10 Popular Bulgarian Foods
Bulgarian Cuisine 101
Bulgaria is a country in southeast Europe neighboring Romania to the north, Serbia and North Macedonia to the west, and Greece and Turkey to the south, from where it gets important culinary influences, and the Black Sea to the east.
Bulgarian cuisine features a number of dishes found in Middle Eastern Cuisine, sharing similar staple dishes with the Greeks, Turkish and Serbians but with a local flavor that sets them apart. Characteristic of the Bulgarian kitchen is the simultaneous heat treatment of most products with a beautiful balance between meat, yoghurt, cheese, and vegetables.
Cattle are bread mainly for milk produce rather than meat, the most consumed being pork and lamb, the latter especially in the spring. Bulgarians prefer grilling to deep-frying and sausages are prominent in dishes. While there is a wide variety of vegetarian foods, fish and chicken are widely used. Veal and goat can also to be found as main courses in the form of stews.
Bulgarian recipes include a large variety of vegetables and spices but herbs also have a prominent place in the kitchen for their various healing properties and are used for seasoning in many traditional dishes. Parsley is to be found in almost any dish and Bulgarians can’t imagine bean soup without spearmint, with the taste of wild mint being a particular favorite. Basil and oregano are used to season meat, potato, and bean dishes while thyme is preferred both as a spice and for its medicinal qualities (colds, bronchitis, rheumatism, and heart disease).
Holidays are often observed in conjunction with certain meals: tradition requires vegetarian stuffed peppers and cabbage leaf sarmi on Christmas Eve and cabbage dishes for the New Year’s Eve menu; fish is reserved for Nikulden, St. Nicholas Day, on December 6th, usually carp, while roast lamb is served to celebrate Gergyovden, St. George’s Day, on May 6th.
Traditional Bulgarian Foods
Due to their love of dairy, vegetarians can find plenty of dishes on nearly every menu. Speaking of dairy, the traditional yoghurt, Kiselo Mlyako, is made with a microorganism bearing the national name, “Lactobacillus bulgaricus”. Yoghurt is often used in dishes like tarator, banitsa, snezhanka salad, as topping for some main dishes, and as a soup thickener. According to legend, yoghurt was known back in Thracian times when they added sour milk to fresh in order to preserve it and the derived product was called “prokish” or leavened milk. Others associate yoghurt with “kumis”, which is a fermented drink made from horse milk.
“Lactobacillus bulgaricus” is also the key element in making the Bulgarian version of feta, called Sirene (сирене), that’s light and fresh.
This essential Bulgarian cheese, made from sheep, cow, or goat milk, is famous in Shopska Salata and stuffed red peppers. Another popular product is Kashkaval (Kашкавал), a mild white cheese sort of similar to swiss or edam in taste, like a very mild cheddar. Generally, it is made with cow’s milk, though you can also find it made from sheep’s milk or even a blend of the two. It is often found as an ingredient in main courses and pastries, and even in pizza.
The most popular cured meat in Bulgaria is Lukanka (луканка), a semi-rectangular, almost cylindrical salami which is quite similar to the Italian soppressata only a little dryer but no less tasty. Every region in Bulgaria has its own unique way of making it and most have even patented the product.
Bulgarian Moussaka (мусака) is a class apart and what makes it stand out are the local mushrooms and nutmeg used and rather than eggplant used by the Greeks, on the other side of the border potatoes take their place. A real treat for the taste buds, this baked dish may remind you of a lasagne but has a lot more vegetables and eggs.
Lyutenitsa (лютеница) is a childhood favorite. It is a spread of tomatoes and peppers that is made in every Bulgarian home but can also be found for purchase in small jars from stores. Slightly hot in taste, due to the use of onions, garlic, and cumin, it makes a perfect match for sirene cheese sprinked on top of a slice of bread. If you’re passing by Bulgaria during the autumn, you can smell the roasted peppers wafting from balconies.
Bulgaria produces very high-quality honey and bee products with impressive tastes and nutritional values such as acacia, herbal, pine, honeydew, and polyfloral honey. What makes Bulgarian honey delicious and very unique is the fact that some rare and endangered herbs are found only in this country – adding these enhances the honey with healing qualities.
Let’s see now some of the most popular and classic dishes enjoyed both by local and foreigners alike.
