A Ladle of Civilisation

Dear Reader,

Do you want to play riddles? 🙂

…I take raised eyebrows and a half-smile for a yes, so here I go – what is this food that may be considered the quintessence of the Western civilisation, spanning the invention of pottery making, which enabled boiling; passing through communal eating in the Middle Ages; representing togetherness in the age of increasing individualism that started during the Enlightenment and reaching the present day as a symbol of the halcyon, timeless days, when Mom or Grandma did all the cooking?

Answer: the Soup. 🙂

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An epitome of communal eating for centuries, the soup , similarly to many other foods, started getting new layers of meaning from roughly around the 17th century. The poor folks kept eating from a common pot and using soup as an accompaniment to stale bread – their main food, while the rich helped themselves to individual portions from a tureen, eating daintily and noiselessly with silver spoons. This, alongside the use of individual chairs rather than common benches, represented an individualisation of the soup as a new differentiator between the rich and the poor. The adoption of the publicly accepted table manners as behaviour people applied in their private lives as well, indicated an internalisation of the public sphere as a centripetal force of civilisation. Source: Click here.

In particular, I will give you the recipe of an essential Bulgarian soup, that is in the collective memory of the Bulgarian nation as a comfort food everybody has eaten at home as a child, and has also enjoyed in innumerable school, university or office canteens, at summer camps and all-inclusive resorts, or as lunch menu at the nearby restaurant. 🙂

It’s meatball soup, or as it is fondly called in Bulgarian, супа топчета (supa topcheta ). 🙂

I took the recipe from my mother and it turned out great! :) I made the soup in my largest port and it was gone in two days. :)
I took the soup recipe from my mother and it turned out great! 🙂 I cooked it in my largest pot and it was gone in two days. 🙂

Under its current form and name, meatball soup has been created during communism, as part of the regime’s drive to streamline the preparation and raise the quality of canteen and restaurant cooking. The idea was that workers, both men and women, toiling to build the bright future, did not have time to cook and should not have spent time at home when they could have used their evenings to (mandatorily) attend political lectures and discussions.

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Soup recipe . I took a photo in case I lost the slip of paper on which I wrote it. 🙂

The residential shortage that was the result of the mass migration from villages to cities also meant that many peasants-turned-proletariat lived in one room only and did not have hygienic, or any, kitchens, where to cook. Hence the ubiquitous presence of canteens and weekly kindergartens which spared the workers the need to take day-to-day care of their children.

A classic cookbook called "What to Cook when Mommy's Away." Cookbooks for children became necessary when mommies started working all day. The book, published in 1984, divides the recipes it offers into three groups - elementary, intermediate and advanced. It also offers advice on efficient vegetable chopping and table laying. During Communism, many children, as young as six-seven years, stayed home alone for the better part of the day, because of the working parents. The modern-day rules of parents breaking the law if leaving children below the age of 12 unsupervised were unheard of at the time. If one didn't have grandparents to help, the children just stayed alone and that was that. There was even such a dialogue in my primer - a small child
A classic cookbook called “What to Cook when Mommy’s Away.” Cookbooks for children became necessary when mommies started working all day. This particular book, published in 1984, divides the recipes it offers into three groups – elementary, intermediate and advanced, according to the age of children. The elementary recipes are addressed to children 10 to 14 years old. The book also offers advice on efficient vegetable chopping and table laying. During Communism, many children, as young as six-seven years, stayed home alone for the better part of the day, because of their working parents. The modern-day rules of parents breaking the law if leaving children below the age of 12 unsupervised were unheard of at the time. If one didn’t have grandparents to help out, the children just stayed home alone and that was that. There was even such a dialogue in my first-grade primer – a small child calls his working mommy on the phone at work to tell her the bath-tub is overflowing on the bathroom floor. 🙂

In the mid-1960s, after some 20 years of communism, authorities realised that the forced industrialisation that had taken housewives out of their homes and had put them into the factories, had also resulted in declining birth rates. So, the regime shifted its focus to protecting women at the workplace and promoting maternity, by adopting generous provisions, many of which are still in force today.

