1. Don’t fret about it.
My very first attempts to cook were beyond pathetic. My mussaka attempt turned into plain mashed potatoes with ground beef on the side. I even managed to screw up sarmi (grape leaves stuffed with ground meat and spices), which is one of the easiest recipes in Bulgarian cookbooks. Seeing me utterly discouraged as I measured maya and flour for a pitka (homemade bread), mom thought it was time to step in. “Don’t fret about it,” she said, taking away my measuring cup and dumping flour from the bag into my mixing bowl. “The best recipes are those made nonchalantly, with passion rather than a measuring cup.”
2. Shop seasonally.
My family’s road trips from Botevgrad to the Black Sea were always excruciatingly long. It wasn’t because of the 200 mile distance between the Northwest and Southeast corners of the country. It was because my mom insisted on stopping at every major city along the way to Chernomorets to buy whatever local delicacy was in season. We pulled over for slivi (plums) in Sliven, rakiya in Stara Zagora and peaches in Varna. Unlike kids who brought shell necklaces to school after a vacation, I showed up with a basket full of fresh Kyustendil cherries.
3. Don’t buy cans, make turshiya.
A favorite Bulgarian delicacy, turshiya is a homemade jar of pickled vegetables, as well as the answer to a hungry college student’s prayers. Every September, the residents of Treti Mart Street, including the town’s mayor, would start a bonfire behind the apartment buildings (at a safe distance, of course) and take turns flipping jars of turshiya for about 24 hours. My favorite was the assorted type, which contained green tomatoes, cauliflower, celery, carrots and cabbage. My mom always emphasized the importance of balance between vinegar and sugar in the jar, yet eyeballed the proportions, claiming that her eye was the most precise measuring tool there was.
4. Food is much more than just nourishment.
Bulgaria is a small, beautiful country, which unlike its neighbors, seems to have been left out by global tourism. What we are most famous for is our unsurpassed hospitality. Food has always been an equalizer for locals and foreigners, a foundation for a solid friendship. When I brought my American boyfriend home, both my mother and grandmother cooked around the clock, presenting a whole sofra (feast) for dinner, covering the table in fresh olives from Blagoevgrad, sweet pears, kyufteta, Ovcharska salata, lukanka, kashkaval, etc. I ended up parting ways with the guy, but to this day he writes to my mom, raving about her tikvenik (pumpkin pie).
5. Never trust foods that are too pretty.
Before globalization and supermarkets were a thing, Botevgrad only had neighborhood shops, which carried food from Zelin, a local farming area where town’s people grew tomatoes, green and red peppers, lettuce, etc. Once Bulgaria jumped onto the GMO bandwagon, we started seeing imported Australian cherries in winter and mangos from Thailand. My mom always frowned at the big, plump oranges from Florida, which had absolutely no taste or flavor. “If it looks too pretty, it’s most likely full of chemicals,” she said and offered me a granny smith apple from Vrachesh instead.
6. Food is better than a vaccine.
“Eat this!” my mom demanded, handing me what I thought was a mechka (bear), the soft part of a loaf of bread squeezed around a piece of feta cheese. Immediately after taking a bite though, the eyes of six-years-old me widened in horror, realizing that the item wrapped around the bread was in fact a piece of raw garlic. “Garlic keeps you from getting the flu at school,” mom said proudly to her grimacing child, handing me a tissue for the tiny tear running down my cheek.
7. Meet your hens.
I never had a supermarket egg until I moved out to live on my own. A vehement opponent of genetically-modified foods, my mom always bought fresh eggs, milk and cheese from neighboring farms. The big, flavorful eggs from Petka, the neighbor’s hen, were my favorite. Oh, how the sweet liquid yolk melted over the bread crumb I dipped into it so passionately! Petka’s eggs still haunt me whenever I order an omelet at trendy brunch places.
8. Know your spices (and how to use them).
Smradlika is the ultimate cure for achy, swollen gums. Lipa (chamomile) soothes a sore throat. Paprika is the wonderful, mild spice you put on anything from burkani qica (scrambled eggs), to kachamak (polenta pie). Chubritsa is your go-to whenever cooking red meat without a clear idea on how to season it. But always remember, in Bulgaria, less is more.
9. It’s okay to experiment.
Bulgarians don’t usually mess around when it comes to tradition. Our recipes for banitsa, shkembe chorba (pork belly soup) and Ovcharska salata (Shepherd’s salad) run deep, like a holy scripture, so most people dare not stray from them. Mom, however, thought it was fun to experiment and put cinnamom on zelnik (cabbage pie), tomato on pleskavitsi (handmade hamburger patties with cheese and kashkaval) and balsamic vinagrette on kebapcheta (the long, thin version of hamburger patties, grilled over charcoal).
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