Introduction to Bulgarian Cooking
Adapted from "The Food and Cooking of Eastern Europe" by Lesley Chamberlain, Penguin Books, London, 1989
The Bulgarian cuisine is one the world's simplest, healthiest and most naturally elegant styles of cooking, akin to the cuisines of Turkey and Lebanon. The seasoning is light and the accent on preserving natural flavours. The land, which the Ancients called Thrace, yields abundant green vegetables and fruit. The Black Sea is rich in fish.
Among the many features of the modern Bulgarian table likely to appeal to Western tastes are the appetizers or meze. These include white beans and preserved vegetables in olive oil, peppers, olives, tomatoes, spicy sausage (pasterma), hot pastry and deep-fried savouries in batter, green onions, cucumber, yoghurt, pickled cucumbers and a white, very salty, fresh cheese like the Greek feta. Herbs — thyme, tarragon, basil, savory, mint, dill — are widely used, both fresh and dried, to flavour salads and in curing or preserving cheese and meat. Flat and leavened bread, white and brown, accompany meze.
The sausage, salami, cheese, yoghurt, vegetables and fruit that characterize this very natural table first appear at breakfast, along with yellow cheese and a number of other excellent fermented-mild products that confirm Bulgaria as a worthy home of the supposedly life-enhancing bacillus bulgaricus. Meat, often lamb, is simply prepared, by grilling on charcoal or spit-roasting. Out of minced meat the Bulgarians make spiced meatballs and rissoles which are baked or grilled, and cubed meat (kebap) is cooked in the same way or baked with vegetables.
Chicken and game are relished, and a festive specialty is stuffed white fish with nuts and raisins. Probably the best-known dish outside the country, and one promoted as national, is gyuvech, a sealed casserole of up to twelve different vegetables, with or without the addition of meat or fish, and sometimes with a garnish of grapes.
Rye, barley, wheat, corn and oats grow alongside abundant soft and hard fruits and green and root vegetables. The list of produce from the Bulgarian vegetable garden is long and celebrated: aubergines, tomatoes, peppers, onions, garlic, okra, green beans, cucumbers, courgettes, beets, potatoes, corn, spinach, radishes, lettuce, sorrel.
The abundant soft fruit of early summer — cherries and strawberries — ripens in May, and is followed by the seasons for peaches, apricots, plums, apples, grapes, figs, quinces and, finally, olives. Nuts, especially walnuts, are widely cultivated to add to soups and sauces and cakes.
A special preparation is banitsa, consisting of wafer-thin layers of buttery pastry enclosing a filling of spinach and cheese or ground meat and cheese with herbs. Savoury, it is like a pastry version of lasagna; sweet versions come with nuts and cheese or jam and cheese, or pumpkin. Moussaka is another well-known composite dish of baked meat and vegetables and herbs, sometimes topped with a savory custard or yoghurt. For padding they enjoy pilaf (rice) in both sweet and savory forms, with raisins and with poultry stock and onions.
Bulgaria has one of the lowest per capita meat consumption figures in Europe. A pig is slaughtered for Christmas eating, along with venison, and through the year pork, veal, beef and lamb are eaten in moderation. It is not uncommon for meat to be cooked with fruit, for example veal with quinces. One of the most surprising aspects of traditional meat cookery and Bulgarian cuisine in general is the absence of sauces. Thus, when the venison is cooked for Christmas it is only marinated and roasted and then served dry with cooked vegetables.
The Bulgarians have a passion for stuffed fresh or fermented cabbage leaves, and they also stuff every other kind of vegetable and fruit from quinces to peppers, tomatoes to aubergines. Traditional all-year Bulgarian soups are made with predominantly southern ingredients like spinach, lamb, olives, rice and lemons. The most famous is tarator, made with cucumber and yoghurt, thickened with ground walnuts and served cold.