Bulgarian Hygge

Dear Reader, 

As you know, I love words and love to explore the philosophy and cultural ideas behind their meaning. Thus, over the past year I have come across three northern European words for “coziness“, and have realised we Bulgarians have an equivalent too. 

A sofa, a nice book and coffee early on a bleak morning, THAT’s hygge!

The Danish word “hygge” means coziness that seems to be based on intimacy, sharing, slow pace and repetitiveness, as well as the juxtaposition between “warmth inside” and “coldness outside”. The Swedish variant “lagom” seems to focus on just the right amount of something that is enough for reaching a certain blissful state. E.g. just the right amount of depth or playfulness in a conversation, just the right amount of spice, just the right combination in an outfit…you get it. The Dutch word “geselligheit” seems closely related to “hygge” but focuses on friendliness and “easy-goingess” in the social interaction among larger groups rather than among 2-3-4 intimate friends the way “hygge” does.  

That’s a makeshift table from IKEA, but the lamp is here to stay. So is the small vase, which I got in an Indian shop in Penang, Malaysia. I was looking for a plastic bucket to do laundry, but was keeping my eyes open for other valuables as well.

The Bulgarian word for “cozy“, on the other hand, is “uyuten” (that’s the masculine singular form), a word coming from “uyutmak,” meaning “to make smth or smbd fall asleep”. That’s the passive voice of the Turkish verb “uymak,” meaning “to fall asleep”. Thus, in the Bulgarian mind, something “cozy” means something that encourages one to fall asleep. A rather individualistic word compared to “hygge” and “geselligheid,” don’t you find? 

Objects full of story and/or memories are hygge too. A pewter vase from Malaysia, a metal pepper grinder from Albania, and two decanters from the flea market are exactly that.

Now that we’ve established that feeling cozy in Bulgaria is a rather solitary business, let’s see what might provoke or add to the experience. Definitely books, a pleasantly warm and subtly lit room, coffee or tea, soft music (classical or guitar for me, thanks), bad weather and/or darkness outside. An alternative to books might actually be blogging, the unsolicited giving of the lonely. Then of course, gold in the interior, paintings, icons, beautiful objects around. Curtains, carpets, porcelain, old-fashioned kitchen objects and home-made lace. Last but not least, I’d say food and cooking. A kitchen that doesn’t smell of food – that’s a disastrous letting go of the civilisational foundations in my book. 

A tiny wooden tray from Albania. To me, hygge also means as little plastic as possible.

In line with the above, I’d like to share with you my mum’s recipe for leek-and-cheese banitsa, a hugely hyggelig food at my geographical latitude, and one suitable for breakfast, snack, party finger food, and light main course together with a soup and a salad. At the Balkans, banitsas may very well be the equivalent of the famed Scandinavian cinnamon rolls. Our banitsa for today starts in a rather unassuming fashion, like this:

Take three big leeks, or fewer, according to taste. I’m sorry, but in the three long months since I’ve last written here, I seem to have climbed up the ladder of culinary expertise, as I cook with eyeballed quantities of ingredients, or from imagination. 

Put oil in a pan, and simmer leeks until soft. They don’t have to be cooked through, as they will be baked in an oven too, once the banitsa has been assembled.

Take a large and flat baking dish and line with baking paper, then find unspecified objects to place above paper so as to prevent it from rolling back to the centre of the pan. 

For the filling, mix three eggs, some white cheese, and 2-3 soup spoonfuls of yogurt. I didn’t have any, so I put some sour cream instead. Add leeks to the mixture once they’d cooled down, and add 1/2 teaspoonful of bicarbonate of soda. Your filling’s ready!

Take a packet of phyllo, or sheet, pastry. These are Serbian or Macedonian, I got them at the farmers’ market that takes place each Saturday near my place. Farmers from regions close to Bulgaria’s western border travel to Sofia for the occasion, and sometimes bring along with them Serbian/Macedonian food items beloved by Bulgarians. As you can see, the packet says Kore za Pitu i Baklavu, meaning Sheets for Banitsa and Baklava.

Roll out pastry sheets and depending on thickness, decide whether you’d use one or two for each banitsa roll. I decided to use two, and spread oil with a brush in between each pair of sheets making up one roll. 

After you oil the lower sheet, spread some of the filling as shown in the picture. Then fold in a roll, not very tight, and place in the pan. Proceed identically until you use up your filling, sheets or dish space. Better use up filling and have some sheets remain, as they can be filled with a different filling later on. 

Now let’s melt some butter and spread it on and inside the roll ends, where there isn’t any filling. Let’s brush with melted butter the outside of the rolls, lengthwise, as well. 

Pop the banitsa into the preheated oven (at between 150-200 degrees C), at the lower-middle rack and bake for about 45 minutes, or until smelling like ready and looking browned and appetising. 

These plates were made in Czechia before communism arrived in Bulgaria in September 1944, and belonged to my maternal great-grandmother. The Czech Republic changed its name to Czechia only recently, and The Guardian has commented here, that nobody was calling it that. Not true at all, we Bulgarians have called it Czechia since always. Czechia, and Slovakia, that’s it. The Czech Republic is what we know is its English name.

That’s how the banitsa looks like served on the table. The top piece shows the crispy end (can I call it butt?), while the two bottom pieces show the filling in a cross-section. 

It goes with ayran, or a herban tisane, or just by itself. If you want the crispiness of the sheets to remain, cover leftovers in a box only after thoroughly cooled down. 

Now, for goodbye I give you a song by Georgi Hristov which I heard on the Radio Horizont (Programa Hristo Botev) while I was making the banitsa this morning. I love listening to such old-fashioned songs while cooking, their sentimentality is somehow very  uplifting at the backdrop of the cloudy dreariness outside.

Church candles, rather than home decor candles and woolen socks, are part of (this) Bulgarian(‘s) hygge too.

The song is called “Много причини има”, (Mnogo prichini ima, There Are Many Reasons), and tells of the protagonist rediscovering the existence of many reasons, big and small, for smiling at the world, somebody special being the top one among them.