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S'mores by Yosemite

Making s’mores over the campfire by Yosemite National Park, CA

I’ve been waiting for this moment for so long! I’ve wanted to try s’mores ever since I heard about them as a freshman!
The setting is perfect: the camp fire just outside Yosemite Valley, the tents, the group of friends.
This recipe is probably engraved in every American kid’s memory, but it was a whole new world to me:
You put a marshmallow on a stick and roast it on the fire until it becomes anywhere between slightly golden to, in my case, burnt black (oops). Then you put the marshmallow on a big piece of plain milk Hershey bar and sandwich it with two half pieces of a graham cracker. Squish the s’more slightly and watch the chocolate melt over the marshmallow. Now devour.
Absolutely gourmet cuisine! The finest campfire dining experience I’ve ever had! Thank you American girl scouts!

*Plain milk chocolate, marshmallows, graham crackers, and wooden skewers are sold as package in stores. That’s genius marketing thinking!

S'mores by Yosemite

You can judge my appearance, but I taste amazing!

 

This is a map of my hikes in Yosemite National Park, CA.


My next goal in life: create the best country branding campaign for Bulgaria!

But until then, let me show you what one of our favorite neighbors, Serbia, came up with their 2011 campaign. This marketing campaign puts a very innovative twist on country branding. Instead of focusing on historical, natural, and architectural sites as most such promotional videos do, Serbia has chosen to focus entirely on food.

They are very smart to do so because the Balkan cuisine is one of the most delicious in the world (I’m being objective here, honestly)! And although most of the foods they present here are common to several Balkan countries, Serbia has succeeded in personalizing this spot and making it feel unique. My only little critique is that I wish they had put typical Goran Bregovic rhythms in the background!

The message of the video is very clear: Serbia has great food produced in a clean, sustainable way. The country is heaven for those seeking an authentic food experience, village tourism or bio tourism. The simplicity of Serbian (and Balkan) cuisine is what makes it so tasty: fresh, natural ingredients that are full of flavor, juices, and aromas.  Notice that the spot is focusing on the ingredients themselves rather than the meals that can be prepared with them: so once again, it’s about the simple pleasures in life… in Serbia.

This promo video is a delight to the eye, to the taste buds, and to the soul, and I hope it attracts many tourists to Serbia!

… But, as I was looking through some forums regarding the above video, I came upon another promotional video, this time from out other beloved neighbor, Macedonia. The two videos, unfortunately, are surprisingly similar. The Macedonian one is from 2010 and once again represents a journey through the country as a journey through honey, wine, succulent meats, and enticing spices. The voice over says: Македония, мала земя, голема храна. Македония, вечна. – Macedonia, small country, great food. Macedonia, timeless.

Eh, what can I say… I guess we on the Balkans are not so creative after all… Which video do you like more?

You might also enjoy:

Branding Romania: Creative Ads

Bulgaria: Magic Lives Here. The campaign the whole nation dislikes. 

Socialism Sells: What makes Soc-themed ads so successful in Bulgaria

Dimitar Berbatov, The Brand


Just before Christmas, I visited San Antonio, TX and had my first real rib-eye stake at a restaurant on the Riverwalk!  I must admit, it was a masterpiece – you Americans know your steaks!

But then my friend asked for more barbecue sauce… and some chilly sauce, Cajun sauce, Dijon  mustard, and ketchup.  Why, OH WHY, would you ruin the best steaks in the world with so many sauces?!

And then there is the delicious, fresh, crunchy, natural salad…  and you plop on top of it a big squirt of Caesar, Ranch, Chipotle, Blue Cheese, Honey Mustard, Thousand Island, Santa Fe Blend,  Lemon Mayonnaise, Jalapeno Ranch,  Sesame Ginger, Hot & Spicy, Creamy Style Miso, Romano Basil Vinaigrette, Cranberry Balsamic, Italian, French, Russian, Mediterranean, or Greek Dressings… as well as all their light, reduced fat, fat-free, or organic versions. Does salad really need so many types of dressings?

And then I go to Shaw’s or Whole Foods, and I see entire aisles with sauces, salsas, chutneys, condiments, dressings,vinegars, and marinades. It almost seems to me that you don’t like the natural taste of food because you seem to always want to flavor it with something else.

I have been taught that fish requires only lemon, salad requires only salt and olive oil, and meat requires only salt, if anything at all. Bulgarian food is so much more simple compared to American, and yet I feel like it is more flavorful because you can actually taste the different vegetables or the different herbs in it.

I call upon the readers of this blog to switch the Chunky Blue Cheese Dressing for real crumbled feta, the Fat-free Italian Dressing for freshly chopped parsley and sun-dried tomatoes, and those yellow round plastic containers with real freshly squeezed lemons.

***

You Might Also Find Interesting:

Why Do Americans Have So Many Types of Breakfast Cereal

Food, the Best Bulgarian Ambassador to Korea 


A few days ago, I told you about a Po Zhitzata, the First Bulgarian Online School, which offers lessons in Bulgarian grammar, literature, history and geography to the children of expatriates and foreigners wishing to learn the language.

