Food is the cornerstone of Bulgarian holidays. Most celebrations happen around the dinner table, family and close friends gathered together for hours. And it’s not just a table, it’s a trapeza, a word not found in the English language that means much more than furniture. Trapeza describes a table laid for a feast; it means a tablecloth, dishes arranged in attractive containers, wine poured in carafes, a loaf of bread regally placed in the middle, a candle. It means taking a moment to appreciate a blessing, in ways religious or not.
Christmas eve and Christmas day are two occasions that offer especially glamorous views into the Bulgarian holiday trapeza. Of course, every home has different ways and traditions may change over time, but for the sake of example I will draw on my family’s tradition, which, I recently learned, hasn’t changed much since the time of my grandmother’s grandmother. Today my mom and sister prepare the same dishes that my grandmother and her grandmother created years ago.
Christmas eve or Budni vecher
Christmas eve is the more traditional and religious part of Christmas and, as such, it varies a lot from family to family in secular modern-day Bulgaria. Traditionally, on Christmas eve, or Budni vecher*, culminates the forty-day Christmas fast, during which one is not allowed to eat meat or animal products, including dairy and eggs. A very strict fast would also exclude all alcohol but wine. My family doesn’t fast for forty days leading up to Christmas but we follow the Christmas eve tradition of preparing a fully vegan feast. Another rule states that the number of dishes on the table has to be odd, ideally nine or eleven. Even this fact alludes of the importance of this particular meal: nine vegan dishes is not exactly an easy task.
Here’s what has been on my family’s trapeza on Christmas eve since I can remember:
1. Pitka – the centerpiece of the Christmas eve meal, the home-made bread is surprisingly delicious considering it’s made with no eggs or even yeast (considered an animal product). It has a piece for each family member, an additional piece for the home and a center piece for whoever’s hungriest. A silver coin is baked into one of the pieces for luck. At the beginning of the meal, the bread is spun in the middle of the table to randomly determine who gets which piece and who will be luckiest in the new year. My mom usually decorates the bread with symbolic figures, in this case a fish, a sheep pen, a dog, a pig, a sun, a nest full of eggs and a grape cluster.
2. Honey with walnuts and garlic – this dish is absolutely crucial, strange as it may look and sound. The name says it all. We dip the bread in and it tastes so good every time someone swears they could eat just that all night. The three ingredients are traditionally thought to help strengthen the immune system so this is the “superfood” dish of the midwinter Christmas eve meal.
3. Stuffed vine leaves – my personal favorite. No one makes sarmi like a Bulgarian grandmother. A Bulgarian living abroad will often order dolma at greek restaurants and rarely find something to write home about. Part of the problem is that stuffed vine leaves are laborious to make and since the ingredients are incredibly simple – rice, carrots, vine leaves, oil – the secret is in the spices. You just have to try them.
4. Stuffed cabbage leaves – heavier on the carrots and featuring sweeter spices, these are good too.
5. Stuffed peppers – the stuffing has similar ingredients but a different medley of flavors, including raisins, which go well with the pepper skin.
6-8. Salads – different combinations of potatoes, leeks and onions. Bulgarians still largely consume vegetables on a seasonal basis. The nutmeg in the second salad ties the flavors together beautifully.
9. Oshav – a typical Bulgarian compote made by stewing dried fruit (apricots, apples, plums, quinces). The resulting drink reminds of cider and is drunk for dessert or on the couch after the meal is over.
According to tradition, the Christmas eve table is not cleared for the night because angels and deceased family members come down to supper after the living have gone to bed.
If you think about it, there is a lot of sense to having a lighter vegetarian meal before the indulgent Christmas feast. And indulgent it is.
Families do Christmas differently, according to means and preferences. My family has experimented with various main dishes from chicken through fish to a suckling pig. In recent years, perhaps due to the spread of American culture through bad TV shows, turkeys have gained popularity but that has always seemed odd to me. A few years ago my dad started preparing a Christmas dish that is both traditional and outrageous, a definite antithesis to all the vegetable concoctions described so far.
Kapama – a mixture of 4-6 types of meat (chicken, beef, pork, lamb, sausage, blood sausage), sauerkraut (sour cabbage leaves), rice and spices (pepper and bay leaves predominantly), cooked in a sealed clay pot over low heat for many hours. My dad, the early riser in the family, puts the pot in the oven before we open presents and the dish is ready for late lunch around 3:30pm. That’s a good seven hours for the meat and cabbage juices to mix and mingle with the spices and produce a hearty and irresistible kapama.
Pitka – the Christmas bread, properly leavened and glistening with egg yolk. Instead of a coin, this time each piece contains a fortune, predicting what the new year will bring to each member of the family and the entire home. The center piece carries an old stamp passed down a few generations from mother to daughter.
In addition to these two main dishes, any salads and stuffed vegetables left over from Christmas eve are served as sides on Christmas day.
Dessert can be anything, including a cake. A traditional option is tikvenik, a phyllo pastry made with pumpkin and walnuts.
Writing this out reminds me again and again how much effort and resources go into the Christmas feast. Whether it’s traditional or innovative, the holiday trapeza would be nothing without a close and healthy family around it.
Happy holidays and have a wonderful new year!
* Budni vecher – I only learned the meaning of the name this year and found it fascinating. Vecher means eve, that’s easy. Budni comes from the verb da bude, which means to be/become but can also mean let there be – the words that, according to the Bible, God used to create the world. Thus, budni vecher is the last night of wishful thinking by the human race for the birth of a Savior. That wish comes true on Christmas day. The word is charged with the energy of wishing for something so strongly that you wish it into existence. Even in a non-religious light the name has a mystical and powerful meaning.