On Bulgaria, Communism, and the Making of a National Cuisine

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Katak cheese, pitka bread, shopska salad, and sharena sol (“colorful salt”) in Ruse

I had barely set my bags down in my first apartment in Madrid before packing up and boarding a plane to Bulgaria. I was visiting my friend Helena, who is on her second year of teaching English on a Fulbright fellowship. I knew very little about the country apart from what she’d told me. I knew it had been Communist until the fall of the Soviet Union and that it was one of the poorest countries in Europe. I knew it was famous for red roses, as she had gifted me a small, ornately decorated wooden bottle of rose water for Christmas the year before. I knew there were only two types of cheese, white and yellow, and this concerned me very much. That was about it.

I arrived in the capital city of Sofia late at night and was greeted warmly by a tight hug, a chuckle at my comically raspy voice (I had gotten sick just before leaving), and a gentle warning: watch out for the fake taxis. After walking through a long line of identical white sedans, we finally found a legitimate taxi, identifiable only by the phone number on the side door which was exactly one number off from the fakes. We made our way through the city in the dark (literally and in my case, figuratively).

Bulgaria, I would soon learn, is full of contrasts and contradictions. The capital, for example, is a smattering of aggressively dull Soviet-era cement apartment buildings alongside newly developed business parks, shopping districts, and shiny glass skyscrapers. It’s a country still reconciling decades of Socialism, recalled fondly by older generations as a time of relative comfort, even as it races forward into “modernity.” It’s a country of people who are fervently proud of their history and traditions, which at times seem at odds with an increasingly globalized society. Bulgaria seems to be at the junction of old and new, simultaneously looking backward and forward for answers. Its food, I would discover, is no exception.

My Attempt at Writing About Bulgarian Food Without Sounding Like a Travel Guidebook

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Hungry goofballs on Vitosha Boulevard with Vitoshka Mountain hiding behind clouds

I vividly remember my very first bite of Bulgarian food the morning after my arrival. Helena took me to one of her favorite bakeries in Sofia on the main pedestrian street, Vitosha Boulevard, named for Vitoshka Mountain rising over the city in the distance. The area was renovated after the fall of Communism and transformed from a street of one-story residences and public buildings into a quaint, tourist-friendly shopping center. The bakery was a bit of a hole in the wall; low ceilings, no seating, minimal decoration, a small case of freshly baked goodies, and instant coffee to go. It was situated directly next to a McDonald’s, the first one to open in Bulgaria in fact. This exemplary contrast was lost on me, at first.

Helena ordered banitsa (emphasis placed on the “ba”), a flaky and doughy phyllo pastry layered with egg, yogurt, and cheese, as well as tikvenik (the funnest Bulgarian word I learned to say), a seasonal treat filled with pumpkin. We found a picnic table outside in the sunshine and I munched my breakfast in a state of dazed euphoria. The pastries were delicious and the company was sublime. The sun was warm but the leaves on nearby trees rattled and succumbed to the wind. Autumn was unmistakably settling in and locals and tourists alike had flocked to the street to enjoy the last warm days of summer.

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Homemade banitsa!

As young and hungry 20-somethings with limited disposable incomes, we happily patronized both a pubcrawl and a food tour during the following few days in Sofia. The pubcrawl was memorable for its warm beer (because Bulgarians believe that chilled beverages cause colds) and the fact that it led us to perhaps to only Spanish bar in the entire country, go figure. I got my first taste of the infamous rakia, a strong homemade fruit brandy, and it burned my already inflamed throat. I lost my voice that night and spent most of my time silently observing the other pubcrawlers and apologetically mouthing “I can’t talk” at anyone attempting to socialize.

Needless to say, I preferred the food tour (which was FREE, check out Balkan Bites if you’re ever in the neighborhood!). It was my introduction to some of the dishes I would soon fall in love with, which would become mainstays in our meals for the rest of our trip and in my repertoire of recipes for the rest of forever.

