The depth and variety of Bulgarian cuisine may come as a surprise to many of the nearly 9 million tourists this eastern European country sees each year. I was certainly caught off guard by Bulgaria in many ways and my stomach was overjoyed as a result.
Bulgarian food can be described as Turkish-Lebanese cuisine with a spicy Germanic twist. What initially sounds familiar begins to take on a distinctively Bulgarian flavor the longer you spend eating your way through Bulgaria’s national menu.
1. Tarator (Cold Yogurt Soup)
Very similar to the vegetarian Turkish dish ‘cacik’, this cold yogurt, dill, cucumber, and walnut mix is a Bulgarian staple that seems to be most associated with national pride. Tarator was, in fact, the first thing 4 separate Bulgarians mentioned I taste whenever the topic of food came up. The yogurt is heavily watered down and meant to be sipped like a soup – not dipped in like tzatsiki.
2. Shopska Salad
The Bulgarian shopska salad resembles a traditional Greek salad up until you get to the cheese. Instead of feta, a heaping pile of tomatoes, cucumber, and onions is topped with an equally generous amount of sirene cheese. The cheese is much softer than traditional crumbled feta and gives the shopka (named for the Shopi region in the Balkans – not because it sounds “chop”) a milky twist. A simple starter to many Bulgarian lunches and dinners.
A term borrowed from Turkish and named after the clay pot guvech is traditionally cooked in, this hearty vegetable stew is often loaded with eggplant, tomatoes, olives, peppers, and a few other additions. Typically it’s meat, not sausage as shown in the photo below that accompanies all of the other plants you’re eating out of a steaming clay pot.
The origins of moussaka aren’t clear although this dish with the Arabic name is most famous in Greek form. The Bulgarian version has a much more adventurous recipe, made with a surprisingly flavorful base of ground pork and beef in a sea of potatoes with a thin cheese layer to top it. Much more meat and potatoes with much less mushy custard top compared to Greek varieties.
Only the top middle portion of meats in the photo below is the dried pork and beef combination salami called lukanka. It’s got a strong flavor and chewy nature that’s gives it a lot of taste in a small bite compared to its Bavarian cousins to the west.
This is another instance where my stomach got the better of my notebook as tends to happen with my overzealous appetite. Kyopolou is the eggplant spread, in brown, near the top right of this appetizer plate. (And unfortunately the only one of the four I can remember the name of on this plate. The tastes though, I’ve got them ingrained in my memory.) Kyopolou is made with garlic and often spread on bread – which by the way seems to be a requirement of any Bulgarian table with food on it.
This spicy sausage that’s tough to chew is common throughout the Middle East and found in omelets, dancing on bread, or eaten straight like this Bulgarian variety below. Not quite as pungent in smell, but with a stronger sumac flavor than its eastern versions, sujuk is one of a long line of meat products Bulgarians have enhanced with simple spice combinations.
The single most pleasant food surprise I experienced from Bulgaria was sarma – a variation on Greek grape leaves or Turkish meat dolma. The cold olive-oil version of this common Bulgarian recipe is one of my favorite foods, probably the first thing I’d ask for in a last meal request. As someone who avoids meat in general I wasn’t expecting much until yogurt, grape leaves, and dill combined in my mouth to leave a lasting impression. The key ingredient behind it all is the use of pork instead of ground beef.
A Quiet Twist On Regional Cuisines
I don’t mean to take away from the Bulgarian kitchen, which is refreshing for anyone who loves eastern European hearty dishes or Mediterranean mezes; a careful culinary combination from many diverse cultures. Acting as a gigantic recipe sponge over centuries of rule by the Romans, Greeks, and Ottomans, dish upon dish is layered with even more divergence.
I haven’t even mentioned kebapcheta (slightly spicy meat-tubes), shashlik (vegetarian or otherwise), veal tongue (tastes better than it sounds), or the strong alcoholic drink rakia to wash it all down with. (No relation to raki, it’s made out of fermented plums.)
Bulgaria might be lacking in your general travel psyche – a result of that stern name I’m convinced – and it’s cuisine might be the last thing you’d think of. Especially considering it’s next to palate powerhouses like Greece and Turkey, you might regrettably overlook one of the best menus in the Balkans and beyond.