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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)

Serbia - Novi Sad - Shopska Salad

If Bulgaria has a national dish, it is certainly shopska salad, the queen of all Bulgarian food. While you will find it masquerading on other Balkan countries’ menus, especially in Macedonia and Serbia, this dish is unequivocally part of Bulgarian cuisine. Shopska salad is as beloved by its citizens as it’s possible to love a salad. This Bulgarian dish is simple and best eaten in the height of summer, when tomatoes are at their very best. It is somewhat similar to a Greek salad but the ingredients and preparation are slightly different.

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.

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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.

Banitsa (баница)

Sofia - Bulgaria - Banitsa at Starata Gospoja brunch food

Second only to shopska salad in terms of beloved national dishes, you can’t miss trying a banitsa if you are exploring Bulgarian food. Banitsa is a traditional breakfast pastry or anytime snack. It is similar to borek which is found in other Balkan countries but the filling is a little different and so is the shape of the pastry.

Made of a phyllo dough brushed with butter, inside it houses a blend of Bulgarian dairy deliciousness. Local yogurt, sirene cheese, and eggs are all mixed together and baked in their phyllo house, rolled into a snail-like coil which is then served in slices. You can buy banitsa at any bakery specializing in it (called a banicharnica in Bulgarian) which you’ll find all over Sofia and every Bulgarian city, to be exact. Sometimes you will find variations including spinach or pumpkin, but the cheese and yogurt banitsa is the classic. Virtually all banitsa is vegetarian-friendly.

Tarator (таратор)

By Ikonact – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, [link]

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)

By Gillgaramond – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, [link]

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 chorba in an unpretentious mountain hut.

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Bob chorba is simple, utilitarian food, made of nothing more than dried white beans, onions, tomatoes, savory herbs, and carrots. Occasionally it will include meat but generally it is a vegetarian dish (though it may use meat-based stock, so strict vegetarians should inquire). If no broth is used, it is likely vegan.

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)

By Kiril Kapustin, CC BY 2.5, [link]

Something I’ve yet to try due to my intense dislike of tripe, shkembe chorba is a beloved staple of Bulgarian cuisine nonetheless. This tripe soup is considered a hangover cure by many Bulgarians (the rakia or cold beer that is recommended to go alongside it may also have something to do with that).

While in general Bulgarian food is not very spicy, shkembe chorba is a rare exception, usually streaked with plenty of hot chili flakes. Shkembe chorba typically includes calf’s tripe, milk, paprika, garlic, red wine vinegar, and plenty of hot pepper. Many people add even more vinegar to taste.Some versions also include tomato and onion, but this is not essential.

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.

Lutenitsa (лютеница)

By Utopiah – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, [link]

Now back to a Bulgarian food I love – lutenitsa! Sometimes called the “Bulgarian ketchup,” this delicious red pepper and tomato dip is somewhat similar to ajvar (Balkan people, please don’t crucify me for this blasphemy). Technically lutenitsa should mean something like ‘hot sauce’ as ‘lut’ means hot, but it rarely is spicy at all.

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.

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Kashkaval (Kашкавал)

By Иван – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, [link]

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 cheeses (check out the section on sirene below). Kashkaval is a mild white cheese sort of similar to swiss or edam in terms of taste, like a much milder cheddar.

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.

Sirene (сирене)

The other essential Bulgarian cheese, you will find this in banitsa, grated on top of a shopska salad, or sometimes just served plain in a giant slice at an IKEA waiting for some weirdo like my boyfriend to order it to go alongside his Swedish meatballs…

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.

Lukanka (луканка)

By Ikonact – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, [link]

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 lutenitsa. Occasionally, the skin of a lukanka will be white – this is part of the curing process and it is perfectly safe to eat.

Bulgarian Food: Main Dishes

Kebapche (кебапче)

By Ikonact – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, [link]

Every Balkan country has their version of the kebapi/ cevapi/ cevapicici/ kebab. Bulgaria’s is the kebapche. I can tell you that it is basically no different than most others except that Turkish kebab and Bosnian cevapcici will likely not contain pork due to religious reasons, whereas a Bulgarian kebapche is almost certain to include pork or at least a blend of pork and beef.

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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 best grilled meat is often a point of pride and argument within the Balkans… however, I’ve heard Bulgarians begrudgingly admit that the winner is Serbian cevapi and I’ve even heard of a few people who hop the border to taste some Serbian grilled meat.

Kufte (кюфте)

By Cemertem, CC BY-SA 3.0, [link]

Basically kebapche… but flat. These minced meat patties are made of the same meat blends as kebapche, with a little extra onion or garlic thrown in. They are then flattened like a hamburger and grilled. They’re served without a bun, typically with fries and some dips like lutenitsa. Note that the picture above is of Turkish kufteshock, horror! – but the Bulgarian version is essentially the same, perhaps slightly less spiced.

Meshana Skara (мешана скара)

All the makings of a meshana skara

When the only answer to “what meat should we have?” is “all of it,” you’re going to want to order a meshana skara, literally mixed grill.

This will typically include kebapche, kufte, a pork steak, and a skewer of pork meat similar to a souvlaki, and sometimes if the chef is feeling particularly healthy a thinly pounded chicken breast will also be in the mix. It won’t leave you hungry, but it’s not exactly well-rounded. However, Dr. Atkins would approve.

Moussaka (мусака)

Bulgaria - Sofia - Bar Musaka Bulgarian Food Musaka

“Wait, isn’t moussaka Greek?” you wonder as a horde of Bulgarians gather at your window prepared to throw stones….

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.

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Lozovi sarmi (Лозови сарми)

By Noumenon – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, [link]

Stuffed grape leaves are another dish that people often confuse with Turkish or Greek cuisines… mainly because they are in both.

However, lozovi sarmi is 100% Bulgarian as well and you definitely will find this on almost every traditional Bulgarian restaurant’s menu. Don’t call them dolma! Bulgarian sarmi are stuffed with rice, onion, and spices, so they are generally vegetarian-friendly. They are extra good with a drizzle of yogurt on top!

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)

By Goran Andjelic – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, [link]

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 sarmi treatment, the most typical filling for stuffed peppers is a ground beef/pork blend with some rice mixed in to fill it out.

However, a vegetarian version featuring cheese and whisked eggs also exists (aka a low-carb banitsa – I kid, I kid).

Sach (сач)

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?

That’s sach for you, a popular dish in the mountain towns of Bulgaria that is also sometimes found in traditional Bulgarian restaurants in Sofia. It’s enormous, it’s rustic, it’s freaking delicious.

Mish Mash (миш маш)

Bulgaria - Borovets - Sunnys Bulgarian Food Mish Mash

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!

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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

Palachinki (Палачинки)

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.

Tikvenik (Тиквеник)

Quite similar to banitsa but dessert-ified, tikvenik uses a pumpkin purée sweetened with brown sugar, warm spices, and orange zest instead of the typical yogurt-cheese blend inside. On top, extra sweet goodness is added, such as powdered sugar or chopped nuts.

Baklava (баклава)

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.