If you’ve been following my journey through Bulgaria then you may experience deja vu as I continue my incessant worship of the heavenly food that is Banitsa.
If you’ve ever been to Bulgaria you’ll know what it is; it’s Bulgaria’s croissant, or quiche (in a French context). It’s the street food that takes precedence in every bakery shop window on all roads, big or small. And it’s the moreish meal which will leave you falling dangerously into a future where all you think about or eat is banitsa. I kid, but seriously: watch out.
As well as being an extremely popular street food, banitsa is a symbol of Bulgarian tradition and cuisine. On Christmas and New Year, banitsa is traditionally prepared and served with “kusmeti” – tiny “lucks” such as wealth, health, prosperity, shiny hair, etc. written on separate shards of paper, wrapped then in foil so as not to melt into the dish. A coin is also wrapped with foil and added into the mix, and whoever gets the coin is the most prosperous of them all. At least this is how my family have done it, perhaps it’s become Westernised, but nevertheless it holds the same concept. Pieces of Dogwood branch are often the traditional choice to symbolise the lucks and wishes, but we find plain white paper and standard kitchen foil a more readily available material. Once baked and ready to devour, the banitsa is spun on the table and you must take the piece closest to you – no cheating allowed. My nieces tend to smear their fingers all over the fought-over crusty corner pieces, but rules must be abided by – no exceptions!
After a bit of research – I told you, you never stop thinking about banitsa – I also discovered the word “banitsa” is used as a simile for something crumbled or a bit shabby or poorly kept. You might look a bit like a banitsa after a bad night out, or your dissertation might be like a banitsa if you’ve ran several miles to university on the hand in date with it under your arm and you suddenly drop it into a puddle.
So this blustery Sunday morning, having trekked home up from London after non-stop weeks of working for a bit of TLC and then spontaneously ending up in a random club in the middle of my home town with old school friends where there was most definitely too much alcohol involved, the smell of banitsa drifting into my nasal passages as I lay half adrift in a hazy post-alcohol sleep was revitalising; the ultimate hangover food.
Banitsa’s simplicity accounts for its versatility when it comes to adding different ingredients. Often in autumn you’ll find sweet pumpkin banitsas, buttery and cinnamon laden with sweet soft brown sugar. In Summer you’ll find a green banitsa, filled with added rice, spinach and spring onions – sometimes parsley too. You can also skip the rice for a lighter version, and this was exactly what I woke up to in my half-dead state only a few hours ago…