23 June 2012

Bulgarian Food

This seems like a fine place to start a conversation about Bulgarian food.  Meat triumphantly front and center, but vibrant green salad looming brilliantly in the background.  Like in the rest of Southeastern Europe, grilled and roasted meats are a staple and a signature of Bulgaria's national cuisine.  Pork reigns supreme, but there are plenty of other options.  Since our visit coincided with the last days of spring, lamb was widely available and recommended.  Bulgaria exports lamb throughout the EU, so there is often less available for local consumption outside of the spring season.  This is what we like to call perfect timing.
Bulgarian salads are not content with just playing second fiddle, though, and often demand entire pages of a menu.  You can break almost all of the choices down to a few key ingredients: yogurt, tomato, pepper, egg, eggplant, cabbage, carrot, corn, mushroom and ham.  But the combinations are endless and the herbs, oils and chopping methods employed are always thoughtfully based on the salad at hand.  What you can almost always count on is some crushed walnut on top and a single black olive buttoning it all up.
I'd half convinced myself that Bulgaria was an easy place for a non-meat-eater.  So many vegetables! Meatless guyveche!  But just two nights ago, we met up for an evening of sight-seeing/talking/eating/drinking with our new friend Carolyn.  She has a really great blog called Karolinka In & Around Bulgaria (and if you think she seems funny and charming on that, she's even more so in person).  Anyway, Carolyn came to Bulgaria 4 years ago as a Fulbright Scholar... and a vegetarian.  That is to say, she is no longer one. 
Her reasoning made me realize something about Bulgarian cuisine and the people that eat it. Dining outside the home is treated as a social event, rather than just public nourishment.  I thought back to all of our dinners.  Dishes would often come one at a time in no particular order.  Portions were large.  Service was friendly but slow.  These were hours-long affairs with just the two of us.  I can't even imagine what dinner with friends must be like.  And when said friends have all ordered a lot of meat, to not share would be anti-social and culturally awkward.  It'd be like going to a pub in the UK and saying you don't drink beer. Anyway, this is how one becomes an in-house vegetarian and a social carnivore.  It also helps that Bulgarians happen to know how to cook meat very, very well.
And don't even try to say you're on a gluten-free diet at holiday time!  Bulgarian breadmaking is an artform.  At this house museum in Veliko Tarnovo, breads were displayed with their corresponding celebration or occasion.  There is a special design for the godmother or godfather, the bride or the groom, each individual saint's feast day.  We were never served bread as festive or beautiful as this, but in a restaurant at which homemade bread was available, it was recommended with pride and passion.  I have a feeling that in Bulgaria, a kitchen only becomes a true kitchen once it is filled with the smell of baking bread.
Then, there is tarator (which we've already covered).  I can't go without mentioning it again here. Above we have its thicker relative, snezhanka (Snow White).  This is essentially tarator which has not been watered down - yogurt, cucumber, garlic, dill and walnut.  There are an array of these sorts of salads in Bulgarian cuisine.  Just as the word 'salad' can apply to tuna, egg, crab meat, potato or anything else mixed with mayonnaise in America - yoghurt-based mixtures are made from all of the above and more in Bulgaria.  Ice cream scooped onto plates to start the meal, they are refreshing, simple and delicious. 
To begin the meal, smother the meal and end the meal, there is always cheese.  Another excellent point Carolyn made about the non-sustainability of a completely vegetarian Bulgarian diet (I promise we talked about more than just food) is the abundance of cheese one would have to consume.  There is always mish-mash (a sort of scrambled egg version of a Spanish omelet), but otherwise it will be fried cheese or cheesy gyuveche dishes day and night.  Above is a surprise from a waiter in Arbanassi.  We'd ordered house white wine, which came with slices of apple in the pitcher and he brought us this to go along with it.  Your eyes are not deceiving you - that is a block of cheese fried and then charred on a grill with honey, crushed walnut and golden raisins on top.  It was as good as you'd imagine.

2 comments:

  1. Thanks again Rebecca and Merlin! It was great to meet you and hear about all of your adventures.

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