The first was tarator, a cold soup made from yogurt, cucumber, sunflower oil, garlic, dill, and garnished with walnuts. While cold soup had always struck me as odd up until this point in my life, I swear this concoction is the most refreshing, energizing, and flavorful meal on a hot summer day. Apart from its delicious taste, the fact that tarator is made primarily of yogurt is significant, as Bulgarians take great pride in their “sour milk.”

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Tarator and goat cheese salad from a fancy shmancy touristy restaurant in Varna.

Some claim that yogurt originated in Bulgaria over 4,000 years ago when tribes found that their fresh milk had fermented, though it was most likely discovered much earlier in the Middle East or Central Asia and brought to the region by nomads. It was homemade Bulgarian sour milk that led a young medical student in Geneva to discover the bacteria that turned fresh milk into yogurt in 1905, earning it the name lactobacillus bulgaricus. According to our tour guide, yogurt is the key to longevity in Bulgaria, a claim which may contain a speck of truth as the mountainous region of Rhodope is well-known for having one of the highest concentrations of centenarians in all of Europe (source).

Another dish I was introduced to is called lyutenitsa (“LOO-ten-eet-sah”), a tomato and red pepper spread that’s inexplicably sweet and incredibly flavorful. The tour guide explained that it was lyutenitsa season (later summer to early autumn) and that many of the tomatoes and peppers harvested at this time are preserved in this way to last all winter. She described a special contraption invented specifically for this process. Once the peppers are skinned, they are roasted ONE AT A TIME by hand for EXACTLY 3 minutes in this oven-like invention that cooks the peppers evenly from all sides. Then the peppers are ground up in what looks like a meat grinder, forming a thick mixture to be spread on fresh bread or canned for future guilt-free snacking in the dead of winter.

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Lyutenitsa on fresh bread for lunch

I loved lyutenitsa for more than its universally lovable flavor. I loved the seasonality of it. I loved the process, the labor of love that goes into it, the monotony of roasting each individual pepper by hand. I loved that it’s steeped in tradition, that the “old-fashioned” way is still the best way. I loved that’s it’s fondly referred to as “student food” because when Bulgarian students in the city run out of money and have no means of feeding themselves, rather than sending cash or snacks or whatnot, babas from the countryside will send a care package of lyutenitsa.

Helena and I would take jars of lyutenitsa on day trips to the countryside to see the rock monasteries of Ivanovo and Devetashka cave. I remember sitting in the open trunk of our rented car, reaching a shard of bread into the bottom of the jar to get the last little bit. Later in the trip, we went to a festival in the seaside city of Varna where we watched how lyutenitsa is made. We bought another jar and ate it with fresh grapes and figs in the shade of her family’s orchard. We later found ourselves walking through the streets of the city, watching Bulgarians roasting peppers on their balconies and smelling the sweetness that filled the air.

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Roasted peppers and tomatoes ground into lyutenitsa before my very eyes!

Lyutenitsa is a perfect example of how simple, practical, and delicious food can represent so much, including our connection to the seasons, tradition and history, as well as family and community. I also associate it with a number of fond memories from my time in Bulgaria. For these reasons, it quickly became my favorite Bulgarian food, and I would give just about anything for a jar right about now.

Bulgarian National Cuisine

The tour guide in Sofia was full of anecdotes about the history of Bulgarian food. At one point, she mentioned in passing something that has stayed with me and inspired this post.

She explained that Bulgaria has many diverse geographical regions. Before Communism, the dishes that came out of the various regions were similar but often the ingredients differed slightly and they were called by different names. At one point, the Communist government made the decision to implement a food standardization campaign to diminish variation and create a unified national cuisine. But why?

