This article is excerpted from the IWR’s forthcoming report The New Wines of Bulgaria. We are indebted to Silvena Johan Lauta’s excellent book Romanian & Bulgarian Food and Cooking Arness Publishing LTD 2010 and Alexander Markoff’s Amazing Bulgarian Cuisine-Traditional Recipes 2014 and to the fabulous restaurants in Sofia and elsewhere in Bulgaria where we enjoyed remarkable food and wine.
Traditional Bulgarian cuisine is diverse, wholesome, and fresh. It is distinct although it encompasses many facets of Turkish and Greek culinary practices. The Turkish influence is especially strong as Turkey ruled Bulgaria for nearly 500 years from the late 14th century. Serbian, Slavic and Balkan elements are also present in Bulgarian cuisine as are food from the New World such as potatoes and aubergines. Current day Bulgarian cuisine includes many traditional Bulgarian recipes that have been passed down from generation to generation. Other European foods such as pasta, mayonnaise and cream have also gained popularity. Meat consumption in Bulgaria is reputed to be lower than the European average, given a notable preference for a large variety of salads.
Bulgarians love to eat plenty of fresh vegetables, especially tomatoes, garlic, cucumber, onions and spices, all of which are grown locally. Yogurt is one of the most common ingredients used in cooking and consumption per capita of yogurt in Bulgaria is higher than the rest of Europe. Bulgarian white cheese, a brined cheese similar to Feta, is also widely consumed. Bulgarians also love stuffed vegetable dishes, and peppers are their favorite. Usually baked in summer, peppers are deep-fried and filled with a mixture of cheese and eggs. Fish is an important part of the Bulgarian diet, especially for those living along the Black Sea Coast. Carp caught in the Danube is the traditional dish served on the important feast day of St. Nicholas.
Staples include bread, potatoes, rice, bulgur wheat, dried beans and lentils. A popular spice is chubritza, which is similar to savory/oregano and is widely used in Bulgarian cooking. Other spices include paprika, spearmint, and cumin. The cooking of food on low heat survives from its earliest history with many of the stews or casseroles as well as hotpots and soups being cooked and served in an earthenware crock called a gyuvech.
Bulgaria has many regional dishes. Most but not all regional cuisine consists of local versions of national dishes with different spices and ingredients. Patatnik or klin potato dishes are only served in the Rhodope Mountains; other local dishes include Rodopi cheveme/barbecue and local Smilyan beans. The Thracian region offers special local dishes such as rice pie, burania (sauerkraut with rice or spinach), Thracian katmi or pancakes. Pirin cuisine in the area of Bansko offers slowly cooked meat called kapamna or chumlek, banska kavarma and katino meze, kachamak (maize porridge served with melted butter, paprika and cheese), sami and pastama.
Bulgaria has numerous family food festivals and competitions that celebrate local products and national dishes. The village of Banitsa in the region of Vratsa has an annual competition for the best Banitsa, while the town of Gorma Orahovitsa organizes an annual Sudzhuk festival of a dry spicy sausage. Yogurt is celebrated annually in the village of Suden Izvor where there is also a yogurt museum. The town of Kilsura houses a potato museum and hosts an annual potato festival.
Tarator (cucumber soup) is among Bulgarians favorite soup for summer. It is a cold soup made with fresh cucumbers and yogurt. Garlic cloves, walnuts and fresh dill are often added for flavor. It is often served as a first course instead of a salad. Tarator is often served with kofta, a meat ball or meat loaf dish. In the Balkans and Central Asia, kofta is also made of chicken, lamb or pork mixed with spices and onions.
Other popular soups consumed in Bulgaria include: bob chorba, a very popular dish prepared with dry beans, onions, tomatoes, carrots and paprika, and even some meat; fasul chorba (haricot bean soup) a national dish, also known as monastery soup as it is prepared in monasteries around the country at Easter; meatball soup; agneshka chorba (lamb soup) served on St. George’s Day; ribena chorba made of fresh or saltwater fish and seasoned with thyme, and Bulgarian fish soup.
Bulgaria is known as the “salad bowl” of the Balkans. The summer months offer a rich variety of fresh fruits and vegetables. Salads of all kinds enrich the national and local cuisine. The tastiest fruits and vegetables come from the plains south and north of Stara Planina. Berries, orchard fruits, melons and grapes are among the many commonly used fruits. Bulgarian peppers, tomatoes, cucumbers, onions, aubergines, courgettes (a variety of summer squash), cabbage, and potatoes are also very widely consumed. Many salad dishes, such as shopska and ovcharska (shepherd’s salad), which are among the most popular, originated in the plains. Salads are commonly served with yogurt-based dressings.
Shopska salata of Sofia origins, made from fresh tomatoes, cucumbers, onions, parsley, olives, peppers and white Bulgarian cheese, is the usual start to a meal. It can be ordered in traditional kruchma and mehana traditional taverns and is served as meze with Bulgarian rakia fruit brandy.
Ovcharska salata (Shepherd’s Salad), made with cheese, cucumbers, egg, ham, mushrooms, olive oil, and olives, is served as a meze with rakia or mastika a resin liqueur. Kiopulo (aubergine salad), poor man’s caviar, usually has a smoky flavor and is often served as a puree with yogurt, tahini or mayonnaise and flatbread.
