I was fortunate enough to spend six weeks in Bulgaria in the late 1990s, just as the nation came out under the yoke of 50 years of communism. The isolation of the country helped keep Bulgarian food relatively unknown to western visitors, but I was quickly introduced to a wide variety of homemade soups and breads, fresh and simple salads, fermented appetizers and condiments, and seasoned meats and cheeses.
After a couple of dinner invitations, I fell in love with her kitchen.
When I returned to the DC region, I networked with the Bulgarian community and attended many events in several Bulgarian Orthodox churches and the Bulgarian embassy. One of my favorite events in Bulgaria is the Day of Saints Cyril and Methodius, a day celebrating the two brothers who created the Cyrillic language. The spring break is celebrated on May 24th or the next weekend and usually includes a barbecue, which is the first major gathering of the Bulgarian community since Christmas. It was at one of these events that I saw the star of Bulgarian barbecuing for the first time: kebabcheta, hearty grilled sausages.
I can’t remember if I smelled or saw them first, but after trying one of these umami-wrapped bites, I started asking Bulgarian friends about the recipe. I soon found out that kebabcheta can be flavored with a wide variety of ingredients, but they commonly contain ground cumin, which is perhaps the oldest Balkan spice. It belongs to the carrot family and is grown for its seeds, which are generally ground into cumin powder. Cumin is an ingredient in chili powder and Indian masala, but it comes into its own in Mediterranean and Balkan cuisine. I’ve never seen a kebabcheta recipe that didn’t contain cumin. To get the full flavor, make sure your ground cumin is fresh and don’t be afraid to add more.
In the beginning my husband, my three sons and guests were my recipe testers. Without knowing it, I tried different recipes including those with sweet paprika which gives a light red color but not a lot of flavor. When experimenting with adding hot paprika, be very careful as a little too much can ruin an entire batch of meat. After all, the recipe that my family and friends liked best didn’t have any paprika in it.
For best results, prepare the kebabcheta the day before grilling, so that all ingredients have enough time to marinate in the refrigerator. After marinating, shape the meat mixture into small sausages and place them next to each other on a baking sheet so that they can be placed on the grill more easily. If desired, the prepared sheet can be covered with plastic and stored in the refrigerator.
When the grill is hot, place the kebabcheta on the grill one at a time, never turning them over until they are nice and brown on the first side – otherwise they may fall apart or look very messy. So patience is a virtue. When they start to tan, a wonderful smell will begin to permeate the air and conversations will turn to the expected food.
How the kebabcheta are grilling, set the table with the other dishes and a loaf or two of fresh French bread – I buy baguettes from an upscale local bakery, not the supermarket. When dipping the bread, you should definitely have good olive oil or tarama, a wonderful Mediterranean spread, on hand.
A good wine naturally rounds off the experience. Bulgarian wines are more available outside of Eastern Europe than they were 30 years ago, so check the shelves of your favorite wine store. You might be happily surprised. But instead of Bulgarian, any good European wine such as French, Italian or Spanish will do. Guests can start with bread and wine – the best starter – and when the first kebabcheta finally comes off the grill, a unique and unforgettable party begins.
Kebabcheta (Bulgarian grilled sausages)
This recipe is great for any summer barbecue, starting when the grill first hits the market in April or May, through July 4th and beyond. The cumin gives a distinctive and delicious aroma that your family and friends are sure to taste. Remember to season the meat at least a day in advance so that the cumin has time to season the meat.
Makes about 40
- 3 pounds of ground beef (or a mix of beef and pork)
- 2 medium-sized onions, finely grated
- 2 teaspoons of salt
- 1 teaspoon black pepper
- 3 cloves of garlic, crushed
- 1 to 2 tablespoons of ground cumin
- 1 to 1 1/2 cups finely chopped fresh parsley
- 3/4 cup of water
Mix all ingredients in a large bowl and refrigerate for up to 24 hours.
To prepare the grill, pre-shape small amounts of the meat mixture into sausages 2 “long and 1” wide. Place them side by side on a baking sheet; If desired, the prepared sheet can be covered with plastic and stored in the refrigerator again.
Transfer to a hot grill and cook, making sure they are nice brown on the first side before flipping them until the juice is clear.
Recipe reprinted with the kind permission of âBulgarian Rhapsody: The Best of Balkan Cuisineâ by Linda Joyce Forristal, mother of Lindas Verlag, 2018.
Linda Joyce Forristal, or mother Linda as her friends call her, is a former food and travel editor based in Washington, DC. She lives on the east coast of Maryland and is a professor of tourism and hospitality. To see more of their food and travel interests, head to MotherLindas.com