Friday, March 29, 2013

Bulgarian Cuisine = Nutritious and Delicious

During the two years my wife and I lived in Sofia, Bulgaria, one of our most memorable experiences was tasting the traditional dishes served in local restaurants and Bulgarian homes. We fell in love with Shopska Salad, drank strong doses of rakia with our meals, and even came to appreciate the white cheese that was sprinkled over our orders of French fries. 

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!

Related Story:

A Taste of Bulgaria in Tel Aviv


  1. Thanks Becky! Coming from a seasoned traveler like you, I take your comment as a true compliment! Please visit again!

  2. The food looks wonderful! Great article. A few years ago I visited a friend in Bulgaria and took a trip to his father's farm. We had a couple of meals made up entirely of their produce and it was amazing. Simple yet surprisingly tasty! One of my other favorite meals was a yogurt and cucumber soup in Sofia. It was great to help cool me down during the hot summer day.

    1. You're referring to Tarator Soup, perfect for a hot day indeed! Thanks for stopping by!

  3. Sounds and looks delicious, would love to try some of these! Azerbaijan shares with Bulgaria the Ottoman heritage and that's why a lot of dishes found in the Balkans are also eaten in the Caucasus.

    Visit our blog if you're interested in Azerbaijani cuisine:

  4. Shopska! That was the name of it. I remember having that every day when I was in Bulgaria. And when I found Bulgarian feta here in LA, I found heaven. Can you get it in Israel?

    1. Yes, shopska salad! We can't get the exact same Bulgarian cheese here in Israel, but something similar. Come on over and we'll make a meal of it!

  5. Your experience in Bulgaria with the culture, the cuisine and the people is very impressive
    I remember my grandparents making moussaka, yoghurt, and even cheese- the old fashioned way- fresh, from scratch- when I was little. They were made with love and without preservatives, colours, sweeteners or other artificial additives.
    I have loved getting to know your blog and you through it!

    1. A lot of Bulgarian food is indeed made with love!

  6. Very interesting. particularly the story about shopska salad and its link with Communist Bulgaria.

  7. Ooooh, wish I tried banitsa when I passed through Varna a couple of years ago...

    1. Make another visit to Bulgaria = there's plenty of banitsa for you to try!

  8. Very interesting to compare and contrast Bulgarian and Greek food. The Greeks don't like to acknowledge the Turkish influences, however.

  9. You know what's weird. I have been making Shopska for more then half my life. It's just something I whipped up one day. Iv always used American Feta though. Every other ingredient is the same though. I been buying Bulgarian white cheese by the kilo for 3.99$! No preservatives and is way better then Feta especially the stuff here. American Feta has 5 to 10 different preservites I'm it. I dont get why? The whole point of cheese is it's preserved so absolutely no need at all for preservites. America is very strange... any how I looked up some Bulgarian recipes to make. I ended up on this page just to learn i'v all ready been making Bulgarian food my whole life. And evidently it's called Shopska. I also dip bread in yogurt with dill and cucumber in it haha. I am Italian , Greek, spanish ,and polish so maybe my it's my DNA? Lol honest I been on a Bulgarian diet since I was a kid and had no idea...