Bulgarian Food: The Ultimate Guide To The Most Delicious Food You’ve Never Tried
I’ll admit, Bulgarian food isn’t the most popular in the world. Or in Europe. Or not even on the Balkans.
But eating in Bulgaria is an experience of its own and one of the many reasons to visit the country. And it deserves its own ultimate guide.
Yes, Bulgarian food is so complicated, that it needs explaining.
Yes, Bulgarian food is so history rich, that you need to get to know the region’s history first in order to understand what to order from the menu in front of you.
Yes, people will laugh at you, if you don’t do it right – not in a bad humiliating way, because no one will expect you to be an expert, but let’s surprise them and make you an expert, shall we?
Jump directly to:
- Starters And Soups: Let’s Tease Your Taste Buds
- Main Dishes: Once Teased, Get Right At It
- Bread, Pastries, Desserts And Snacks: A Great Way To Start A Day Or Finish A Meal
- Beverages: A Great Dish Should Be Accompanied By The Right Drink
- Spices: Let’s See What Makes Bulgarian Food Taste So Delicious
- Bulgarian Food: Closely Related To Bulgarian History
- Table Etiquette: What To Do And What Not
- Culture Of Eating: A Typical Celebration In Bulgaria
- Warnings About Spoilt Food And Dangerous Drinks
- So Now You’re An Expert On Bulgarian Food, Congrats
Starters And Soups: Let’s Tease Your Taste Buds
Usually, for starters one or more of the following is served:
- Salads from fresh or pickled vegetables, with a dressing of salt, oil and vinegar.
- Shopska salad: prepared from tomatoes, cucumbers, white brine cheese, parsley, peppers and onions.
- Ovcharska (shepherd’s) salad: the same basic ingredients as shopska, but also containing ham, cheese, mushrooms and eggs.
- Green salad: made from lettuce and scallion.
- Cabbage and carrots: either fresh or pickled.
- Grilled peppers: served with dill and garlic.
- Dips with freshly baked bread
- Lyutenitsa: relish made from grilled tomatoes and peppers, sometimes also carrots, eggplant, onions and garlic, spiced with salt, sugar, oil.
- Snezhanka (Snow-white): a yoghurt based dip with cucumbers, walnuts, garlic and dill, decorated with black olives.
- Ruska (Russian) salad: made with boiled potatoes, carrots, gherkins, and mayonnaise.
- Grilled or steamed vegetables
- Baked or grilled cheese
- Kashkaval pane: Bulgarian cheese, breaded and fried in the pan.
- Mushrooms or meat offal, prepared in the pan with butter or grilled
- Po selski (the peasant way): chopped and fried in the pan with onions and peppers and served with fresh parsley.
Soups are not always served, but my advice is not to skip them and order at least one of the following:
- Pileshka (chicken) soup: the classic, cooked either with water only or with the addition of a little bit of milk.
- Teleshko vareno (veal soup): potatoes, carrots and onions, chopped in large pieces and boiled with the veal.
- Kopriva (nettle) soup: usually cooked in spring with fresh nettle and served with yoghurt.
- Bob chorba (beans soup): can be prepared either vegetarian or with bacon.
- Kurban chorba: usually prepared for a celebration from lamb, sheep or veal meat with offal, most commonly liver, and vegetables. It’s certainly a rather fat but delicious soup.
- Supa topcheta (balls soup): contains small pork meatballs and vegetables.
- Tarator (yoghurt soup): a summer soup, consisting mainly of yoghurt and water with the addition of cucumbers, walnuts, garlic, dill, salt, pepper, vinegar and oil.
Main Dishes: Once Teased, Get Right At It
Most often Bulgarian dishes containing meat would be prepared with pork, but the same dish might also be cooked with chicken on request. These are the most commonly prepared meats.
Veal and lamb are usually served on special occasions. For example, lamb is served in spring and traditionally on May 6th, Gergiovden, when St. George is celebrated.
Beef is not commonly prepared, but goat is cooked in some regions.
Fish is served throughout the year and traditionally eaten on December 6th as a celebration of St. Nicholas day, Nikulden.
Rabbit is usually prepared as a rabbit stew, and in recent years turkeys are also served, although not as often as in other countries.
Most often meat is either grilled, roasted, fried in the pan or prepared as a stew and served in a clay pot.
