Into the fold: Dolma Bar arrives at Shoreditch House

White marble table bathed in sunlight and shadows covered in various dishes from Dolma Bar at Shoreditch House

Aleksandar Taralezhkov, our Soho Chance runner-up, is cooking up a storm with his free-form cooking inspired by land and sea

Wednesday 26 January    By Anish Patel    Photography by Issy Croker

There’s an alchemy to the food that Bulgarian-born chef, Aleksandar Taralezhkov, is readying for his month-long residency at Shoreditch House. 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. Among them, and perhaps the chef’s speciality, are the dolma and sarma plates: intricate parcels with leeks and vine leaves folded around kashkaval cheese, charcoal-grilled pork, and broad beans. Items that are as much a feast for the eyes as they are for the stomach.

In between stretching doughs for his parlenka flatbreads and roasting aubergines on an open fire for his baba ganoush, the chef found some time to talk to us about the essence of Balkan food and his exclusive menu for our east London outpost. 

Two dishes from Dolma Bar at Shoreditch House. One is a whole grilled fish with sides of cauliflower, pickled cucumber, pickled pink onion, and two spoonfuls of spices
Chef Aleksandar Taralezhkov making food at Dolma Bar at Shoreditch House. He has a stuffed lettuce in his hands and a silver plate in front of him with the elements to make it
Full table of Dolma Bar dishes at Shoreditch House

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.’

Your menu features Korean ingredients as well. What was the thinking behind this? 
‘I have a lot of Korean friends and learnt about Asian food through them. I don’t like mixing ingredients for the sake of it, but there are certain dishes where it makes a lot of sense, such as our traditional Eastern European sarma rolls that are stuffed with pork. They work really nicely with kimchi. It’s one of our most popular items on the menu.’ 

What traditional Balkan cooking methods are you using? 
‘Preparation is key to Balkan food, especially when you’re making dolma and sarma rolls. We start two days ahead of cooking, because there are so many different stages to preparing the stuffing – some of which take two weeks to ferment. The whole team gets involved, so it’s a nice way of spending time together. I also love using the charcoal fire, which we have here at Shoreditch House, too. It means we can smoke the pork and aubergines to give that intense flavour.’ 

Full table of Dolma Bar dishes at Shoreditch House. Chef Aleksandar Taralezhkov's hand is in shot as he is placing one more dish on the table
Chef Aleksandar Taralezhkov of Dolma Bar Shoreditch House sat on a chair outdoors looking straight to camera

What are some of the standout items on the menu? 
‘The sea bass farci is delicious. We wrap it in grounded vine leaves for two purposes: to protect the fish when you’re grilling it on the fire, and to give the skin an extra saltiness. It’s stuffed with sweet orange and chestnut, so that mix of flavours works really well.   

‘The fresh flatbread is also delicious – soft and stretchy like a naan. We serve it with a strained yoghurt labneh dip and grilled baba ganoush. It’s my mum’s recipe and completely faultless. Lastly, the artichoke: it’s a southern Bulgarian speciality and really laborious, as you have to prepare and partially cook the stuffing 24 hours before serving. It’s very sculptural and you get a lot of enjoyment eating it, because you have to slowly deconstruct it to get to the main body of the dish.’

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 too is that because of the internet, home cooks and housewives are sharing recipes, so you can see these dishes are being interpreted and updated. It’s amazing, because without even going to these places you can learn so much. Collectively, we’re redefining what Balkan food is, and that gets me excited.’

Aleksandar Taralezhkov was runner-up in our Soho Chance competition. To find out more about Soho Chance or to apply, click here

To watch the Live Room, click here.

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