Bulgarian Tarator (Cold Yogurt Soup)
The beginning of September in Edinburgh always takes me by surprise. After a month of chaos and crowds and revelry the streets are strangely quiet, the nights descend with an unfamiliar chill, and the shaft of sunlight that floods our bedroom every evening vanishes almost before it arrives. I guess it stands to reason that summer has been on its way out for a while, but somehow that fact tends to get lost in all the commotion so that when September does arrive it just feels so abrupt, like someone has flipped the big seasonal switch in the sky. Although I appreciate the delights of fall as much as the next person, and realize that it promises much to look forward to in the food department, try as I might I just can’t shake the nagging thought that I should have made more of summer while it was here, since at these latitudes, it’s only a matter of weeks until we’ll be lugging out the stewpots and casserole dishes and firing up the oven in preparation for another long, dark winter.
Luckily, over the past few days we’ve been given a reprieve. In fact, we’ve had more warm sunny days in a row than we’ve had since, oh, April. It couldn’t have come at a better time, actually, desperate as I am to cling to summer for just a little bit longer, and realizing it may be the season’s swan song I seized the chance to attack some of the backlog of warm-weather recipes I never got around to making. The cold soups in particular were tempting me, and over the past week we’ve enjoyed Ximena’s fantastic gazpacho, a pungent ajo blanco that I’m fairly certain everyone I talked to the next day knew I had eaten (if only I had seen this version first!), and a lovely puree of corn and basil that would have been even lovelier if the corn I bought actually had some flavor. We also had a soup that I’ve been meaning to write about here for ages – probably since starting this blog, in fact – which is so simple and so refreshing and thus so perfect for summer that it’s really criminal I never have until now.
And telling you about this soup, in fact, is really the excuse I needed to say a few words about Bulgaria. Although you’ve all politely refrained from prying, for two and half years I have been mum on the whole issue of how Bulgaria came to be listed among the places Manuel and I have called home over the years. You’ve heard more than you probably ever wanted to about Spain, Ireland, Germany, California, Seattle and New Orleans, while poor Bulgaria has been sitting forgotten in the corner like the crazy old uncle everyone avoids at family reunions. In all fairness, though, I tend to write about what I know, and in fact I don’t know that much about Bulgaria since it wasn’t me who lived there, it was the other half of my household.
Manuel moved to Bulgaria in 1988, when he was twelve. At that age it obviously wasn’t his decision; it happened because his mother married a Bulgarian she met through her job in Germany, and he took them back with him to live in Sofia. It was, I am told, a rocky time to be there, what with the downfall of communism and food shortages and all, and the fact that the marriage was soon on the rocks didn’t really help matters either. They did manage to make it work for four years, though, during which time Manuel integrated himself pretty well in his strange new surroundings, learning important things like the language, that Bulgarian girls were just as mysterious as their German counterparts, and that bribery was an art all but necessary to live in any kind of comfort.
He also, of course, learned quite a bit about Bulgarian food. In fact, although those four years were, as he says, some of the most challenging, confusing and difficult of his life, the one thing that seems to have left an imprint on his psyche greater than all the hardship was what he ate. Now, I have to stop for a minute and explain that this is a man who has always amazed me by how unattached he is to the foods of his childhood. While there are a couple of exceptions, namely a spaghetti Bolognese recipe from his mother that features curry powder (!) and a strange packaged dessert from Dr. Oetker called Rotweincreme (a mousse-like substance made with red wine he has been bugging me to duplicate for years, so if anyone has a recipe, please do speak up), for the most part, when he waxes lyrical about food it concerns things he’s developed a taste for as an adult; e.g. nachos, jerk, tiramisu and anything with peanut sauce.
Bulgarian food, however, brings out something in him nothing else does. Whether he’s recalling the cheese-stuffed pastries he used to buy on his way home from school, the eggplant dip and walnut baklava his step-grandmother made, the simple country salads and spindly feta-stuffed peppers that were a staple of every meal, his eyes get all misty as if each one were triggering him to relive the experience all over again. Many of his best-ever food memories come from that time as well, and time and time again he’ll eat something – anything from yogurt to vegetables to desserts – and tell me that while good, it really can’t hold a candle to the way it tasted in Bulgaria. In fact, his connection to this food seems far deeper than four years should account for; the only thing I can figure is that the intensity of experience of those four years was so profound that it shaped not only his perception of the food at the time but the way he views it in his memory.
Bulgarian food is by and large simple, hearty stuff, and this soup, along with being one of Manuel’s (and my) favorite Bulgarian dishes, is one of the simplest. It’s called tarator, which you may recognize as sharing a name with this Turkish sauce, but trust me, the two are nothing alike. This tarator can be eaten thick (in which case it is considered a salad) or as a thin and highly refreshing soup, which is how Manuel learned it. It contains very few ingredients, just cucumber, yogurt, garlic, salt, and a handful of fresh herbs (dill, mint and parsley are all used but we prefer just mint); some recipes additionally call for ground walnuts but I prefer the slightly non-traditional embellishment of a crown of toasted almonds, which even Manuel (who tends to be quite the purist when it comes to Bulgarian food) agrees is an awfully fine innovation. In Bulgaria it’s a quintessential summer dish, eaten, I am told, nearly every day by most of the population as a prelude to meals. While we don’t eat it nearly that often around here, I do have to agree that very few things are better at reviving a flagging appetite on a warm summer day, if, like us, you’re lucky enough to still have a supply of those. If you’re not, well, I’m sure it’ll go down down just as
well as a prelude to stews and casseroles and all manner of rib-sticking fall fare too. In fact, give us a week or two and I’m sure I’ll be able to confirm that for you firsthand.
Bulgarian Tarator (Cold Yogurt Soup)
Serves: 4 as part of a larger meal
2 large cucumbers, peeled and diced
2 cups (500ml) thick Greek, Bulgarian or wholemilk yogurt
1-2 cloves garlic, peeled
1 large handful fresh mint leaves (or use a combination of dill and mint)
about 1 cup (250ml) cold water
lemon juice, to taste
1/2 cup (50g) sliced or slivered almonds, lightly toasted, for garnish
In a blender combine about 2/3 of the diced cucumber, the yogurt, garlic, mint and water and blend until completely smooth. Add more water if necessary – the consistency should be like thin cream. Transfer to a lidded container and add salt and lemon juice to taste. Don’t be shy with either – the soup should be pleasantly tangy and salty. Stir in the reserved diced cucumber and chill, covered, for at least an hour to allow the flavors to blend. Divide among bowls for serving, and top each one with a garnish of toasted almond slices. Serve cold.
Good news! The October issue of Food and Travel is now out, and inside you’ll find my full report on why Belgium should be your next food destination. In fact, this issue is nothing short of a food blogger extravaganza – the supplement on Singapore packaged with the magazine was written by none other than Chubby Hubby and his wife S (aka Aun Koh and Su-Lyn Tan)! If you’re in the UK you’ll find it on newsstand shelves now; U.S. and European availability should follow within a couple of weeks.
Oh, and I should probably warn you, later this week I’m headed to the US for a much-needed vacation, so don’t worry if I’m gone a little longer than usual. Rest assured that I’ll be eating well, and I’ll see you when I return!