By Anish Patel
There's an alchemy to the food that Bulgarian-born chef, Aleksandar Taralezhkov, has spent years perfecting. Piled high around him are jars of pickles and peppers, trays of blanched vegetable leaves, sheets of delicate filo pastry, and all of the other ingredients that he and his team transform into ornate Ottoman-esque masterpieces. 'I find Balkan food quite magical,' he says, throwing a handful of ruby-red pomegranate seeds over one of his dishes. 'It's a bit of everything, but so unique at the same time.'
Indeed, his distinctive and highly imaginative culinary offerings are putting Balkan food in the spotlight, and his solo venture - Dolma Bar in Margate on the UK's Kent coast - on the map. This food, for Taralezhkov, is heritage, and cooking and eating it are acts of preserving both his identity and the beloved recipes that have been handed down through generations.
Here, the chef explains the essence of Balkan food, as well as sharing some of his favourite recipes to try at home.
Where did you learn to cook?
'I've never trained anywhere. I grew up in Eastern Europe and learnt to cook from my grandmother. I spent a lot of time with her in the kitchen, preparing things and using ingredients from her garden to make different dishes. Foraging and Bulgarian cooking go hand in hand.'
How would you define Balkan food?
'The Balkans were part of the Ottoman Empire for 500 years, so it draws on the culinary traditions of so many different places. It was a two-way street, though - most of the chefs in the great palaces of Istanbul were from other countries and took their cuisines with them, too. Even though it's diverse, my food has a distinctly Bulgarian flair to it - mainly in its plant-based and vegan offerings. In terms of flavour, it's full bodied: rich, sharp and sweet because of the various ingredients we use and experiment with.'
How connected to your cultural heritage do you feel when cooking?
'I definitely feel like I've found my voice. It's a very particular area, which is not yet fully explored. The lovely thing is that there's no intellectual property on recipes, so you have this freedom to discover different ways of doing things. You can put ingredients together, and decide what goes and what doesn't.
'What's really cool now as well is that because of the internet you can see how dishes are being interpreted and updated. Collectively, we're redefining what Balkan food is, and that gets me excited.'
Can you share a recipe that we can try at home?
'Stuffed artichokes are one of my favourite dishes to serve and the perfect centrepiece on the dining table. In my opinion, there are few vegetables that can compete with this combination of outstanding flavour and sculptural beauty. At Dolma Bar, they play the role of the rice dish and come with one unique instruction - don't miss the heart, hiding at the bottom.'
2 medium artichokes | 50g rice (medium grain), soaked overnight | 25g fava beans, soaked overnight | 1 lemon | 1 small onion | 1 tomato | ½ bunch parsley | 25g almonds, peeled | 1 tsp black pepper | 1 tsp paprika | 1 tsp salt | 50ml olive oil | Pomegranate (optional, for dressing)
1. Trim the top (1cm) of the entire artichoke flower with a knife. Then, trim the top third of each artichoke leaf with scissors.
2. Fill a large pot with water and add the juice of half a lemon. Parboil the artichokes for 10 to 15 minutes, depending on size. Drain well and allow to cool.
3. Clean the choke, the hairy thistle-like part in the middle of the artichoke. Take the rice and lava beans that have been soaked in water overnight and drain well.
4. Finely chop the onion and parsley, and grate the tomato. In a bowl, combine all the ingredients together, then stuff the artichokes with the mixture.
5. Fill a pan so that the water covers two-thirds of the artichokes. Steam them with a lid on for another 20 to 30 minutes on a medium heat.
6. Leave to cool, then season with lemon juice, salt, black pepper, and plenty of olive oil. Dress with pomegranate seeds.