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.
I love food posts. It all looks delicious, and the Guvech looks particularly appetizing to me.
The guvech was wonderful, burned my mouth I couldn’t wait for it to cool down!
No hairy sausage? My grandparents went to Bulgaria in the 70s and although I have no idea if this actually exists in reality the hairy sausage story has grown over generations into family folklore.
I hope you ate the Shopska Salad the Bulgarian way, in the morning with a glass of Rakija.
Very interesting, I haven’t even hear of that! I saved my rakia for the evenings though, not sure I could do anything if I started in the morning 🙂 Strong, strong stuff.
1) This post made my mouth water, 2) there seems to be a lot of meat in the food! yum… and 3) this post made my mouth water :)))
Very hearty – maybe to keep warm for all those cold winters? 😛
Just Mmmmmm! Love all the similarities in the names to Turkish and Greek dishes (and no doubt Middle Eastern dishes, too). Think we made to go and sample ourselves some Bulgarian cuisine at some point. 🙂
I’m sure you guys would love it – and come back home with some wonderful recipes too 🙂 The beer isn’t bad either…
Interesting to see that they have so many vegetarian options. Several of the above I’d love to try. And I’m very glad I read this when I wasn’t hungry!
There are plenty of vegetarian selections – that lima/fava bean dish is so good. Wish I could recall the name of it, though hoping someone will chime in 🙂
I believe it is called “Bobena salata” (bean salad.. or something like that)
Thanks, it helps!
How similar is food from the Balkans! For example, Serbs have sarma, djuvec, sudzuk, shopska salada, and slivovica (plum raki). Albanians have their version of sarma that is called dollma, tarator and raki made form grapes.
Certainly an underrated region in terms of food if you ask me!
Yumm! I’ve been to a Bulgarian restaurant only once and had a stuffed-peppers inspired dish. Can’t remember what it was called. I loved the picture of Guvech. 🙂
Ah the stuffed peppers, so good in all their forms. A quick cheat lead me to the name pulnena piperka 😉
haha, that’s a musical name
the title of this post makes out these are dishes your stomach wouldn’t enjoy.
I guess it could be read that way too, hopefully though the content convinced you otherwise?
Bulgaria is not the first country that comes to my mind when picking a new destination, but the food surely looks awesome 🙂 Looks like they got some great food over there.
It caught me very off guard as well, I really enjoyed my time there. They should rename it to something more catchy perhaps 😛
Bulgaria food is great.
It’s political incorrect to say this, but Southeastern European food is more tasty than Northeastern European food.
It helps to have more fresh ingredient options.
In general I’d have to agree – the more you can grow, the better the variety in the cuisine 🙂
We were in Bulgaria a few days ago, I really enjoyed their oven baked vegetables and potatoes with giant bean stuffing!
Just read you were in Istanbul…but with you guys it might be somewhere else by now! Hard to keep up 😉 Bulgaria > Turkey is a good food connection, you’re eating well!
And Im hungeryyy !!!
it deserves two comments!
Btw, Bulgaria is veeery close to you, worth a trip 😉 Your stomach will be happy.
As a Bulgarian that lives overseas now and craves constantly the foods you described so wonderfully, I had goosebumps reading this.
The plate with the dips – its potato salad and ljuteniza (the red dip). The kyopulu is the the one around the olives. The white one is ‘snejanka’, very similar to tzatziki, but creamier.
Cant wait to get back home in a few months and eat my way through it all – plus banitza, pulneni chushki, tripe soup (did you try it? Great after too many rakijas) and many, many more.
Thank you for this, although now I am ravenous and its midnight in Saigon and noodles wont quite do it.
Thanks for giving me the names I neglected to write down since I was sooo busy eating! I did miss the iskembe soup, though I’ve had what I suspect is similar in the Turkish version.
How long have you been away from Bulgaria?
I left 13 years ago, but have been back a few times. It has been 3 years since I have been back there and cannot wait to show my kids the place and the food, although I am pretty sure they will not even attempt shkembe soup or many other considered yucky by western standards foods.
Maybe you can get away without mentioning the ingredients the first time – or exaggerating the truth perhaps 😉
I am Bulgarian that lives in the US and I enjoyed your post a lot. I just wanted to make a small correction, the red spread is lyutenitza, not kyopolu. Thank you for the balanced review.
Thanks Ivan, I must have gotten it confused with it right below. My hunger got the best of me 🙂 I’ll make the correction.
Hey, I am also a Bulgarian. I currently live in Austria and I am writing a food blog, so it’s really cool to see that somebody is trying Bulgarian food and spreading the love! If you are still curious about the spreads you got there on your Kyopoolou picture, the red one is Lyutentsa (roasted pepper spread, that is awesome with Bulgarian brine cheese over a fresh slice of bread), as Ivan already said, the brown spread below is the Kyopoolou (roasted peppers, eggplant, onions, garlic and tomatoes), which I believe originates from Turkey but we’ve made our own, the white one next to the brown one is Katuk (yoghurt,brine cheese and garlic) and the one below is bean salad.
As for the gyuvetch, I think the picture depicts a satch (the name comes from the flat type of dish it’s cooked in), while gyuvetch is made with generous amounts of peas, peppers, eggplant,etc (but no olives) and usually pork pieces, as you mentioned and is prepared in a deep clay pot with a clay lid.
If you ever go back, you have to try the tripe soup!
Tsvety ( http://iscreamkitchen.blogspot.co.at/ )
P.S. We don’t normally eat shopska salad in the morning, especially not with rakiya, unless your day has started midday haha 😉
Yet another Bulgarian expat (30+ years in the US with occasional vacations in Bulgaria) who has been in Bulgaria for a bit and had a chance to try most of these again to remind me of my childhood. Chiming in to say thanks for the bog entry (i.e. spreading the love).
Thank you for the nice comment and happy to share the moment too 🙂