I really didn’t know what to expect as far as Bulgarian food goes. Maybe a cross between borscht, gyros, and kofte. To be honest, even though I was looking forward to trying it, I really didn’t have high expectations.
After living in Turkey, where the food is never, ever bad, I just didn’t think Bulgarian food would rate. Boy, was I wrong. It was amazingly delicious. What we didn’t expect was the proclivity towards yogurt and cheese!
After having visited Bulgaria twice now, I rate their food pretty high up on the list of reasons to go. How could I not, I love all the things they do–cheese, meat, and yogurt. We’ve listed all the foods we loved during our visits in this Bulgarian food guide, and we also tell you which of the five you won’t want to leave the country without trying.
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A Love Affair with Yogurt
I think that Bulgarians are taught at a very young age the health benefits to yogurt (kiselo mlyako or soured milk), and they try to include it in as many meals as possible. We were constantly being offered yogurt. The very first night we were in the country, we felt pressured to have it for dessert, but it was sheep’s yogurt. Then we had yogurt with “zeleni smokini” (figs) which was pretty good, and we were also offered yogurt for breakfast by our hostess, Eveline, in Melnik.
I like yogurt, but I’m not as big a fan as Jim is. He can eat it everyday with just a little bit of honey. How healthy! On that first night trying sheep’s yogurt, I was a little taken back with the gamey taste. It was nothing like the Turkish yogurt I was used to. I have to admit I thought about swearing it off for the rest of the week. Thankfully, I didn’t.
One of our most memorable dinners was in Melnik where we had the restaurant to ourselves, and the chef, bartender, entertainer, owner of the place had us laughing most of the evening. When it was time for dessert he kept yelling “zeleni smokini, zeleni smokini.”
It became our mantra during our entire road trip. It just means figs, but it sounds so good, doesn’t it? We loved the home preserved figs, and ended up buying some to bring home from a couple of women selling them along the road later on. That yogurt was okay, but for me, still a bit gamey.
The next morning, Eveline said that every breakfast must include yogurt. When she served it, I just couldn’t. Jim ate mine, but Eveline was watching with a sharp eye.
I wasn’t the only one that was leery of the sheep’s yogurt, so was Lisa who was traveling with us. She didn’t eat hers either. So, the next thing we know Eveline is bringing out two pieces of very pink cake for just Lisa and me. She even said it was only for us because we did not eat our yogurt.
The cake was very moist and tasty. I’m sure there was some yogurt hidden in the ingredients. It is probably the way all good Bulgarian mothers trick their kids into eating the healthy yogurt that they need. It’s true, I’m an overgrown five year old!
Bring on the Cheese!
After my pre-trip research, I was ready to try the famous Shopska salad. Simple fare made from chopped cucumbers and tomatoes and topped with tons of shredded white cheese, called Sirene, which is similar to feta. Scrumptious!
No kidding! Not one day went by without us having at least one Shopska. It’s that good, and Shopska is just the beginning of the cheese parade. Apparently the Bulgarians love their cheese just as much, if not more, than their yogurt.
I know this to be true, since many, many dishes sport the delicious white or yellow stuff. The yellow cheese is called Kashkaval and is especially good melted…on anything!
They have fried cheese, French fries covered with cheese, grilled cheese, meat with cheese…well, you get the picture. If you want it with cheese, they will provide, and you WILL like it!
Traditional Bulgarian Foods
I was surprised at how many foods I recognized by name. Thanks to the Ottoman Empire many foods I was used to in Turkey were similar. I wouldn’t say they were exactly the same, but the name gave me an idea what it was, and it definitely made picking something off the menu easier.
I think we hit the jackpot with banitsa. Similar to my favorite Turkish borek, banitsa is a Bulgarian staple, of a very thin dough stuffed with a myriad of things such as cheese (of course), meat, or vegetables.
As travelers, we were staying in hotels and pensions where most times the breakfast was included. However, we prefer to take our chances sometimes and see if we can find the locals and what they are eating for breakfast instead the tired Continental breakfast that is normally served.
We were on the hunt for breakfast, and we saw this tiny shop with baked goods with a humongous line in front of it. That’s always our cue to queue! Now standing in line with everyone else, we could clearly see in the windows and plenty of baked goods were on offer. We tried to listen and pick up what the locals were ordering, but it was just beyond us.
As soon as we tried to order, we ran into that ever-present communication problem and tried to point. However, that only told the vendor what we wanted, not how much. Thankfully, a good samaritan without any English ordered for us. We had no idea how much we were getting, but he got things done, even grabbing our money to pay the shop.
We were grateful, and we had a great breakfast of banitsa. And oh, there was plenty for all of us!
Mekitsas is a fried dough often served with jam. If you’ve tried Hungarian langos or any fried dough at fairs in the USA, you’ll have an idea of its taste. We only saw and had it one time and that was after following the crowd outside of Rila.