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The children’s cookbook is the only place where I could find a recipe for the mythical meatball soup. Earlier cookbooks which I own, of the 1940s and the mid-1950s, don’t have it, even those that are actually cooking schoolbooks used in girl schools (meaning perhaps it was not such a staple then). Newer bookbooks, like those from the 1990s onwards, also don’t have it, perhaps because they consider it such an uninteresting basic that’s not worth mentioning. After communism collapsed, people were interested in foreign cuisine and beautifully packaged junk food, to make up for everything they did not have in the decades past. Meatball soup did not match any of those criteria, but I bet people kept on cooking it, ordering it and loving it. The recipe pictured here differs slightly from that of my mom, but generally comes pretty close.

Apart from labour law policies, these measures also included the publication of cookbooks directed at children (who perhaps would want or need to cook, while their mommies are at work), and raising the quality of cooking in the ubiquitous canteens, where every member of the family could eat freshly cooked food and buy more to take home.

Cover of booklet Soups and Sauces, directed at restaurant cooks and housewives and published in 1958. The book is quite inconvenient to follow exactly because all recipes serve 10 but is excellent in giving one ideas on bourgeois dishes that are almost extinct today. I have taken my recipe for meatballs in a white fricassee sauce from here and its awesome. :)
Cover of booklet Soups and Sauces, directed at restaurant cooks and housewives and published in 1958. The book is quite inconvenient to follow exactly because all recipes serve 10 but is excellent in giving one ideas on bourgeois dishes that are almost extinct today. I have taken my recipe for meatballs in a white fricassee sauce from here and it’s awesome. 🙂 (Well, not from THIS booklet exactly, as it is on soups, but from the one on cooked meat dishes :))
So the book pictured above has a meatball soup recipe, but the bouillon is clear and the meatballs are charmingly called Frikadellen. :)
So the book pictured above has a meatball soup recipe, but the bouillon is clear and the meatballs are charmingly called Frikadellen. 🙂 It is recipe 12, I remember cooking it once and liking it. You basically make the tiny meatballs in the way I am going to describe below, boil them in spiced water, clear it from the resulting foam and serve like this.
This book, which looks as though it has been through Hell, also has a meatball soup recipe , but it contains potatoes, which is a strange ingredient for a soup the entire Bulgarian nation knows contains only meatballs in a milk-and-egg thickened vegetable bouillon. :)
This book, which looks as though it has been through Hell, also has a meatball soup recipe , but it contains potatoes, which is a strange ingredient for a soup the entire Bulgarian nation knows as  consisting of meatballs in a milk-and-egg thickened vegetable bouillon. 🙂
Book title is Modern Home Cuisine
Book title is Modern Home Cuisine, 2,000 Bulgarian and foreign recipes, and was published in 1975. One of the authors, Penka Cholcheva, was the most prominent cookbook author during communism, but unlike the highly publicised capitalist cooks, nobody knows how she looked. Reasons include the communism’s disregard for individuals in all respects except their contribution to the community. The same trend, aggravated by lack of competition and the plan economy, is also evident in the almost complete lack of food brands at the time. Foods were called based on their essence: Plain Biscuits, Cow’s Cheese, Plain Waffers and so on. And when there was a brand name, it faced so little, if any, competition, that it often became the noun naming the entire category. For example, Vero, accent on the E, was a brand, or rather, THE brand for dish-washing liquid and many Bulgarians still call Vero any dish-washing liquid on the market today. 🙂
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So that’s the recipe. It contains potatoes, which is not typical, but apart from that the recipe is like my mom’s. The other meatball soup recipe, from the children’s cookbook, does not have potatoes, but has tomatoes added to the bouillon, which is not the case both in the above and in my mom’s recipes. 🙂 It is noteworthy, though, that this book, called HOME cuisine, has a meatball recipe soup, while another book I own, published in the late 1950s and authored by Natsko Sotirov, cook of Tsar Boris III and later of the Communist nomenclature, does not. The book is called only Modern Cuisine, sans the HOME part, perhaps that’s the reason. It is an haute French cuisine book through and through. I think I have mentioned the Natsko Sotirov book in the From Alaturka to Barista post. 🙂

