The Foodie Who Introduced the World to Bulgarian Cuisine

Decades before Anthony Bourdain set out to enlighten a hungry population of would-be food tourists and future foodies about the exotic world of international gastronomy, there was Emil Markov, who was on a mission to bring Bulgarian cuisine to the world.

bulgarian cuisine - Baked stuffed bell peppers filled with cheese, tomatoes, herbs, capers and anchovies on a white wooden background bulgarian food
Emil Markov was a communist Bulgarian version of Anthony Bourdain, and his book, "Bulgarian Temptations: 33 Illustrated Culinary Journeys with Recipes," was written to introduce the world to the wonders of Bulgarian cuisine. Photo: iStock / Anna Pustynnikova

“Bulgarian Temptations: 33 Illustrated Culinary Journeys with Recipes” was the socialist version of the “Michelin Guide” and Anthony Bourdain combined. Emil Markov embarked on a journey to tempt Western tourists, becoming possibly the first chef-traveler, far before The Food Network popularized the idea. He described traditional Bulgarian cuisine based on recipes collected during his travels.

Rio de Janeiro, the French Riviera, and the sunny resorts of Italy were not the only tourist destinations of the post-war world, and sunny vacations were not a solely capitalist privilege. Communist Central Europe had its own luxury destinations, with Bulgaria being the most notable.

Traditional Bulgarian cuisine: Balkan temptation

Backed by socialist tourist giant, Balkanturist, author, and apparent foodie, Markov set off to gather recipes of traditional Bulgarian cuisine that so fascinated him from all around the country in the mid-1970s, accompanied by “Vlado”, his photographer. They spent a few long years traveling across the country, collecting recipes from known chefs at modern socialist venues and exploring traditional street food. The account of their journey connects the food, land, and cultural scapes and uses historical anecdotes to depict traditional Bulgarian food fully.

Vlado’s photos are equally fascinating, colorful, and narrative. They captured the dishes, wine, landscapes, and beauty of the food in its context. Emil Markov in Bulgaria described recipes from posh hotel chefs to modes countryside inns, local farmer’s markets, and home cooking. Even scholars today compare the effort to the well-established television format of chef-traveler or well-versed foodie introducing foreign cuisine to their audience. Such was also the role of “Bulgarian Temptations,” but given that the author was Bulgarian, it was supposed to introduce Bulgarian food to other foodies around the world.

Emil Markov in Bulgaria – how to celebrate nation’s jubilee?

The book was published in English, German, and French and aimed at creating a particular image of Bulgaria as a tourist destination. Traditional Bulgarian cuisine is shown here in a foodporn way, with text and visuals inducing temptation in would-be tourists. It took Markov until 1981 to complete the quest. The date of publication was convenient, as 1981 was a yearlong celebration of the 1300th anniversary of the state of Bulgaria. The commemorating sign bore two dates: 681 and 1944, the latter being the one of establishing the modern state of Bulgaria.

Therefore, the celebration was supposed to unite the national pride with the socialist ideals, though Markov didn’t really fit in. While he naturally paid homage to socialist dining venues and the book was “dedicated to the 1300th Jubilee of Bulgaria”, he didn’t try to hide his preference for peasant cuisine and the politically incorrect Turkish influence on Bulgarian dishes.

“Bulgarian Temptations: 33 Illustrated Culinary Journeys with Recipes” can still be found on eBay. The compilation was perhaps the last effort to support socialist Bulgaria’s image as a tourist destination.

Przemysław Bociąga

is a Polish journalist and essayist based in Warsaw. An anthropologist and art historian by education, he specializes in combining cultural phenomena with compelling narrative. He has authored and co-authored several books covering lifestyle and history. The most recent of them is “Impeccable. The biography of masculine image”. He has contributed to many leading magazines, both in print and online, and teaches cultural anthropology to college students.

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