When asked to name a popular national cuisine, there are several countries that immediately spring to mind. Italy, France, India and China would probably be the names on most people’s lips. Bulgaria, we’re willing to bet, would feature less often. But perhaps that should change.
By all but Bulgaria’s closest neighbours, too little is known about the exciting and varied cuisine of this former Soviet country. Its position in southeastern Europe, close to the Asian border, means it has benefited from a variety of delicious culinary influences, while still maintaining a unique flavour that is all its own. Bulgarian cuisine has some elements in common with Greek, Turkish and central European culinary traditions, as well as a number of influences from India and the Middle East, which likely arrived with Indian and Persian traders via the Eastern Roman (later Byzantine) Empire.
Bulgaria has a diverse culinary heritage, thanks to various geographical factors that make some areas particularly favourable for certain types of produce. The country has a wide variety of local dishes, with stews and cured sausages being particularly popular. Many dishes are served with Bulgarian yoghurt, while sirene, a white brine cheese with a flavour similar to feta, is also a popular ingredient.
If you want to sample some of the culinary delights Bulgaria has to offer, why not try a tasting tour of Sofia? The Bulgarian capital’s emerging restaurant scene is one of Europe’s best kept secrets, with an eclectic mix of hidden venues, vegan restaurants, organic food stores and cocktail bars springing up all over the city. Check out our guide to Bulgaria’s must-try dishes to find out more about the range of culinary delights on offer.
Turshia is a classic winter dish of pickled vegetables, originally developed as a way of preserving produce for use during the colder months. It is made using assorted vegetables, which typically include different combinations of peppers, cauliflower, carrots, cabbage, green tomatoes, cucumbers or cabbage. The vegetables are chopped into chunky pieces and pickled in vinegar, brine and sugar, with added herbs and aromatics like black pepper, dill, parsley, celery, bay leaf, onions and garlic. With its sharp, tangy flavour and wonderfully crunchy texture, turshia works well as a starter or as an accompaniment for meat dishes.
Shopska salata, or Shopska salad plays an important role in Bulgarian cuisine. A simple salad made of cucumber, tomato, peppers and onions, with salty white sirene cheese sprinkled over the top, Shopska salata has acquired something approaching national dish status, partly due to its popularity, and partly because its ingredients echo the white, green and red of the Bulgarian flag. It is traditionally eaten by newlyweds as their first meal together after the wedding ceremony, and is a popular appetiser in general. Start your meal with a Shopska salata and a glass of Rakia, a homemade and highly-potent fruit brandy.
Bulgarian Main Courses
Lukanka is a richly flavoured cured sausage, with a distinctive flattened shape. It is made from pork and beef and seasoned with cumin, black pepper and salt, and dried over a period of several weeks, during which time it acquires a thin layer of white mould that adds to the flavour. Perhaps the most popular of a large number of regional Bulgarian sausages, lukanka comes in three main varieties. Karlovska, from the town of Karlovo, contains more pork than beef, and includes sweet red pepper; Smyadovska, from Smyadovo, is also more pork than beef, but also contains cardamom and garlic, and finally, Panagyurska, from Panagyurishte, contains more beef than pork, and enjoys protected EU status as a regional speciality.
Sarmi is a popular winter dish, traditionally served on Christmas Eve. Made from vine or cabbage leaves stuffed with rice, meat and spices, and sometimes including vegetables like onions or carrots, this dish is reminiscent of Greek dolmades, and other, similar dishes are popular throughout the Balkans and the Middle East. Stuffed cabbage leaves, or zelevi sarmi, are usually served as a main dish, with the smaller vine leaves, or lozovi sarmi, are typically enjoyed as a starter or side dish.
Musaka is a popular dish made from layers of potatoes, ground pork, eggs, onion and spices. It is related to Greek moussaka, but where the Greek dish uses eggplant, the Bulgarian version uses potato instead. It is traditionally served with tangy Bulgarian yoghurt poured over the top, and is so loved by Bulgarian men that many joke they will only marry a woman who cooks the perfect musaka.
Meshana skara is the ultimate treat for meat lovers. The Bulgarian version of a mixed grill, it usually comprises kebapche, a lightly-spiced, sausage made from grilled mincemeat and kyufte, a meatball similar to Indian kofta, along with pork steak and skewers of pork meat. This hearty dish is often served with fries and lyutenitsa, a tasty red pepper relish featured in our side dishes section, and washed down with a cold Bulgarian beer.
Shkembe is a hugely popular dish in Bulgaria, and while some people may be put off by the thought of a soup made from tripe, others will embrace the zero-waste, environmentally-friendly aspects of this warming, spicy soup. Shkembe is traditionally made by boiling minced tripe in milk, paprika and oil, with garlic, vinegar and a generous amount of chilli added to the mix. Used by Bulgarians as a hangover cure, this dish could be your saviour if you’ve overdone it on the Rakia the night before.
Tarator is another popular soup dish, but any similarity to shkembe ends there. Served cold, and sometimes even over ice, this light, refreshing soup is made from fresh cucumber and yoghurt, and flavoured with garlic, dill, herbs, and vinegar or lemon. Made from Bulgaria’s famous tangy yoghurt, it is usually eaten on hot summer days as a way to keep cool.
Bulgarian Side Dishes
Fries with sirene is a distinctly Bulgarian take on the irrepressible french fry. Quite simply a dish of fries covered with a liberal sprinkling of Bulgarian sirene cheese, this dish is so popular it has its own abbreviation - instead of asking for fries with sirene, or parzheni kartofi sas sirene, people simply ask for a PKS.
Palačinka (Bulgarian Pancakes) are a thin crêpe-like pancake made from an egg, flour and milk dough and fried in butter or oil. They can be eaten with savoury or sweet fillings, much like crêpes, with traditional fillings including Bulgarian jam made from apricot, plum or strawberry, or honey and walnuts.
Lyutenitsa, already mentioned as a popular addition to the meshana skara mixed grill, is a bright red chunky relish made from tomatoes and roasted red peppers, with onions, garlic and cumin. Often served spread on a slice of bread and sprinkled with everyone’s favourite, sirene cheese, lyutenitsa is especially popular with children.
Banitsa is a traditional Bulgarian pastry made from layers of crispy filo pastry. It is often eaten at breakfast with a fermented wheat drink called boza, and can be savoury or sweet. Savoury versions usually include egg and sirene cheese, while a sweet banitsa may include fillings like apple and walnut. At Christmas, lucky paper charms are hidden among the layers of banitsa pastry, with one containing a lucky coin said to bring good fortune to the person who finds it.
Torta Garash is an indulgent chocolate and walnut cake invented in the Bulgarian city of Ruse by Austrian-Hungarian confectioner Kosta Garash in 1885. This delicious national favourite is made from five layers of walnut sponge with a dark chocolate filling, all covered with a luxurious chocolate ganache, and often decorated using dedicated coconut or crushed almonds arranged in a ring around the edge of the cake.
Funiki s krem is another popular pastry dish, made from a roll or funnel of pastry filled with whipped cream or confectioners cream. It is similar to Polish favourite rurki, but while rurki is typically made with a wafer-like pastry case, the pastry used for funiiki s is krem is soft and flaky.
You may have noticed that Bulgarian cuisine bears some similarities to dishes from nearby countries, and if you like the sound of Bulgarian banitsa, you’re sure to love Turkey’s answer to this tempting flaky pastry, the burek. With local variations available from Bulgaria to Bosnia, burek is perhaps the tastiest legacy of the Ottoman Empire. To find out more about the history of this versatile Turkish treat, along with ideas for sweet and savoury filling options, check out our guide to the traditional Turkish burek.