PRINCESS STRANDZHANKA

by Dimana Trankova; photography by Anthony Georgieff

Bulgaria makes a valuable if modest addition to the world of Lord Sandwich, Dame Melba and the Stroganoffs

hot toast bulgaria.jpg

Lord Sandwich's sandwich, the melba dessert of Dame Nellie Melba, the Beef Stroganoff named after Russian aristocrats – history records the recipes and names of these culinary legends.

No one, however, knows how the printsesa, or princess, was born. Or the strandzhanka, or woman from Strandzha, for that matter. Both refer to the same thing – a slice of white bread grilled with minced meat. Other variations include toppings of kashkaval, or yellow cheese, or a thick mixture of cheese and eggs.

Printsesi and strandzhanki are eaten regularly by Bulgarians, either at home or from lunch counters. Some linguists and culinary historians claim that the strandzhanka originated in the southwest of Burgas. They maintain the dish was the staple diet of local hayduti, or rebels, in times of crisis when the Ottoman caravans they usually plundered took safer routes. When the northern part of Strandzha became a part of independent Bulgaria in 1923, the strandzhanka grew popular all over country. But, since Bulgaria was still a kingdom at the time, people called it printsesa.

There is a serious flaw in this theory, though. It does not explain why subsequently the Communists did not change the name printsesa to drugarka, or female comrade, for example. But one unfortunate pastry, called a marquise, did undergo a metamorphosis. At the end of the 1940s, it was renamed "Marxism." Not long after that, the pastry disappeared from the shops altogether. Whether it happened because interest in it dwindled, or because a certain comrade found even that new name unacceptable, is not known.

The strong Strandzha roots of the printsesa, however, are evident for another – irrefutable – reason. Only in Strandzha is the dish a source of local pride. No fair, gathering or other open-air event is complete without it – just as, all over Bulgaria, no celebrations happen without the ubiquitous grilled kebapcheta on hand.

Another thing: even if you are blindfolded, you can easily distinguish the strandzhanka from a simple printsesa with minced meat.

As a rule of thumb, printsesi are normally cooked under the grill of an oven. But strandzhanki – especially at fairs and other open-air events, are tossed on a barbecue, next to the kebapcheta. Before they hand one over to you, vendours spread lyutenitsa on it.

Toast sandwich bulgaria

Putting on luytenitsa or ketchup on a princess appeared in the days of the free market and is seen as controversial

Critics of this practice, who are mainly from regions where strandzhanka refers to a woman from Strandzha, say that lyutenitsa is used to disguise how thin the layer of meat is on top. They claim that the printsesi contain a more generous portion, and is often sprinkled with grated kashkaval.

To the people of the Burgas region, however, eating strandzhanka without lyutenitsa is the equivalent of serving Dame Melba a melba dessert without the topping. But does it really matter how thick the layer of mince is?

When you consider it's made out of ground windpipe, cartilage and soya, if the Ottomans and the Communists did not succeed in destroying the strandzhanka princess, minced meat like this probably will.

Printsesa, or strandzhanka, at home

Mix a pack of minced meat bought from a butcher you trust – or 250 grams of meat you have minced yourself – with one or two eggs, a little salt, ground black pepper and, if you prefer, some cumin or chubritsa. Slice some bread. Spread butter on the slices if you wish. Put the minced meat on top of the slices, just enough so that it does not spill over the edges.

Heat under a grill – in Bulgaria, there is a special type of oven for cooking this way, called a party-grill – until the meat is cooked. If you like, sprinkle some grated kashkaval on top and put it back under the grill until the cheese melts and lightly browns.

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