Balkan Dinners

By Colman Andrews

Published on July 20, 2001

On my first night in Bucharest, in 1972, a Romanian history professor I'd known at UCLA took me to the local university club, where we dined on cold marinated carp (somewhat disconcertingly called _crap _in Romanian) and the delicious little grilled skinless sausages known as mititei (''the wee ones'') and talked politics—very, very quietly. On my first night in Sofia, a year later, as a guest of the Bulgarian government, I dined at a ''folk'' restaurant in the hills outside the city, where musicians played minor-key traditional music and I happily devoured a bright salad of chopped tomatoes, cucumbers, onions, peppers, and feta cheese, followed by a spicy stew of pork with peppers. One of the officials at the table was an attractive young woman who spoke perfect English in a husky voice; I wondered if she had been delegated to keep an eye on me—and found the prospect entrancing.

I was reminded of these (and other, frankly less satisfying) Balkan repasts by two new books, _Taste of Romania _by Nicolae Klepper and _Traditional Bulgarian Cooking _by Atanas Slavov. Both offer a wealth of recipes (many of them, one suspects, found more often in memory than in contemporary kitchens), and both attempt to place dishes in historical and cultural context—an effort at which Klepper is somewhat more successful.

Slavov is a polymath—among other things a philologist, folklorist, poet, author, and translator (he has rendered Dickens and Dylan Thomas into Bulgarian)—and he writes in a scholarly but lively tone, making his subject sound a good deal more appetizing than one might expect. Traditional Bulgarian cooking, writes Slavov, belongs to an ''Ottoman culinary school'' and is resolutely natural and pure. The traditional diet of the Bulgarian peasant as he describes it, in fact, almost sounds trendily ''Mediterranean'': ''[Y]ogurt to cleanse the digestive tract; arsenic-rich garlic to break down the cholesterol; high protein sheep meat to build the body; wine to decompose the fat; as well as mountains of fruits and vegetables....''

Unfortunately, Slavov's recipes are less seductive than his prose. His version of imam bayaldu (a Turkish eggplant specialty widely appreciated in Bulgaria) and of shopska salata (as that salad I sampled in Sofia is called) work well, but dishes like macaroni baked with eggs and feta and a rice and zucchini casserole are strangely drab. Instructions for a baked mixed-vegetable casserole call for the ingredients to be cut into large and not particularly uniform pieces, then cooked for nowhere near long enough. A chicken recipe asks us to boil the fowl, coat it with tomato paste and yogurt, then roast it—a lot of work for something that ends up tasting sticky-sweet and not quite as good as plain roasted chicken.

Nicolae Klepper's recipes make a better case for his nation's cuisine. Few American cooks are likely to essay his lamb ''haggis'' (a garlic-spiked ''pate'' of sheep offal baked in a lamb paunch—traditional at Eastertime in Romania), but dishes like a creamy cauliflower soup, sour cream-enriched mamaliga (the Romanian polenta), lamb stewed with sauerkraut juice and scallions, and mititei (exactly like the ones I tasted so long ago in Bucharest) are simple and appealing. And though Klepper's resume is less literary than Slavov's—he is an international businessman, now living in Scotland—he devotes more pages to history, poetry, and lore.

Romanian cooking, notes Klepper, has Turkish influences (less pronounced than those in Bulgaria) but also contributions from the Romans, the Gypsies (who ''brought with them their skills of grilling meat over charcoal''), the Greeks, Russians, Germans, and Hungarians—even the French. ''By the turn of the century,'' he writes, ''native Romanian dishes, Eastern and the Western influences all were blended, so much so that origins were lost and a true Romanian cuisine emerged.'' I don't know what food is like in Romania today, but Klepper paints a pretty picture of his native country's culinary possibilities.

Speaking of pretty pictures, incidentally, I never saw that husky-voiced Bulgarian after my first dinner in Sofia. As for my Romanian history professor, he turned into a vocal political dissident and later died in Paris under mysterious circumstances.

Continue to Next Story

Want more SAVEUR?

Get our favorite recipes, stories, and more delivered to your inbox.