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The Bulgarian Jewish Kitchen

When our Jewish historical society announced that Edith Baker, a local Dallas artist and former art gallery owner, was going to speak about her experiences during World War II, I decided to attend. I’d purchased art from this elegant woman some years earlier, but knew nothing of her origins. I had surmised that she was from somewhere in Eastern Europe—you know how we tend to lump every accent other than German or Russian as “Eastern European.”

It turned out that Edith was from Bulgaria, bordered by Romania on the north, Greece and Turkey on the south, the Black Sea on the east, Serbia and Macedonia on the west. The fate of Bulgaria’s more than 50,000 Jews, Edith told us, differed dramatically from that of the Jews in most other Jewish communities. Although King Boris had aligned himself with the Germans during World War II and Jews were required to wear yellow stars on their clothes, the Jewish population was saved. The nation’s two archbishops, Bishop Stefan and Bishop Kiril, brought pressure on the king to evacuate the Jews from the Bulgarian capital Sofia into the countryside, where the courageous Bulgarian people would, and did, shelter them.

After the war, when the Communists seized power, they returned properties to the Jews—only to confiscate and nationalize them after the Jews had rebuilt and restored their businesses. Realizing they were once again prisoners in their own country, the Jews knew they had to leave. In 1946 the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee opened an office in Sofia, officially addressing the welfare of the needy but covertly providing the means to transport Jewish Bulgarians to Israel. About 45,000 Bulgarian Jews immigrated, to Israel, America, or other European countries; those who remained behind were denied religious expression. But after the fall of Communism in 1989, the Jewish community was reborn. And today, helped by “Shalom”—the organization of Jews in Bulgaria—the approximately 3,000 Jews in Bulgaria have revived their Sephardic Jewish traditions (most of the Jews who settled in this part of the Ottoman Empire had arrived after their expulsion from Spain in 1492).

This is why, when it comes to Bulgarian Jewish cuisine, you’ll find it bears a resemblance to the cooking of Sephardic Jews in Greece and Turkey. The Bulgarian borekitas, small pockets of dough filled with savory cheese and spinach or sweet pumpkin and spice, is similar to the Greek spanakopita (spinach pie made of phyllo dough). And as is the case in Greek and Turkish Jewish cooking, spinach, peppers, eggplant, and squash are widely used in Bulgaria; so are honey and sugar syrups scented with rosewater over delicious light pastries. Similarly, Bulgaria’s agristada—a tart egg and lemon sauce—strongly resembles Greek avgolemeno sauce. The meat dishes of Bulgarian Jewry, however, are not flavored with the sweet spices indigenous to Turkish or Greek cuisine; they contain the onion, garlic, and pepper or pimentos reflective of their Spanish roots.

Edith says she still remembers the smells of her mother’s kitchen and other Jewish homes of her native country, especially dishes made of homegrown potatoes, garlic, peppers, and tomatoes that always graced her mother’s table. Listening to her speak about her family traditions that have been so lovingly handed down from generation to generation for more than five centuries opened the door for me to learn more about Bulgarian Jewish cuisine, some of which I am pleased to share with you. Eat in good health!