13 Traditional Bulgarian Dishes to Try

I spent about a month in Bulgaria and in that time I fell in love with Bulgarian cuisine. In fact, it was probably my favorite cuisine of all the countries I’ve visited so far.

Bulgarian history is complicated. The country has been a crossroads of many civilizations throughout time, and thus, its food is a collection of different cultures. Greek, Ottoman, and Slavic culture along with the country’s unique climate combine to make Bulgarian cuisine special.

It’s an ideal mix of fresh vegetables, yogurt, cheese, spices and grilled meat, but what I particularly loved about Bulgarian food was not just what they eat but how they eat it. Bulgarians cherish time with family, and eating together is one of the best ways to enjoy each other’s company. Traditional dishes are shared amongst friends and family over the course of a few hours. One night, Dewey and I went out to a traditional restaurant and we were seated next to three older Bulgarian men who were still there chatting, laughing, and eating after we had paid the bill (and we were there for 2.5 hours)! Bulgarians never rush to finish their meal, and the waiter will often leave you be until you call him/her back over to order more.

Here are some of the many delicious specialties you should try while vacationing in Bulgaria:

1. Banitsa

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If you’re like me and prefer savory over sweet dishes, banitsa is the perfect breakfast option for you. It’s a popular pastry made with filo dough, butter, and Bulgarian cheese and then baked in the oven. Though not low in the calorie department, it’s definitely worth a try. Plus, it’s a great for munching on-the-go while you explore the city. One of the tour guides I had in Sofia told me he eats one every morning!

2. Lyutenitsa

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Lyutenitsa is a spread made mostly of smashed red peppers and tomatoes and packed with flavor. There are many variations of it: puréed or chunky, spicy or mild, and different vegetables can be added as well. Most Bulgarians grew up eating their Grandmother’s homemade version on toast for breakfast. I wasn’t lucky enough to try the homemade kind, but fortunately it’s sold in grocery stores all around Bulgaria. I tried various takes on the spread, but my favorite was the chunkier kind with eggplant added. I ate it almost everyday I was there (I especially liked having it with scrambled eggs— though not typically eaten this way, I’d definitely recommend it). I even bought two jars to carry with me to our next destination!

3. Yogurt

It would be a crime to leave Bulgaria without tasting the yogurt (or to Bulgarians, “sour milk”). Bulgarian yogurt is so important that it’s considered to be a part of the people’s identity and something they are extremely proud of producing. Seriously, yogurt is everywhere and consumed in every way: as a dip, salad, cold soup, drink, or sold homemade in jars outside of locals’ homes! What makes their yogurt different is a special kind of bacteria, Lactobacillus bulgaricus (yes, even the bacteria is named after the country), that grows naturally in the Bulgarian climate. It makes the yogurt thicker and SO fresh. Locals believe it’s linked to good health, cures hangovers, helps sunburns, and can even make you live longer!

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My favorite dish that you’ll find on almost every restaurant menu was the yogurt salad. It’s made with cucumber, dill, garlic, and walnuts. It was so simple yet so refreshing especially before a heavier grilled meat dish. Another common dish that I didn’t have a chance to try (but I will on my next visit) is the cold yogurt soup called tarator, which is made with similar ingredients as the salad and eaten in the summer.

Even if you’re not a yogurt fan, give Bulgarian yogurt a chance. It’s unlike anything sold in grocery stores in the States!

4. Ayran (Sour Milk Drink)

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I became obsessed with this drink while I was visiting Bulgaria. It’s sour and slightly salty and made from the same Bulgarian yogurt mentioned above. It can be sipped with breakfast or lunch; I usually had it with a banana in the morning, and it kept me full for hours. You can find it served fresh in restaurants or sold by the bottle in grocery stores. It contains that same bacteria that’s in the yogurt, so it’s great for your health!

5. Shopska Salad

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Can you see the colors of the Bulgarian flag?

Every restaurant in Bulgaria will have shopksa salad on the menu, and that’s because its creation is tied to when the country was under Communist control. The government wanted to create a dish that represented Bulgaria and could be replicated and sold in every restaurant. So, the shopska salad was invented. It’s made with red pepper, cucumber, tomato, onion and topped with freshly grated cow cheese. The ingredients are meant to represent the colors of the Bulgarian flag.

Though no longer a Communist country, the shopska salad remains a staple of Bulgarian cuisine. What makes a shopska salad so delicious is the freshly grated cow cheese on top. Dewey and I found it so flavorful we didn’t need to add any dressing!

Nowadays, you can find many other salads offered on the menu, such as a shepard’s salad, which is essentially the same as shopska but with ham and egg. I found the produce in Bulgaria to be so fresh that any salad you pick will be tasty!

