An Obvious Product of Reproduction

Dear Reader,

Please pardon me for this somewhat risque title. 🙂

And before you jump to any hasty conclusions, let me clarify – I am referring to meat as in food that we bake, boil and broil. 🙂

Also as in food that has been alleged to have an interesting effect on our psyche.

This 1923 inspiring painting of a beef carcass is by Chaim Soutine (1893-1943), a Russian painter of Belorussian Jewish origin. As you may well imagine, the painting was highly controversial at the time of its creation, not the least because Soutine used to keep animal carcasses in his studio so that he could paint from nature. 🙂 The painting, alongside others of Soutine’s meat series, is considered to basically represent a crucifixion, which has an ambiguous meaning given that Soutine was Jewish. The painting offers an early glimpse into late-20th-century painting styles and, unlike the tradition that focused on depicting the living flesh exterior, it painted the scary interior. Source: Click here.

I have encountered the interesting choice of words that I’ve put as post title in the food documentary I have already recommended to you here.

The context was a conversation, between the documentary author and host and an English priest, who was explaining the reasons behind the restrictions on meat consumption the Catholic Church used to impose in the Middle Ages in the country.

A very traditional Christmas Vigil table in Bulgaria. Celebrated on Dec 24, this is the last day of the Nativity Fast and is probably the only day of the year in which, at least at dinner, everybody eats vegan. Many light incense in their homes and say a prayer at the table, which they never do at other times of the year. Outside it is very calm and dark, unless there is snow, and if you manage to avoid the cheesy TV commercial jingles, you might literally teleport yourself into another spiritual dimension. Source: Click here.

So roughly speaking, one of the reasons was this – the Catholic Church believed certain foods and drinks had certain effects on the body and soul of those who consume them. True enough. Think of alcohol or sugar. Or the meaning behind “comfort food” for that matter.

Meat, being an obvious product of reproduction – to quote the documentary host verbatim – reportedly made people think about the act of reproduction itself, thus distracting them from prayer and repentance.

Gluttony and Lust are two of the Seven Cardinal, aka Capital, Deadly or Mortal sins, according to medieval Catholic theology. Gluttony and Lust and considered among the less serious sins of the Seven, the worst offender being Pride. 13th-century Italian poet Dante Alighieri uses the Seven Sin hierarchy to organise the circles of Hell he describes in his magnum opus La Divina Commedia. Gluttony and Lust are considered closely related to one another and also linked to the Original Sin, which started with Eve eating the forbidden fruit and tempting Adam with it. If I remember correctly from my high-school days, Dante considered Gluttony a more serious and complex sin compared to Lust, and also the one with the more diverse manifestations. I tend to agree. Source: Click here.

…This actually isn’t such a revolutionary thought, but I had never thought of it, at least not consciously. I believed restricting meat had to do with its palatability and overuse in the colder seasons.

I may, however, have unwittingly come to the same conclusion, as evidenced by this post – one of my favourite – which somehow managed to link Bulgarian mincemeat fingers, known as kebapcheta, to a suggestive flesh-related poem by Charles Baudelaire, who was also very much interested in spleen as a state of mind and carcasses as an embodiment of the eternal strife between life and death lurking out in everything. He must have been an interesting fellow to talk to. 🙂

This broody chap, perched high upon the Notre Dame cathedral in Paris, seems besought by eternal spleen, rendered the more bitter by his frozen immobility. Baudelaire popularised the word “spleen” in France and attached to it a meaning of deep melancholy, estrangement and all-permeating bitterness. Sounds like a description of the modern man. Source: Click here.

My way of thinking and style of writing – to the extent that I have them – are highly associative – so I have probably also somehow intuitively connected the dots between consumption of meat and carnality. So typical and discouraging by the way – the Church knows everything before you’ve managed to think of it yourself. 🙂

So being true to associativity, and also to my alter ago – that of a Victorian or early 20th century bourgeoise lady obsessed with her food and digestion – I associated that reproduction quip with a favourite Bulgarian meat dish – the beef kebap with rice on the side. 🙂

He’s not exactly a lady, but I remember that Emma’s father was very fixated on his digestion and ate thin wheat gruel or something the entire time. Looks like he would have benefited from the well-being sanatorium Dr Kellog, the one with the cornflakes, had established in the U.S. at pretty much the same time – the second half of the 19th century. It was actually Kellog’s brother or another relative who embarked on mass production and started selling cornflakes to the general public. Dr Kellog had died before he could see or enjoy their commercial success. Source: Click here.