Today, I want to tell you about another entrepreneurial venture that serves as an ambassador of Bulgaria, Zelen restaurant in Seoul, Korea.

Zelen (which means green) was opened by two Bulgarian brothers, Mihal and Filip Ashminov and their Korean partner in 2007.  Mihal, who was previously a chef at the Sheraton Hotel in Sofia came to Korea when he was 21 to work at the Westin Chosun Hotel. There, he noticed that health-consious Korean women love his Bulgarian dishes. When he and his Korean partner came up with the idea to open a Bulgarian restaurant, Mihal called his brother, who was at that time a chef in Ireland, to come and get involved with the brave project.

Mihal and Filip Ashminovi, founders of Zelen Bulgarian Restaurant in Seoul

Since 2010, Zelen has two branches and is wildly popular among food aficionados in Seoul. There are four Bulgarian chefs and six Korean sous chefs. Mihal and Filip say that they do not adapt their recipes to the Korean taste: everything is prepared according to traditional Bulgarian recipes: Shopska salad, eggplant salad, tarator (cold cucumber soup), salami and mezze, sarmi (cabbage roll stuffed with rice and beef), stuffed peppers, vegetable moussaka, St. George’s style roasted leg of lamb, kiufte (meatball), shishche (skewers), yoghurt with honey, Bulgarian red wine, and so much more typical BG goodies.

Zelen is featured in ALL of Seoul’s BEST RESTAURANT GUIDES (seoulstyle.com, seouleats.com), and most articles recommend that you call in advance to book a table because the place is always full! MOST articles call Zelen “one of Seoul’s favorite restaurants”.

Well done, Bulgarian entrepreneurs! Keep up the good cooking!

***

More on Bulgarian Cuisine from My Blog: 

Buy Bulgarian Specialties at Trader Joe’s (photo)

Taking my Friends to The Crazy Cock, the Bulgarian Restaurant in London (many photos)

Preparing Bulgarian Christmas Eve Dinner (yum-yum photos)

Apres-ski: feasting on in Bansko (more eye-tearing photos)

The best Bulgarian cookbook IN ENGLISH that you can buy on Amazon


I had one of those experiences that make me feel more and more native to New England – I shucked oysters!

Oysters are those huge shells that you might have seen in movies served raw on crushed ice with lemon juice, cocktail sauce and horseradish and slurped out by rich old businessmen while smoking a cigar.  They are a sign of great luxury and an aphrodisiac.

Of course all Bostonians are cool enough to eat oysters (that is, as long as they have the guts to). My personal record I think is four raw oysters in the Union Oyster House. But after I did that I needed to lay still for a while.

Shucking oysters, however, is a whole new experience that helped me gain an even deeper appreciation for this slippery seduction meal.

We went for a free oyster shucking lesson at the North End Fish Market (on Saturdays, at 99 Salem Str).  We were given gloves, a chisel-like knife and a bunch of local oysters that looked like solid rocks.

The most difficult part, I found, was slipping the knife in the hinge (imagine thrusting a knife into solid rock) and cracking the top and bottom shell open.  Then you slide the knife all the way around the oyster until you actually separate the two shells – and by “slide” I mean strain your muscles and try to push the knife through until you almost break your wrist. Finally, the easy but embarrassing part is to gently slide the knife under the oyster and cut the flesh that connects it to the bottom shelf and then flip it upside-down to have “better presentation” or, if you are me, just drop it on the table and then awkwardly pick it up. At last, you can squeeze in some lemon and slurp it out with a grin on your face. Good job!

After shucking 4 oysters each and deciding that we’d better put an end on seafood for the day, we continued our tour of the North End, the Italian neighborhood in Boston.

 You might also like:

Picking Apples and Cranberries in New England

The Great American Cookout at Kimball Farm

The Boston Marathon 


St. Nikola, a Bulgarian icon

Today, December 6th, is one of the bigger holidays in Bulgaria: Nikylden, or the Day of St. Nikola Mirlikiiski, or St. Nikola the Miracle-Maker. St. Nikola is the guardian of fishermen, sailors, travelers, tradesmen, and bankers (Who can tell me what the connection between them is ?). Nikola was a historical figure born in 270 BC in Patara (today in Turkey). Legend says he inherited a great fortune from his father but gave it all away to those in need. The saint also performed many miracles that delivered sailors and fishermen safely from sea tempests. According to another legend, he plugged a hole in a ship with a carp fish and thus saved it from sinking!

Nikylden is more than a religious day for the Orthodox Christians; it is also a nameday for all bearers of the name Nikola, Nick, Nikoleta, Kolio, Nikolai, Nicholas, etc; actually, most Bulgarian families celebrate the holiday even if they don’t have a Nick in the family.

Poseidon (Neptune) puts a pagan spin on the celebration of St. Nikola

St. Nikola is also associated with the sea, ocean, rivers, and lakes, and in this sense is similar to the Greek god Poseidon (called Neptune in Roman mythology). Germanic nations also celebrate St. Nicholas’ day, although slightly differently, and even associate this saint with Santa Claus.

