Seven Bulgarian food classics you cannot afford to miss when you are in the country
Bulgarian food is tasty, fresh and hearty. Bulgaria is famous for its quality vegetables and dairy products and its variety of mild spices. Pork and chicken are the most common forms of meat, though fish and veal dishes are also popular and lamb has a special traditional place in Bulgarian cooking.
While many of the staples of Bulgarian cuisine you would also find in Turkey, Greece or Serbia, in Bulgaria each of those has its own local flavour to set it apart from the Balkan neighbours’ version. From hearty salads through delicious pastries to grilled meat classics, here’s 7 Bulgarian dishes you absolutely must try during your stay in the country!
1. Baked extravaganza: banitsa (баница)
This piece of greasy pastry deliciousness can be purchased in bakeries all over the country. Its standard variety includes a filling of feta-like white cheese (сирене, sirene), though varieties filled with onions, cabbage, spinach, mushrooms or pumpkin can also be found. For your sweet tooth, you can also try banitsa with apples and walnuts. Banitsa in any of its forms is an inseparable part of a traditional Bulgarian breakfast. Combine it with the thick fermented wheat drink boza for a quintessential Bulgarian experience.
Holiday tip: careful when chewing your piece of banitsa at Christmas or New Year’s Eve! On those dates, banitsa is filled with lucky paper charms which are sometimes easy to chew through. The luckiest piece will contain the coin which means you’ll enjoy a very successful year ahead of you.
2. Kings of the grill: kebapche (кебапче) and kyufte(кюфте)
The Bulgarian cousin of former Yugoslavia’s famous ćevapčići and Romanian mititei, a kebapche is the perfect side dish to a glass of cold Bulgarian beer on a summer day. Though Bulgarians may argue about that, whether the beer is a Kamenitza or a Zagorka makes no big difference. The important part is that the kebapcheta ar at least three and include some kind of sides, usually French fries with grated sirene cheese on top, to make the classic “three kebapcheta with sides” (тройка кебапчета с гарнитура, troyka kebapcheta s garnitura).
The dish itself is an elongated piece of grilled minced meat, comparable in shape and size, though not in contents, to a hot dog. As with the smaller ćevapčići that you can taste in Serbia, the meat is usually a mix of pork and beef, though it can be solely pork just as well. A beef version exists, but is uncommon and will normally be labeled as such. Typically, spices like black pepper and cumin will be added to the meat, for a mildly spicy taste.
3. Head start: shopska salata (шопска салата)
Bulgaria’s internationally-renowned salad is a simple — but effective — combo of diced tomatoes, cucumbers, onions and peppers, with grated sirene cheese and parsley on top. Whether a century-old meal of the Shopi ethnographic group (as the name implies) or a 1950s invention of communist Bulgaria’s state-owned tour operator Balkantourist, Shopska salad is the perfect appetizing companion to a shot of rakia at the start of a Bulgarian meal. Curiously, Shopska salad’s most prominent colours are white (the cheese), green (the cucumbers) and red (the tomatoes and peppers), which match perfectly to the colours of the Bulgarian national flag. A not-so-subtle hint at Shopska salad’s vital role in Bulgarian cuisine.
4. Goodness with goodness on top: musaka (мусака)
This dish is enjoyed in many variations throughout the Balkan region. The Bulgarian version involves potatoes, eggs and minced pork meat and is a known favourite of Bulgarian men, among whom it is a popular joke that they cannot marry a woman who is unable to cook the perfect musaka.
While the Greek variety of musaka may be based on eggplant, the Bulgarian dish relies strictly on potatoes to layer the meat. The whole thing is traditionally covered with thick Bulgarian yoghurt on top.
5. Childhood favourite: lyutenitsa (лютеница)
Childhood favourite: lyutenitsa
I can call it Bulgarian ketchup.
Ask a Bulgarian and they would say this thick relish of tomatoes and peppers is the best thing you can spread on your toast. Nowadays it is commercially produced and sold in small jars, though it is still commonly made at home by many Bulgarian families. When you can smell the aroma of roasting peppers emanating from balconies throughout the country in autumn, you know homemade lyutenitsa season is soon to be upon you!
Due to the onions, garlic and cumin used to make it, lyutenitsa is always going to be at least somewhat hot in taste, to which it owes it name… and its popularity. Lyutenitsa is a particular favourite of children. Parents know that a slice of bread spread with lyutenitsa (and sprinkled with sirene cheese, as everything seems to be in this country!) is one of the few ways to persuade their kid to have a snack in-between rounds of hide-and-seek in the neighborhood, for example.
6. Dragon’s breath: shkembe chorba (шкембе чорба)
While lyutenitsa may be a kids’ favourite, shkembe chorba is strictly the preferred territory of adults. Indeed, it takes more than a bit of guts to try this tripe soup, whether because tripe is a somewhat unusual offal to be used in a soup or because of the way shkembe chorba is customarily generously spiced. You are expected to add vinegar, oil, salt and crude pepper to taste – though you will discover that to Bulgarians this usually means in generous quantities.
Cherished as a hangover remedy, shkembe chorba is offered by many small restaurants and is often consumed by companies during the early hours of the morning right after a night of binge drinking. And because shkembe chorba is very difficult to eat without a cold beer to accompany the hot sips, this anti-hangover strategy naturally fits with the “fight fire with fire” hangover cure that is a beer after a heavy night out.
7. Summer refresher: tarator (таратор)
Tarator and the previous soup on the menu, shkembe chorba, couldn’t be any more different. Unlike shkembe chorba’s firey spiciness, tarator is light, refreshing and cold. A yogurt-base soup of cucumbers, garlic, dill and sometimes walnuts (and even ice cubes!), tarator is a must in those scorching summer days when, say, the sun has forced you into the cool shade of a small restaurant on the Black Sea coast. And if you want to try it in the comfort of your home.
Tarator is also a great introduction to the renowned Bulgarian yoghurt, famous the world over for its health benefits. You may also like to try Snezhanka (Snow-White), the salad version of tarator which uses strained instead of watered-down yoghurt and is quite similar to Greek tzatziki and Turkish cacık.