Skara (grilled) and roasted dishes include:
- Kyufte (meatball): made from pork, lamb or chicken meat and spices. Several diversions exist, with the most popular being tatarsko kyufte (Tatarian meatball, stuffed with cheese) and nervozno kyufte (“nervous” spicy meatball).
- Kebapche: also made of minced pork, lamb or chicken meat and spices, but formed as a long stick rather than a round meatball.
- Karnache: a sausage, rolled as a spiral from pork or lamb meat.
- Nadenitsa: the typical sausage, usually from pork meat and spices.
- Shishche (skewer): from any meat, usually including peppers, onions and mushrooms.
- Meshana skara (mixed grill plate): comes with one or more kyufteta, kebapcheta, karnacheta or nadenitsi, steaks and shishcheta.
- Grilled or fried fish: most popular are trout, mackerel, and sprat. For the best and freshest fish dishes, visit the Bulgarian Black Sea coast.
- Cheverme: a whole animal, usually a small pig, lamb or even chicken on a rotating huge skewer, roasted on an open fire for four to seven hours until the meat separates from the bone. It’s usually served on special occasions or should be pre-ordered in a restaurant because of the lengthy preparation.
Popular Bulgarian stews and cooked Bulgarian dishes are the following:
- Kavarma: usually prepared in the frying pan and served in a clay pot. It contains meat (pork or chicken), onions, peppers and spices.
- Gyuvech: a mixture of vegetables – eggplant, potatoes, tomatoes, peas, zucchini, carrots, onions, garlic, with lots of spices. Pork or other meat could be also added to the dish.
- Sarmi: wine or cabbage leaves, stuffed with minced meat, rice and spices. A vegetarian option of the meal is prepared without the minced meat, instead chopped vegetables and raisins can be added.
- Kapama: prepared in a sealed clay pot. Several different types of meat (pork, chicken, lamb, rabbit, veal, and sausage), sauerkraut, dried plums and spices are placed in the pot in layers, covered with red wine and cooked for several hours.
- Moussaka: a popular dish in many of the Balkan countries, with several variations of it existing. Most commonly the dish is prepared from minced meat and potatoes chopped into small cubes, with spices and a topping of yoghurt and eggs, which forms a rind after cooking.
- Stuffed peppers: filled with a mixture of minced pork, rice and spices, prepared and served with or without a sauce. Alternatively, zucchini or eggplants might also be stuffed.
- Chicken with rice: usually prepared in the oven, and the rice being used is the same as for risotto and paella dishes.
- Pork with potatoes: also prepared in the oven with lots of spices.
- Pork with cabbage: can be cooked in a pot and then finished in the oven. Tomatoes and paprika add a nice red colour to the meal. The cabbage can be fresh or pickled sauerkraut.
- Stuffed fish, poultry or lamb: filled with a mixture of rice, vegetables such as carrots, onions, garlic, raisins and spices. Sometimes minced meat or chopped liver can also be added to the stuffing.
- Drob sarma: a rice dish, served as a side dish to meats or on its own. Rice is mixed with mushrooms or meat offal, small pieces of meat and spices. If served as a standalone meal, it can be prepared in caul to keep it in form and add more flavour.
Vegetarian Dishes: Amazing Taste Even Without Meat
There’s a huge variety of meatless dishes in the Bulgarian cuisine. In fact, most meat dishes can be alternatively prepared as non-meat variations.
Potatoes, rice, beans, lentils, peas, all sorts of cabbage, aubergines, zucchini are only a few of the seasonal vegetables used. Vegetable soups or even yoghurt soups are also often served.
Fasting before Easter and especially before Christmas is widely popular in Bulgaria with the culmination being on Christmas Eve when only non-meat Bulgarian dishes are served on the table.
Apart from the mentioned above, the following regional vegetarian Bulgarian dishes are prepared:
- Patatnik: a pie-like dish, made of grated potatoes and onions, cooked on a slow fire. Only served in the Rhodope Mountains in Bulgaria, but totally worth the effort of getting there – not just for this dish, but also for the incredible views.
- Rodopski klin: a banitsa-like dish with a rice filling. As the name suggests, also prepared mainly in the Rhodope Mountains.
- Eggs Panagyurian style: the eggs are broken over boiling water and then served over yoghurt and topped with butter and paprika. Optionally mushrooms or cheese can be added.
- Kachamak: maize porridge, served with melted butter, paprika and cheese.
