In The Melting Pot: Balkan Food and Cookery
(1995), Bulgarian author Maria Kaneva-Johnson presents an authoritative collection of key recipes, culinary insights, and food history from the Balkans. This volume portrays the Balkan lands as a place of true fusion: of food and flavors, of cultures and histories, of people and passions. Culinary bonds are one of the strongest threads uniting this diverse region, which is a tribute to both the power of food and the ingenuity and openheartedness of the Balkan people.
While The Melting Pot
includes some 300 recipes, it is more comprehensive than a standard, straightforward cookbook. What distinguishes The Melting Pot
is that Kaneva-Johnson intersperses the text with illuminating information about food traditions, various cultural contributions to the culinary landscape of the Balkans, and a historical and geographical survey of this particular region of Southeast Europe. She also includes a discussion of various traditional cooking equipment and techniques, how these components can be modified to fit the modern Western kitchen, and what more readily available substitutions one can make for some of the harder to find items that appear in many of the recipes. As Kaneva-Johnson notes, Balkan cooking draws inspiration from many other regions, so it is difficult to define exactly what qualifies as Balkan cuisine and what is the cuisine of other regions. In this sense, the area's gastronomy truly is
a melting pot.
Tracing back Balkan cooking inevitably leads to what contemporary Western chefs would refer to as Mediterranean influences. The earliest type of cuisine in the region, it includes all the fresh foods one might expect: whole wheat, grapes, olives, olive oil, cultured milks and cheeses, tree fruits, and wine. The Mediterranean influence is the base upon which future generations built new iterations of Balkan cooking, adding the flavors of their own ancestral homelands to create a taste that is truly singular in its depth and diversity.
These homelands come from near and far, from places both long gone and places still thriving today, among them The Byzantine Empire, Russia, Ukraine, The South Slavs, Rome, Greece, Italy, Austria, and Hungary. One of the most predominant influences on Balkan fare was the Ottoman Empire, a former occupier of the Balkans. Throughout the last five millennia, many cultures have clearly made their mark on how the Balkan people prepare their food and on the ingredients they use. Kaneva-Johnson's approach keeps these influences and the rich history of the Balkans front and center. For instance, she provides both the original names of recipes and ingredients and their English translations. This required Kaneva-Johnson to be at least passingly familiar with eight different languages, including Albanian, Bulgarian, Macedonian, Slovenian, and Turkish. Because Prospect Books is a British publisher, American readers will notice that all measurements are metric, and the author uses uniquely British terms to describe ingredients, such as aubergine (eggplant) and cornflour (cornstarch).
Excessive amounts of fats or sugars do not weigh down the recipes collected here. Instead, they make use of healthier fats, such as olive oil and fatty fish; unprocessed grains; no sugar, only honey; and abundant fresh vegetables and fruits. While meat figures into many of the recipes, it is not necessarily a focal point, as people in the region historically eat meat, on average, just once a week. They also don't drink coffee or tea, instead choosing herbal teas, and most don't drink alcohol. This approach to eating serves the Balkan people well. At the time of The Melting Pot
's printing, four in every 1,000 people lived to 100 years old or greater. Also, people tend to work long days—up to 12 hours—and they continue working into their nineties. In her research for the book, Kaneva-Johnson encountered large swaths of countryside where life remains the same as it was centuries ago. Perhaps all of these factors combined explain the longevity and good health of people in the region.
The book includes recipes for every course and for every appetite. Among the recipes are yogurt and garlic sauce, vegetable casserole, cracked wheat pilaf, cornbread, baked pumpkin puree, peppers stuffed with rice, hummus, filo pastries stuffed with feta cheese, sauerkraut, and a variety of breads.
The recipes of the Balkans balance a world of flavors, from the saltiness and brininess of the Mediterranean to the sour tastes of Eastern European fermented foods. Nevertheless, the balancing and the blending of flavors encompass more than just cuisine: They tell the story of the Balkan lands and the people who live there, now and throughout history. They honor the past while savoring the present, teaching us that joy and deliciousness aren't just the byproducts of good food; they are the natural result of diversity and community.