Tourism Kitsch-Turned-Icon

Dear Reader,

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.

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Epitome of Bulgarian tourism kitsch – wooden containers of rose oil, very likely made in China, and bearing a proud inscription Bulgaria. 🙂 These serve no practical purpose and no Bulgarian ever buys them to decorate his home, I can assure you. 🙂 That being said, the shop which is source of the picture stores other stuff like copper-ware and charming wooden bowls which are beautiful and not kitschy at all.

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.

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Another kitschy item – a plate of the Tryavna ceramic school, which is quite all right, but with prints of historical places on it… As if the typically Bulgarian decorative pattern isn’t enough. That’s exactly the thing with kitsch – it is loud, too descriptive and goes overboard with its details and claims of authenticity.

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.

The Shopska Salad I made according to the tried and tested recipe. For details, keep on reading...:)
The Shopska Salad I made according to the tried and tested recipe. For details, keep on reading…:)

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.

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Book cover. Book is called Soc Gourmet – Soc, pronounced Sots, being the abbreviated adjective “socialist,” used to refer to things of the period. Like – using the informal DU form and a person’s surname at the same time – how very Sots! 🙂 The book, authored by journalist Albena Shkodrova in 2014, covers the shortcomings of the plan economy and the centralised food supply chain, touches on problems faced by specific food categories like meat, dairy, confectionery, canned vegetables, etc.; discusses the role of women as housewives, main cooks of the family, principal food shoppers and objects of special communist social policies, which spilled over to food availability and attitudes. A very interesting read, although the language could have been less dry.

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.

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The Shopska Salad served as entree after the baptism ceremony of a baby in the north-western town of Vratsa, of which I spoke here. An identical Shopska Salad, with the olive on top, can be observed on the webpage of this very short German TV or radio reportage on the Shopska Salad – just scroll to the bottom of the page to see :). The salad is served in the traditional Bulgarian decorated pottery dish – also a classic. My German is not much I cannot speak due to lack of practice, but I can understand about 80% of what the reportage says. If I had the written transcript before me, I could probably understand it all. Try, if you know any German, it’s not that hard. 🙂

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.

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The Shopska Salad goes with rakia – Bulgaria’s traditional brandy, distilled mostly from grapes but could be made of other fruit as well. Pictured is a bottle of home-made grape brandy, poured in a 0.5-litre bottle of mineral water and offered as a compliment at the table where we were seated at the baptism ceremony. Home-made alcohol served in re-used water or soft-drink bottles – that’s a classic too! 🙂
  • 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.
Bulgarians who have a country house or a yard bake peppers like this - on a large tin sheet on open fire. You smell of smoke for days after that, but it's awesome! :) Source: Click here.
Bulgarians who have a country house or a yard bake peppers like this – on a large tin sheet on open fire. You smell of smoke for days after that, but it’s awesome! 🙂 Source: Click here.
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An iconic appliance for baking peppers – a chushkopek, accent on the final E, translating exactly like this, and invented during Communism to relieve the domestic chores of women. Variants bake one or three peppers at a time, by inserting them in the hole(s), encircled by a heated cylinder. Only straight and reasonably sized peppers can enter in the chushkopek, and today’s huge peppers get stuck at the entrance, much like Winnie The Pooh got stuck in Rabbit’s home. 🙂 In a recent show of the Bulgarian National Television, viewers elected the chushkopek as Bulgaria’s most impactful technological invention of the 20th century. I am not kidding. 🙂 Source: Click here.
Picture shows large bags of chushkas, as sold for making winter supplies. Paper tag says "Suitable for Chushkopek," thus advertising the chushkas competitive advantages including good shape and size and speed and ease of preparation. :) Source: Click here.
Picture shows large bags of chushkas, as sold for making winter supplies. Paper tag says “Suitable for Chushkopek,” thus advertising the chushkas’ competitive advantages including moderate shape and size ensuring speed and ease of processing. 🙂 Source: Click here.

