Tag Archives: Sustenance
Last Saturday, I stepped up to the counter of my corner store with a package of philo dough, a can of Coke and a stick of butter, and the cashier guessed immediately what I was up to: “Are you going to make banitza?”
In fact, I was. A cursory internet search for Bulgarian cuisine will probably lead to banitza first and foremost. It’s invariably described as a delightful pastry filled with a mixture of egg and feta cheese, which can be either sweet or savory. Sounds great, right?
Except that most of the time, it’s not that great. Chewy, store-bought philo dough is layered with cheap cheese and drowned in grease, and the fat of choice here is vegetable oil. Not olive oil, not butter, not even lard. Vegetable oil. Rather than a decadent salty-sugary treat, banitza usually tastes like it would’ve been decent if only you’d gotten to it about forty-five minutes ago, before it cooled to room temperature, but as it is, almost every time I eat it I end up thinking to myself, “I could’ve made this way better.”
What am I trying to say? That Bulgarians don’t know how to make their own national dish? Not at all. I’m sure that as I write this, somewhere in Bulgaria, someone is rolling out home-made dough, gently spooning a delicate cheesy filling into it, rolling it up and watching with bated breath as it browns and puffs in a perfectly warmed oven. But most of the time, banitza is prepared with cheapness and expedience held above every other value, particularly taste.
What I craved on Saturday was something easy and junky, but with a home-baked attention to detail. I started with my former host mom’s recipe, which includes prepared philo dough, a small, greased baking pan, and a mixture of one egg and about 100 grams of feta. I added about an eighth of a cup of sugar to the filling mixture because I wanted it sweet. Of course, vegetable oil would be dispensed with in favor of butter. I’m no baker, but one thing I learned at my former workplace was that if you’re not baking with butter, then you’re not baking.
The pan greased, I took individual sheets of philo and smeared a little butter on them before folding them in half, butter-side-in. I spooned a couple tablespoons of the filling in each one and rolled it into a little log, with the end of the philo down so they wouldn’t pop open. Having already preheated the oven to “pretty hot,” I popped my little banitzas in and baked them for about 15 minutes.
Nora, my former host mom, splashes her banitza with seltzer water every five minutes or so as it’s cooking. I think the idea is that the carbonation acts like baking soda and helps the banitza puff up. I’ve also seen people use lemon soda instead. That one of the ingredients of this national delicacy is soda-pop is only fitting. Outside of the big cities, I often think of Bulgaria as the Trailer Park of the European Union, and I say that in the best possible sense. I don’t mean anything disparaging by the analogy, rather, that Bulgarians tend to be warm, hospitable, unpretentious, and heavily armed. And nothing says “pastry of the masses” to me quite like The Real Thing, which the corner store happens to sell in adorable little 150mL cans.
Despite the cashier’s trepidation, I think the Coke was an inspired choice. It played off the salty feta for an unmistakably MSG-like flavor, followed by the characteristic extreme thirst and intense desire to eat a whole bunch more of whatever you just ate.
Trailer Park Banitza is best served warm, alongside a cup of Nescafe and a good book on the sunny balcony of your bloc apartment.
Today is St. Trifon Day in Bulgaria. It’s just like Valentine’s Day, except women aren’t allowed, and instead of flowers and candy, there’s fireworks and meat.
My favorite place to eat is on the south edge of town, in a quiet, leafy strip of block apartments and service garages. When I sat down there this morning a groggy voice called my name. It was Petko, inviting me to join him and his pale friend at their table. Petko is a small guy in his 20’s who wears the nicest high-tops in town. He runs a dim, windowless ‘internet café’ in the town center, which is periodically shut down by the police. Gaunt, antsy people are often asking after his whereabouts.
My plan was to write some letters as I ate, but I try to never pass up an opportunity to interact на български, so I picked up my purse and moved to their table, shaking hands with Petko’s friend as I sat down. His eyes looked bruised and watery. Petko roused himself to greet me and then went back to resting his head on the table, cradled between his elbows, one hand on his beer. An older woman came by, and I ordered the house speciality: шкембе чорба (shkembey chorba). Originally from Turkey, it’s bits of tripe in a tangy, spicy broth. It’s salty and nourishing and cheap; a bowl of шкембе чорба, a hunk of bread and a beer is the Bulgarian equivalent to scrambled eggs, hashbrowns and a Bloody Mary. It was Saturday morning. Every table was full. The place was nearly silent, and the server and I were the only women there.
“Do you have a hangover too?” asked Petko.
The conversation took a familiar turn, to where I’m from and how long I’ve studied Bulgarian. Petko complimented me on my command of gendered nouns and adjectives, and I confirmed that English nouns and adjectives do not have genders. “It’s the same in Turkish,” said his friend, who can understand Turkish but not speak it, he said. Once I oriented them to where Oregon is (“до Калифорния е”), they asked me where Nelly was from. “Nelly?” I asked, wondering if there was an American living in town I didn’t know, named Nelly. No, they were talking about Nelly, the rapper. Turns out he’s from St. Louis, but at the time I had no idea. “Do you like hip-hop?” they asked. Of course I like hip-hop.
The guys were also impressed with my taste for tripe. “Lots of people don’t eat шкембе чорба. They see the word шкембе and they run,” said Petko. I told them we have something similar in the States, a Mexican soup called menudo. Many United Statesians won’t try it because it has tripe.
“That’s just like here!” said Petko’s friend, “The шкембе чорба in Bulgaria is actually from Turkey, and in America it’s from Mexico.”
“Uh, more or less,” I shake my head yes.
Yesterday my counterpart, Nataliya, took me to her parents’ house in a nearby village to preserve some of the surplus veggies from their garden by making lyutenitza. Here are some photos.
Once school starts I will probably do some things that don’t involve the preparation and consumption of food.
It’s peach season. Every booth at the market has crates and crates of peaches. They are sorted and priced accordingly, from tart, firm ones for preserving, and drippy bruised ones for distilling into rakia. The ones that look best for eating right now are sold by a skinny teenager who doesn’t enunciate very clearly. I bend down between two older women and start filling a plastic bag. I pick slightly firmer ones for the bottom of the bag, calculating how long it will take me to eat three pounds of peaches, assuming I eat two a day. I fill the bag and start searching for the peach that will go on the very top, the peach I will eat right this moment, on my way home. It has to be perfectly ripe, so ripe that if I wait until tomorrow to eat it, it will be a bit too soft.
“What are you looking for?” the baba next to me asks as she fills her own bag. I forgot the word for ripe.
“Is this it?” Without looking at me she hands me as perfect a peach as I’ve ever seen in my life. It’s mostly red. It gives gently when I press it with my thumb.
Bulgarians are not always warm but they are consistently, unceremoniously helpful, especially to young foreign females. My American instinct is to smile like a maniac and thank them profusely, which makes them a little uncomfortable. So I suppress the urge to light up like Times Square.
“Yes. This is it.”
A deep, nearly dry canal runs through town from north to south. I take a bite as I cross the canal and peach juice drips down to my toes. So I stop and lean over the rail of the little pedestrian bridge to eat the fruit. Behind me and at each bridge people are ambling home in the sunshine, loaded with bags of produce, the cliffs crowding us on either side.