There are numerous regional salads such as Tomato Bake, typical of the Thracian region and made with layers of tomatoes, parsley, Thracian spice mix, breadcrumbs. salt and pepper; Bourgas (winter salad) from the town of Bourgas on the Black Sea coast and made with potatoes, celery, white beans, and sour cream; Plovdiv Salad; Rila, prepared in the villages in the beautiful Rila Mountains in southwest Bulgaria; Kruchmarska Salad (tavern salad made with ground meat, pork, tomato, lettuce, and red onion.
Cozonack (Kozonak) is a traditional Bulgarian and Romanian sweet leavened bread usually prepared for major holidays such as Christmas, Easter and New Years. It is made with almonds or hazelnut with a touch of lemon zest, and is similar to the Italian Panettone although different in shape. Depending on the region, one can find raisins, grated orange, walnuts or hazelnuts in it. Other styles involve the use of a fillings such as walnuts, poppy seeds, cocoa power, rum and raisins.
Kolendra Pitka is also known as Bulgarian Christmas bread as it is typically eaten on Christmas Eve and throughout the holidays. Often a silver coin is tucked inside, and the one to find it should expect good luck in the coming year. Pitka is also used to give a warm welcome such as the one given to Don Winkler and Mike Potashnik, Co-Publishers of the International Wine Review when visiting Chateau Bourgozone.
Yogurt is the pride of Bulgaria and is included in a wide variety of dishes as well as eaten alone for breakfast and at other meals. It is served with beets as a salad with sunflower seeds and parsley. It is fried in breadcrumb coating and found in many dishes such as the cucumber soup Tarator. The famous kiselo mlyako, which is a yogurt made of cows’ milk, is usually eaten plain.
There are two main types of Bulgarian cheese. The hard yellow-colored Kashkaval, which is similar to Dutch Gouda, and the more popular Sirene, a feta-like white cheese made from sheep’s milk, cow or goats’ milk or a mixture. Kashkaval is an essential part of any meze while Sirene appears in a large number of dishes from from filo pastry banista to shopska salad.
Banitsa, a baked cheese pie, is very popular in Bulgaria. It is often consumed with plain yogurt, ayran (a Turkish drink made of yogurt) or boza, an East European fermented drink which is supposed to increase tahe size of women’s breasts. There is a village of Banitsa in the region of Vratsa which has an annual competition for Bulgaria’s best Banitsa. Tutmanik is another multi-layered pastry made with sirene cheese and is commonly served for breakfast in Bulgaria. Patatnik is a potato and cheese pie made in the south.
Chushki Bũrek is a traditional vegetarian dish which uses, sweet long red peppers stuffed with tangy soft creamy feta cheese and fresh herbs, battered and crisply deep-fried, and served with a cooling yogurt sauce and salad.
Zelevi Sarmi are stuffed cabbage leaves made with minced meat, rice and yogurt. They are also frequently made with stuffed veal and pork across Bulgaria. They are regularly served at Christmas and other holidays.
There are various types of dry cured sausages in Bulgaria. Two of the most popular are Sudzhuk, originating from Turkey, and Lukanka. Sausages are regularly consumed for breakfast with feta or other cheese such as kashkaval, fresh tomatoes and cucumbers, coffee or Ayran (a cold yogurt-based beverage). They are also widely available in Bulgarian Mehana, tavern-like restaurants which often have a big wine selection, a grill and even live folk music in some areas.
Sudzhuk is a dry, spicy, compacted, non-perishable sausage manufactured from natural gut filled with minced beef and herbs and spice (black pepper, cumin and savory). The surface is evenly coated with a dry, white, powdery sausage mold. The sausage is cylindrical, flattened and bent into a horseshoe shape. Its ends are tied off and bound together with string.
Lukanka is a salami unique to Bulgarian cuisine. It is similar to Sudzhuk but often stronger flavored. It has a flattened cylindrical shape and is made of pork, veal and spices such as black pepper, cumin and salt. It is sliced thin and usually served as an appetizer or starter.
Babek is a classic Bulgarian dried cured sausage. Kemache is a Bulgarian sausage made with pork and classic Bulgarian spices.
Kyufteta are spicy meatballs made of ground beef, onions, cumin and parsley commonly served as appetizers,
Kebapcheta are char grilled meatballs made of minced meat and spices (black pepper, cumin and salt) shaped like a sausage or a hot dog. Typically a mix of pork and beef is used, although some recipes involve only pork. They are one of Bulgaria’s “best kept culinary secrets” according to one food writer.
Rulo Stefani (Bulgarian Meatloaf) is a dish of Turkish origin consisting of meatballs baked in a yogurt sauce. It is one of Bulgaria’s favorite dishes.
Kavarma is a hearty, slow cooked pork and vegetable stew usually served in traditional earthenware bowls or dishes or gyuvetche. It is also made with chicken.
Monk’s Stew or Gyuvetche (named after the traditional bowl) is a version of the Greek dish stifado and has variations all over the Balkans It was created by monks from the Rila monastery and contains ground beef, potatoes, carrots, chopped celery, and red pepper.
Bulgarian-style Paprikash is a thick paprika-based stew made with veal, chicken or rabbit.
Sach is a hot clay plate. A Banski sach is a mix of different meats and vegetables such as sausage, aubergines, zucchini, tomatoes, carrots, onion, peppers and mushrooms.