Republic of Bulgaria
It seems that several cuisines that have already had their day share similarities with the still relatively-unknown food culture of Bulgaria. “Culture” being the operative word, since so many of Bulgaria’s dishes are dependent on their rich, unique and multiform dairy products, including their particularly exceptional yogurt. Ingredients and dishes that most Americans would readily recognize – Greek yogurt (enjoying a creamy heyday even as I write this), feta cheese, the cheese-and-phyllo pie known to initiates as tyropita and the spinachy version called spanakopita, the Roman staple of caciocavallo cheese, the skewered morsels of heaven known as kebab – have analogous counterparts in Bulgarian cuisine. Why??
Let me tell you a little story about some dudes called the Ottomans.
Once upon a time, around the year 1300, a group of Muslim emirs led by Sultan Osman I were like, “bro, let’s start an amazingly tolerant and far-reaching empire.” So they did. At its peak, it stretched from Algeria to Azerbaijan, and even held power almost as far north as what is now Vienna. During its more than 600 years of rule, the Ottoman Empire wisely allowed most of the lands under its control to maintain their own religious and cultural autonomy while still paying tribute to the Turks. This policy has really paid off for people like us who are alive now – food in general is much, much more delicious because of this open approach to exchange between east and west.**
[**Don’t get me wrong – it didn’t work out for everybody. They were an empire, after all. But, you know. – MR]
In keeping with this theme of cultural exchange, I’m going to show you a Bulgarian dish that has etymological roots in Arabic and exists in a huge number of countries. It’s called chorba.
Chorba is just a word for stew/soup in most formerly-Ottoman countries, but the root of the word comes from the Arabic verb sharaba [للشرب] (pronounced more like “shuh-ruh-buh”)- “to drink”. This same verb has given us the English word sherbet/sorbet (frozen liquid, get it?) as well as the shrub, a vinegar-based cocktail that is finally beginning to be made – artisanally, of course – by fashionably-spindly, mustachioed bartenders in V-neck t-shirts. As a word, “sharaba” has mutated from its Arabic root form to the various regional versions we see now – ciorbă; shurpa; shorpo; sorpa; etc. All of these versions refer to stew or liquid food in one way or another.
So what do Bulgarians do with чорба (Bulgaria uses the Cyrillic alphabet, duh)? One of the most beloved Bulgarian dishes, and one that has the reputation of being a foolproof hangover cure, is a humble tripe stew called shkembe chorba [Шкембе чорба]. There’s not much in it besides oil, milk, boiled cow stomach slices and a little hot paprika to help you sweat out last night’s sake bombs. It’s not hard to make, but the process of de-funking the tripe is a little time consuming and, well… stanky. You’ll want to change the tripe’s water after each boil, maybe about four times, until the butyric-acid (read: barf) smell has mostly gone away. Oh, and open a window.
If prepared correctly, this stew is not very gamey, though it is pretty hard to forget that you’re eating stomach since there ain’t much else in it. The milk mellows out the tripe, and the warm dairy richness against the black and red pepper is super comforting – sort of like our own mac & cheese, which many people also crave during a hangover. For my own taste, it could definitely use a more profound paprika flavor than most recipes allow, but maybe it’s supposed to be nuanced and inoffensive to a troubled tummy. Texturally the tripe is soft, tender and slippery, even a little gelatinous. The garlic-vinegar condiment also adds a nasal component to the flavor – the dairy stays on your tongue and the sharp fumes go right to your nose, clearing out your booze-battered sinuses.
OK, you’ve had a rough night – go to bed and I’ll have breakfast waiting.
Good morning! Feeling better? No? Well it’s your own fault, you worthless drunk.
Here, have some boza and roasted chickpeas.
Boza is a lightly-fermented drink made from roasted wheat flour. It’s popular in most formerly-Ottoman countries, with the Bulgarian recipe being one of the most prominent. It’s not hard to make, just roast some white flour until it’s light brown, mix with water, sugar and a little leftover boza from your previous batch and let those handy anaerobic organisms do the rest. [NB: to escape the infinite regress of not having any boza to start with, see the recipe below for a boza starter]
Once it has fermented for a few days, give it a good shake and pop it in the fridge. (I hopefully shouldn’t need to tell you to also be sure all of your jars and whatnot are sterile and clean, or you could potentially grow something heinous in there instead of boza.) Cold, fresh boza is really nice if you can get down with the slightly gritty texture. It tastes like a light milkshake made out of fresh cinnamon toast and marzipan. It’s realllllly sweet, very thick, and ever-so-faintly fermenty. It also goes great with the mouth-moisture-eliminating traditional accompaniment of roasted chickpeas and a little dusting of powdered cinnamon.
OK sorry, I’ll go make breakfast now. Do you need a bucket? No? Well, stay off the couch just in case. Here’s a blanket and some Advil.
In Bulgaria, a traditional breakfast will pair boza with a savory cheese pie called banitsa [Баница], which is made from all of the bounty of Bulgaria’s dairy industry. Some recipes use one cheese, others use two, and some even use two cheeses AND yogurt. That’s the version I picked.
