This is Part I of a three-part series about Bulgarian food. In Part II, I’ll write about five cabbie-recommended places to eat in Sofia.. In Part III, I’ll tell you about the taxi ride to the airport, and the intriguing food tip from our driver. For now, here are 13 or so of my favorite things to eat (and drink!) in Bulgaria.
Why Bulgaria? Until I met my favorite taxi driver in Berlin, I’d never been there. I couldn’t have told you where Bulgaria was on a map of Europe. It was never a place I particularly wanted to go.
But you know I’m a sucker for a recommendation from a taxi driver. Especially a recommendation from my favorite taxi driver, who’s half-Bulgarian, and who’s traveled to Bulgaria every summer since he was eight years old – in part, he says, for the tomatoes.
In brief: Bulgaria is a country about the size of the state of Tennessee, on the Balkan peninsula, north of Turkey and Greece. About 7 million people live here, not including the more than 1 million who’ve emigrated. Some statisticians claim it’s the poorest country in Europe. For 500 years, Bulgaria was ruled by the Ottoman Turks, until the Russians helped liberate it in 1878. After World War II came communism, and dictatorship, which lasted until 1990.
And what about the food? You taste traces of Turkey here, and traces of Greece: Shopska Salata, the national dish, resembles what most of us now think of as Greek salad. Vegetables – especially tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers and potatoes — are hugely important in Bulgarian cuisine, and many older-generation Bulgarians are formidable gardeners. Until the 1940s, Bulgaria was a country of small farmers – more out of necessity than any Jeffersonian or Tolstoyan idealism. Today much of its agriculture remains unindustrialized.
Yogurt, which some claim was invented here (The Lactobacillus Bulgaricus culture is in fact native to Bulgaria), is plentiful, too, eaten on its own or used as an ingredient in dishes like snejanka (a.k.a. Snow White salad) and yaitsa po panagurski (poached eggs with fresh dill and yogurt) or tarator (yogurt and cucumber soup).
Traditionally, there are two kinds of cheese in Bulgaria: Sirene (what we’d call feta) made with cow, sheep, goat, and/or buffalo milk and kashkaval, a sour, semi-soft cow’s milk cheese that Bulgarians call ‘yellow cheese’.
A typical appetizer platter will have slices of kashkaval and chunks of sirene, along with lukanka (salami that looks like a flattened out billy club and is made with beef, pork or whatever meat there is on hand) and sujuk (cumin and garlic-flavored sausage).
As is true in many countries, meat equals prestige in Bulgaria. Grilled kofte (minced meat patties made with beef and pork), kebabche (minced meat sausages) and shish kebab are popular main courses — and roadside snacks. Pork (свинско) is the most popular meat. According to cookbook author Vesela Tabakova, beef and veal aren’t as common, as cows are raised to produce milk.
In cities, small towns, and in the countryside, you’re likely to run across a lot of Скара бира (Skara Bira – literally ‘Grill Beer’) stands. The quality of the meat can vary at these spots. Generally, a pricier sausage is likely to be a better sausage, though this isn’t always the case.
If you love herbs as much as I do, you’ll like the way Bulgarians cook with them. Fresh dill and fresh parsley show up in a lot of dishes, though fresh thyme, rosemary, basil and oregano are rare. But wonderful spice mixtures like Sharena sol (literally: colored salt, sort of a Bulgarian riff on Lebanese za’atar) and tchubritza (winter or summer savory and thyme) make up for any lack of variety in fresh herbs.
Recipes for Sharena sol and tchubritza vary from region to region, and from cook to cook. Now I keep containers of both on the kitchen table, for sprinkling on things like feta cheese and buttered toast.
Water: You may think I’m exaggerating when I say the water alone is worth a visit to Bulgaria, but it’s true. The country has hundreds and hundreds of natural springs – both mountain springs and sulfurous hot springs.
