Form into 15 cm / 6 in. ‘fat cigars’ and grill. One of Bulgaria’s fave take-out meals is Three Kebapche with sides’ – usually french fried topped with cheese, and often sliced tomatoes, sweet bell peppers or onions.

Shkembe Chorba: Spicy Tripe Soup. Referred to in the vernacular as ‘Dragon’s Breath’. Whole pork, beef or lamb tripe is boiled for few hours (until tender), cut in small strips, and returned to the broth. Red paprika which has been briefly fried and a small quantity of milk are added. The soup is traditionally served with mashed garlic in vinegar and hot red pepper. This is a Bulgarian classic, which enjoyed a real heyday in the 1980s, and is still available in lots of fast food joints and restos there. One exception to the general rule that Bulgarian foods are not hot!

Tarator: Cold Cucumber and Yogurt Soup. Billed as a ‘universal summer refresher’! It’s a simple blend of small-diced cucumbers, minced garlic, minced dill and chopped walnuts, in a yogurt ‘broth’.

Tarator - © eatthismuch.com

You thin down the yogurt by beating it with a fork and adding some oil and water to get the consistency you want. Add ice cubes before serving to make sure the soup is as cold as it can get without freezing!

PKS: French Fries with Cheese. Remember that reference, a few dishes back, to French Fries with Cheese? The combo is considered a Bulgarian national ‘obsession’! The cheese should be made of goat’s or sheep’s milk, brined, and finely shredded. Just order ‘PKS’ in any fast food joint or café.

Tsatsa: Bulgarian Fish and Chips. Actually a heaping bowl of fried Sprats, a small fish found abundantly along the Bulgarian Black Sea cost.

Tsatsa and Chips - © kashkaval-tourist.com

The fish are used whole, with head and tail on, salted, dredged in flour and deep fried for a couple of minutes until crispy. They’re traditionally served with fried potato wedges and lots of cold beer.

If you’re tantalized…

… There’s lots more to explore in the Bulgarian national cookbook. You can find a whole bunch of websites dedicated to each author’s ideas of ‘Bulgaria’s Best Dishes’, but the carefully selected dishes above will give you a good idea of how the country eats! Tomorrow, we’ll visit Bulgaria’s national bake shop!

~ Maggie J.