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So if you are already impatient to get to the soup cooking part, I’ll humor you, right now. 🙂

You’ll need:

  • 500 f of minced meat, I used 60/40 pork/beef, which is the classic Bulgarian minced meat;
  • A handful of rice
  • Onions, carrots and a slice or two of celery root
  • 1-3 eggs (1 for meatballs and 1 or 2 for soup thickening)
  • 2-3 tsp of Bulgarian yogurt
  • Some flour
  • Filini or vermicelli or some other type of thin, thread-shaped pasta
  • Salt, chubritsa, ground black pepper, parsley

First, let’s make the topcheta, or tiny meatballs. Topcheta literally translates as balls by the way, and some cookbooks of the past, like the ones I’ve pictured, name a similar meatball soup A Men’s Soup, perhaps no pun intended :P. 

  • This is optional but recommended – pre-boil the rice a bit, so that it is partially soft when you add it to the meat. Put in a metal bowl or something, cover with very little water and let boil for a while, so that the rice is semi-cooked. Cool and add to the meat, alongside an egg, salt and ground black pepper and possibly parsley. Mix thoroughly. 

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  • Make the meatballs. This maybe boring and a bit of a pain because the meatballs are so tiny. As you would have to boil them, I can suggest to make the meatballs when you are ready to boil and drop them in the boiling water directly. I made them beforehand and then had to pick them one by one to drop in the pot. They were soft, so by picking them, I ruined their shape and had to shape them again before dropping them into the water. So I did double work. Having your hands wet with cold water will help the shaping. When you tear a small amount of meat to make the meatball, it may be helpful to shake it in your palm like a game dice. This gives a round shape. You could roll the meatballs in flour before boiling them, but I don’t like that – I think this makes the bouillon opaque and slimy. 🙂 
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These raw meatballs look like party catering, don’t they? 🙂 Making so many meatballs is an exercise in patience, so there are moral benefits to soup-making too.  …You know, as children we had those smart-ass questions and answers, like Q: What are Polish Fiats? A: Roller skaters for elephants. 🙂 In the same vein, there was this one: Q: What is patience? A: To clean rice (from bad grains and stones) with boxing gloves. 🙂 So making soup meatballs is patience too.:)  And if you have never seen the adorable Polish Fiat, here you are:
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This is a highly-tuned version and the bearded guy inside looks nothing like a Polish Fiat owner of the past, but still. That Fiat played in the same league as the East German Trabant, which had a very noisy two-stroke engine and a coupe made of plastic. 🙂 On a separate line, I want to highlight that by reminiscing about amusing things of the communist times, I do not intend to rehabilitate the period and its atrocities. Some things were just l’air du temps, I am talking about that. The Polish Fiat and the Trabant were Eastern Bloc cars but they sure resembled the tiny Italian Fiat Topolino and some of the smaller Citroens, which were Western Bloc vehicles. So – period looks 🙂 Source: Pinterest.
The Fiat Topolino at the Polytechnic Museum of Sofia. :)
The Fiat Topolino at the Polytechnic Museum of Sofia. 🙂 Topolino means a small mouse and is also what the Italians call Mickey Mouse, so the name is very cute too. 🙂

