The Day of Saint Nicholas (the Miracle Worker) is a major winter festival celebrated by all Bulgarians on 6 December. The folk-Christian myth tells of the partitioning of the world when the seas, rivers and lakes fell to Saint Nicholas. He is the master of the entire deep sea realm—fish, mermaids and water demons, as well as the sea winds. (The saint is the popular epitome of Neptune.) According to the myths, St. Nicholas makes winds rage and cease, he can walk on the seas, and whenever there is a ship in trouble, he would save it. This saint is protector of sailors and fishermen. His festival honors the marine element, seas, rivers and lakes. The offering is fish, carp as a rule, because it is considered the Saint's servant. The fishermen would sail out early in the morning to catch fresh fish.
Traditional Bulgarian St. Nicholas Day food
Ribnik—carp wrapped in dough—is the traditional dish on this day. Ribnik is roasted in a large oven with ritual bread—two loaves in each household. Both the ribnik and the bread are blessed in church, or at home, and they are shared with neighbours. The larger portion of the ribnik and the bread is served and eaten at the family supper. The table on St. Nicholas' Day is not cleared until the day is over, as it is open to all guests. Saint Nicholas is the patron of not only those who bear his name, he is also a personal or family protector. On his day a special, family lineage festival, a church service or prayer, is arranged. Relatives, sponsors and neighbours are invited and a big table is blessed. The feast ends with songs and fun. After censing, the priest is given the tail of the dough-wrapped carp. The ribnik looks like the ritual loaves of bread—it is also decorated with strips of dough. Like the bones of St. George's Day lamb, the bones of St. Nicholas' Day carp were not thrown away, they were burned and buried in the ground or dropped in the river—thus, it was believed, the harvest and family well-being would be multiplied. The crown bone of the carp's head, which is cross-shaped, is called "krakhche;" old women used to sew it on children's caps to protect them from evil forces and evil eyes. The Saint Nicholas' Day table includes, besides the ribnik and the ritual breads, other vegetable dishes: cooked corn, boiled wheat, meatless stuffed cabbage or vine leaves, peppers, and haricot.
If you decide to cook a ribnik on St. Nicholas Day, or any other day, you should know how to prepare the fish. This involves several simple rules, but if you fail to keep them, the dish taste bitter. Therefore, it is worthwhile to specially mention them.
Fish scales can be removed easily, if the fish is put for several seconds in boiling water. Cut off the fins with scissors. The cleaned fish is cut through along the length of its abdomen—up to its gills. You have to remove the bowels very carefully, lest the gall and intestines burst. If you have chosen a carp, remove the "pearl button" or the "bitter bone" as it is called in some parts of Bulgaria. This is a little bone on top of the carp's head, where the latter connects with the body. If you leave it, the meal will have a bitter taste. Do not steep the cleaned fish in water—just wash it under running water. Then dry it in a clean cloth and sprinkle it on the outside and the inside with some lemon juice mixed with water. Let it season for at least an hour. Then it will be ready to cook. Another way of seasoning the fish is to let it stay for half an hour in watered down vinegar. The traditional Bulgarian substance, used in such cases, is "trigiya"—the solid residue of wine scrapped from cask walls; it is dried and kept in a cloth pouch. Salt the fish immediately before cooking it. In older times not only fresh but also salted carps were used for St. Nicholas' Day dishes; the salted carp was steeped in water mixed with hayseed. Thus steeped, it loses the salt and has the taste of fresh fish.
So, now that you know the Saint Nicholas' Day tradition in Bulgaria and the main cooking techniques to prepare the fish, it is time to begin making the traditional ribnik. Here are two recipes—one from the Plovdiv region, and the other—from the region of Rousse.
Ribnik in the Plovdiv Style
1 carp fish, about 1 kg (2 lbs 4 oz) or sheatfish, blue-fish or other large fish
cleaned, washed, wiped dry and salted inside and out
6 onions, chopped
1 green or red pepper, thinly sliced
1 tomato, peeled and finely chopped
1 cup walnuts, crushed small
1 teaspoon ground savory (or sage)
1 teaspoon of ground pepper
1 cupl of sunflower or olive oil
For the dough (or use ready made)to wrap the fish:
1 kg of flour
1-2 yeast cube (or packets)
1 spoonful of vinegar
Brown the onions, pepper and tomato. Some water may be added to stew the mixture. When the vegetables are soft, remove from heat, let cool and add walnuts, savory and pepper. Salt to taste. Stuff the carp and sew it up with a scalded thread. (Old women prefer to use red or white thread, because these colors are believed to keep evil eyes away.)
