Penwhisk

Food with a Slice of History

Bulgarian beans and lentils

Stuffed zucchini
Stuffed zucchini at Hemingway restaurant in Plovdiv
Image by Penwhisk

There must be a mistake. I am standing in front of a restaurant in the center of Plovdiv, reading through the menu. My eyes move hungrily from line to line looking for a dish of Bulgarian beans and lentils. There is none that I can see. That is hard to understand. Beans and lentils were at the heart of my grandmother’s cooking. For me, they are indispensable to Bulgarian national cuisine. In my disbelief, I seek help from a young waiter, who happens to be standing by. He raises his eyebrows:

“Bulgarian beans and lentils? No one has ever asked me for those, not that I can remember. We have grilled meats, kebapche, fish, shopska salad, as well as cucumber salad with yogurt and walnuts. This is what people want to eat. No one goes out for Bulgarian beans and lentils.”

My mother is standing at a safe distance a couple of steps behind me. I sense her embarrassment.  When I join her, she looks at me.

“Don’t you realize that asking for Bulgarian beans and lentils comes across as an insult? Bulgarian taste has risen in sophistication above beans and lentils. They are a thing of the impoverished communist past. Why do you always want to provoke? Must you come back home after ten years and make people uncomfortable with your unsettling questions?”

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Bulgarian Mineral Water

Plastic mineral water bottles

Image courtesy of Jonathan Chng on Unsplash

After fifteen years, not much seems to have changed on the Sofia – Plovdiv railway line.  Still, things look strange to me in an unsettling way.  I cannot help but feel as if at the Iskarsko Shosse stop, which is a short subway ride away from Sofia airport, I had caught a train well-known to me from my childhood.  The cars are reassuringly grimy and grungy.

I am thirsty.  My eyes are drawn to the trash receptacle in my compartment, which swells with crushed, empty Bulgarian mineral water bottles.  The names of springs flash through my head: Hisarya, Bansko, Devnya, Sandanski, Sapareva Banya, Varshets.  In the early days of Bulgaria’s market economy, firms sprang up that introduced plastic bottles, previously known to locals mostly from pictures of the West, filled with Bulgarian mineral water from these springs.  In their advertisements, the firms claimed that Vanga, a blind Bulgarian mystic and seer, had blessed their product.

Vanga’s abilities to foretell people’s destinies had been in much demand during communist times.  While religion had been officially forbidden, belief in the supernatural was tolerated.  Folks waited for months on end for a turn to visit the vrachka in Petrich, a small town in Southern Bulgaria.  Their repertoire of questions was of personal nature, for no one dared to inquire about the future of Bulgarian communist politics: would a relative find relief from a prolonged, mysterious illness; who would have a boy after years of trying; who would marry at long last, and who would return from an extended, distant journey.  Sitting on the Sofia — Plovdiv train now, I am craving for a bottle of Bulgarian mineral water.  I very much need a reading of my past rather than the future: did I never belong here?

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Mon Chéri

Hollyhocks flowers in a garden

Image courtesy of Stella de Smit on Unsplash

A Mon Chéri was my first bite of capitalism.  I couldn’t have been older than five.  Unease gripped my throat as soon as I bit into the crisp, thin chocolate exterior and liqueur ran down my chin.  Just a second later, a sticky wave of panic washed over me: my top would stain, and my grandfather would yell at me back home.  My clumsy fingers quickly shove the rest of the praline into my mouth.  I stole an anxious glance at my grandmother’s stained dress but the alcohol got to my head and within seconds, I felt slightly elated.  The neat, white curtains couldn’t stop me from glancing through the window.  The hollyhock blossoms out in the garden on the other side nodded conspiratorially at me.  Their vibrant colors looked even more radiant and tempting.

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Baking Soda

A glass full of carbonated water

Image courtesy of Karim Ghantous on Unsplash

“I need a drink with baking soda … my throat is burning and I can hardly swallow.”  This was my grandmother’s signature phrase.  Her custom was to deliver it with urgency and pathos at the entrance to my parents’ living space in our family house in Plovdiv.  She would lean forward through the half-opened door.  Her hand timidly rested on the door handle.  My grandmother’s craving for the unassuming white powder hovered over the table in our dining area.

As I grew older, I learned to recognize the slight variations in tone and wording depending on the person who my grandmother addressed.  I sensed that my grandmother’s need for baking soda revealed something crucial about her personality.  It also had to do with her position in our family.

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Kozunak

Kozunak

Kozunak (image by Penwhisk)

The list of ingredients in my grandmother’s Kozunak, the sweet bread she baked on Holy Saturday before Orthodox Easter, was as follows:

First, civil disobedience.  (I will explain this one later.)

Second, raisins that had arrived in a package from my uncle, an enemy of the Bulgarian communist state, who lived in West Germany.

Third, my grandmother’s legendary skill in the kitchen.  The kneading, done in a particular way to produce the light, thread-like texture of the buttery dough, took hours on end.  My grandmother braced herself weeks in advance for this exacting baking task, like a wrestler in anticipation of a rigorous match that would consume all her stamina and will.  My mother would not even dare attempt to make Kozunak.

