One of the first Bulgarian language sessions we ever had was on food. We learned how to say, “I like honey” and “I don’t like honey.” We learned the words for butter (краве масло), milk (прясно мляко), tomatoes (домати), apples (ябълки). Before long, we were reading menus with aplomb and bumbling through restaurant orders like true expats. We learned that you don’t much use conditional tenses to be polite – none of this, “Could I get…?” It’s just “For me, the fish.” If you’re really sweet, you say please. My Bulgarian friends would laugh at us Americans who would always emphasize the wrong syllable in “banitsa” and who had to be trained in toning down on the thank yous. (Lots of places think that “thank you” should be reserved for cases of extreme gratitude.)
My Bulgarian food vocabulary got to be pretty good, especially after working on a cookbook that circulated among volunteers, with a glossary of food terms at the back. For example, I’ll never be able to dislodge from my poor brain the translation of fenugreek. (Сминдух.) Think of the useful fact that could take the place of сминдух! Quantum physics? Sorry, out of room. Сминдух stays.
One word that always tripped me up, though, was кьопоолу. I’d see it on a menu and frankly, it terrified me. As soon as I opened my mouth in front of any waitress I was at a disadvantage because she’d hear my accent and know I needed her careful ear; I didn’t want the added emotional expense of having these unctuous syllables piling up around my tongue. Pointing to the fatal word on the menu and asking the simple question, “What is this?” No! Too much to bear! Could I please have the fries please please? Thank you. Insert giant American smile of flustered confusion.
Finally, a year in, I was talking with a Bulgarian friend and asked him what he’d done that weekend.
“I made кьопоолу,” he said.
“Huh?” I said.
“Кьопоолу.” he said. Then he pronounced it very patiently and carefully for me. KYO-po-loo. Then – then! – he told me what it was. And I’ve ordered it from every menu I’ve seen it on since. You can tell it’s going to be good when you smell the eggplants being grilled as you walk in the restaurant.
Кьопоолу – kyopolu – is considered a salad to Bulgarians, but it’s more of a chunky sauce in the American lexicon, great on crostini. It’s really just roasted vegetable heaven, is all, but without any of that slime that one may consider at the thought of room-temperature roasted veggies. Don’t go overboard with fresh garlic – it only needs the kick of one clove. (Don’t worry; you’re putting a whole head of roasted garlic in there, so you won’t be lacking.) You can’t eat just one bite of this stuff. It’s addictive. Mediterranean crack, I like to call it.
You might want to make double.
Roasted Eggplant-Pepper Salad (Кьопоолу)
makes about 1 1/2 cups
1 red bell pepper, roasted and peeled
6 finger-sized eggplants, roasted and peeled
1 head garlic, roasted and peeled, plus one fresh clove garlic, minced
1/4 cup minced parsley
2 tablespoons olive oil
Put everything but the olive oil down on a big cutting board and chop it up together pretty finely. (See picture.) Put in a bowl, add olive oil and stir gently, then let sit for at least 30 minutes. Serve at room temperature on bread spread with soft goat cheese, or maybe a little tofutti cream cheese.