Paper steaks, troubled potatoes and old men from Bansko feature heavily in Bulgarian cuisine. A matter of language, really
Issue 11, August 2007
by Nikolay Mirikliyski; illustration by Gergana Shkodrova
There's a famous joke about a British tourist in Paris who, mustering his meagre schoolboy linguistic skills, ordered a citron presseé in a café. He was beginning to savour the prospect of a freshly squeezed lemon juice until the French waiter laughed and asked if he wanted a squashed car!
But this “misunderstanding” is nothing compared to the more formidable confusions in Bulgaria. Take a stroll in the popular tourist resort of Bansko, for example, and you may notice the absence of old men in the streets. There's a good explanation for this – they all appear to be on local restaurants' menus instead! That's right – “Old Man from Bansko” is just one of the delicacies on offer.
Do not be unduly alarmed – Bulgaria is not full of aspiring Hannibal Lecters whose idea of an exquisite dinner is a pensioner's flesh served with a nice bottle of Damianitza. Neither has it sunk to the level of 1970s Uganda where dictator Idi Amin apparently killed one of his cabinet ministers and ate him with his dinner. Bulgaria may have its idiosyncrasies but, mercifully, cannibalism is not one of them. And, thankfully, Bansko's old people are not singled out for culinary persecution. So what's the explanation? It's all about a local offering that resembles a sudzhuk, or dried sausage. Nobody knows how it acquired its strange name.
Many nutritionists dream of coming up with the perfect dish – delicious, eye-catching and carrying zero calories. And Bulgaria claims the honours for inventing the fatties' dream meal. But the recipe is familiar only to three monks in an obscure Bulgarian monastery and the staff of one of the country's big restaurant chains. The miraculous dish is: “Paper Steak”. From a Western perspective, it's only logical: Eastern Europe invented a paper car, called “Trabant”, so it seems perfectly plausible that a secret team of Communist laboratory workers housed in some underground bunker worked day and night to invent the dietary equivalent of the Holy Grail – that is steaks made of paper. Primary school level speakers of English scratch their heads and start pondering how they would like their steak – medium or rare – until the waiter sheds some light: it is not “paper” but “pepper”. So what? It's almost the same thing…
Visitors to Bulgaria may be unaware that its native dishes have distinctive characteristics. Quite literally! “Nervous Meat Balls” appear on an English language menu in a Sofia restaurant. Now, how does one go about eating those? Should you stab them with your fork or ease yourself in with a mild palliative thrust? After all, one has to take care – they may well get angry, jump off the plate and start biting! Relax. The threat is nothing but a literal translation of the nervy meat balls as Bulgarians refer to the fried balls of mince meat laced with a generous amount of red hot chilli pepper – the seasoning, not the pop group!
70 years ago, on 10 March 1943, Bulgaria's pro-Nazi government decided to defy Berlin and halt the deportation of Bulgaria's 50.000 Jews. This was down to the actions of one man - Dimitar Peshev. Just two years later he faced Communist justice and found himself on trial for his life. His niece Kaluda Kiradjieva remembers