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
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!
Baked Chicken with Barley
This classic Bulgarian Shabbat dish is delicious, comforting, and very easy
1 chicken, cut into 8ths (or 4 large breasts or thighs with skin and bone)
1 cup barley
2 Tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 onion, peeled
but left whole
Salt and pepper to taste
Lemon slices for garnish
- Rinse the chicken pieces under cold running water. Place them in a 4-quart
- Pierce the onion 6 times with a sharp knife and add it to the chicken. Cover
with water and add the oil.
- Bring the chicken to a boil, then partially cover and reduce the heat so
that the water just simmers. Cook about 1 hour, until the chicken is tender.
- Remove the chicken but retain the liquid to use as broth. Keep the chicken
covered and warm while you make the barley.
- Measure and pour 31⁄2 cups of the chicken broth into a 2-quart saucepan
(adding some water if necessary).
- Add the barley and cook, partially covered, over a low heat for about 25
minutes, until the barley starts to swell but is still tough.
- Lightly oil a baking dish large enough to hold the chicken in one layer (but
not larger than you need, or the barley will dry out).
- Place the barley in a baking dish. Top with the chicken, skin side up.
- Sprinkle the chicken with salt and pepper. Bake in a preheated 350°F oven
for about 20 minutes, until the liquid has been absorbed.
- Garnish with the lemon slices or chopped parsley and serve as is or with
agristada sauce. Serves 4.
- Never remove chicken skin before stewing; the skin imparts a rich flavor to
your broth. The fat can always be discarded after chilling, and/or the skin
removed from the meat later on.
- When roasting skinless chicken, protect the meat from drying out by either
lightly coating it with a sauce containing some oil or by placing a tent of foil
over the top of the meat.
Agristada-Egg Lemon Sauce
Sephardic Jews often served egg yolk-enriched sauces with meat dishes in
place of milk-based sauces to adhere to the laws of kashrut. An offshoot
of the well-known avgolemeno sauce from Greece, agristada makes
for an ethereal, light accompaniment to chicken or vegetables.
2 Tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2 Tablespoons all purpose
2 cups chicken broth
2 Tablespoons fresh lemon juice
salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
Zest of 1 lemon in long strips
Tablespoon minced fresh parsley
- Beat the eggs with the oil until they’re well combined.
- In a small dish, mix the flour with enough chicken broth (about 3
Tablespoons) to make a smooth paste. Slowly add the mixture to the eggs as you
- Gradually add the chicken broth and lemon juice, stirring constantly to
- Pour the mixture into a 2-quart saucepan and stir constantly over medium
heat until it thickens enough to coat the back of a spoon. Season to taste with
salt and pepper.
- Strain directly into a serving dish and serve warm (not hot) over chicken or
vegetables, garnished with the lemon zest and parsley.
- Yield: approximately 21⁄4 cups, enough to sauce 2 cooked chickens.
- To yield the most juice from your lemons, store them at room temperature. If
they’re refrigerated, microwave them for 25 seconds before juicing.
- There is no substitute for fresh lemon juice, so throw away the bottled
Kiopoolu—Bulgarian Roasted Eggplant Spread
It is fascinating to see the bountiful variety of eggplant dishes throughout
the Jewish Diaspora, each community using the flavors and produce indigenous to
the area to create its own version of roasted eggplant. Here’s a Bulgarian
1 eggplant (about 1-11⁄2 pounds)
2 whole jarred roasted and peeled red
bell peppers, rinsed and patted dry
2 roma tomatoes
1-2 large cloves of
3 Tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 Tablespoon red wine
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
1 teaspoon sugar, optional
- Roast the eggplant in a 425°F oven or over a hot grill, turning every 10
minutes until the skin is charred on all sides. Place the eggplant in a 1-quart
bowl. Slit the skin open from just below the stem to the very bottom of the
eggplant. Let it sit for 15 or more minutes so the bitter juices will drain into
- Carefully peel the eggplant. Place the pulp in the workbowl of a processor
(alternatively, cut all of the ingredients into small dice with a knife and
- If using the processor, cut the peppers into 1-inch pieces and add to the
- Cut the tomatoes in half crosswise and, holding the tomato half cut-side
down over the sink, gently squeeze the tomato to release the seeds. Cut the
halves into chunks and then add to the eggplant and peppers.
- Pulse the processor on and off about 5 times. Add the garlic and pulse again
until the mixture is coarse but well combined.
- Add the oil and vinegar and pulse on and off to combine.
- Season with salt and pepper and sugar (if mixture is slightly bitter).
- Add the parsley. Pulse the processor on and off just enough to break it up
and evenly distribute it.
- Pour into a serving dish. Chill for at least 30 minutes to allow the flavors
to meld together. The mixture will thicken slightly. Serve with crackers. Yield:
about 2 cups or 8 servings.
- To keep tomatoes from adding bitterness to a dish, seed the tomato or add a
touch of sugar, barley-malt sweetener, or honey.
- Be careful not to over-mix green herbs like parsley in a processor;
otherwise they will release their chlorophyll, leaving you with a grassy-tasting
Tina D. Wasserman, a member of Temple Emanu-El in Dallas, teaches at her
own cooking school, writes a kosher cooking newsletter on the Internet, and
serves as a culinary scholar-in-residence throughout the U.S.
TO LEARN MORE
For additional Bulgarian Jewish recipes, including Bulgarian squash cookies,
and answers to your cooking questions, email AskTina@urj.org.