Though the collapse of communism has left some of the springs unmaintained, it’s still common to see people stopping on the side of the road, filling bottle after bottle of water from the springs that do function. One of my favorite springs of all: the one smack dab in the middle of Sofia, next to the old Turkish bathhouse, where (mostly elderly) people gather day and night to collect steaming water from the twenty or thirty continuously flowing fountains.
Beer: Good water equals good beer. Though wine, especially homemade wine, may be more popular than beer in Bulgaria, it seems easier to find good beer than good wine here if you’re on a budget. My favorite taxi driver’s favorite Bulgarian beer? Zagorka, a Czech-style lager brewed in the central Bulgarian city of Stara Zagora. (Note to entrepreneurs with a wild streak: Microbrewing hasn’t really caught on in Bulgaria yet, but in terms of the raw ingredients, I think it could work, and maybe even work beautifully.)
A proper Bulgarian meal starts with a salad – preferably a Shopska Salata – and a shot of rakia, the national drink, which is similar to grappa, and can be made with fermented grapes, apples, plums, quince, pears and/or apricots. Rakia and Shopska may sound like a strange pairing, but it’s a fantastic combination – think of it as the equivalent of port and dark chocolate, or oysters and champagne.
Homemade rakia (domashna rakia/домашна ракия), made at a communal distillery like the one pictured above, is usually better than the lightweight (40-proof) stuff you’ll find in the stores. For many Bulgarian men, making rakia is a yearly ritual they take very, very seriously. I get the impression a lot of them make it just to give it away to their friends and family.
If you don’t know anyone who makes rakia, you can always buy it. Peshtera (Пещера) is probably the most popular budget brand. Kailashka (Кайлъшка) is my favorite one under 10 dollars. I don’t recommend buying homemade rakia at outdoor markets, though – I’ve tried it three times and it was terrible every time, better for disinfecting things than for drinking.
A few last miscellaneous notes
Bulgarians love bread with a passion I’d compare to the French. Every meal in Bulgaria is accompanied by white bread – no matter what. Bread with salad, bread with meat, bread with tomatoes and cheese, bread with the Thai curry I made for a Bulgarian friend visiting me in Berlin. “For us,” he explained, “bread is like an edible security blanket.”
Peppers: If you visit Bulgaria in late summer or early fall, you’ll notice strings of red peppers hanging from balconies, rafters and doorways in the cities and in the countryside. Roasted red peppers, served with garlic, oil and vinegar, or ground up as the main ingredient in a delicious spread called lutenitsa, have extraordinary, sun-concentrated flavor here. Many people also dry their peppers to make their own sweet or hot paprika, which you can find at the Women’s Bazaar (Женски Пазар) in Sofia or at almost any outdoor market.
Olives vs. sunflowers: Despite all the sunshine, the winters are too cold to grow olives in Bulgaria, though olives, and olive oil, are becoming more readily available now in stores. Sunflower oil is still the cheapest and most common oil, sunflowers being one of the most important crops in the country. Unshelled sunflower seeds (семки) are a beloved street snack, and Bulgarians gobble them down at astonishing speed using an astonishing technique I haven’t come close to mastering.
Banitsa and bo’za is the classic breakfast in Bulgaria. Banitsa is similar to Turkish borek, with layers and layers of filo dough stuffed with sirene (feta) and rolled into a flat cylinder. If you can, try it in the morning, fresh out of the oven. (By the afternoon, bars serve it microwaved, killing the pastry.) Tradition is to accompany banitsa with a bottle of bo’za, a fermented millet drink that looks a lot like chocolate milk and has a sour taste I still haven’t acquired.
‘Western’ food (e.g. pizza, burgers, hot dogs, soups, and processed things like cookies, chips and crackers), is gaining a foothold in Bulgaria. It’s both a status symbol and part of the worldwide shift toward mass-produced fast food. The result? Unless you happen to know any Bulgarian grandmothers, it can be difficult to find a decent traditional meal here.
I’ll write more about this, and include some eating tips from my favorite Berlin taxi driver, in my next post.
Meanwhile, if you have any observations or tips about Bulgarian food, please feel free to share your comments!