- Green beans stew: a stew made of fresh green beans, ripe tomatoes, carrots, onions, seasoning and oil.
Bread, Pastries, Desserts And Snacks: A Great Way To Start A Day Or Finish A Meal
Most pastries and desserts can be served for breakfast or at the end of a meal. Basically, if you’ve been invited to dinner and didn’t finish your dessert, your host will pack it and you can eat it for breakfast the next day.
Typical desserts, snacks and breakfasts are:
- Banitsa: a pastry made of layered dough sheets and a mixture of whisked eggs, yoghurt and white brine cheese. Alternatively, instead of cheese, it can be prepared with leek, spinach or cabbage. There’s also a sweet version with pumpkin and walnuts.
- Baklava: sweet pastry with nuts and sugar syrup.
- Kozunak: sweet bread with walnuts and raisins, typically baked for Easter.
- Katmi: a type of crepes but with yoghurt instead of milk or combination of both.
- Oshav: boiled dried fruits and spices, served on Christmas Eve.
- Pumpkin: several desserts can be prepared from pumpkins. A baked stuffed pumpkin filled with nuts, dried fruits, oatmeal and alcohol; baked (whole or in pieces) it can be served with honey and nuts or with jam; or it could be covered with milk and eggs and baked.
- Strained yoghurt: served with honey and walnuts or with home-made jam.
- Lukanka: semi-dry salami from pork, veal and spices with a distinguishable flattened shape.
- Pastirma: air-dried cured beef delicacy.
Typical breakfasts, apart from the above, are:
- Mekitsi: deep fried dough served with cheese, sugar or jam.
- Kifli: sweet bread buns, usually filled with jam or nougat crème.
Bread accompanies every Bulgarian meal and is unthinkable of starting to eat without it on the table. Most commonly, white wheat bread is baked. There are several home-made types of bread you should definitely try:
- Parlenka: a small thin pita bread, baked on a stone plate.
- Pitka: the typical pita bread, the size and the complexity of which may vary greatly.
Beverages: A Great Dish Should Be Accompanied By The Right Drink
Bulgarian wine production has a long history, dating back to the Thracians. In the 1980s Bulgaria was world’s 2nd largest wine producer. Unfortunately, bad politics after the end of the communist era led to losing markets and lowering production capacities.
In recent years Bulgarian wines have regained their popularity among wine lovers.
Among the popular wine sorts are:
- Mavrud: a red grape, indigenous to Bulgarian lands, capable of producing tannic, spicy wine with a potential for ageing.
- Gamza: a red vine, used for producing dry red and sweet dessert wines with full taste, deep aroma and dark colour.
- Rubin: a hybrid red vine, selected in the 1940s by combining Syrah and Nebbiolo grapes. It produces dry, semi-dry and sweet wines, tasting of berries and with the potential for ageing.
- Shiroka Melniska loza (broadleaf Melnik vine): a red wine, which as a varietal has an affinity for oak and can produce pronounced tobacco notes.
- Pamid: once the most widely spread vine in Bulgaria. The wines are light red table wines with low acidity and extract, which makes them inappropriate for ageing. They should be consumed young, right after fermentation and clarification.
- Dimiat: a white wine grape, indigenous to Bulgaria and one of the most widely planted white grape varieties. Wines made from this variety are noted for their perfume aromas.
- Plovdiv Malaga: a hybrid vine, produced by crossing Cherven (Red) Misket and Black Muscat, a dry white wine with a red dessert wine. The obtained wine is a high-quality red dessert wine with intense colour.
Rakia is the local high percentage alcoholic drink. The name is the same as in Serbia and the taste and the production process are quite similar. It is produced by distilling fermented fruits or wines. The initial colour is clear, but by ageing in barrels or adding herbs, the colour changes to yellow or brown.
The most widely produced sorts are made of grapes or plums. Other fruits, used to make rakia, include apricot, peach, pear, apple, quince, fig, cherry.
In summer rakia is usually served cold, while in winter either at room temperature or hot with added honey and spices. It is, however, always served as an aperitif, not a digestive as common in other countries.
Local beer is relatively cheap and even world renewed brands are produced in Bulgaria under license, instead of being imported, which lowers their price.
