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Connecting Cultures Through Cuisine

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Makena F., YES Abroad 2019-20, Bulgaria

Ever since my arrival, Bulgarians have been eager to share everything they know about their favorite traditional foods. I realized immediately that people are very proud of their country’s cuisine and are excited to share it with me. I’m often asked if I’ve tried certain dishes, and people are always eager to give me suggestions for what I need to have next.

While being in Bulgaria, I’ve been taught how to prepare many amazing foods, such as banitsa (a pastry usually filled with cheese), and lyutenitsa (a red pepper spread). I’ve loved learning how to make all these delicious foods, and plan on making them for my family and friends when I return to the U.S.

I’ve also had the opportunity to return the favor and make different foods for my host community. A month after my arrival, my host family decided that it would be a good idea for each person to cook dinner once a week. That way, everyone would be able to eat foods they enjoy while also helping in the house. I was excited, but also a little nervous. I wanted to share my favorite foods with my family, but I knew that they would have different preferences because they didn’t grow up with the same foods I did. I wanted to find recipes that we all would enjoy, and hoped that by sharing my favorite meals, my host family would feel more connected to my culture.

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On my first day of cooking, I went to go explore the grocery store. Shopping for the first time in a Bulgarian grocery store was an interesting experience. I hadn’t yet learned the words for all the foods, so I spent a lot of time standing in the aisles while trying to translate new words with a dictionary. It was nerve-wracking trying to find the ingredients and talk to the cashier in a new language, but after months of practice it’s become second nature to me. Eventually, after being creative and substituting some spices, I had all the ingredients I needed for tacos. I wanted to share a recipe that was popular back home in the U.S., especially since my host family had never tried Mexican food before.

I managed to put together a meal of tacos and cilantro lime rice. Since then, I’ve had fun making a lot of foods and snacks, such as American pancakes and macaroni and cheese. My favorite thing about cooking in Bulgaria is seeing people’s reactions when they try a recipe that’s popular in America. In turn, they enjoy seeing how excited I am when I try a new Bulgarian food. Food is such a big part of everyone’s lives, and it plays a huge role in defining culture. For me, food has been an important part of exchange here in Bulgaria, and it has helped many people, including myself, learn more about and feel closer to a different culture.