Finally, white flour, eggs, butter, yeast and milk.  These ingredients tested my grandmother’s ability to secure foodstuffs during the hungry years of Communism.

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Lindsey S. Love Chickpea Flour Does It All

birthday cake by Lindsey S. Love

A Late-Summer Birthday Cake (Recipe by Lindsey S. Love & Image by Penwhisk)

Last night when the smells from my kitchen lulled me to sleep, I felt sweetly content: I had finally managed to bake the Chocolate Banana Loaf from Lindsey S. Love’s fine Chickpea Flour Does It All.  The recipes in this fresh-ingredients cookbook are gluten- and dairy-free.  Fortunately, none of my loved ones are gluten intolerant.  However, we all feel nurtured and nourished when eating Lindsey S. Love’s food.  My family regularly feasts on dishes using her delectable recipes.  The Moroccan-Spiced Lentil Burgers, Mung Bean Pancakes and Caraway Spätzle are steady favorites of ours.

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Cooking with Yotam Ottolenghi

Apricot and Walnut Cake by Yotam Ottolenghi

Apricot and Walnut Cake by Yotam Ottolenghi (Image by Penwhisk)

Complicated is my relationship with Yotam Ottolenghi, the eminent Israeli-British chef, owner of notable culinary establishments in London and author of award-winning cookbooks.  Ottolenghi and I have never met and we appear to be at very different stages in life.  Currently, I am a stay-at-home mom and house-wife, an occupation, which, going by the look on the faces of those with whom I share this piece of information, makes me neither capable nor accomplished.  I have won no awards as a stay-at-home mom.  (This is fortunate, for I associate such distinctions with the Mother’s Cross of Honor, given to women in Hitler’s Nazi Germany.)  Nonetheless, there are some things that Ottolenghi and I have in common.  Firstly, both of us hold advanced degrees in Comparative Literature — he a M.A. and I, a Ph.D.  Plenty More is the second thing we share.  He wrote it and I must have used it cooking at least 150 times in the past year. 

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Shoba Narayan The Milk Lady of Bangalore

a cow

Image courtesy of Derek Story on Unsplash

I knew that in India cows were considered holy beings, but it was only when I read Shoba Narayan’s latest book that I understood how the relationship to these animals enriched the exchanges between humans.  The Milk Lady of Bangalore tells a captivating story about Sarala, who tends to her cows in the midst of the rapidly developing, bustling capital of Karnataka state in South India.  Narayan’s decision to buy raw milk from Sarala’s cows sets her on a path of unexpected discoveries about the life of urban farmers like Sarala, the bond they nurture with their animals, cultural beliefs about the wholesome qualities of cow urine and the purifying properties of cow dung.  However, most importantly of all is that Narayan’s narrative reveals the ways in which two human beings who inhabit radically different worlds can share rich moments of understanding and intimacy.  In an age when we rely predominantly on social media to connect and communicate with others, and even to maintain our friendships, it is both eye-opening and much needed to engage with Narayan’s thoughtful and compassionate narrative of her interactions with her milk lady.

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Mother’s Day Story

A basket with pastries in the form of little peaches

Image courtesy of an acquaintance

A dear acquaintance emailed me this snapshot, which brought to my mind a story about Mother’s Day that’s waited to be told.  The image reminded me of a home-made pastry that used to fill me with longing when I was a child.  On birthdays, my schoolmates would bring these little peach-shaped cakes as a special treat for the class.  I would follow the tray with my eyes while it was passed around the classroom.  My mouth would water and, when it was finally my turn, I would carefully lift a peach and place it on a napkin in front of me.  The sugar crystals would stick onto my fingers and I would lick them first, before I picked up the little cake once again to carefully examine it.  The color captivated me.  My mother never used food coloring and I couldn’t even imagine how it worked.  How was it possible for someone to make a little cake that looked like a peach?  In my mind, one must be able to work magic in order to conjure a flawless fruit, perfectly ripe but free of the slightest sign of decay.  When I would finally put the little cake in my mouth, the sponge would be soft and sweet.  The two halves of the fruit were attached with some jam, which tasted even sweeter.  When I was done eating the treat, I would smack my lips in honor of the class-mate who had a birthday.  I was elated whenever someone would bring a tray with these home-made delights to share with the class.  It was even better than having a birthday myself. 

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Cheburashka

a crate of organges

Image courtesy of Sean Mungur on Unsplash

The mention of Cheburashka would send me running from my bedroom through our dining room straight into the living room in our house in Plovdiv.  I was certain that I must had seen the Soviet stop-motion animation series with this character at least a hundred times. Once in the living room, I would place myself in one bold leap onto the squeaky green armchair in front of our black and white television set.  I would hold my breath and cross my fingers that the set wouldn’t start flickering or all of a sudden go dark in the middle of the show.  I would jump up and down on the armchair (something strictly forbidden to me, for this piece of furniture was inherited from the father of my grandmother) and sing in Russian, loudly and very much out of tune, the crocodile Gena’s song from the series.  In the first episode, Cheburashka, a big-eared, fanciful creature covered in dark brown fur, was discovered fast asleep in a crate full of oranges at a Soviet food market.

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