Bulgarian food

IF THE NEW YORKER WERE A SOFIANER...

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Aleksandrina Ivanova

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FINE DINING: CHECKPOINT CHARLY

As even the most enthusiastic diners in Sofia have discovered, bad restaurants in the capital outnumber good ones. Happily, for more than 15 years now there has been a place in central Sofia where lovers of good food and proper service can feel well – and pampered.

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BULGARIAN EASTER EATING

In 1956, Chudomir, one of Bulgaria's finest satirists, wrote in his diary: "Sunday, 6 May. Both Easter and St George's Day, but there are neither roast lamb nor red eggs at home. Traditions are fading away, the nice old feasts are being forgotten, disappearing with our generation." Just a few days before this entry, a young and seemingly harmless politician, Todor Zhivkov, had replaced Stalinist dictator Valko Chervenkov as the head of the Communist Party. The years of Stalinism, with its disregard for traditions and religion, were over, but people had yet to feel the change.

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POSTCARD FROM ELENA

"First we waited for the British tourists, then we waited for the Russians and now we are waiting for the Romanians." This was how, a decade ago, a guesthouse owner summed up the hopes and disappointments of small-time entrepreneurs in Elena, a town in the Stara Planina mountain range, about 40 kms from Veliko Tarnovo. Back in those days, EU-funded development of "green" initiatives and rural tourism was all the rage in Bulgaria, especially in economically struggling areas.

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WATERMELONS, WATERMELONS, WATERMELONS

Bulgarians use the expression "to carry two watermelons under one arm," which roughly translates us "running after two hares." But when you see the enthusiasm with which Bulgarians consume watermelons in summertime, you might easily think that carrying two watermelons under the armpit is the norm. Tarator, the ubiquitous albeit slightly unusual for Western palates cold soup, still keeps its reputation as the best way of dealing with the summer heat, but watermelons come a very close second.

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EMBASSY RECIPES

Emma Hopkins OBE was appointed Her Majesty's Ambassador to Bulgaria in May 2015. Since then, she has been exploring Bulgaria, its people, culture, landmarks and, last but not least, its cuisine. She openly professes her love for Bulgarian food and adds with a smile: "I prefer Bulgarian vegetables, because they are more delicious than UK ones."

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ELENA

Elena, in the central Stara Planina near Veliko Tarnovo, is a destination that has all this, and more. There, you will find yourself deep amid green forests, old churches and traditional houses, complete with the feeling of a place still stuck in the early 1990s. As a bonus, the town is the home of one of Bulgaria's renowned delicacies: the Elenski but ham.

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PA-LA-MUD!

Eating fish in Bulgaria can be a complicated business. Along the Black Sea, the smell of deep fried sprats is everywhere, and the menus of seaside restaurants offer mussels and jack mackerel, bluefish and turbot. All over the country, expensive establishments attempt to lure you in with frozen salmon and bass, octopus, shrimps and squid – all imported from somewhere, mainly Greece. Sushi is trendy, and most Bulgarians eat carp for St Nikola's feast on 6 December.

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WHAT IS BOZA?

Foreigners in Bulgaria love Shopska salad and banitsa, and many are filled with strong emotions at the smell of tripe soup with lots of garlic and chilli peppers. But if there is an item of the local cuisine which arouses unanimous suspicious among Westerners, it is boza.

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TASTY MULTI-KULTI

No matter how wide your restaurant comfort zone is, a day comes when you crave to bite something different that your usual shopska and kebapcheta. You would want something different – and if you have been living in Bulgaria for long enough you'd know how hard it is to find it. In Sofia, restaurants come and go, replacing one another with the predictability of the moon phases, but most of the time new establishments do what their predecessors used to do. Which is, follow the trend.

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QUIET CHARM OF ELENA

The town is small now, but it used to be a centre of the Bulgarian Revival period. It was called the "Bulgarian Bethlehem," as it boasted three churches at a time when most towns and villages had either one, or none. As you enter it through the winding roads of the Stara Planina, the trees and bushes all around are arrayed in spring green.

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HOW TO EAT BULGARIAN FOOD POLITELY

Anyone spending more than a couple of days in Bulgaria will have dined out at least once. That's about enough to discover the Ultimate Bulgarian Dining Experience and its main pitfall: how to survive without offending your hosts – and actually eat something at the same time. In itself, Bulgarian food is very similar to all other Balkan food, so anyone who's been to Tottenham or Kreuzberg will not be very surprised.

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DIVYABH MANCHANDA

My dear Ambar and Kumkum,

Greetings from Sofia: a place you have been to, briefly and only once, 24 years ago, during your extensive travels around the world! As for me, I am here for the second time in my career on my eighth assignment abroad. The first time was as a first secretary in 1988-1990, a time of crucial political and socio-economic changes in Europe and particularly in this region. The effects of those changes are still continuing today.

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MY OWN CHOCE: 竹田 恒治

I have been posted abroad many times in my career and before leaving for a new country what concerns me most is the living conditions, particularly the local food.

When it was decided that I was to go to Bulgaria, I took my family to the only Bulgarian restaurant in Tokyo, called "Sofia." We tried some Bulgarian dishes and so I already had an idea about Bulgarian food before my arrival here.

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SUMMER DILEMMA

Bulgarians use the expression "to carry two watermelons under the armpit," which roughly translates us "running after two hares." But when you see the enthusiasm with which Bulgarians consume watermelons in the summer, you might easily think that carrying two watermelons under the armpit is the norm. Tarator still keeps its reputation as the best way of dealing with the summer heat, but watermelons come a very close second.

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THE BIG BREAD ISSUE

After just a few weeks in Bulgaria, or a few hours of watching Bulgarian TV, you will have noticed that something quite strange is going on with Bulgarian bread. On the one hand, Bulgarians left, right and centre will swear by the quality of their bread, and President Parvanov will be seen partaking of bread dipped in salt from a plate proffered to him by a girl clad in a 19th Century "folk" costume – yes, you've guessed right: he is opening a new cultural centre or meeting dignitaries in the provinces.

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EXTREMELY BAD FOOD

Many Bulgarians are ready to kill anyone who criticises what they perceive as their "national" cuisine, but – sadly – the fact is that Bulgarian food is like President Parvanov: trying to conceal its very obvious deficiencies as well as the ineptitude of those who prepare it by drawing on some distant and often nebulous historical past. Like Parvanov, it is inedible in addition to being... inedible.

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PRINCESS STRANDZHANKA

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.

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