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. 🙂

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The importance of chushkas, dried or baked, for Bulgarians is highlighted by their unobtrusive but suggestive presence in works of art. The painting above is a variant of Ratchenitsa by Ivan Mrkvicka (1856-1938), a Czech-born painted who worked in Bulgaria in the late 19th and early 20th century. Look at the chushkas, hung to dry from the ceiling of this men-only pub! 🙂 Source: Click here.
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I apologise for rehashing a picture which I have already posted. 🙂 This is a painting by Bulgarian artist Milcho Spasov, hanging in my living room. As it pictures a typical village landscape and a typical village wedding with brass music and all, it cannot go without a bunch of chushkas drying in the sun. 🙂

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. 
Wash and de-seed peppers.
Wash and de-seed peppers.
Put in a preheated pan on the stove, without oil or water in it.
Place in a preheated pan on the stove, without oil or water in it.
Cover and let bake. Make sure to turn the peppers around and enjoy the glorious popping noise they make while baking! :)
Cover and let bake. Make sure to turn the peppers around and enjoy the glorious popping sound they make while baking! 🙂
A bit charred, but ready! Keep under cover, or cover the dish with aluminum foil or paper to soften, then peel.
A bit charred, but ready! Keep under cover, or cover the dish with aluminum foil or paper to soften, then peel. The baked peppers taste divine, sweet and a bit smoky. This smell, mixed with the pungent fragrance of the Dove’s Foot Geranium, is emblematic of Bulgarian residential neighbourhoods in the autumn. Once, at an old office which was located in a residential area, a smell of baked peppers wafted through the window, and everybody said: Mmmm! 🙂
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Salad ingredients, ready for mixing. It seems I have skipped the parsley and I cannot remember why, as I always have it in the fridge. Maybe I forgot. Anyway. 🙂
After seasoning and mixing, transfer to the dish in which you'll serve.
After seasoning and mixing, transfer to the dish in which you’ll serve.
Grate cheese, cut a long strip of a tomato peel and curl it into a roll, thus shaping a rose. Find a decent looking green leaf of something and decorate. :) Ready!
Grate cheese, cut a long strip of tomato peel and curl it into a roll, thus shaping a rose. Find a decent-looking green leaf of something and decorate. 🙂 Ready!

There, your Shopska Salad is ready for the table.

As I told you, you can serve the Shopska salad with a rakia. Pictured is my father's glass of apple rakia. He had that at a restaurant, I tasted it and it was divine! :)
As I have already mentioned, you can serve the Shopska Salad with rakia. Pictured is my father’s glass of apple rakia, which he had at a restaurant. I tasted it and it was divine! 🙂
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My main course at the baptism ceremony – a grilled trout with potatoes boiled in butter (I hope) and seasoned with dill. My relatives were sensible enough to check with me whether I wanted fish before the event, as I, alas, have the reputation of a picky eater. I was very happy with my choice, as the portion was moderate and very well made. I did not overeat and did not struggle with it, so everybody was happy.
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The other option was this – a huge baked chicken breast, covered in breadcrumbs and fried, complemented with melted yellow cheese and served atop of a bread slice fried in egg. That went along with the potato side dish I had too. I was SO happy I had the fish when I saw this…:) Although it was tasty, from what I heard.

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. 

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British actress and former Bond Girl Honour Blackman, born in 1925. This woman is my personal glamour inspiration – a tomboy, not a girly type, looks like a lady, has awesome figure and hairstyle and has managed to preserve her looks into very advanced maturity. She gives me hope. 🙂 And I adore her name too. So very rare, if not extinct, today. Source: Click here.

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.

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Honour Blackman in 2004. She looks remarkable for her age, to say the least.

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. 🙂 

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We started with baked peppers and the Shopska Salad and look where we ended! 🙂 Some material for a Freudian analysis that…:)