Fri, 06/01/2007 - 13:17

Ice-cold Bulgarian cucumber soup is the perfect complement to the lazy days of summer

© Dragomir Ushev

Many years ago a Frenchman, dining in a restaurant in the Golden Sands resort, vociferously demanded that the waiter should take away, s'il vous plait, the cold soup that he had served for lunch - and heat it. The waiter tried to dissuade him. So did the chef. But the man insisted and finally received the soup as he wanted it - warm.

This story, every word of which is true, is striking not because the waiter tried to satisfy his customer. Such service, despite negative publicity, is not that unusual in Bulgaria. No, it's memorable because of the genuine indignation of the participants, who still remember the incident, and because the soup causing such a furore was Tarator.

For the Bulgarians, Tarator is one of those dishes, like Shopska salad and tripe soup, which has always been a matter of national pride. The Bulgarians consider it a sin if anybody is oblivious to the existence of their wonderful Tarator and a sacrilege if they want to eat it warm.

Tarator must be eaten with ice cubes. After all, even the Wikipedia dictionary says that it is a "traditional Bulgarian cold soup" made from yoghurt diluted with water, cucumbers, crushed garlic, dill, vegetable oil, vinegar, salt and ground walnuts.

Unlike Shopska salad and tripe soup, as well as a range of other Bulgarian "national" dishes, which normally exist in similar versions in the rest of the Balkan countries, Tarator is truly "Bulgarian", truly "traditional" and even truly "unique". Even though in Nayden Gerov's dictionary (who was to the Bulgarian language what Dr Samuel Johnson was to the English language), the word Tarator is said to be of Turkish-Persian origin.

Some would argue that Turkey has its cacik and Greece its tzatziki, which are made of similar ingredients. But we shouldn't overlook the important detail that both cacik and tzatziki already have their Bulgarian equivalent: the salad known as Snezhanka and dry Tarator.

Besides, they are all cream-like sauces that go well with kebapcheta. Tarator is a soup and goes well with mastika. Gerov's dictionary was published in 1895-1904 and is the first reliable source mentioning the existence of Tarator. But no matter when the soup originated, the Bulgarians certainly did not invent its brilliant recipe simply to have one more appetiser for the summer. Rather, they needed a refreshing food that did not go bad before they had harvested at least half a field.

But Tarator quickly extended to new realms, moving from the fields to homes and pubs to become an appetiser as well as a means of cooling off. Its recipe even evolved somewhat over the years. Instead of chopping the cucumber into tiny pieces (otherwise you can't put it in the Tarator), some lazier housewives, for example, will exchange it for lettuce or, even worse, shred it on a grater. Some ideological schools question the presence of garlic and walnuts and healthy food proponents exchange sunflower for olive oil.

If you want to stick to the traditional recipe, you should peel a cucumber, cut it into small cubes and pour a pot of yogurt stirred and diluted with water on top. Then and only then you can add the crushed cloves of garlic (the amount is up to the diners' discretion), a spoonful of vegetable oil, a little vinegar, finely cut dill and salt to taste.

Sprinkle with ground walnuts. Either put in the fridge for a couple of hours or use ice-cubes to cool off.

So, unless you want to be known as a charlatan rather than a connoisseur, enjoy your Tarator cold. Otherwise, you could be offending the sensibilities of your hosts, or provoking a "heated" or - should we say - "cooled" discussion in a restaurant!

Issue 10 Bulgarian food Culture shock

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