In Bulgaria, we eat fish on December 6th – preferably fish with scales like carp or sheat-fish because “naked” fish without scales symbolized poverty. We bake the fish whole and stuff it with walnuts (check out a few typical Bulgarian Nikylden recipes here).

To me and my family, the Nikylden feast is the equivalent of a Thanksgiving Feast because my father is called Nikola and he is a “tradesman”. This means that my house is always full of guests on this day!

Traditionally, you don’t send official invitations for your nameday: you are supposed to prepare a big meal and expect your closest people to show up for dinner by themselves. So you basically never know who is showing up until they do, but you expect your closest relatives, godparents, best man and woman, and good neighbors to pay a visit. They might bring flowers, alcohol, and other presents.  Don’t expect them to leave before 2am.

Stuffed carp - I want to be home right now!

The table is, naturally, very festive! In addition to the stuffed carp, my mother also prepares salmon, shark, scard fish and turbot (eh, probably not all of them every time!). We have a variety of salads and other yummy dishes and lots of wine – Villa Melnik of course!

I’m so angry I missed it again this year, but HAPPY NIKYLDEN, DAD!

The Russian church St. Nicholas the Miracle-Maker in Sofia, Bulgaria

Namedays are very big in Bulgaria, maybe even bigger than birthdays. There are less presents for the person celebrating but more of a communal feel since this day is not a personal celebration, but a celebration of all people who bear the same name, of the saint, and of all the virtues that the saint represents. I love my name, Militza, because it is the name of my great-grandmother and is very rare, but I’ve always been jealous that it is too rare to have a saint or a nameday associated with it! Oh well, I just get to celebrate my birthday and half-birthday!

***

You Might Also Enjoy:

The Newborn Baby and the Naming Dilemma

St. Sophia and Her Daughters: Faith, Hope, and Love

Tsvetnitsa: Name Day for All Flowers


I bought liutenitza and kyopolo at Trader Joe's in Boston

To all devotees of Bulgarian cuisine: Trader Joe’s sells the two gems of Bulgarian culinary genius: liutenitza and kyopolou!

Liutenitsa (liutenitza) is a heavenly spread made of, tomatoes, red peppers, carrots, onion, eggplant and herbs that could be a little bit spicy or not. We spread it on bread or use it as a side to grilled meat… and actually anything else. My personal favorite is a slice of bread with liutenitza (the layer should be as thick as the bread) and Bulgarian white feta cheese! Yum-yum!

Kyopolou (kiopolo) is made of roasted eggplant, garlic, parsley, olive oil, and sometimes peppers or tomatoes. It is served cold as an appetizer or spread on bread. See recipe  for both spreads (we call them salads) from BG Taste.

Several countries on the Balkans have similar products. You might have previously tried Turkish kopoglu or Serbian ajvar.

So if you are craving an authentic taste of Bulgaria – run to Trader Joe’s! They call the two products “Red Pepper Spread” and “Eggplant Garlic Spread”, but the labels clearly indicate that this is a “Product of Bulgaria” and a “Traditional Bulgarian Recipe”. Enjoy!

Find the nearest Trader Joe’s here.

 

If you want to try out more Bulgarian recipes yourselves, you can take a look at the Bulgarian cookbook I received last year or read my blog post on preparing a Bulgarian Christmas Eve’s dinner.


It’s not easy to be an international student in the States on Thanksgiving. They kick you out of the dorm for 5 days, all of your friends scatter to their respective places of origin, and you have to be very creative in finding what to do.

Bulgarian-German Thanksgiving at the Grosses, 2008

My strategy has been to try to be as traditional American as possible in order to experience the culture. Funny how that turned out!

 

Thanksgiving 2008: Three-and-two-halves Bulgarians and one turkey

The Grosse family was so kind to invite me and two other Bulgarians to their home in New Jersey over the Thanksgiving break. The Grosses used to live in Bulgaria and their daughters, the two half-Bulgarians as I like to call them, went to my high school in Sofia. So in 2008, they got together me and two other girls from that school who currently go to college on the East Coast. For dinner, we had all the ingredients of an American Thanksgiving Feast, but prepared the German way – potato dumplings, sauerkraut (German red cabbage), turkey breast (without stuffing), mama Grosse’s secret saus, all sorts of delicious German pastry (with strudels instead of pies), and of course, Bulgarian Red Wine Tcherga.  My cultural experience was further enriched with Black Friday shopping in the Short Hills Mall.

 

Thanksgiving 2009: Disney World, Orlando

Another not-so -typical holiday, I guess. Timmy and I went to Orlando, FL, where we spent the day riding on roller coasters, trying to get out of haunted houses, and spinning on all sorts of carousels. We saw a mini-city made up entirely of Christmas Lights, but didn’t really experience anything particularly Thanksgiving-ly other than the roasted turkey leg on the bone that Timmy and I devoured.