Before I share with you the technicalities of its preparation, let me tell of you of something else about the food documentary that struck me. It was this – both the documentary host and the priest talked of the Lents as something truly pertaining to times gone by forever. However, before the 11th-century Schism, officially establishing the Catholic church as a separate Christian denomination, and the 16th-century Reformation, which did away with the Lents and other Catholic restrictions in England – the Church was one and its ways, as I have already commented here, have been preserved in the worship practices of the Orthodox. At least in theory.

Young Henry VIII, whose desire to divorce brought about the English Reformation. Source: Wikipedia.

I am not the most Lent-observing person, but I certainly do not have the notion that Lents belong to the Middle Ages. There’s cultural diversity for you. 🙂

Also in line with cultural diversity, the kebap is an Oriental dish that has gained strong foothold, alongside many others, in the Bulgarian (or Balkan) cuisine as a result of its half-a-millennial exposure to Ottoman influences.

It resembles a stew and is cooked with lean meat of young animals – veal or lamb. Stews, another great Ottoman thing, on the other hand, are cooked very much like kebaps, but the fatter meat of older animals is used.

The foreword to a 1942 cookery textbook for girl-only schools in Bulgaria. I won’t translate the entire thing, although it is quite entertaining. But I can’t possibly forgo two major points of interest: 1. Foreword claims that stews and dishes based on red-coloured and oily sauces are the favourite foods of Bulgarians; and 2. That the Bulgarian woman should be trained to prepare palatable and nutritious food in all seasons and under any conditions. …There now, Bulgarian women – do you live up to society’s ideas of you? 🙂 By the way, in the book The Queen of Turnovo, whose synopsis I presented here, the main protagonist, the doctor who had studied in France, is put off by the eternal smell of stew at the houses of the local people. While my grandmother used to say that a house that did not smell of cooked food was no house at all…:) Again – cultural diversity for you. 🙂

The beef kebap I am about to bring to your attention has once again originated in communist times with lean pork or beef as its meat component. Veal was for some reason unavailable and lamb was typically consumed in May only.

So pork and beef came to the rescue, turning this dish into an year-round home dinner staple and a regular at canteens catering to the working masses. The kebap is usually referred to as винен кебап (vinen kebap, or a wine kebap), although it may or may not contain actual wine. 

The canteen at a Bulgarian Black Sea resort during the 1970s. The metal dishes for the dessert rock! I remember them very vividly from the school canteens. 🙂 Source: Click here.

According to old-time cookbooks, whose covers I have pasted around the blog, to prepare a kebap, you cut the raw meat it morsel-size pieces, fry it briefly in the pot where you’ll cook the kebap, take it out and in the same oil fry onions and possibly garlic. Then you add red pepper, flour, tomatoes and dilute with water, meat stock or vegetable bouillon.

You add some wine, spices such as allspice, black pepper and bay leaf and return the meat to the pot. You reduce the fire, cover and let simmer to readiness, while stirring occasionally. Given that we are cooking with lean meat of not so young animals, we will be boiling it in a pressure cooker. Otherwise it will take forever to prepare. 🙂

Kebaps in Bulgaria are served with a vegetable salad, preferably green in colour, and rice pilaf as a side dish. Actually, this is not referred to as a pilaf in Bulgarian, it is simply as a “rice side dish.” But still, a pilaf it is. 🙂

This is not mine but looks a bit like it. It sure has more meat though. I’ll put in more next time too. 🙂 Source: Click here.

