Bulgarian food isn’t widely known outside of the country, and one of the most frequent questions I get from friends and family back home is “what is Bulgarian food like?”
I’m not sure exactly what they’re suspecting, but they always seem surprised when I answer that in my mind, Bulgarian cuisine is a blend of Greek and Turkish, with a whole hell of a lot more barbecued meat and dairy products thrown in.
I guess what my friends and family from back home expect of Bulgarian cooking is a diet full of meat, accented with potatoes, beets, and herring – confusing Bulgaria’s more Mediterranean diet with countries like Russia and Ukraine (this is mostly because Americans are bad at geography). In reality, it’s quite easy to find vegetarian Bulgarian dishes on nearly every menu, though due to Bulgaria’s love affair with its cheese and dairy products, vegans won’t be so lucky.
Without further ado, here’s a quick guide to 21 classics of Bulgarian cooking. Of course, this isn’t exhaustive, but this is a good primer of all the most common dishes you’ll find in Bulgaria, their ingredients, and their name in Cyrillic (helpful if you go off the beaten path!).
Bulgarian Food Classics: Salads, Soups, Snacks, & Starters
Shopska Salad (шопска салата)
If Bulgaria has a national dish, it is certainly
A true shopska salad is made of roughly chopped fresh summer tomatoes and cucumbers, plus sweet green peppers and red or green onions with a truckload of finely grated sirene cheese (a local Bulgarian feta) and some parsley on top. This coats each bite of salad with delicious, salty cheese – just how it should be.
Fun fact: the salad is the same colors of the Bulgarian flag! Shopska salad is always vegetarian and can be vegan if you ask them to leave off the cheese… but then it won’t be a shopska salad but rather a srpska salad, a distinctly sadder salad.
Funner fact: It is often served with a shot of rakia at the beginning of a meal, which is how I think all future salads should be consumed, tbh.
Second only to
One of my all-time favorite Bulgarian dishes, tarator is a cold yogurt soup best enjoyed in the sweltering summer months. If you have a dill aversion, look the other away as dill is a key ingredient in this delicious soup.
Other essential ingredients in tarator include cucumber and garlic, all mixed and mashed into a delightful purée that is so delicious it’s basically drinkable. This is friendly for vegetarians.
Bob Chorba (боб чорба)
Bean soup is one of the most beloved Bulgarian dishes you can eat in a Bulgarian mountain hut, and I will forever associate the joy of finishing a tough hike with eating a slightly underseasoned bowl of bob
It will never win any culinary awards but it is incredibly soothing and soul-filling, especially in the brisk mountain air after you finish an incredible hike in Bulgaria’s beautiful mountains.
Shkembe Chorba (шкембе чорба)
Something I’ve yet to try due to my intense dislike of tripe,
While in general Bulgarian food is not very spicy,
While it’s not something I’ll be ordering any time soon, it’s a beloved part of Bulgarian cooking and thus deserves a place in this Bulgarian food guide.
Now back to a Bulgarian food I love –
Lutenitsa is made of roasted red peppers (usually picked in their summer prime), tomatoes, and carrots, sometimes adding eggplant as well though this is not mandatory. It is enjoyed basically anywhere and everywhere. My favorite way to eat it is slicked on a slice of artisan bread with some kashkaval sliced on top – stick it under the broiler or in the oven for a few minutes for a knockoff “Bulgarian pizza.” Lutenitsa is always vegetarian and should be vegan-friendly as well.
Ah yes, I mentioned it above and you may have wondered what it is! Put simply, kashkaval is one of the two most beloved Bulgarian
Generally, it is made of cow’s milk, though you can also find it made out of sheep’s milk, or even a blend of the two.
The other essential Bulgarian cheese, you will find this in banitsa, grated on top of a
Sirene can be made of sheep, cow, or goat cheese. It is rather similar to Greek feta, only that it is only allowed to be produced with a specific Bulgarian bacteria (the good kind, I promise) in Bulgaria.
This is the most essential Bulgarian cured meat, quite similar to salami. It is rather dry compared to Italian salami but no less tasty. It is often compressed quite a bit into a semi-rectangular, almost cylindrical shape, which makes it look a bit odd in stores but makes it taste no less delicious!
It is served plain as a snack, sliced on the diagonal, or as part of a larger Bulgarian platter with fresh cheeses and dips like
Bulgarian Food: Main Dishes
Every Balkan country has their version of the
It is spiced, but rather simply, with salt, pepper, cumin, and maybe some garlic if the chef is feeling particularly whimsical. Which country makes the
Meshana Skara (мешана скара)
When the only answer to “what meat should we have?” is “all of it,” you’re going to want to order a
This will typically include
“Wait, isn’t moussaka Greek?” you wonder as a horde of Bulgarians
Jokes aside, moussaka is widely loved on both sides of the Bulgaria-Greece border, but there are a few small but key differences. For one, Greek moussaka tends to use eggplant as the main ingredient besides meat in this dish, whereas in Bulgaria you’ll find potato taking the place of eggplant. Despite this switch, the dishes are otherwise rather similar, made with minced meat (Bulgaria’s version tends to use pork), a tomato sauce, and a yogurt-based sauce on top before being baked to perfection in the oven.
sarmi (Лозови сарми)
Stuffed grape leaves are another dish that people often confuse with Turkish or Greek cuisines… mainly because they are in both.
Note: I’ve included these and other stuffed vegetables in the ‘mains’ section; however, you’ll often find them in the appetizers section on Bulgarian menus.
Zelevi sarmi (Зелеви сарми)
Stuffed cabbage leaves are the national dish of Bulgaria’s neighbor to the north, Romania, but they’re popular below the border as well. Generally, these are not vegetarian and are stuffed with a minced meat like pork as well as rice, then poached gently in a tomato sauce
Chushki burek (Чушки бюрек)
Have you figured out yet that Bulgarians love stuffing things? Basically, a bell pepper given the
However, a vegetarian version featuring cheese and whisked eggs also exists (aka a low-carb banitsa – I kid, I kid).
Have you ever wanted just a plate of meat and vegetables… but you also wanted it to feed a family of four and also be on fire?
Mish Mash (миш маш)
Bulgarian food is not always the most vegetarian-friendly but there is one dish that is sure to make any vegetarian happy (and vegan cry – yea, sorry vegans, Bulgaria is a tough place for you!): mish mash!
Made of scrambled eggs and whatever vegetable is on hand – typically bell peppers, tomatoes, and onions, plus some sirene cheese for good measure – it’s a simple dish that does the trick when you’re hungry and you want a meat-free meal.
Bulgarian Food Classics: Desserts & Sweets
These pancakes are Bulgaria’s answer to crepes and you’ll find them sold on the street in nondescript shops at all hours of the day. You’ll also find them on virtually every menu, so if you have a sweet tooth, you can’t miss them! Generally, they are served with jam, but Nutella is slowly taking over.
Quite similar to banitsa but dessert-
An Ottoman import turned Bulgarian favorite, you’ll definitely want to try this sticky-sweet Bulgarian dessert during your time in Bulgaria. Made of that beloved phyllo dough that also features in banitsa, this time it’s soaked in sugar syrup or honey and layered with chopped walnuts. The result is a delightfully sticky, ultra-sweet layered ‘cake’ of dough and nuts held together by honey.
Originally from California, Allison has been living in Bulgaria for the last two years and is obsessed with traveling around the Balkans. She has been published in National Geographic, CNN Arabic, Matador Network, and the Huffington Post. She loves befriending dogs, drinking coffee, geeking out about wine, and cooking food from around the world.