Back in the soup, 🙂

  • Bring water to boil, as much as you’d like your soup quantity to be. Put the meatballs inside and boil. Check for saltiness and further spice the bouillon with chubritsa and ground or whole black pepper. I did not use any other fat for the soup, only what was released from the meatballs, and it was enough for me. You can add oil to the boiling meatballs if you’d like. Wait for the bouillon to boil and remove any foam that will form on the surface. 
The meatballs are done pretty quickly. They remain soft. Taste for seasoning.
The meatballs are done pretty quickly. They remain soft. Taste for seasoning.
    • Finely dice onions and grate coarsely the carrot (s) and the celery root with a grater. Add them to the bouillon and reduce the fire – you don’t want a rolling boil but a simmer. 🙂
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It is starting to look like soup already! 🙂
  •  When the vegetables are more or less boiled, add the filini or vermicelli. I used those, and I insert it for illustrative purposes, I am not affiliated with the brand. 🙂 

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  • OK, so now you are done with the bouillon. Check for seasonings, a thousand times if you have to 🙂 It should taste salty, piquant from the pepper, meaty, you should detect the celery and it should have a slightly acid, vinegary taste, which is essential and very pleasant. I am sure you’d know when the soup tastes right. 🙂 
  • In the meantime, let’s busy ourselves with the thickener. Have the egg or eggs and the yogurt at room temperature. Temperature is vital when thickening a soup, as large discrepancies in temperature will cause the egg white to curdle. 🙂 
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I mixed one egg, 2-3 soup spoonfuls of yogurt and 1 heaped tsp of flour. Mix with a fork until smooth and use a large bowl, as in a moment you’ll transfer some of the soup to it to temper. 🙂
All vegetables are soft and all meatballs have swum to the surface. The soup is ready for thickening. Remove from fire and let cook down to a temperature where you could taste it without it burning your throat.
All vegetables are soft and all meatballs have swum to the surface. The soup is ready for thickening. Remove from fire and let cool down to a temperature where you could taste it without it burning your throat.
The thickening ingredients made into a homogeneous mixture. I apologise for the yellow picture, the culprits are my ceilings lamps in the kitchen, which have opaque yellow shades. They give out a very pleasant light live but are obviously not good for pictures.
The thickening ingredients made into a homogeneous mixture. I apologise for the yellow picture, the culprits are my kitchen ceilings lamps, which have opaque yellow shades. They give out a very pleasant light live but are obviously not good for pictures.
The guilty party. :)
The guilty party. 🙂
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Transfer part of the bouillon, bit by bit, to the egg-and-yogurt mixture, mix, then transfer some more. Move back all that to the pot with the meatballs under constant stirring and away from the fire.
Transfer the thickener to the pot with a sieve to catch any curdled bits. Look what was caught in my sieve. :)
Transfer the thickener to the pot with a sieve to catch any curdled bits. Look what was caught in my sieve. 🙂
I have white lights above the stove so this pic is looking more realistic in terms of colours. :) After you've added the thickener, add fresh or fresh-frozen parsley.
I have white lights above the stove so this pic looks more realistic in terms of colours. 🙂 After you’ve added the thickener, add fresh or fresh-frozen parsley. To serve, you can add a splash of vinegar or freshly squeezed lemon juice to the individual portion.
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Ready! Nevermind my chipped nail polish. 🙂 Cooking requires sacrifices. Plus, it’s more edgy this way :P.

I cooked the soup on Thursday evening but had it on Friday for dinner. This is what went along with it. 

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A cabbage-carrot-and-beet salad (that was bought cut, I just seasoned it), olives and broiled stale bread.
Fried eggs with sharena sol.
Fried eggs with sharena sol.
And melon!
And melon!

I think it was OK for a Friday night, given that I got home at 20.00. 🙂 

I actually did my grocery shopping after work, and among the necessary household stuff, I bought a CD for the car – film music by Bulgarian composer Mitko Shterev. I have already posted one of his compositions, the Adaptation movie main theme, here

So, I am now leaving you to a lazy and playful swing, a melody Shterev composed for another movie. The feeling I get from that is similar to what a cat might be feeling, purring in a quiet corner in the sunlight. 🙂

Purring and whatnot is great, but if you are hungry and like my hastily put-together dinner, come to the table first and dig in! 🙂