Have you ever been tempted by tourism kitsch? Meaning those colourful or dust-collecting, or downright useless items one may be foolish enough to buy while travelling?
Those can be fridge magnets, mugs with landscapes or city views printed on them, T-shirts with inscriptions, paintings of doubtful artistic quality and so on.
What defines them as kitsch is their attempting to pass as traditional and quintessential about the cuisine or other traditions of the place (like beer mugs in Germany or the Czech Republic), while trying too hard, as evidenced by all the pictures and inscriptions, screaming their place of origin, in case anyone has missed it.
In the material world, these objects play the role which metonymy, a figure of speech, plays in literature. Meaning they try to summarise and assume in themselves a whole cluster of ideas comprising history, climate, religion and centuries of cultural traditions.
Surprisingly enough, one such instance of tourism kitsch is the Bulgarian Shopska Salata, that impeccable mixture of tomatoes, cucumbers, baked red peppers, onions and cheese, that is known and beloved by native Bulgarians and tourists alike.
This salad is so popular, alongside grilled kyufteta and kebapcheta (meatballs and mincemeat fingers :)), that one is tempted to believe is has always been around – some sort of culinary legacy trickled down through the tunnels of Time.
Not so, however. 🙂 According to a very entertaining book on the culinary aspects of communism in Bulgaria, this salad was in fact invented in 1956 in a seaside resort called Druzhba (Дружба, meaning <BG/USSR> Comradeship:)) and known today called St. Constantine and Helen.
Inventing the Shopska Salad came as part of the then communist authorities’ efforts to expand the tourism business around the port city of Varna by building more hotels and creating a tempting and universal culinary offering for the visiting masses.
So according to this book, the Shopska Salata then created consisted of the following: chopped tomatoes, sliced cucumbers, baked and diced red peppers and finely cut onions, mixed with parsley, covered with grated hard white Bulgarian cheese and decorated with a raw green chili pepper.
Today, there are many variants of the Shopska Salata, the common denominator being the tomatoes, the cucumbers and the grated cheese. Onions and parsley may or may not be present and even the pepper is optional. If present, it may be baked or raw, red or green. Decorations vary from a chili pepper or a single large dark olive, to a rose carved out of a tomato peel. 🙂 This tomato rose was very popular during the 1970s and the 1980s, while the single olive on top of the cheese is more often encountered today.
To me, the kitschy elements of the Shopska Salad are the following:
- It relies on traditional vegetables that have been abundant in Bulgaria for at least about five centuries and have probably been used in hundreds of different combinations, but is named after a specific region, in an attempt to highlight its authenticity for the deaf and blind that might have missed it.
- The salad uses grated cow’s cheese, which has been the prevalent type in Bulgaria since the agricultural agglomerations of communism, but which betrays the salad’s authenticity, as first – sheep’s cheese is “more traditional,” from a historical perspective, for Bulgaria, and second – because no housewife of yore would grate cheese, which gets both a utensil and her hands dirty, when she could just crumble it with her fingers, which would get nothing apart from her hands dirty.
Bulgaria’s cuisine is a villagers’ cuisine, shaped by a natural abundance of vegetables and the Christian Lents, so such considerations of economy and simplicity are very important.
- In addition, the combination of these particular vegetables in the Shopska Salata echoes the colours of the Bulgarian national flag, which is another tourist-y thing screaming Bulgaria! all over. The same colours are replicated by the famous tomato rose on the top of the cheese, adorned with a leaf, either from a parsley sprig, or baby spinach, or carved out of a cucumber peel.
- And lastly, a Bulgarian tradition and peculiarity the Shopska Salad exploits is our famous love of baked red peppers – the divine chushkas. 🙂 Every autumn, millions of Bulgarians buy tens of kilograms of red peppers each and bake them, either to mix with tomatoes for cooking purees, or to freeze and use in salads, cover in breadcrumbs and fry or simply eat them by themselves with cheese and bread during the winter.
To recap, the Shopska Salad is a design product of Bulgaria’s tourism business of the mid-20th century, based on authentic foundations but specifically developed to be hyper-real, meaning to embody far more than it would have, had it been a totally genuine dish.
So all ye tourists remember – by eating a Shopska Salad, you are metaphorically tasting Bulgaria. That’s kitsch now, as pure as it gets. 🙂
In book What to Cook When Mommy’s Away, which I have already presented here, I was amused to discover a Shopska Salad recipe which featured the famous tomato rose, and I thought of making it, exactly according to the instructions.
I’ve never done a tomato rose in my life, but that’s fine, I want to play! 🙂
So, to get started, you’ll need:
- Fleshy, long and sweet red peppers – chushkas; 🙂
- Tomatoes, cucumbers, onions, parsley, hard white cheese, salt and sunflower/olive oil. If the tomatoes are ripe enough, peel them.
There, your Shopska Salad is ready for the table.
Now, after I’ve instructed you on how to make a proper Shopska Salad, I will leave you to my traditional end-of-post musical greeting. This time I’ve picked another Bulgarian icon, Lili Ivanova. 🙂
The woman was born at the end of the 1930s but is still very much active as a performer today. She is known for being very demanding, professionally, as well as very disciplined in her attitude to food and work. This is why she has been so thin and so successful all these years. She is also the subject of many jokes, because of her age and seemingly eternal presence on the Bulgarian musical scene, but I admire her for her grit, although her music is not what I would usually listen to.
However, I discovered this song, called Icarus, late one evening as I was driving home from my parents’ flat. It was played on the radio and, while listening to it in the darkness, I liked the lyrics, the loaded atmosphere and her mature voice, singing of an unforgettable and revealing night, both physically and spiritually.
You know, as I grow older, I find I am much more interested by older people and like looking at mature ladies I see in the street, who have taken care to look groomed, fashionable and polished. Good looks stemming from care, sophistication and experience are becoming much more interesting to me, compared to the look of unabashed and blossoming youth.
Young girls are fresh and beautiful exactly because of their youth, but are insipid compared to the more mature ladies, because they lack experience. As a Bulgarian idiom goes, young girls would still have to eat a significant amount of beans until they become interesting to spend an eventful evening with. 🙂
We started with baked peppers and the Shopska Salad and look where we ended! 🙂 Some material for a Freudian analysis that…:)