A few years ago, on an impromptu summer trip to the Balkan nation of Bulgaria, I found myself on bended knee in front of an open window asking for a princess. Now, before thoughts of a romantic proposal or enter the mind, let me set the record straight.
I was in the capital Sofia that is famous for its rather strange looking pavement-level klek shops. The shops are reconverted bomb shelters dating back to the Cold War era, and take their name from the Bulgarian word for kneel.
After the fall of communism in Bulgaria in 1989, residents of the apartments converted them into shops that could serve just one kneeling customer at a time through small sliding windows, with the shopkeeper’s head at the level of the customer’s feet. The aforementioned princess is the name of an open-faced grilled sandwich with the brine-y sirene cheese crumbled over it. Sandwiches like the princess and a range of dairy products are often sold out of klek shop window in the capital. Sirene, made with goat or sheep milk and similar to Greek feta, is used in all sorts of pastries and salads in Bulgaria.
It’s near impossible to miss a meal without sirene in Bulgaria. One of the most popular snacks in Bulgaria, the coiled laminated pie-like banitsa is a baked pastry made of phyllo (or fini kori as the Bulgarians call it). It has a layered stuffing of eggs, sirene and yogurt.
Another snack made of fired wheat and milk dough disks, mekitsa is topped with jam and sirene.They have a dusting of icing sugar finishing them off in a snowy blizzard of sorts. It morphs into the equally scrumptious buhti, a round dough ball topped with the jam-sirene-sugar combination. Another snack with this cheese is milinki which are soft bread rolls stuffed with eggs and sirene.
Using a different sort of yellow brine cheese called kashkaval, another popular cheesy bread in Bulgaria is tutmanik. It’s similar to pita, and made with yeast dough and milk. Unlike sirene, kashkaval is found in the cuisine repertoire of a number of other Balkan countries, like Serbia, Kosovo and North Macedonia.
As it was as summer, I made sure to fill up on refreshing cheese-enhanced summer salads. There was the sirene shopska salad with chopped onion, tomato and peppers, and the snezhanka or snow white salad had chopped cucumbers with yogurt, dill, garlic and diced walnuts.
For a lover of all things dairy like myself, it was interesting to learn—via a free food tour, Balkan Bites, around Sofia—that just like other Balkan cultures, the per-capita consumption of dairy products and particularly yogurt called kiselo mlyako (sour milk) in Bulgaria is traditionally higher than the rest of Europe. Our guide, Marja told us that the country is notable as the historical namesake for Lactobacillus bulgaricus, a micro-organism chiefly responsible for the local variety of dairy products that are as abundant as they are tasty.
The thick kiselo mlyako is the main ingredient of the cold summer soup, tarator, that I made sure to get my daily fix of at the many food halls and restaurants around the compact Sofia city center. Generally served as a first course, this refreshing soup—that many believe has Greek underpinnings—has some popular summer ingredients, like fresh cucumbers, walnuts, garlic, yoghurt, dill and herbs with a dash of vinegar or lemon juice for an added zing.
Another soup made with kiselo mlyako, and one that reminded me of a delicate Kashmiri yakhni gravy, was the topcheta. A simple meatball preparation, it is thickened with egg yolks and a dollop of the beloved yogurt.
While there is no doubt that the number one non-alcoholic beverage consumed in copious amounts across Bulgaria is the fermented corn and wheat libation called boza, fermented milk drinks too are popular. Influenced by the 500 years of Ottoman rule, which gave Bulgaria a wide range of dishes like kyufte (koftas), baklava and shish kebabs, are drinks like ayran. It is a blend of cold yogurt, water and salt, and is often flavoured with sprigs of mint, similar to a savoury lassi. Mŭtenitsa or Bulgarian buttermilk is another great summer thirst quencher.
An oft repeated proverb in Bulgaria is centered around food: nikoy ne e po-golyam ot hlyaba (no one is larger than bread). But, for a country that celebrates dairy in all forms, replacing the word bread with cheese would perhaps be more apt.
Raul Dias is a Mumbai-based food and travel writer.