There are also a couple of non-alcoholic beverages, produced and enjoyed in Bulgaria. Boza is a thick drink made of fermented millet flour, with brown colour, unpleasant smell and weird taste for anyone who hasn’t grown up drinking it. If left for several days, it starts fermenting and tasting sour.
Ayran or matenitsa is a yoghurt drink with a pinch of salt, very refreshing in the hot summer months.
If you’re counting calories or trying to avoid unusual tastes, stick to mineral water. Bulgaria is rich in mineral waters and several bottling factories exist near some of the springs.
Drinking tap water in the capital city of Sofia is not advised and in many regions of Bulgaria, tap water quality is poor due to the bad maintenance of the pipelines. In towns with mineral water springs, however, the tap water comes directly from the springs. In many of these places, there are valves where you can pour water in bottles from the spring.
Spices: Let’s See What Makes Bulgarian Food Taste So Delicious
So you’ve visited Bulgaria and tried some Bulgarian food, or you were able to find a Bulgarian restaurant in the place you live. You’re amazed by the Bulgarian cuisine (I hope!), so you try to recreate the dishes to impress your friends.
While the rest of the ingredients aren’t so complicated and you can get them basically anywhere, spices are a whole other story.
Spices can make or break a meal.
Use the right combination of spices and your guests will be astonished by your cooking skills. Use the wrong spices and your carefully orchestrated meal can end in a disaster.
That’s why I’ve included a mini-guide of the spices, most often used to prepare Bulgarian food. You can find most of them at home, but if you’re visiting Bulgaria, why not take with you a selection of these spices as a souvenir?
The following spices are widely used in Bulgarian dishes, soups and salads, either fresh or dried:
- Savory: can be used in almost every cooked meal or soup.
- Thyme: best used in dishes with meat.
- Rosemary: used in potatoes or fish dishes.
- Oregano: both in meat and meatless dishes.
- Basil: fresh in salads, dried in soups and cooked meals.
- Spearmint: a must in any dish, containing beans.
- Bay leaf: especially in meals with veal it’s a must.
- Salt: no dish without it, used even in desserts or drinks (ayran).
- Black pepper: almost no dish without it.
- Paprika: widely used when frying or roasting meat.
- Parsley: commonly used fresh in all kinds of salads.
And the following are used in desserts, cakes or hot drinks:
- Cinnamon: milk rice and pumpkin desserts can’t possibly be served without it.
- Clove: used in desserts, pastries and hot drinks.
- Vanilla: most crèmes, desserts and cakes are unthinkable without it.
Now you know what spice to use for your next home-cooked dinner and you don’t need to guess what the extremely delicious dish you’ve just tried contains.
Bulgarian Food: Closely Related To Bulgarian History
Look at the map. Bulgaria occupies a spot between worlds, a crossroad between Europe and Asia, having the Western world and Russia always fight for her attention.
Everyone, who passed through Bulgarian lands, left their mark in people’s lives, including the food they brought to the table.
Bulgarian food has been greatly influenced by Turkish and Greek cuisines but has also added a unique twist to almost every meal served on the territory. For example, every meal, containing meat, would be alternatively prepared with pork – something impossible for Turkish cuisine due to religious restrictions.
To make things even more interesting, there are regional dishes, which can only be found in one region of the country and nowhere else, but they’re so good, that it’s absolutely worth the effort of getting there – even to just try the local speciality.
Every people and minority, forming today’s Bulgarian nation, has brought their own traditions and special ways of preparing the food, adding an amazing combination of spices, colours and flavours.
Table Etiquette: What To Do And What Not
It’s not easy to visit a foreign country and know how to behave at the table. Some customs are quite similar everywhere, while others are close to impossible to know in advance.
The following tips are somewhat surprising to first-time visitors, so sharing them here will hopefully make your Bulgarian food experience go smoothly.
Eating bread: while tearing a small piece of bread and putting it in your mouth with your fingers is fully ok, dipping the piece of bread in a dip or soaking it in your salad or main dish should be done using a fork.
Sharing your food: when ordering at a restaurant, most people will order different dishes. They will then often offer others at the table to try their dish or ask directly to try yours. If someone notices you’re not going to finish your food, they’ll often ask if they could finish it for you so it doesn’t go to waste.
Ordering and serving food: there’s no particular order in which ordered dishes will arrive. The dish, which is prepared first, will be first served, there’s no waiting for everyone’s food to be ready and served at the same time. This means that people will start eating the moment their food arrives, hence they’ll offer to share if yours hasn’t been served just yet.
