Sunday, 20 August 2017

Haute Cuisine in Kurkizhaba

Text and photographs by Albena Shkodrova   
There is a peculiar type of people living in northern Bulgaria. They name their villages Kravoder, Kurkizhaba or Studeno Buche; ride bikes or donkeys; raise fledglings in a bucket; and give their neighbours sarcastic nicknames. They call the people on the other side of the Danube mamaligari. If you ask them why, they will look at you ingenuously and explain that those across the river are terribly poor and eat mainly maize, or mamaliga, as the Vlachs, the Romanian minority in northern Bulgaria, call it.

But this does not discourage the witty smart alecks from sitting at the rough wooden tables under their vine arbours and dining on impressive portions of the traditional local meal prepared from maize. You can see them take huge plates full of kachamak, or hominy, their eyes moist; generously pouring hot, peppery oil over its large yellow pieces; before gobbling them up; and, finally, licking the last remains of the meal. Or, as the Serbs, some other of their neighbours with a similar sense of humour, would say, the kachamak is so tasty that "a dead mouth would eat it too".

It is one of the cheapest and simplest dishes cooked in Bulgaria. Not only are the necessary ingredients few, but they are also of the "everlasting" type. Red pepper is the most perishable amongst them: in six months it may grow worms, but that's all. In other words, kachamak is a practical, rustic staple.

The most important thing is to find coarse ground maize. Put about 10 spoonfuls of it in half a litre of salty boiling water. The mixture immediately begins to swell, so one of the greatest difficulties is being able to stir it vigorously enough to avoid the formation of lumps.

Straight after that you are faced with the second, and luckily the only other problem with kachamak : it gels and the hot air starts coming out on the surface in the shape of small bubbles which burst just when they can cause the greatest injury to the hand that is stirring them. Sometimes to the face too.

You can't use a lid, so the only way out is to cook with a spoon with a very long handle or wearing a light mask. But once this trial is over, there is nothing to stop you from having a hearty meal.

When the kachamak gets thick after boiling for at least three minutes, pour it in a deep baking dish. Heat 10 or so spoonfuls of oil to frying temperature in a pan and add a spoonful of red pepper. Take the mixture off the fire almost immediately afterwards and pour it over the kachamak, which you have already cut into pieces and put in the plates, as quickly as possible.

The Bulgarians often top it with pieces of white cheese or crackling – a nightmare for any healthy eater. The murderous effect of the crisp bits of bacon can only be counteracted by an apposite amount of red wine, something which has never been considered a problem on the Balkans.



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