 

Thanksgiving 2010: Plymouth, It Can’t Get More American Than That

Now this was the epitome of Thanksgiving! We were in Plymouth, MA, where the Mayflower dropped anchor. We saw the Plymouth rock, which marks the symbolical spot where the pilgrims landed and the “Plimoth Plantation”, which is a living history museum. At the Plantation, we visited a 17th century English village that recreates the way the pilgrims lived. There are costumed  actors who have adopted the roles of actual historical figures and pretend that it is still 1627. So when I told them that I am from Bulgaria, they asked me how things were in the Ottoman Empire! Their historical knowledge was impressive! The other part of the Plantation is the Wampanoag Homesite where you can meet real Native People and talk to them about their culture and history from a modern perspective. Finally, I had a very American, very lovely Thanksgiving lunch with Timmy’s family : with a house full of bubbly relatives, mountains of food, and football! Exactly as Thanksgivign should be!

Read more about my meeting with Timmy’s family here.

 

Thanksgiving at the Arabs, 2011

Thanksgiving 2011: The Middle Eastern Version

My roommates and I organized a pretty interesting semi-traditional feast for our friends. (Actually, Emma, who started preparing the turkey three days earlier and woke up at 7am to start cooking that day, should get all the credit. I simply decorated the living room with real fallen leaves, but then it ended up in vain because our oven exploded the night before and we eventually had to move the party to a different apartment, the so-called “Arabs’ place”.)   So, Emma ended up cooking for 30 people, most of whom were… Arabs! She invited all of us to hold hands and say what each of us is grateful for. Then we all sat down on the floor, Americans, Pakistani, Saudi, Bulgarian, German, and Chinese (in front of the American and Saudi Arabian flag?!), and had the most international Thanksgiving dinner so far!

So I am pretty sure that I now fully grasp the meaning of Thanksgiving! This holiday is about bringing people together and allowing them to share a beautiful experience like one big family! Cheers!

 


The name is "Crazy Cock" in English but "Wild Rooster" in Bulgarian! There we go, Bulgarians and Americans in a Bulgarian restaurant in London!

This Friday, my two cousins, two of my friends from high-school in Sofia, four of my American girlfriends, and I went to a Bulgarian restaurant in London!

For a long time, I had wanted to give my American friends a true Bulgarian experience – of course I talk to them about my country all the time, but I really wanted them to create their own impression of our culture and traditions.  So I looked up a Bulgarian restaurant in London, The Crazy Cock (click on this link to read my friend’s review on Yelp).

The thing that worried me about this restaurant were the online reviews: every single one of them was negative! They were all by Bulgarians who were complaining about how overpriced the food was, how scandalous the waitresses looked, how bad the pop-folk music was, and so on. Still, this was my only chance to present my friends with an objective image of Bulgaria.

The interior of the restaurant shows the exterior of a traditional house.

The restaurant actually looked great! It was decorated like the outside of a traditional house from the Bulgarian Enlightenment era:  the walls were covered in river stones and had colorful balconies like in the town of Melnik. On one of the walls, they  had a – I must admit – quite ostentatious picture of St. Cyril and Methodius, but at least it gave me a reason to talk about the canonized brothers who created the Cyrillic alphabet (read my previous article to learn more)!

The food was also very good! We, the Bulgarians got excited and ordered all sorts of delicacies for our American guests: for appetizers, we got shopska salad, snezhanka (yoghurt, cucumbers, garlic, dill, and walnuts), liutenitza, assorted lukanka (dried pork and beef meze) and cheese, very tender cow’s tongue in oil, and chicken liver with veggies. The girls even tried rakia (40% alcohol that Bulgarians use for drinking as well as disinfection), but they didn’t like it too much.

My friend is very excited about Bulgarian cuisine and is taking pictures for her food blog: http://sushiandwine.tumblr.com/

For the main course, we ordered chicken and vegetables on a hot clay plate (sach) and guyveche, which consists of cheese, tomatoes, peppers, egg, and sausage prepared in a clay pot. Us the Bulgarians joked around that many of our typical meals were not on the menu because they UK had banned such imports: pig’s ears, intestines, brain, hearts, etc.

The entertainment was as classy as it gets! At first, we watched pop-folk (chalga) videos on the TV.  The Americans quickly caught the pattern: blonde or brunette chalga singers with fake lips and breasts and promiscuous stage behavior. Around 9:00pm, a live band of Bulgarian Roma started playing old Bulgarian ballads and folk songs. I gave my good friend Connie a quick lesson in our dance moves, and she promised to join me and my cousin for a Bulgarian dance class at our embassy next Thursday (that should make a great blog post!)

We had a great time at the Crazy Cock! The waitresses were sexy and weren’t in a hurry to serve us. The owner of the place didn’t really come to greet us although we were the first and the only guests for the first two hours. He was also the band’s drummer and the restaurant’s loudest customer. But other than that, our party was merry, the conversations were flowing, and the dinner lasted almost four hours! Overall, it was a pretty authentic experience!

