10.30.2015

Eating My Way Through Bulgaria


I'm a big foodie. It's not only because I have been deprived of good food for two years, but eating foreign foods while traveling has always been one of the highlights of my travels (except in Cameroon were the food was tasteless). Before arriving to Bulgaria, I imagined Bulgarian food to be heavily Slavic-influenced, and I prepared myself for eating endless bowls of borscht. Thankfully my preconceptions were wrong, and Bulgarian food is quite fantastic and multicultural, not to mention healthy!

Spencer and I agreed that our first day in Sofia would be well spent on a free food tour, not only to get a taste of local cuisine but also to get our bearings of the city. Balkan Bites is a free food tour in Sofia, and the only free food tour in the world. We met in front of the Stromolov statue in Krystal Park. Our guide, Elitza, was an enthusiastic native Sofian who is also a food enthusiast. She introduced herself and gave a brief introduction of Balgarian cuisine. Throughout history, Bulgaria has been pushed around or under the control of larger regional powers, so as a result, Bulgarian cuisine is a mélange of influences from around the region, including Thracian, Turkish and Slavic, which makes a diverse local cuisine.

Our first stop on the tour was a small soup joint called Supa Star (Soup in Bulgarian is Supa). Spencer and I have known for some time that we wanted to do this food tour, and we knew that Supa Star was a participating restaurant, so for the past few months we've been checking their daily menu of soups and dreaming about what we would order. After months of stalking their Facebook page, we were finally about to try it!

Our free sample at Supa Star was a traditional Bulgarian soup called tartar. Tartar is a cold, summer soup made of puréed yogurt, water, dill, olive oil, herbs and sometimes walnuts. While it wasn't an ideal choice for a chilly autumn afternoon, it was nonetheless surprisingly delicious.

Bulgarian cuisine is extremely dairy-heavy, which is in part because of the amount of cows, sheep, and goats, and also because Bulgarians believe local dairy here is extremely healthy. There is a special type of bacteria in yogurt that is endemic to Bulgaria known as lactobacillus Bulgaricus. Yogurt was first discovered here when Thracian farmers would milk their cows and the bacteria on the utter would naturally fall into the milk, then when the farmers put the milk in leather bags and strapped them on to the sides of horses, which would then agitate the milk, and voila the yogurt was made! Bulgarians have been eating yogurt ever since and believe it to be the reason for their long, happy lives, along with the fresh mountain air.

Wall to Wall Poetry
On our way to the second cafe, we stopped by a wall mural that is part of Wall to Wall poetry project among member EU states. This project allows artists and poets from EU countries to travel to other EU members to paint and write their national poetry on walls of public places. On our tour we passed by the Hungarian poem and mural, whose poem said something along the lines of "Liberty, love and freedom are the most important things. For love, I'd give up liberty, but for freedom, I'd give up even love".

Mmm Banitza!
We then moved on to our second stop, and another dairy-themed place. This is a small shop whose emphasis is all-natural healthy dairy and bakery products. Here we tried a taste of Bulgaria's famous breakfast pastry, banitza, which is a cheese filled philo dough pastry, as well as airian, a fermented yogurt drink that Bulgarians often drink alongside banitza. Spencer and I loved the banitza so much that we bought a hot, fresh one. The airian was good, but definitely strong! Elitza then made Spencer and I be the guinea pigs of the group and try a fermented wheat drink called boza. Having no idea what to expect, we took it as a shot. It wasn't necessarily bad, it just had a very unique, distinct flavor, whose closest equivalent in taste and smell would be the liquid from packets of ham - or ham juice. Yum....?

Book Market and Banana Boxes

Next we headed through Sofia's largest open air book market which had a variety of Bulgarian, Russian and English books. All the books are stored in banana boxes because during communism, bananas were only sold in December and they only came from one company. Families would buy boxes of bananas and enjoy them throughout December, leading to a huge amount of these boxes floating around. Now that communism has fallen and bananas are widely available and no longer need to be bought in bulk, the banana boxes are reused and recycled, and are seen all throughout Sofia as storage containers.

Sun and Moon
Our next cafe was called Sun and Moon. Elitza explained to us that throughout Bulgarian history, certain influences or trends are popular at a given time. Now that the Soviet/Slavic influence in the cuisine is  less pronounced, the country is now seeing a large health-food influence. All the places on their tour emphasize healthy food, but Sun and Moon was the only all vegetarian/vegan place we visited.

Housed in an adorable yellow multistory house, Sun and Moon has a relaxed and happy vibe - and a huge menu. Here we tried a traditional garlic and eggplant spread called kyopolou. We tasted two types of kypolou, one made from eggplant, sun-dried tomatoes and cooked garlic an the other from eggplant, tomatoes and raw garlic (which, in the opinion of a garlic lover, was better). Either way, the spread is made from mashing up the ingredients and used to spread across homemade bread. It is also considered a poor-person food given that it doesn't cost much to make, yet despite this, it is widely and frequently consumed because Bulgarians 1. Love garlic and 2. Love kyopolou.

After Sun and Moon we made our way to Farmers, an organic, health food place where we received half a non-fat pork burger on homemade bread along with yet more airian to drink (like I said, they love their yogurt). Who knew fat-less pork could taste so good!

Kyopolou

Our final stop was a more upscale traditional restaurant called Hadjidraganovite Izbi. The atmosphere inside was adorable and rustic. Huge wooden candelabras hung from the ceilings, the walls mimicked a traditional Bulgarian white plaster house, and huge barrels of wine lined the walls. Here we received small samples of a local white, sweet desert wine (which I loved), as well as three samples of local cheese: a white buffalo cheese, a white sheep cheese, and another white cheese with sun-dried tomatoes mixed in. After being cheese-deprived for two years, nothing could taste better! After we all finished eating our guide called us to the middle of the room and insisted she teach us a traditional Bulgarian dance, which required us to form a circle, link our hands and kick and step repeatedly so that the circle moves clockwise. It reminded me very much like a Greek type of dancing, and even with my broken foot and plaster cast, I feel like I didn't do half bad, and it should be mentioned, that Spencer didn't fair too poorly either!


The tour finished and Spencer and I returned to the apartment where for the next two hours we worked up our appetite by sawing off my cast with Spencer's small Swiss Army knife saw. I gotta say, Spencer was a trooper! My cast reluctantly came off after two hours of sawing, and (perhaps surprisingly) no other casualties resulted from our experiment. After washing, lotioning and massaging my smelly, deformed foot, Spencer and I went out in celebration of our first night in Sofia (which we've been talking about for the last 6 months) and we ate at a traditional restaurant. We ordered a cold Aubergine salad, Rakia shots, bread, and chicken in a creamy cooked plum sauce. As we ate, two local musicians came in in traditional outsides and sang Bulgarian songs and played on a traditional guitar.


Our first day in Sofia came to an end, and while the food in Bulgaria is definitely a pleasant surprise, so is the city itself. I wasn't anticipating Sofia to be as gorgeous as it is, and I definitely didn't expect it to be my favorite city in Europe that I've visited thus far, but from what I've seen, Sofia is a hidden gem of Europe. While today we only saw a small bit of the city, I can't wait to explore more.

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