The first of our two cheeses (all of which I found at the poorly-named Parrot Coffee store in here in Astoria) will be sirene [бяло сирене], which is a lot like feta – or perhaps I should say feta is a lot like sirene. Where Greek feta has a firmness that can, at times, be a little chalky, Bulgarian sirene is softer, creamier and much brinier. It has a salty, pickled intensity that even crosses the border into “smoky”, and it’s savory to the point where you can feel your brain dumping happy chemicals like Han Solo in front of an Imperial patrol.
Our other cheese, kashkaval [кашкавал], has a name derived from Italy’s caciocavallo cheese, I think. Or it also seems possible that the Italians named their version of this semi-hard cheese (“cacio” = “caseus” = “cheese”) after the horse-riding (“cavallo”) Aromanian nomads that may have actually created it first. The world may never know. In any case, it’s also a bit salty and melts readily, and even shares some characteristics with your garden-variety cheddar.
I’m going to throw together a quick assembly montage on making Bulgarian banitsa. Ready?
Now would be a good time to impart some wisdom – if you didn’t already know, springform pans are NOT watertight. They will hold in a thick cake batter, but not so much a runny mess of club soda and raw egg. So, yeah. Oops.
Speaking of club soda – why? As we’ve seen before, club soda’s main ingredient, besides water, is sodium bicarbonate, aka baking soda. What does baking soda do again? Well, when heated with acidic ingredients, it releases carbon dioxide. If you do it right, these carbon dioxide bubbles will get trapped in whatever you’re cooking, making it light and airy. Like this:
Now you just let it set for a bit (it will deflate), pop it out of the pan and cut a slice. Serve it with a big dollop of Bulgarian yogurt, which is less like Greek yogurt and more like Indian or Afghani yogurt – runnier, saltier, cheesier, grassier. Real “Bulgarian” yogurt must be made with the Lactobacillus bulgaricus bacterium, otherwise it ain’t Bulgarian.
From where I’m standing, the recipe I used appears to have wayyyy too many eggs. Very liquid. Less yogurt, fewer eggs, and more cheese would make for a drier filling that would be MUCH easier to work with.
That aside – DAMN. Steam pours out. So crackly, so creamy. With the cold, tart yogurt against the hot, smoky sirene, rich melted kashkaval and buttery, flaky kori dough, it’s almost overwhelming. A sip of cold, sweet boza and your palette is balanced and reset. It’s like sirene was built expressly for this purpose, like Robocop was built to fight crime and Vicki from Small Wonder was built to… wait, why did they build her? Anyway, this stuff rules.
Bulgaria, you get short shrift but I think your time is coming. Thanks for making awesome cheese and yogurt, and helping drunk people feel better about their life choices.
Now you go:
1 lb. prepared veal or beef honeycomb tripe
1 cup sunflower oil
2 cups whole milk
1 tsp paprika
1 tbsp freshly-ground black pepper
1 tbsp sea salt
2 garlic cloves, peeled and thinly sliced
1/3 cup red wine vinegar
hot chilli flakes, to taste
Clean the tripe thoroughly with water, rubbing it with coarse salt to remove any debris.
Boil the tripe in abundant salted water for about 20 minutes. Drain. Repeat until the stink stops (probably four times or so).
Slice the tripe into chunks. In a pot, combine the oil, milk, tripe, salt, pepper and paprika. Bring to a boil, then lower to a simmer and cook for about 30 minutes.
In a small bowl, mix the vinegar with the garlic. Let this sit while you cook the soup.
Serve the soup hot, and garnish with the vinegar-garlic.
Brush your teeth.
1 packet of #4 phyllo dough (Bulgarian “fini kori” or Greek phyllo)
300 grams kashkaval, grated
400 grams sirene, mashed
3 + 1 eggs
½ stick of butter, melted
1/2 cup of soda water
1/2 cup yogurt (Bulgarian!)
Combine the cheeses, 3 eggs and the yogurt in a big bowl. Refrigerate.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
On a steady work surface, layer 3-4 sheets of phyllo dough, and brush them with butter. Put about 4 tbsp of filling at one end of the sheets, and roll into a loose cylinder. Arrange cylinder in a spiral shape in a greased metal pan, starting from the center. Repeat, continuing the spiral shape until you run out of room.
Whisk the remaining egg with the club soda and pour evenly over the banitsa.
Pop in the oven and bake until the top of the pastry is browned to your liking and the whole mass has risen a bit.
Remove from oven, let cool slightly, and then slice and serve with Bulgarian yogurt and boza.
4 cups water
1/3 cup flour (100 mL)
1/3 cup sugar (100 mL)
boza starter (see below)
roasted chickpeas (as accompaniment)
powdered cinnamon (as garnish)
Bake the flour until light brown, then add the water and the sugar and mix well. Leave in a sterilized, sealed jar in a warm place for 2-3 days. Shake occasionally. Then transfer to fridge and drink when fully chilled. Can be sprinkled with a little powdered cinnamon and served alongside roasted chickpeas.
4 tablespoons flour
2 tablespoon water
2 tablespoon sugar
Mix together all ingredients and leave, covered in plastic wrap, to ferment in a warm place for about 3-4 days. Use in boza recipe (above).