At the end, my friend asked me why most of the online reviews were negative. Well, I told her, you would expect that the only Bulgarian restaurant in London would try to present the country in the best possible light with Bulgarian-quality food and Western-quality service. Instead, this was a very typical Bulgarian place – with all its positive and negative connotations.

To my dear friends I can just say, thank you for embracing Bulgarian culture and cuisine! I hope you enjoyed it!

Next goal: make them try Bulgarian Dancing!!!

****

You want to read more about my favorite Bulgarian food? Look at this!

Or read a very detailed account of our dinner (with a very lovely introduction for me), from the food expert-blogger Connie!


Bulgarians are denominated as Greek Orthodox Christians, so we celebrate Christmas Eve on December 24th. (In contrast, other Orthodox countries like Russia, Georgia, Ukraine*, Macedonia, Montenegro, and Serbia follow the tradition of the Russian Orthodox Church and  celebrate Christmas Eve on January 6th and Christmas on Jan 7th).  It is a very private holiday, and is always celebrated by the (closest or extended) family at home.

On the morning of December 24th , my mother and I clean the entire house early and start preparing the meals. We are supposed to have fasted for the past forty days, but none of us is that religious or, as a matter of fact, that strong-willed. But even though we don’t fast, we always make sure that the Christmas Eve dinner is free of meat, cheese, butter, etc.

According to the custom, we prepare an odd number of meals. Scroll down to learn more about each one.

My father reads the prayer before dinner

We all sit around the table, and my father (or the oldest person at the table) reads the prayer.  Then he breaks up the pitka, a special bread that my mother makes from flour, salt, water, and yeast only. The first piece is for the Mother of God and Her Son. The second one is for the house, and after that  dad distributes the rest of the bread to the four of us.  Then we look for the hidden coin in the bread, which would bring good luck and prosperity to whoever finds it! This year, the coin was in my father’s piece, which is ok because it takes the pressure off me and my brother!

In addition to the bread, we have bobena chorba (bean soup), zelevi sarmi (rice stuffed in sour cabbage leaves), kolacheta (donut-shaped bread), two types of tikvenik (pumpkin banitza), oshav (fruit compote), and fresh fruit.  We drink red wine (yes, even my seventeen-year-old brother, Viva Europe!). All the meals should remain on the table throughout the night, so that the good luck does not leave our house.

My family exchanges presents before or after dinner. I guess we just don’t have the patience to wait until Christmas Day morning like Americans do. In the past, my mom would make me and my brother walk the dog. Then as we come back in, she would tell us we just missed Santa by a few minutes, and we would rush toward the Christmas tree.

We do decorate Christmas trees and we do have Santa in Bulgaria. The older generation actually knew the Soviet version of Santa Claus, Diado Mraz (Grandpa Frost). Diado Mraz is very similar to Santa with the only exception that he is usually accompanied by his daughter, Snezhanka (SnowWhite) and brings us presents on New Year’s Eve.

We then spend the rest of Christmas Eve watching movies or Christmas concerts on TV or playing games.  It truly is our most favorite family holiday!

The lucky coin from the special bread was in my father's piece

My grandma sent us these donut-shaped breads called kolache

The good bobena chorba takes a couple of hours to make

These are the zelevi sarmi, stuffed cabbage leaves, and the fruit compote called oshav

Tivkenik, or pumpkin banitza with walnuts is the ultimate Bulgarian Christmas dessert. I made this one!


I just came back from the best ski resort on the Balkans, Bansko! Bansko is a charming town in the north-east part of the Pirin mountain, situated at the foot of peak Vihren (2914m). The town’s unique architecture, combined with the new hotels, the entertainment establishments, and the modern ski and snowboard facilities, makes Bansko a favorite winter destination for foreign and Bulgarian tourists.

In total, the ski slopes in Bansko are 70 km long, and with the help of my ski instructor, I’m proud to say, I conquered almost 10 of them! Not only did this patient, dedicated person teach me how to fall, stop, and turn (in this order), but he also introduced me to a key skiing concept: après-ski.

Après-ski refers to the socializing, eating, drinking, dancing, and general merrymaking after skiing. I don’t know how they do it in the Alps, but in Bulgaria, après-ski takes place in a mehana: a tavern-like restaurant with a huge wine selection, a grill, and often times, with live folk music. And what better way to celebrate the joy of the beloved winter sport than with good friends, hot mulled red wine, and a traditional Bulgarian meal! Here are several of my favorites:

Let's begin with the quintessential Bulgarian dish, Shopska Salad: fresh cucumbers, tomatoes, and onion, roasted red peppers, lots of sirene (white feta cheese), parsley, and a kalamata olive.

Continue with warm agneshka chorba (lamb soup). Notice the clay bowl and the table cloth with folk motifs.

A sach is a hot clay plate. The Banski sach meal can contain a mix of different meats and vegetables. This one has two types of sausage, aubergines, zucchini, tomatoes, carrots, onion, peppers and mushrooms.