1. Shopska Salata (шопска салата) Summer salad
Having the same colors as the flag, Shopsla Salata is the queen of all Bulgarian foods and proclaimed as the national dish. The salad is known among foreigners as it is said to have been invented in the 1960s by the socialist party as a tourist promotion to highlight local ingredients, believing of course that Bulgarian vegetables were among the tastiest in Europe. Another story of its origin is that it may came from the Shopi people who inhabited the Shopluk region of the Balkans.
You can easily make Shopska salad from roughly chopped tomatoes and cucumbers, sweet red and green peppers, green onions, red wine vinaigrette, cover with finely grated sirene cheese, sprinkle some parsley on top and enjoy it as a starter or a side for baked meat. In some regions, baked peppers are used instead of fresh ones and, since olive trees are not as plentiful in Bulgaria as they are elsewhere, sunflower oil is used in most cooking and salad dressings. This centuries-old meal is often served with a shot of rakia at the beginning of a meal and can also be found in Serbia and North Macedonia.
2. Meshana Skara (мешана скара) Mixed grill
If you love meat, Meshana Skara is the holy grail of Bulgarian Food. It consists of a plate of mixed grill with the tastiest blend of cultures. This will typically include kebapche (кебапче), similar to Romanian “mici” (minced meat with aromatic herbs and garlic rolled into small sausage shapes), and the smaller ćevapčići that you can taste in Serbia; kyufte (meatballs much like the Indian kofta), a pork steak, and a skewer of pork meat similar to a souvlaki. A variation substitutes pork with lightly pounded chicken breast. Bulgarians grate sirene on top of kebapche while Romanians top it with mustard.
3. Gyuvech (Đuveč) Beef stew
A delicious tribute to the slow-food culture worldwide is gyuvech, a dish that also shares its name with the traditional Bulgarian earthenware casserole in which it is traditionally baked and served. This clay pot is found in every Bulgarian home and often passed down through families over generations or gifted to couples at their weddings. Cooking in clay pots defines the country’s old world cooking practices and is a method that keeps the nutritious content of the food intact. The casserole is shallow to promote liquid evaporation so the food in it is cooked with little or no additional liquid, preserving all the flavors.
Guyvech is usually made with beef or pork, tomatoes, okra, mushrooms, peas, green beans, potatoes, eggplant, onions, herbs, eggs and spices including lots of paprika. The stew is cooked and then baked after some traditional Kashkaval is grated over it so you can cook it a night ahead and finish it the next day for a quick warm meal. It is often served with “Balkan Mixed Salad”, a combination of roasted eggplant, sweet roasted peppers, garlic and tomatoes, but the veggies can vary depending on the season.
4. Lozovi Sarmi (Лозови сарми) Stuffed vine leaves
Popular in other countries too, Bulgarian sarmi are filled with rice, onions, and spices, rolled up in vine leaves during the summer and sauerkraut during the cold season, and then poached gently in a tomato sauce. The recipe for Christmas calls for raisins and chopped walnuts to be mixed with the rice before taking their well-known place on the festive table. They come with an extra drizzle of yoghurt on top. Other versions have minced veal and pork mixed with finely chopped mint and sweet paprika in the filling or chopped bacon.
Historically, stuffed cabbage traces its roots back to the ancient Middle East over 1,500 years ago and spread to Eastern Europe as people migrated. Many recipes and traditions have developed throughout the region: the Romanians eat “sarmale”, the Turkish have “dolma”, the Greeks “lahanodolmades”, in Ukraine it’s “holubtsi”, while the Czech and Slovak version is known as “hulubky”, Lithuanians call theirs “balandeliai”, Serbs and Croatians call it “sarma”, and in Finland it’s “kaalikaaryle”, in Russia “golubtsy, in Hungary töltött káposzta ,and in Poland “gołąbki”.
5. Banitza (баница) Pastry with filling
When you stop for a cup of coffee in Bulgaria, consider ordering a sweet treat to wash it down, for example Banitza, which is filled with apples and walnuts. This delicious greasy pastry is the most commonly eaten pastry dish in the country and can be found all over, from gas stations to coffee shops and bakeries and with a variety of fillings: pumpkin and sugar, cheese, onion, cabbage, mushrooms or spinach. Another type of banitza is made with milk and served as dessert. This snack is prepared by stacking up layers of filo pastry (fini kori in Bulgarian) with butter and traditional Bulgarian cheese and eggs before it is baked and consumed as breakfast. It pairs well with boza, a fermented wheat drink, for a quintessential Bulgarian experience.