6. Rakia

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Rakia can range is color from clear to a yellowish tint

Rakia is the national drink of Bulgaria. It’s a fruity brandy with high alcohol content that is popular across all of the Balkans; however, Bulgarians argue that it originated in their country. Warning: asking a Bulgarian where it originated is a sensitive question! It’s a staple of Bulgarian culture and they believe it can help cure anything. Upset stomach? Drink rakia. Sore throat? Drink rakia. Headache? Drink rakia.

It can be made from various fermented fruit, though Bulgarians commonly use grapes, apricots and plums. It’s served in a small glass and traditionally consumed throughout the meal. Bulgarians never drink it without food, as it’s very strong— especially if it’s homemade. Though Bulgarians usually drink a few glasses of it during dinner, I suggest trying one glass with your salad or appetizer and switching to wine if you want to remember the rest of your meal!

7. Mezze

 

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Lukanka

Reflecting its Greek past, mezze is a big part of dinner out in Bulgaria. If you’re unfamiliar with Greek mezze, it’s essentially a selection of small dishes served as appetizers. I love this tradition. There’s just something so pleasant about chatting with friends and family, drinking wine (or rakia as the Bulgarians do) and enjoying small bites. Many different options are available to order, but most common is white cheese and dried meat called lukanka (Dewey’s favorite). I liked the stuffed vine leaves the best. Order a selection of plates, and be sure to take your time eating just as the Bulgarians do!

8. Stuffed Peppers

Peppers are found in many Bulgarian specialties, so it’s no surprise that they also eat them stuffed. Usually made with red peppers for more flavor, they’re filled with minced meat (either pork or veal), rice and a variety of spices. They can be either boiled or baked and sometimes even fried. You can order them as an appetizer or pick them up at a local market (check out the Ladies Market or the Central Market Hall by the Sofia History Museum) and have as a snack between sightseeing like I did!

9. Beans

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As a majority of the country is Orthodox, most Bulgarians fast around Christmas and have to avoid eating anything that comes from an animal. Thus, beans became a popular alternative for protein. The most common dish is the bean soup. It’s slowly cooked and full of spices. You can also find them roasted and served as a starter (like the ones in the picture above).

10. Kebapche & Grilled Meat

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Pork filets, kepabche, sausage, and a meatball

Okay, so kebapche (similar to ćevapi) is a dish common across all of the Balkans, but it’s still worth trying during a visit to Bulgaria. It’s a type of grilled minced meat similar to kebabs made with spices and often eaten with fries.

Bulgarians are meat lovers, so you can also find other grilled meat on the menu, such as meatballs, pork filets, roasted lamb, pork neck, and sausage. It’s all quite simple, but the spices make it so tasty!

11. Clay Pot Dishes

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Stew with pork, potatoes, carrots, tomatoes, and peppers— still on fire!

Bulgarians make many wonderful stews and casseroles in clay pots— a tradition that stems from Ottoman times. You will find beautiful pottery sold all over Bulgaria, and that’s because they believe cooking with them adds more flavor, and I couldn’t agree more! They make many specialties with clay pots, but most common is a slowly cooked mixture of chopped vegetables with chicken, beef or pork.

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Onion pie baked in a clay pot

Various pies, soups, eggs, and more can also be cooked in these clay pots. The combination of the colorful pottery and the hearty flavors makes this tradition the perfect meal to eat after a long day of sightseeing.

12. Moussaka

The Bulgarians have a history with the Greeks that dates back to when the Thracian people first migrated to the area. So, naturally, there is a lot of Greek influence in their food. However, Bulgarians like to add their own twist to some traditional dishes like moussaka. Rather than making it with eggplant like the Greeks, they use potatoes, yogurt, yellow cheese and minced meat. I don’t have a picture because I didn’t have the chance to try it, but it’s definitely at the top of my list for when I return (especially knowing how delicious Bulgarian yogurt and cheese is)!

13. Bulgarian Wine

I had no idea wine production was a big industry in Bulgaria before I arrived, but I had fun tasting a variety of local wines with my dinner— especially red wine. I quickly learned that I didn’t need to ask the waiter whether the wine was dry because almost all Bulgarian wines are dry (which I prefer). Wine production dates back to Thracian times in Bulgaria and they are arguably as tasty (and WAY less expensive) as Italian wines!

 


 

The Reality of Travel: A Disaster in Bulgaria

When traveling for a long time like I am, issues are bound to happen. Even if you’re only traveling for a week, problems can occur. Everything isn’t going to run as smoothly as you might hope. That’s just the reality of travel. You can do your best to research and plan so that you’re prepared, but at the end of the day, things happen that you just can’t predict. I know this because I’ve had to learn this lesson a few times— one of them being the time we accidentally scaled a mountain in Bulgaria…

While in Varna, Bulgaria, Dewey and I decided to take a day trip to see a fortress in the mountains of a small town called Provadia.