There should always be meze on the table to go with the hot mulled red wine from the Melnik region. Here you see sirene (white cheese) and two types of lukanka, one of which is the famous Banski staretz ("old man from Bansko".. I hope it's not what it sounds..). After all this food, you don't need any dessert!

What else happened in Bansko?

This town is famous not only for the great mountain resort, but also for its rich history and culture. Here, on August 21st 1901, the Bulgarian revolutionary Yane Sandanski kidnapped the American missionary Elen Maria Stone and held her for six months until the attention of the whole Western world fell not only on the kidnapping but also on the fate of the entire Balkan peoples after the fall of the Ottoman Empire. Read my previous post to learn more about the international crisis known as the Miss Stone Affair.


“I’m really sorry. My family is crazy,” Timmy said.

In the grandparents’ cozy dining room, around the festive table, Timmy’s gregarious family members and I were celebrating my first real Thanksgiving, Irish style.  In the beginning, there was a big fuss about who is sitting where because no one wanted to sit next to the two left-handed people; no one wanted to get elbowed from the left. The merrymaking continued throughout dinner, and the most cheerful giggling came from Timmy’s mom and her twin sister’s corner. Next to me, his other aunt was teasing her son, a second-year frat-boy, about his older Latina girlfriend. This aunt also said that I don’t have to eat Timmy’s mom’s jelly if I don’t like it, and instead passed me her own tomato and pesto stuffing.

Meanwhile, the twin and her husband started arguing about their year of marriage. When it turned out that she was wrong, she lovingly nagged him about his Southern accent. In the other side of the table, Tim’s mom was asking if we could please take a bite from a dish that her colleague at work had made, so that she could at least say that we tried it. As a good son, Timmy was trying from everything… several times:  the sweet potato casserole, the cranberry jelly, the stuffed baked clams, and of course the mouthwatering turkey.

At one point, his dad tried to cut the family’s volume in order to hear Timmy’s sister’s greetings from California over the phone’s loudspeaker. In order to send a picture to the cousins who couldn’t make it this year, the grandmother instructed us to pose in front of the camera. We ended up having to take six or seven shots because she kept telling Timmy to put on a normal face. Then everyone praised the grandmother’s special apple pie, and the grandfather proudly pointed out all her handicraft on the walls and shelves. Then In the end, everyone asked her for a different digestive: various teas, coffees, mint candy, and brandy. Timmy’s mom blamed him of being an alcoholic for asking for brandy.

“Every family is a little bit crazy,” was my response.

Thank you for a charmingly crazy Thanksgiving!


Customer Service at Restaurants in Eastern Europe

  1. Choose the table you want (in the smokers section or the non-smokers section) and sit down. If there’s not enough chairs, pull some over from a nearby table.Grumpy waiter
  2. Try to make eye contact with the waiters passing by. If no one notices you, wave your hand to the idle waiter goofing off across the room. If still nothing happens, call the waiter out loud
  3. Take your time looking through the menu. Read the appetizing description of every dish.
  4. Ask your waiter about a particular dish. The restaurant may not currently have most of what’s on the menu, but you might get recommendations about the what they actually have. Just don’t ask too many questions or you might piss off the waiter.
  5. Order salads, mezze, and aperitif (rakia or ouzo).
  6. These come relatively quickly. Take your time picking on them. Your main task now is to converse with your friends.
  7. When you start to get hungry, call the waiter again (if you see him around). Order the main course with wine or beer. Order a lot of everything.
  8. The food takes some time. No worries, you can keep ordering aperitif and carry on the merrymaking.
  9. evil waiterFinally, an hour after you’ve arrived at the restaurant, the main meal arrives, and the party is at its peak. Maybe you won’t get exactly what you ordered, so you can get in a little argument with the waiter; but do it just for the sport because you know that you’re not going to change anything, right?
  10. It’s ok to try from everyone’s plate with your fork. It’s ok to be loud and to propose a toast to people from other tables. It’s perfectly fine to sing.
  11. In another hour or two, when everyone starts to get a little bit sleepy, order dessert and coffee (or digestive).
  12. Ask for the bill. For once, the waiter will respond quickly.
  13. Only one person receives the bill: the one who invited the rest, the oldest one, or simply the friend whose turn it is this time; if you are students, you can also split the bill equally. Round the bill to the nearest 5 or 10: that’s the waiter’s tip (2-3 Euro, maybe 7-8 if the bill was high).

Customer Service at Restaurants in the States

  1. You are greeted by a smiling hostess who asks you about the number of people in your party and seats you at a suitable table.
  2. A grinning waitress immediately comes and introduces herself. She does some small talk. She pours you ice and water and hands you the menus.fish waiter
  3. Look at the pictures in the menu and choose one.
  4. You put on your jacket because the AC is be blasting.
  5. In 5-10 minutes, the waitress with the 24-carat smile brings you your dish. She refills your ice and water.
  6. In 5 minutes, she comes back to ask you how everything is and to refill your water again. She makes some small talk and looks like the friendliest person in the world.
  7. If there has been some mistake with your order (you wanted Diet Coke but they brought you Coke Zero), or you think it’s not cooked well (stake is way too bloody) you can always return it to the kitchen for reworking.
  8. The moment you put down your knife and fork, she takes away your plate so that it’s not in your way. She asks if you’d like dessert.
  9. She brings the check without you asking for it and leaves it on the table with the words “No pressure guys, take your time.” Customer Service
  10. Some of your friends pull out their calculators. Some pull out cash and some, credit cards. You start calculating how much everyone’s dish cost and how much everyone owes for tax and tip. You give 15-20% tip.
  11. You are in and out of the restaurant in 40 minutes.