After this preparatory lecture, let’s put the theory to practice! 🙂

You’ll need:

  • 500 g or more of lean beef or pork (pictured below is beef)
  • Onions, garlic, celery root and carrots
  • Tomatoes, fresh or paste like whole canned, diced canned, puree or double concentrate
  • Possibly a litte red wine for the sauce, but I didn’t have and didn’t use
  • Bay leaf, allspice, black pepper, salt
  • Rice

To cook:

Lay meat on your meat cutting board and dice.
Put in a pressure cooker and cover with water up to the half of the pot. You’ll use this liquid for the sauce later.
Add bay leaf, allspice and whole black pepper. Cover and cook for about 20 minutes after the pot starts hissing. The meat has to be fully cooked when it is joined with the sauce, so if under-cooked by the time the 20 minutes are over, cover and let the pot hiss some more. 🙂
You should end up with something like this. 🙂
While the meat is cooking, prepare the vegetables.
Finely dice garlic cloves and onions and coarsely grate celery root and carrots with a grater.
Gently fry in oil, then add red pepper and tomatoes. If your tomatoes are raw or canned and runny, add 1-2 tsp of flour too. I did not, because I used double concentrate, which is fairly thick.
Two small cans of 140 g each went into the sauce. This gave the dish a little winter-y taste, I will cook with fresh tomatoes next time for a lighter texture.
Thin sauce with the meat bouillon and let simmer until the vegetables are not crunchy anymore. Check for seasonings and fix salt; add black pepper and chubritsa if you want to. The sauce should be tasty by now. 🙂
After your vegetables have become soft, take out the bay leaf and blend with a hand-held blender. This is optional of course but in this way you’ll achieve a smooth sauce.
See how blending changed the colour of the sauce to orange. 🙂 Put on an apron and dark clothing, your white or cream -coloured T-shirts will thank you. 🙂
Add parsley and stir.
While your sauce is simmering, measure, clean and wash the rice that you’ll use for the side dish.
Melt butter and sunflower oil together. The butter is for aroma and body and the oil – because it has higher heating temperature, also known as smoke point. 🙂 Oil only is fine too.
Add rice and stir until it starts sticking slightly to the bottom of the pot.
Add boiling water in a proportion of 2.5:1, or just add some and add some more later. Salt, reduce fire and, optionally, cover. Let simmer. The less you stir, the better. But do stir, occasionally. 🙂
Use the time between stirrings to wash up and clean the stove, so that by the time you’re ready to serve, the kitchen looks clean and tidy. 🙂
Kiddy portion! 🙂 Why have I not taken a more decent picture I wonder. Anyway, serve both meat sauce and rice in the same dish. Alternatively, you could spread out the rice in a large, flat and oblong dish, make an oblong hole in the centre and pour the meat sauce there. In this way everyone at the table could help themselves. This is a more Turkish way of serving, though. Bulgarians tend to prefer portions. Decorate with parsley. I did not and I regret it. 🙂

There now, you know how to make a kebap! 🙂 

If you want a light first course to complement, you can opt for something like this:

Creamed spinach soup, the Spartan kind. Ingredients are spinach, green onions, white onions and garlic; an egg and 100 g yogurt to thicken, and hard white cheese and walnuts to serve.
Boil water in an electric jug. Put the spinach and the other vegetables, diced, in a pot and cover with little water. I put in too much water and my soup turned out thinner than it should have. So easy on the water. Season with salt and ground black pepper, or to taste. Puree when everything has been cooked. Away from the fire, add the yogurt and egg, which have been previously mixed in a bowl. Return to the fire for a couple of minutes for the egg to cook.
Serve with crumbled cheese and walnuts.

After so much cooking, I am leaving you to the restorative influence of something very Bulgarian that makes me proud and makes my heart a dancer too. It is the Dunavsko horo, a line dance named to the Danube, composed by Diko Iliev (1898-1984), who single-handedly created the musical genre horo music for brass orchestra in Bulgaria. This Danube horo is played at town squares every New Year’s Eve, after the speech of the President.

The video I have linked is not much in terms of quality, but features my favourite national guards orchestra. I may have a thing for men in uniforms. 😛 Speaking of which, while I searched the youtube for a video, I came across a Dunavsko horo performance of a Polish military orchestra.

It may be provincial of me, but I am always moved when someone knows something about Bulgaria, so – my utmost respect to the Polish. Still, I regret saying it, but they do seem to lack that Balkan je-ne-sais-quoi that makes the horo click, don’t they…?