Culture Of Eating: A Typical Celebration In Bulgaria
So you’ve been invited to celebrate with your (new) Bulgarian friends.
The first rule is simple but very important: you don’t go just slightly hungry; you go with an empty stomach, preferably you haven’t eaten the whole day and you’re almost starving. There will be food, not just enough, not just plenty; there will be so much food as to feed a whole army. And chances are, not a whole army is going to join you.
Your plate will be served full. No, not just full, there will be a huge mountain of freshly prepared Bulgarian food for you to devour. And as soon as you start seeing the bottom of the plate, more food will be put on the table. I’m very sorry to inform you at this point, that it’s extremely impolite to leave food on your plate. You’ll just have to eat it all, there’s no way around it.
Remember that you arrived almost starving at the celebration? This is good when it comes to eating; not so much when it comes to drinking. Because, you see, in Bulgaria, the typical aperitif is usually a rakia – strong, 40%+ alcohol drink. Don’t even think of drinking it like a shot, with your empty stomach you’ll collapse before they start serving the food. Instead, sip it slowly and wait for the starters, usually several kinds of salads, dips and pickled vegetables, to arrive.
Depending on the type of celebration, a soup might be served. By the time you’ve finished the starters and the soup you might not feel any more hunger but beware – you’re not even halfway through.
Wine is usually served with the main dish (or dishes), red being more popular than white. Don’t even think of watering down your wine, even if you find it too strong for your taste.
Towards the end of the main dish, people around you may switch to drinking beer. Now, don’t ask me why they didn’t just start with beer and stuck to it during the whole meal. It’s a mystery to me as well. That’s how complicated this is – even a Bulgarian like myself doesn’t quite get it…
You’ve made it through the main dish and all the beverages and you can still stand up and are articulate enough to engage in the conversations around you, congratulations – everyone around you is more or less very impressed with you!
Now comes the hard part: just as you thought it was over, the hosts will start bringing pastries, sliced cheese, lukanka, and pastirma, desserts, chocolates and – you’ve guessed it – more alcohol. Relax, it’s probably just grandma’s favourite liqueur, nothing too strong, but very sweet and very dangerous. Still not a good idea to do shots, just sip it slowly.
If you, however, wish to skip the liqueur, this time it’s ok to say no and just ask for a coffee. By the way, coffee in Bulgaria is by default espresso or in some regions Turkish mocca – if you wish for a filter coffee, you’re out of luck.
In case the feast you’ve been invited to has started at lunch, by the time you get to your coffee it’s already dinner time. Don’t make the mistake of staying for dinner. Just take your goodbyes and walk to your accommodation, if possible.
If you’ve been invited to dinner, now it’s probably the middle of the night. Part your ways with your friends and sleep till noon on the next day. The host might have packed you some of the desserts, so start your day with lots of ayran to help you get over your very nasty hangover, a strong coffee and then finish the leftovers from last night.
Warnings About Spoilt Food And Dangerous Drinks
As with most destinations, caution when choosing a place to eat and ordering food is advised. Using common sense and sitting at a table in a restaurant, which already has several guests and looks clean, is in most cases enough to save you from trouble. If the food, served to your table, doesn’t look fresh – return it immediately.
There have been cases of fake alcohol being served, the consequences of which range from a bad hangover the next day to permanent blindness. Sticking to beer and wine is hence much safer, as the worst that can happen with these drinks is to receive them watered down.
Another fair warning, especially when drinking home-made high percentage alcohol beverages, is that even if they taste smooth and don’t burn your insides immediately, chances are their alcohol percentage is 50, 60 or even 70 in some regions. So having more than a small glass, no matter what your host insists, can end with a terrible hangover or even a hospital visit.
So Now You’re An Expert On Bulgarian Food, Congrats
Food is a huge topic in any country, I admit. It’s impossible to cover every aspect of it and since eating is an experience for the senses, writing about it is extremely hard.
Yet I hope you’ve learned at least a few basic rules on what to order and how to consume Bulgarian food.
I hope you’ll agree that Bulgarian food is a good reason to visit Bulgaria and I’ll be very happy if you one day share your (hopefully positive!) experience.
Until then, share this guide with everyone you know, who might be interested in trying something new, astonishing and different – let’s spread the word about the delicious Bulgarian food!