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One Midwestern traveler samples Bulgarian food and survives

SOFIA, Bulgaria - A couple of years ago, a friend and his girlfriend toured Eastern Europe over the Christmas holidays. Upon his return, I was impatient to debrief him on his impressions of Bulgarian food, my standard fare until I moved to the Un...

SOFIA, Bulgaria - A couple of years ago, a friend and his girlfriend toured Eastern Europe over the Christmas holidays.

Upon his return, I was impatient to debrief him on his impressions of Bulgarian food, my standard fare until I moved to the United States three years ago to go to school.

Sounding apologetic, he announced they had played it safe at McDonald's. I never thought that much of him thereafter.

I thought back on this story as I was prepping for a trip home earlier this year - only this time with more concern than contempt.

In my beautiful home country with a population of roughly 8 million, economic changes have been slow-paced since the collapse of the communist regime 16 years ago. Political changes have been occasionally turbulent and sometimes downright ground-breaking, as the ascent to power of our current prime minister, Simeon Sax-Coburg-Gotta, the heir of the last Bulgarian king before the communists did away with monarchy and the only leader of a parliamentary republic routinely addressed as "Your Majesty."

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But the elusiveness of European Union membership had been a measure of national pessimism about the reforms, and with a join date tentatively set for 2007, the country finally seems on the right track.

The source of my anxiety was a traveling companion who, like my friend, was a born-and-bred Midwesterner, if a better-traveled and more adventurous representative.

Not surprisingly, he proudly described himself as a meat guy, or, to put it even more precisely, a raw meat guy, which from the start struck me as a potential problem.

But if he suffered from my friend's culinary phobias, he at least seemed eager to face them head-on: He confessed, half-jokingly, that he viewed the trip as an extended training session for "Fear Factor." Ah, an attitude I can work with.

Farewell to steak

It wasn't long before my companion's raw meat cravings kicked in.

We were dining at a watermill turned restaurant in one of the villages that have been swallowed by Sofia's relentless urban sprawl. The place was trying a little too hard to be authentic. The walls were lined with traditional Bulgarian costumes and the stuffed heads of some of the animals featured on the menu, but the folk singer providing the entertainment shared the small stage with a decidedly anachronistic synthesizer player.

My friend considered some pretty audacious entrees, such as a certain boar dish, but - whether it was the disapproving boar physiognomy glaring down at him from a wall or the waiter's stern expression as he inquired if we'd finally made up our minds - at the decisive moment he blurted out an order for steak and fries.

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Now, you have to realize there are certain fundamental philosophical differences between our two nations. A major one has to do with how we consume meat.

I had an American environmental science professor at my Bulgarian college who once told a class, with the poignancy of a death-row inmate requesting his final meal, that the last thing he did before he set out for Bulgaria was to purchase, barbecue and eat a steak.

Some of us ventured to remind him that he could get his hands on a perfectly good steak at the campus dining hall, to which he replied, in his hoarse, thunderous voice: "Those are not steaks. They are cooked to death!" before lapsing into a graphic depiction of a real, thick steak, dripping with blood.

There was nothing inherently wrong with my friend's steak that night, but even lecturing the waiter on the optimum thickness and rawness hadn't brought it up to raw meat guy specifications.

The scarcity of skimpily cooked meat ranked high on my travel companion's culinary review. He loved the meatballs, stuffed with cheese and bursting with spices, and the sausage. He thought we knew our pork chops.

But he complained that the meat was either ground up or marinated "to the point where it really is not meat any more" - two widely used indigenous strategies for cooking meat to death.

Fear factor

So what is a Midwestern meat guy to do if he feels like unleashing his adventurous side in a Bulgarian dining establishment? To be honest, chances are he'll fail to prepare for the insect munching "Fear Factor" test.

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But one way to go is a certain category of foodstuffs summed up in Bulgarian cooking with the local equivalent of the word "tidbits," or the perfectly good animal parts, mostly beef or lamb, that Americans tend to discard, from the kidneys to the intestines. To my mind, that was as exotic as it got.

So as an appetizer the very evening of the steak experiment, I lobbied for beef brains, which came in two tempting varieties: smothered in melted butter or breaded and fried.

I suggested we share a serving of the breaded brains, reasoning that the thing would look a little less "out there" if disguised in crispy, golden camouflage. I completely forgot we were shooting for "out there."

He expected a slimy, quivering mass of gray matter and instead got an arrangement of dainty fillets that were regrettably edible if slightly bland to those unaccustomed to their subtleties. "It was anticlimactic," he said in retrospect. "It was just kind of mushy and probably really bad for you."

His next challenge came at a small, homey restaurant along a cobbled street in the antique part of Bulgaria's second-largest city, Plovdiv.

After an initial spell of skepticism, he agreed to try traditional tripe soup, which Bulgarians consume in lavish amounts after seasoning it with hot chili powder and a mixture of garlic and vinegar. The English translation of the menu at this particular place listed it as "belly soup."

In fact, this creamy broth with off-white, slightly chewy beef stomach lining needn't sound particularly foreign to my friend because Bulgaria is a major importer of American tripe. He actually seemed to be enjoying it quite a bit, maybe thanks to his soup guy alter ego, even though his review sounded less than flattering: kind of like sweet and sour, but not sweet, or kind of like hot and sour, but not hot.

His most positive tidbit experience occurred at a casual downtown Sofia restaurant, where he had an aromatic stew of chicken liver, onions and bacon, just about as close as you can get to home-style, comfort cooking when dining out in the city.

Non-risky must-tries

My traveling companion was an early and willing convert to Bulgarian yogurt. It's ironic that Bulgarians reserve such a macro spot in the nationally imagined hall of fame to a microorganism by the hardly endearing name of Lactobacterium Bulgaricum.

The tiny creature apparently only thrives in our nook of the world and is held responsible for the unbeatable thickness, flavor and health benefits of local yogurt. It also allows producers to skip the preservatives.

We are not much into low-fat or fruity varieties, which helps explain why my friend stubbornly kept referring to the yogurt as sour cream as he slathered it on the Greek-influenced traditional specialties moussaka, a mixture of ground meat and finely chopped potatoes under a egg-and-yogurt coating, and sarmi, a rice mixture wrapped in vine leaves.

Another sure-fire choice would be any number of stews slow-cooked and served in earthenware bowls. In Plovdiv, my friend enjoyed a hodgepodge of bacon, potatoes, onions, feta cheese and more in a beautiful piece of pottery.

The followers of low-carb and low-fat diets will not fare so well on a standard Bulgarian diet, at least not in the winter. Most Bulgarians generally eat white bread with every meal, and they consume serious quantities of yellow and feta cheese, as in the delicious red peppers - stuffed with feta cheese and breaded - that we sampled in Plovdiv.

Those health freaks will probably find the redeeming quality of Bulgarian cuisine to be the abundance of a wide variety of vegetables. Had he been a salad kind of guy, my friend surmised, he would have been ecstatic in this "cucumber culture."

Cucumbers are part of an unchallenged local favorite: the so-called Shopska salad, or what you would think of Greek salad minus the addition of lettuce. The vegetable also figured in his most beloved find, a salad made of grated cucumbers, strained yogurt, garlic and chopped pecans.

I don't believe my friend is ready for his crack at "Fear Factor," unless a few extra pounds advance his candidacy somehow. But I think he's ready to testify that sticking with McDonald's is not the brainiest approach.

Readers can reach Forum reporter

Mila Koumpilova at (701) 241-5529

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