Watch out though if you find yourself enjoying a banitza on Christmas holidays or New Year’s Eve because it may contain a customary hidden lucky paper charms so take care not to chew it up. If you’re lucky, you could find a coin, meaning you have a very successful year ahead of you.
6. Tarator (таратор) Cucumber Soup
A yogurt-based soup of cucumber, garlic, dill, sometimes walnuts and, in the heat of summer, even ice cubes to make it more refreshing. Legend has it that Bulgarians stole this recipe from the Greeks and appropriated after adding a little water. Tarator is very popular in the summer but it’s prepared all year long, thus, you can find it on every Bulgarian restaurant menu. Various parts of the country have their own way of making the soup.
Snezhanka (Snow-White) is the salad version of tarator, which uses strained instead of watered-down yoghurt and resembles the Greek tzatziki and Turkish cacık.
7. Patatnik (пататник) Potato pie
Patatnik is a potato-based dish with a distinctive mint flavor characteristic of the Rhodope Mountains, where life has changed little for centuries in the scenic villages, that offers a cuisine with regional products that is distinct from the national Bulgarian kitchen. The dish is made of grated potatoes, onions, salt, oil and a type of very mild mint called Gyosum in Bulgarian, all mixed and traditionally cooked in a deep pan over a slow fire. Nowadays it is also baked in an oven and some variants include grated sirene, additional eggs or even peppers, but these are not essential.
There are two ways to cook papatnik. One is to form two layers of squeezed grated potatoes mixed with onions and in between them a part of the remaining doughy mixture with savoury spices. The other way is no layers, just the homogeneous mixture cooked for 20 minutes and then turned over and covered for further cooking. The name of the dish is derived from the word “potato” with the Bulgarian masculine suffix -nik.
8. Shkembe chorba (шкембе чорба) Tripe soup
An equal favorite for Bulgarians and Romanians is the savory tripe soup, appreciated for its rich flavor and, yes, for being a hangover cure, only that Bulgarians have another secret associated to enhance this claimed benefit: rakia or a cold beer. As a spicey dish, Tripe soup, also known as Dragon’s Breath, is an exception in Bulgarian cooking, which only mildly spices its food. Shkembe chorba typically includes calf’s tripe, milk, paprika, garlic, red wine vinegar, and plenty of hot pepper, which kind of explains the cold beer sips of the hard night out recovery.
9. Kapama (Източник) Slow cooked meat stew
This traditional dish is prepared in the region of Bansko, being one of the main attractions in the authentic taverns of the resort along with the Kukeri street parade and Razlog. Mainly prepared around Christmas and New Year, it consists of different types of meat (pork, chicken, veal, and rabbit) and sauerkraut, sausage or black-sausage, and rice can also be added to this unusual mixture. The recipe specifically calls for cloves and cumin in addition to black pepper, onions, allspice, paprika, and bay leaf. It is very important is to cover the bottom of the clay pot with pork salo, then a layer of onions and sauerkraut, which is then covered with all types of available spiced meats, sauerkraut again and then more meat. Garlic cloves and paprika are essential to this dish. The last ingredient added in the pot before water, sauerkraut, and wine is the rice.
The secret ingredient and local pride is Satureja Чубрица, a herb which is stomach-friendly facilitating the digestion process, rich in antioxidants, fibers, iron, zinc, calcium, and vitamin B that all help decrease the level of bad cholesterol.
It’s slow cooked for 4 to 6 hours in a clay pot, which has its lid glued on with dough to preserve all essential goodness inside. This method gave the dish its name: Kapama is a Persian word meaning “to cover”.
Bulgarians also like to spend time outside in the summer and grill meat so cheverme is one of the most beloved meals of this season. It is a tradition that comes from the Rhodope mountains in the south of Bulgaria. Cheverme is a lamb slowly cooked on a spit over a fire for a minimum of 10 hours but usually a whole day. This special food is prepared on festive days like a wedding, birthday, graduation and you can find it at many folklore festivals in the country.
Since it takes so long to prepare cheverme, people pass the time talking, drinking, and enjoying each other’s company, from time to time relieving the person rotating the lamb over the open fire. When it’s done, it is served with many salads, some wine, and Rhodopes finest rakia (ракия). Traditionally, cheverme is an essential part of a special lunch and supper on St George’s Day, when lambs are slaughtered in the name of the patron saint of the Bulgarian Army and eaten in the church yard, near the village, or in the sheep-fold. Served alongside it is the ritual bread, baked carefully by skilled women.