23 June 2012

Gypsy Kitchens: Bulgarian Tarator

Tarator (таратор in cyrillic) is the soup version of a gin and tonic: refreshingly cold, simple, herbal and perfect for a summer evening.  A cynic might call this cucumber and yogurt soup, but it's more than that.  Tarator's a curative.  As we endure a Balkan heat wave, this is the kind of food we crave.
Tarator is served in countries from Albania to Turkey (with varieties popping up, we've heard, as far away as Iran and Armenia), but it feels particularly Bulgarian to us.  Why?  Because this is the heartland of yogurt.  Bulgaria even claims to have invented the stuff (though others doubt this) and traces its "culture" of culturing to ancient Thrace, some 2,000 years ago.  In 1908, a bright young Bulgarian named Stamen Grigorov identified the bacterium that causes natural yogurt to occur and later named it after his homeland - Lactobacillus bulgaricus.  Bulgarian yogurt really is tasty, with a wonderfully clean sourness that is more refreshing than other types.  The strong tang is perfect for mixing with the other soup ingredients.
We started with cucumbers and fresh dill bought from this old woman on Graf Ignatiev street in Sofia. She was wearing an adorable little paper hat.
We picked up some walnuts from another stand, and some garlic.  We didn't have time to go to the big market, so the yogurt came from a bodega near our rental apartment.  Olive oil, mustard and salt - the only other ingredients - were already in the kitchen.  This is partly what makes tarator so great: it's incredibly simple to make.
Start by julienning two sizable cucumbers into less-than-bite-sized pieces.  Grating the cucumber will make it mushy and slimy, it's better to put in the extra knife work.  Add to this about a third of a cup of finely chopped walnut, two crushed and minced cloves of garlic and a good dose of fresh dill.  Then, add two cups of plain, unsweetened yogurt and between two tablespoons and one third cup olive oil.  Salt generously.  Add two tablespoons coarse mustard - horseradish also might be good, or wasabi.  The mustard isn't a traditional ingredient, but we liked how it supplied a deep, complex note to the soup.
Stir everything together thoroughly.  At this point, the mixture is essentially what is known as Snezhanka salad (Салата Снежанка), or "snow white" salad, which is a relative of tzatziki.  It could be served as is, with soft bread or pita.
If you're still set on soup (you should be), slowly mix in cold water until it's a good, soupy consistency.  Put in the fridge for at least two hours before serving.  That's it.  It's delicious.  Serve sprinkled with a little more dill and crushed walnut and maybe a drizzle of olive oil.
The sourness of the yogurt is a perfect foil for the sweet crispness of the cucumber and the grassiness of the dill.  The walnuts add earthiness, the mustard provides spice.  It's a refreshing, bright mix.
It takes about twenty minutes, most of which is spent chopping, to do the "work" part of the recipe.  The rest is waiting - you could have a gin and tonic in the meantime.

Bulgarian Tarator
Ingredients:
2 large cucumbers, julienned into short pieces
2 cups unsweetened, plain yogurt
1/3 cup crushed or chopped walnut (plus a little more to garnish with)
2 crushed and finely minced cloves garlic
1/3 cup fine quality olive oil
2 tbsp coarse mustard
2-4 tbsp fresh dill, de-stemmed and given a cursory chopping
Cold water and salt


Method:
- Combine cucumber, yogurt, oil, walnut, garlic, mustard and dill in a large bowl.  Mix and salt well.
- Pour in cold water and mix until thoroughly combined, adding more water if not yet a "soupy" consistency.
- Refrigerate at least two hours before serving.
This, by the way, was the first bowl of tarator we encountered in Bulgaria, at our very first meal in the country.  This was on a hot day in Balchik, sitting by the placid Black Sea.  It was delicious.  We were hooked.  It made up for a particularly bad bowl served to us later, in Vidin - that one tasted as though the restaurant had just poured milk over grated cucumber.

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