***

So, what say you?

Should we identify any pros and cons and try to change our ways, or should we just shrug shoulders and accept the “cultural differences”?

Which approach to customer service do you prefer and why?


I’m really happy that I finally have an apartment with a kitchen! Down with dining hall food! I feel cleaner, lighter, and more satisfied and independent than ever! So much for kitchen poetry…

At 15 in Bulgaria, I usually chose between 3-4 types of cereal. My peers in the States chose between 30-40 brands.

I was walking in Shaw’s Supermarket the other day, and remembered the first time I came to the States. It was around 2003, and I was about 14-15. My whole family came to the East Coast for a vacation. We started with Disney World in Orlando, then Washington DC, NYC, State College in Pennsylvania, Pittsburg, Boston, and Niagara falls. We visited friends, went to museums, saw shows, sights, etc. We wanted to go shopping just for the fun of it. Honestly, we didn’t think we’d find something completely different from what was available back home or from what we had already seen in Western Europe. But I remember that one thing really struck us.

The supermarkets. We went to a supermarket in State College, PA that was as big as the biggest mall in Sofia at that time (TZUM).   It had an incredible assortment of food that we had never seen before. It had piles of shiny big fruit that were so beautiful they almost looked artificial (today, I know that they indeed taste artificial). It had Italian bread, Turkish delight, Arabic dates, Spanish gazpacho, Russian borsch, Greek olives. Finally, one thing completely blew our minds.

The good old muesli with yogurt will always be my top choice. With fruit and honey, its better than the whole cereal aisle!

The aisle with cereal. I bet this was the longest aisle in the store, and it was packed with boxes of cereal: crisp choco crunch frost flake bran berry buzz blast apple maple raisin banana cinnamon pecan almond wheat rice oat corn honey mini multi squares puffs pebbles clusters bunches Kellog Quaker Newman Mills Kashi Ralston Nestle… Who ate all these things?! How was it possible to have so many combinations? How was it possible to choose from such a variety? At that time in Bulgaria, we had a total of maybe three companies producing breakfast cereal: Nestle’s regular cornflakes, Bulgarian cornflakes, and muesli. We ate cereal with milk and sugar or muesli with yoghurt and honey. I think we were perfectly content with the choices we had.

Now, of course, we have giant malls and giant supermarkets like Americans do. This must be a sign that our standard of living is rising. We have a much larger assortment of Bulgarian and foreign breakfast cereal.

Yet even today, after I’ve been to Shaw’s and Whole Foods in Boston so many times, I still fail to understand why Americans need so many different types of cereal?!

***

You might also find interesting the rest of my Observations on the American Culture and Behavior, compared to those in my native Bulgaria:

Bureaucracy in America: Iron Policy of No Compromise

Sex and Watermelons in Bulgarian Pop Culture

It Doesn’t Get More Organic Than This


I would like to join the ongoing in Bulgaria public debate.

In mid-August, the Ministry of Economy presented the video clips for the new advertising campaign for Bulgarian tourism under the slogan “Magic Lives Here”. The campaign aims to change the perception of Bulgaria from a destination for low-cost European youth travel destination, to a more luxurious tourist destination.  The four video clips focus on our Black Sea summer resorts, mountain ski resorts, SPA and wellness centers, eco-tourism and cultural heritage. They are about be broadcasted on four European TV channels: Euronews, Eurosport, Discovery, and National Geographic, in September (read more in Radio Bulgaria’s website).

The project theoretically has a good perspective, but the video clips became notorious because the majority of Bulgarians don’t like them. Newspapers, TV shows, online media, politicians, intellectuals, and celebrities all took a stand in the public debate. The common opinion seems to be that the videos are full of clichés, that they copy other countries’ promo videos from several years ago, are outdated, are executed poorly, have bad quality, and don’t portray Bulgaria accurately.

The most widely discussed aspect, though, is the campaign’s cost. The making and broadcasting of the videos totals at 7.5 million leva (3.7 million euro), which is a significant sum for a country of this size. The campaign is partially funded by the EU. Experts in the field of advertising agree that the production price, almost half a million leva is way too high. Many common people believe that this money would have served better if it were invested in infrastructure.

One is for sure, an ad campaign can always be improved.

