In order to give readers an idea of how tasty Bulgarian cooking is, I interviewed Vesela Tabakova, who lives in Bulgaria with her family of six (including a Jack Russell Terrier). Vesela is the author of several interesting cookbooks that emphasize natural, healthy products. Her books include Vegan Bulgarian Recipes, Favorite Veggie Nosh from Bulgaria, and Amazing Quinoa.
Thank you, Vesela, for taking the time to answer my questions about Bulgarian cuisine.
Q: How would you define Bulgarian cuisine?
A: Bulgarian cuisine is tasty, healthy, and nutritious. Cooking traditions in Bulgaria are centuries old and a lot of the dishes are prepared according to recipes handed down from generation to generation.
Bulgarian cuisine is famous for its large variety of fresh salads which accompany every meal. They are prepared from tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, onions, cabbage, carrots, turnips, and potatoes. Basic seasonings are salt, oil, vinegar, paprika, parsley, and dill. Yogurt and feta cheese are always present on Bulgarian tables in one form or another.
The most important and healthy feature of Bulgarian cuisine is that food is still cooked slowly, on low heat, which allows it to retain the nutritive qualities and achieve superb favor at the same time.
Q: Is Bulgarian cuisine different from the cooking of Serbia, Macedonia, Turkey, and Greece?
A: Cuisine across the Balkan countries is quite similar, but there are slight regional differences and certain unique features that are worth exploring. Each country has its specialties while many dishes are shared.
Rolled, or stuffed, cabbage leaves and vine leaves are made in every Balkan country, as well as stuffed bell peppers, grilled meat, and pastries with cheese filling. Stuffings for cabbage and peppers can include cooked grains, chopped carrots, onions, beans, rice, or ground meat. Some Balkan countries use pickled cabbage leaves, while others use steamed cabbage and sauerkraut.
Q: The Ottomans ruled Bulgaria for 500 years. What mark did they make on Bulgarian cuisine?
A: The fact that Bulgaria was under Ottoman rule for almost five centuries is one of the main reasons our cuisine is heavily influenced by Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cuisines. The Ottomans brought over pitas, dolmas and all kinds of sweets made with chopped nuts and sweet syrups.
Q: When we lived in Bulgaria, we noticed that most main dishes were made of pork. Are other types of meat not popular?
A: Pork is the most widely used meat in Bulgarian cuisine but fish, chicken, and lamb are also eaten regularly. Beef and veal are less common as most cattle are bred for milk production.
Q: Shopska seems to be Bulgaria’s national salad, if not its national food. What are its origins?
A: Shopska salad is really the best loved dish in Bulgaria. It is basically made by combining diced garden tomatoes, cucumbers, onion, raw or roasted peppers, feta cheese (Bulgarian white brine cheese) and parsley with a light dressing of sunflower oil and red wine vinegar.
Shopska salad is named after the region just outside the capital Sofia. It is believed that Shopska salad became particularly popular during communism in Bulgaria thanks to the state tourism agency -Balkantourist. It was offered in all the restaurants and resorts that were run by this organization and that made this salad really famous.
A: In Bulgaria there seem to be only two types of cheese. What are they, and why aren’t other types produced in the country?
A: The two main types of cheese produced in Bulgaria are yellow cheese, called Kashkaval, and White Brine Cheese. Both are traditional Bulgarian dairy products and among the most consumed products in Bulgaria. Probably the reason for producing only these two types of cheese is that these cheese varieties are made with yogurt and Bulgarian yogurt is the best yogurt in the world. Thanks to the unique combination of live bacteria of two strains: Lactobacillus Bulgaricus and Streptococcus Thermophilus, Bulgarian yogurt has an exquisite aroma, thickness, acidity, and taste. The Streptococcus Thermophilus bacteria goes into action first and prepares the perfect environment for Lactobacillus Bulgaricus, which then starts multiplying and slowly turns the milk into yogurt.
Q: Your cookbook includes Monastery Style Bean Soup. We’ve seen other dishes labeled as being “monastery style”. Do these dishes originate in the monasteries of Bulgaria?
A: After Christianity was officially adopted in Bulgaria in 865 AD there was a period of intensive monastery construction. The monasteries became important and influential religious, cultural and literary centers and helped preserve the national spiritual values during the years of Ottoman occupation.
Bulgarian recipes that are labeled "monastery style" originated in the monasteries and are usually vegan or vegetarian - prepared by the monks for the Eastern Orthodox fasts. Some of these recipes are, for example, Monastery style bean soup, Monastery style lentils, and Monastery style vegetable stew.
Q: What role do fruits play in Bulgarian dishes?
Bulgaria has a wonderfully mild climate and fertile soil and is full of vegetable plots and orchards. Fresh fruit and vegetables are abundant, the most typical fruits being apples, pears, plums, peaches, apricots, cherries, strawberries, quince, grapes, watermelons, yellow melons, and pumpkins. Nuts, especially walnuts, are also widely cultivated.
All these fruits are very popular and are eaten either fresh, dried, or incorporated in different pastries and fruit cakes. In Bulgaria it is also common for meat to be cooked with fruit, for example veal with quinces or plums.
Typical for the Bulgarian cuisine is the home food preservation and every family prepares for the winter by making lots of different jams and kompot - fruit stewed in sugar water.
Q: One of our most favorite pastries in Bulgaria was banitsa. What varieties of this special Bulgarian dish are there?
A: Banitsa is one of the most famous and most popular breakfast
foods, but is also eaten as a snack, or, if made with a fruit filling,
for dessert. It is a made of homemade dough or with ready-made filo pastry with various fillings, such as cheese, spinach, rice, meat, pumpkin, or apples.
Q: No discussion about Bulgarian cuisine would be complete without a mention of rakia. This very strong drink seems to be a matter of Bulgarian pride, yet it’s most popular when it’s homemade. What can you tell us about it?
A: Rakia is the traditional alcoholic drink in Bulgaria. It is a clear alcoholic beverage made by the distillation of fermented fruit. It has alcohol content varying anywhere between 40% and 95% making it a very strong drink. Rakia can be made from grapes, plums, apricots, pears, or quinces. In Bulgaria, the most popular rakia is grozdova - made from grapes, but slivovitza (rakia made from plums) is also popular. Making rakia at home is as traditional as preparing pickled vegetables, or preserving fruit for the winter. Bulgarians are very proud of the specific qualities of their home-made rakia and are always keen to invite you to try it and comment on its taste.
Rakia is generally served with Shopska salad, snow white salad, pickled vegetables, or any other salad which forms the first course of the meal. In winter rakia can be served heated or infused with different spices: its taste is stronger and it is believed to help in preventing and curing many respiratory diseases.
Thank you, Vesela, for bringing back many mouth-watering memories of living in Bulgaria. The pictures were provided by Vesela and served to increase my appetite for Bulgarian cooking!
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