The answer surprised me: the government was seeking to curate a cohesive food culture in Bulgaria in an effort to boost tourism. In the 1960’s and 1970’s, travel was becoming much more feasible and fashionable for Europeans. As a result, tourism soon became an important source of income for Bulgarians in the mountainous regions of the south and the beach areas along the Black Sea in the southeast. During this time, Bulgaria underwent a branding process, hoping to sell itself abroad as a thriving and culturally rich Communist state. Standardizing the names of the dishes was an important step in marketing the country and its cuisine abroad. For this reason, Bulgaria repackaged its food in a way that could be easily communicated to tourists.

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The Black Sea on an afternoon in late September, captured by peak tourist me

This story, offered up as a fun little tidbit between stops on the tour, became more puzzling the more I thought about it. Were the new names only used in restaurants in tourist hotspots? Or did the rest of Bulgaria start calling these dishes by the government-prescribed names? Didn’t Bulgaria have a national cuisine before tourism, before it was made accessible to tourists? Shouldn’t the national cuisine be the food be considered legitimate apart from and regardless of tourists? What does “national cuisine” refer to, exactly?

It would be difficult to imagine a “before and after” scenario, where the government intervened and suddenly everyone in the country began eating differently than before. But during this process, regional variety was widely eliminated and standards of eating became more strictly enforced by the government (this was Communism, after all). Perhaps Bulgarian cuisine today falls somewhere in between the vast variety of pre-standardization and the nicely manicured, tourist-oriented version that the Bulgarian government hoped would bring in state revenues (if any readers have insight on this, please let me know in the comments!). What’s absolutely certain, though, is that the government’s campaign to unify the nation through food was successful in many ways.

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Beautiful photo of shopska salad from Fair Ridge Farms, find the recipe here!

The dish that best exemplifies this era in Bulgarian cuisine is the rightfully famous shopska salad. During the push to market Bulgaria as a culinary destination in Europe, the government created six dishes to represent the different ethnographic regions of the country. This would showcase regional and cultural diversity, but in a simplified, digestible (tee-hee) way. Shopska salad was named for the Shopluk people, roughly located in the area surrounding Sofia (though Shopluk populations also exist in Serbia and Macedonia). The salad, containing red and green peppers, tomatoes, cucumbers, onions, and white sirene cheese soon caught on and became a national symbol across Bulgaria for one simple reason: its ingredients represented the colors of the flag.

Delicious in its simplicity, shopska salad is the only dish out of the six created at that time to not only survive but truly thrive. It is now ubiquitous throughout Bulgaria and other Balkan countries as well. Bulgarians have shopska salad as an appetizer often (if not daily then a few times a week). It’s typically served with rakia and may be the precursor to a meal of grilled meat and vegetables. I got to try it at a “traditional” Bulgarian restaurant in Helena’s home of Ruse, a small city along the Danube River in the east. The vegetables were incredibly fresh and flavorful, the tomatoes perfectly ripe and sweet, and the grated cheese on top literally melted into cream in my mouth.

After this experience and the context of Bulgaria’s food history, it doesn’t come as a much of a surprise to me that, according to Wikipedia, “in 2014 Shopska salad turned out to be Bulgaria’s most recognisable dish in Europe.”

Lasting Impressions

While writing this, I often found myself back at the restaurant in Ruse, flipping through the poorly translated menu in search of the most “authentic” Bulgarian dishes. Shopska salad, according to both Helena and our waiter, was a non-negotiable entry point to the rest of the meal. I’m still grappling with the idea that its popularity is not a product of its deep roots in traditional Bulgarian cookery. Instead, it was carefully, thoughtfully crafted (by the Communist government, no less!) to be attractive and memorable to tourists like me. From its inception, it was intended as more than a delicious meal, but as a message of nationalism, cohesion, and abundance.

To this day, when I make an improvised shopska salad in my tiny kitchen in Madrid, I feel as though I’m eating something authentically Bulgarian. This dish, designed for foreigners, now defines the country’s national cuisine.

Like I said, Bulgaria is full of contradictions.

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Menu from the restaurant in Ruse

Categories: Travel

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