Instead of taking part in the blaming and whining, I’d like to take a more productive stand in this debate. Here is my list of the things the next campaign should not omit (in no particular order and without claiming to be exhaustive):

Tourism and Nature:

  • Hikers going to the Seven Rila Lakes
  • White mountain peaks of Rila and Pirin with skiers and snowboarders
  • The wide golden beaches and deep blue of the Black Sea coastline
  • Crowds of people at sea resorts like Sunny Beach and Lozenetz with their luxurious restaurants, clubs and hotels
  • Rafting  in Struma river in September  surrounded by the autumn colors of the forest
  • Small quiet beach camping sites like Smokinia with surfing, windsurfing, and diving
  • Balneotherapy at the mineral hot springs in Velingrad
  • Horseback riding in the Balkan mountain range near the village Skravena
  • Families visiting the Thracian sanctuary at Perperikon
  • Beach festivals (The Spirit of Burgas), concerts in the open, and clubs in Sofia
  • Rock-climbing near the Belogradchik rocks
  • Students exploring the prehistoric paintings at the Magura cave and the Ledenika cave
  • Views from Sofia, Plovdiv, Varna, and Rouse

Cultural  and historical heritage:

  • Thracian golden masks and jewelry
  • Ancient Roman amphitheatre in Plovdiv
  • Typical architecture of 17th-century houses in Veliko Turnovo
  • Houses-museums of Bulgarian revolutionaries in Koprivshtitza
  • Old crafts from the time Bulgaria was in the Ottoman empire in Etura
  • Vast vineyards and wineries in Melnik, the wine capital of the Balkans
  • Scary masks at the Kukeri carnival in Pernik
  • Nestinarki dancing on fire in the village of Bulgari
  • Esoteric Paneurhythmy dance ritual near the Seven Rila Lakes
  • Children hanging martenitsi on blossoming trees
  • Rose-picking and rose-oil production near Kazanluk
  • Singers and bagpipe-players in traditional garments during the folklore festival in Zheravna
  • People dancing the horo during a wedding
  • Merry crowds enjoying the Bulgarian cuisine, lukanka, liutenitza, banitza, in a kruchma (pub) in Bansko
  • Orthodox Christian baptism in the Rozhen monastery and the icons in the Rila monastery

10.  Tell her she has a cute accent

9. Teach your friends how to pronounce your girlfriend’s name correctly

8. Be able to point Bulgaria on the map and teach your friends to pronounce the capital Sofia the right way, with the stress on the first syllable

7.  Learn more about Bulgaria’s history: the ancient Thracians, the khans, the Bulgarian Empire, the Ottoman yoke, the revolutionaries, the socialist era, modern-day tourist destinations

6. Find a Russian/Greek/Turkish store that sells Bulgarian food and buy her liutenitza, sirene (cheese), or lokum/baklava. Know that real yogurt is made from Lactobacillus Bulgaricus and real red wine comes from the Melnik region

5. Call her to ask whether to use green or red peppers in the shopska salad that you are making for her

4. Listen to her Bulgarian and Balkan music playlist. Respect Lili Ivanova and Goran Bregovic

3. Be able to eat all the lukanka, kebabche, liutenitza, sirene, and banitza that her grandmother offers you and to try at least three types of rakia: from plums, grapes, and apricots.

2. Learn to dance pravo horo. And always lead it

1. Learn at least a few Bulgarian phrases. Start with Здрасти [Zdrasti] – Hello and Обичам те [Obicham te] – I love you

You might also find interesting:

“And God Created Bulgarian Women” from Vagabond magazine

An interview with the Swedish spouse of a Bulgarian woman from the blog “How to Marry a Bulgarian”


I received the most thoughtful gift in the mail!

I recommend you this wonderful traditional Bulgarian cookbook in English, from Amazon for as low as $10. You will lick your fingers!

And I will be inviting friends to many Bulgarian dinners next semester!

On the cover, banitza, a delicious pastry with cheese and spinach (savory) or pumpkin and walnuts (sweet)


The best thing about learning to cook is asking others to try your dishes!

About six months ago, a girl friend, a recognized chef herself, teased me that I would be a terrible mother because I couldn’t cook a thing! I was shocked but I have to admit, she was right.

When I moved to an apartment-style university dorm with a kitchen, I went crazy buying pots, pans, and baking trays! I started experimenting with fish, vegetables, and pastry. I baked, sautéed, and caramelized every night!

My favorite part of cooking is when my roommate and friends tasted my dishes! The initial skepticism towards my “experiments,” the moment of surprise that followed, and the final sigh of delight, gave me pleasure and pride!

I started cooking out of anxiety for my future as a mother and my nostalgia for typical Bulgarian dishes, and now I can’t stop combining exotic American foods with old-favorite Bulgarian recipes.

Since I’ve been home, I’ve made Massachusetts-style baked fish with vegetables and mint, blueberry and my-grandma’s-garden-raspberry muffins from Plymouth, innovative green salad with avocado like the ones I get from Haymarket, caramelized shrimp and onion like on Newbury, teriyaki-pineapple chicken a la Pensacola, and so on.

Funny fact, my dog refused to eat the teriyaki chicken.

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