Salads were my favorites, and I was happy to see how many varieties of salad were on offer. Jim tried a bunch of different ones, but as you know I was so happy with that Shopska that I had one every day, and some days I had two.
Have I mentioned this is my favorite? After having them daily I was going through serious withdrawals. It’s made of cucumber, tomato, and cheese with a sunflower oil and red vinegar dressing. That’s it, but it’s so addicting. It must be the cheese.
Shopska has a rather recent history, and similar to that of Chicken Paprikash in Hungary, it came into existence thanks to the Soviet regime wanting to make a memorable national dish. Shopska was born, with the three main ingredients the color of the Bulgarian flag.
I did try this salad, mainly because it’s basically a Shopska with some hard boiled eggs and ham on it as well as the normal three ingredients. To be honest, I didn’t need the extra ingredients, but they did taste good.
Jim tried this salad, and was happy to see that it basically was a thick tzatziki with the addition of walnuts on top. As I said, he loves yogurt, cucumbers, and garlic. Well, really, who doesn’t?
Traditional Bulgarian Pickles
Bulgarian pickles, called Turshiya, are ubiquitous throughout the Balkan countries. We had basically the same exact ones in both Moldova and Romania. No matter, though, they are tart and refreshing. Tushiya can be just about any vegetable that you want to preserve, but the most common and the ones we tried were just tomatoes and cucumbers.
The two times we traveled to Bulgaria was in spring and summer, and that means that we wanted to have lots of salads and soups, especially for our lunches. The rainy days in spring brought on a good chill, and the soups took that chill right away.
This was the soup I was talking about warming us up on that rainy spring day. A hearty mix of white beans, some pork, tomatoes, and who knows what else. Let me tell you, it hit the spot!
We didn’t get to try this cold soup the first time we visited Bulgaria, but we did when we went back on our Eastern European Rail Trip in a very hot and humid summer. We sat down to this cool soup of yogurt and cucumbers and we were in heaven.
Traditional Bulgarian Dishes
As I mentioned before, the Bulgarians captured my heart and stomach with their meat and cheese, and especially when they combine them into one hearty dish.
There are a whole slew of meals that are slow cooked in various vessels. Whether you see them called gyuvech, kavarma, sach, or kiremit, these names all mean clay pots, some deeper than others. There are many foods served after being cooked in them, and in my experience they are all delicious.
Think of Lukanka as the salami of Bulgaria. You can find it just about anywhere. It’s great for an appetizer or especially a snack when you are stuck in the car for any length of time.
Stuffed grapeleaves, one of my favorite dishes of all time. Some do have meat in them, but you can also sometimes find them without meat. If you are vegetarian, check first.
Stuffed cabbage, on the other hand, usually has meat and is a heartier dish. Found all over the Balkans, the Bulgarian spice of Sherena Sol (a Bulgarian spice mix made with ground savory, paprika, and sea salt) really ramps it up.
Long fingers of minced meat, somewhat retangular shaped and cooked on a grill. This is a tried and true lunch time option just about anywhere you go.
The mince meatballs are also ubiquitous across the country. It’s no surprise, but my favorite ones are stuffed with cheese. Yum!
A typical mixed grill, the chef will put on the plate whatever meats he has an abundance of, and you don’t have to worry about going home hungry.
This may have been my favorite meal, pork and onions, stewed for hours making a delectable gravy and topped with cheese. So, so good.
Grilled trout can be found almost all over the country, but our most memorable one was at the Rila Monastery in a small restaurant that didn’t seem to have many customers. It was cozy and delicious.
Like many countries in the region, layered dough and sugar water go so well together. Bulgaria’s baklava is simply made with walnuts and cinnamon.
Another dessert handed down from the Ottomans, tulumba will curb your sweet cravings immediately. It’s a fried dough, doused with sugar water, and you can usually find it in small bakeries, although in very few restaurants.
Another big surprise was the abundance of delicious wines. We tried a new one each night and they were all good. We were a little skeptical when we pulled into Melnik and saw the wine for sale being displayed in what looked like used water bottles, but they do have glass bottles, too. It was all very good.
Just as in many places, the name of beer is pivo. Especially on our summer trip, we really enjoyed a cold beer at the end of the day. We liked them all. There are a few beers to try, like:
The Top 5 Dishes You Won’t Want to Miss in Bulgaria
- Shopska Salad – chopped tomatoes and cucumbers, covered with sirene cheese.
- Banitsa – Layered, or rolled dough, stuffed with cheese, meat, potatoes, and more.
- Mencheva Kashta – grilled trout.
- Katino Meze – or any stew cooked for hours in some sort of ceramic pot.
- Kiselo Mlyako – Yogurt!
If you haven’t made it to Bulgaria yet, put it on your list. It’s full of great world heritage sites, beautiful beaches, and amazing food. We hope this guide will help you pick the best dishes to eat when you visit.