Penwhisk

Food with a Slice of History

Category: Journeys

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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Sugar Cookies

Image courtesy of Austin Ban on Unsplash

The Bulgarian communist production system had its own version of the 1970s sugar cookie. The sugar cookies of my childhood came in a clear plastic bag with blue and red letters in the Cyrillic alphabet, which said something about zoo animals.  I’m certain that there was a hippopotamus and a monkey, maybe even a giraffe and a kangaroo.  The rest of the animal shapes I don’t remember.  Despite being a fan of these cookies, I have no recollection of their taste.  I enjoyed holding them in my tiny hands and running my finger over their surface to feel the texture.  The animal shape was the sole effort to appeal to the consumer that the communist centrally planned production system made.  The cookies had a neutral scent and the pale color of slightly under-cooked dough didn’t tempt me.  My goal was to get hold of as many cookies as possible so that I could arrange them and keep them away from my brother, who was known to devour anything, regardless of its taste.

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Banitza

Image courtesy of Caroline Attwood on Unsplash

Banitza, thin sheets of rolled out pastry filled with a mixture of eggs and crumbled feta cheese, was one of my grandmother’s specialty dishes, which I vividly remember.  I see my grandmother carefully walking down the steps from her kitchen on the very top floor, holding in her hands firmly but tenderly a baking pan, covered with a thin cotton cloth.  Underneath was her banitza, a cloud of powdered sugar, set on flaky pastry, which was delicate as egg shells in shades of buttery yellow and darker browns.  Where the shell had cracked, I glimpsed silky filling of feta cheese and egg yolk.  My eyes savored the banitza, while I had a distinct sense that it was not baked just to be eaten.

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