When we arrived at the tiny train station, Dewey pulled out his Google Maps for walking directions to the fortress, which we could see from where we were because it sits on a cliff plateau overlooking the town. Everything was fine until the directions told us to take a left turn. When we looked to our left, there was nothing but a steep forested hill. There was a slight break in the trees that I guess looked like it could have been a path, and it was heading towards the fortress, so we figured that’s the way we were supposed to go. Who are we to go against Google Maps’ directions!?

We began to hike up this so-called path. As the hike went on, I became more and more doubtful, but Dewey remained optimistic… and so we trudged on.

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We reached a point where the “path” looked like it used to be a river but had dried up and left only rocks. It was getting steeper, too, like almost a 90 degree incline. This is where you’d probably think we’d recognize that this was DEFINITELY not the way to the well-visited fortress and turn around. NOPE. We kept going. And for two reasons: I think we both thought that we had come so far already (we had been hiking for about an hour) we didn’t want to give up. Also, we were hopeful that even if this wasn’t the way, we might run into the correct route if we went just a bit further. Wishful thinking?

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Climbing on all fours, we gripped on to grass patches as shards of rock shattered and fell out from under our boots. We were both drenched in sweat, with cuts on our hands and scratches on my legs from thorns poking at me through my leggings. We were literally scaling a mountain. At this point, what we were doing was not only stupid, it was dangerous.

Out of breath and patience, we finally reached the top and my heart sank. We were nowhere near the fortress. Instead, we were standing at the base of the massive cliff plateau, and there were no signs of any marked path around us. We were feeling exhausted and defeated. We’d come all this way, climbing a mountain for nearly two hours only to reach a dead end. Not to mention, the way up had been so steep that I didn’t think it was possible to go back without getting seriously injured.

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The totally wrong route we took up the mountain

But, with no other choice, we descended back down. Immediately, my feet slipped out from under me and I fell onto my back. Hard. Luckily, this was the only time either of us fell.

A total of four hours later and with sticks in our hair, an aching back, dirt on our pants and wounded pride, we arrived back at the spot where we had originally made that dreadful decision to turn left.

And sure enough, if we had walked just 50 feet further, to our left, there was a marked entrance and a concrete walkway to the fortress.

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When traveling, you have to make the most of whatever situation you’re in. You can’t dwell on the mishaps or you’ll ruin the rest of your vacation. Especially when traveling long term, bumps in the road are inevitable.

Even though we were both feeling frustrated, tired, and beating ourselves up about our mistake, we decided not to let the disastrous four-hour detour get in the way of our plans to see the fortress. We could have turned around and gone home right then, but I’m so happy we didn’t.

We strolled through the ruins of the old gate along the rickety wood bridge and explored the remains of a medieval church. We ate our well-deserved sandwiches while taking in stunning views of the surrounding mountains and the town below. We were the only people there, and it was so peaceful. The sun was setting, which made my photos even more beautiful.

Nothing is ever as perfect as that Instagram photo makes it seem. Social media is misleading. While my Instagram might be a collage of beautiful places intended to inspire people to travel the world, it’s important to remember the reality behind the photos. Traveling isn’t always dazzling views and luxurious places— it can be difficult, uncomfortable, and tiring, too. I might be smiling in this photo with Dewey at the top of the fortress:

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… But what you can’t see is my sore back from falling, and the fact that I was sweating uncontrollably an hour before, unsure if we were going to have to call the Bulgarian police to come rescue us. (As if we had cell service anyway…)

This is just one of many not-so-desirable instances Dewey and I have run into on this trip. I’ve been attacked by spiders while sleeping in my bed and had to switch Airbnbs (literally my WORST NIGHTMARE come true). In Moldova, our host canceled our reservation the day we were arriving and we had to quickly find somewhere else to sleep. We even spent an entire day commuting and $100 trying to hike to glacial lakes in Bulgaria only to find out that the mountain was too snowy and the route was closed, so we had to go all the way back home.

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Posing after our failed attempt at hiking to the glacial lakes— Our cab driver felt bad for us & let us snag a few pics on the way down the mountain.

Through all of these issues, I’ve learned that what matters is how you deal with the problem. It doesn’t do anyone any good to be negative. Sometimes you just have to have an “it is what it is” attitude and move past it. Overall, the good that has come from this trip of a lifetime has definitely outweighed the bad, and I don’t regret a single moment of it (okay, I could have done without the spiders…).

Whether you’re traveling for a week or a year, expect problems to occur, and try to have a good attitude when they do. Something might happen with your accommodation, you miss your train, you lose your favorite pair of sunglasses (or gloves in my case, RIP somewhere in Switzerland). But don’t let it ruin your entire vacation. Deal with it and move on so that you can make the most of the rest of your time.

Dewey and I look back at the fortress story now and laugh. I’ve never taken the saying “you live and you learn” quite as seriously as I do now!