Dissolve yeast in 1½ cups lukewarm water. Add a pinch of salt and ½ tablespoon flour. Mix well and put in a warm place to rise for a 15 minutes. Put flour in a large bowl, make a 'well' to pour the yeast mixture. Sprinkle with salt and add tepid water as needed. Knead dough and divide into two parts. Roll out each part to made a thick sheet the size of the baking dish. Put one piece in an oiled baking dish, oil the top and put the stuffed carp on it. Cover the carp with the other piece. Draw the carp's head and scales on the top piece of dough. Oil it and bake the fish for two hours in a moderately hot oven.
Ribnick in the Rousse Style
This recipe takes longer and requires greater care.
1 carp fish, about 1.5 kg
Cleaned, washed, propped up in a pan to drain its blood for an hour; dry with a clean towel. Salt and pepper inside; salt only the outside; let rest in cool place for 4 hours
1 teaspoon ground pepper
4 onions, sliced
4 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 tablespoon parsley, finely cut
1 tablespoon celery, chopped fine
1 teaspoon ground dried wild thyme
4 tomatoes, peeled and chopped finely
1 cup walnuts
For dough: 700 g of flour and 1-2 cubes or packets of yeast
While waiting, prepare dough. Disolve yeast in a small amount of water; pour yeast mixture into flour, adding some drops of vegetable oil. Add lukewarm water, in small portions at first, stirring with a spoon, and then kneading with floured hands. Knead dough well, cover with a cloth. Let it rest in a warm place for half an hour.
Prepare the filling. Cook onions with some water and salt, stirring now and then with a wooden spoon. When soft and the water is evaporated, add 3 tablespoons of vegetable oil and brown. Add tomatoes. When tomatoes are soft, add parsley, celery and thyme. Let cool and add walnuts.
Roll out dough in a thick flat sheet twice the size of the baking dish. Stuff carp with filling, oil and wrap it in the dough, Brush dough with oil. Bake at moderate temperature until the top is slightly red. Serve cold.
Rice with Dried Fruit
Rice with dried fruit makes a sweet course. During the cold winter season Bulgarian people prepare and consume various kinds of dried fruit. Fruit is gathered in autumn and preserved in dry and airy places, saved for winter time when there is no fresh fruit. This dish is very popular in the Shoumen region; it was prepared for the first time by women in Dibich. It is suitable for the pre-Christmas season, because it has no animal products. St. Nicholas' Day is in Advent time, a time of fasting in the Eastern Church.
500 g dried cherries or apples
100 g dried plums
300 g rice
200 g sugar
1 packet vanilla powder
Wash and soak fruit in cold water for several hours until it plumps; drain, saving liquid. Boil the liquid, add fruit and cleaned and washed rice. When rice is cooked, add sugar. Stir, add vanilla powder and pour into small bowls. Serve cold.
Dishes for St. Nicholas' Day are richly flavored with various spices. They are used somewhat differently than in West-European cooking.
Parsley is probably the most widely used spice in Bulgaria since ancient times. Its leaves are applied fresh or dried to flavor and add vitamins to soups, broth and main courses. Parsley is an ingredient in vegetable preserves, decorates salads, roasted meat or fish in all four seasons.
Thyme is also called "granny's soul" or "shepherd's basil." Fresh or dried, it is used to season meat and vegetable dishes, soups, bean, pea or bread bean stews, and sauces. Thyme is also added to salads and pickles.
Onion, though some dieticians consider it to be a spice, others do not. Pnions are grown everywhere in Bulgaria and widely used in Bulgarian cookery. They stimulate appetite and plentiful secretion of gastric juices. Used to prepare salads, sauces, stews, vegetable and meat dishes, and preserves. Fresh onion is a basic ingredient of olive salads, cheese and other protein dishes.
Stoichev, A., Bulgarian Mythology. Publishing Group 7M+Logis, 1994.
Popov, R., Saints in the Bulgarian Folk Calendar. Sofia: 1991.
Mantov, D., Folk Dishes from St. Dimitri's to St. George's Day. Sofia: Svetulka-44 Publishing House, 1997.
Petrov, L. et al., Bulgarian National Cuisine. Sofia: Zemizdat, 1984.
From OMDA Wonderland Bulgaria.