16 Bulgarian food classics you cannot afford to miss

Bulgarian food is tasty, fresh and hearty. Bulgaria is famous for its quality vegetables and dairy products and its variety of mild spices. Pork and chicken are the most common forms of meat, though seafood, fish and veal dishes are also popular and lamb has a special traditional place in Bulgarian cooking.

While many of the staples of Bulgarian cuisine you would also find in Turkey, Greece or Serbia, in Bulgaria each of those has its own local flavour to set it apart from the Balkan neighbours’ version. From hearty salads through delicious pastries to grilled meat classics, here’s 16 Bulgarian dishes you absolutely must try during your stay in the country!

1. Baked extravaganza: banitsa (баница)

Baked extravaganza: banitsa (баница)

Baked extravaganza: banitsa (баница)

This piece of greasy pastry deliciousness can be purchased in bakeries all over the country. Its standard variety includes a filling of feta-like white cheese (сирене, sirene), though varieties filled with onions, cabbage, spinach, mushrooms or pumpkin can also be found. For your sweet tooth, you can also try banitsa with apples and walnuts. Banitsa in any of its forms is an inseparable part of a traditional Bulgarian breakfast. Combine it with the thick fermented wheat drink boza for a quintessential Bulgarian experience.

Holiday tip: careful when chewing your piece of banitsa at Christmas or New Year’s Eve! On those dates, banitsa is filled with lucky paper charms which are sometimes easy to chew through. The luckiest piece will contain the coin which means you’ll enjoy a very successful year ahead of you.

  • Standard price: 1.50-2 BGN (1.25-1 €)

2. King of the grill: kebapche (кебапче)

King of the grill: kebapche

King of the grill: kebapche

The Bulgarian cousin of former Yugoslavia’s famous ćevapčići and Romanian mititei, a kebapche is the perfect side dish to a glass of cold Bulgarian beer on a summer day. Though Bulgarians may argue about that, whether the beer is a Kamenitza or a Zagorka makes no big difference. The important part is that the kebapcheta are at least three and include some kind of sides, usually French fries with grated sirene cheese on top, to make the classic “three kebapcheta with sides” (тройка кебапчета с гарнитура, troyka kebapcheta s garnitura).

The dish itself is an elongated piece of grilled minced meat, comparable in shape and size, though not in contents, to a hot dog. As with the smaller ćevapčići that you can taste in Serbia, the meat is usually a mix of pork and beef, though it can be solely pork just as well. A beef version exists, but is uncommon and will normally be labeled as such. Typically, spices like black pepper and cumin will be added to the meat, for a mildly spicy taste.

  • Standard price: 1-2 BGN (0.50-1 €)

3. Head start: shopska salata (шопска салата)

Head start: shopska salata (шопска салата)

Head start: shopska salata (шопска салата)

Bulgaria’s internationally-renowned salad is a simple — but effective — combo of diced tomatoes, cucumbers, onions and peppers, with grated sirene cheese and parsley on top. Whether a century-old meal of the Shopi ethnographic group (as the name implies) or a 1950s invention of communist Bulgaria’s state-owned tour operator Balkantourist, Shopska salad is the perfect appetizing companion to a shot of rakia at the start of a Bulgarian meal. Curiously, Shopska salad’s most prominent colours are white (the cheese), green (the cucumbers) and red (the tomatoes and peppers), which match perfectly to the colours of the Bulgarian national flag. A not-so-subtle hint at Shopska salad’s vital role in Bulgarian cuisine.

  • Standard price: 3-6 BGN (1.5-3 €)

4. Goodness with goodness on top: musaka (мусака)

4. Goodness with goodness on top: musaka (мусака)

4. Goodness with goodness on top: musaka (мусака)

This dish is enjoyed in many variations throughout the Balkan region. The Bulgarian version involves potatoes, eggs and minced pork meat and is a known favourite of Bulgarian men, among whom it is a popular joke that they cannot marry a woman who is unable to cook the perfect musaka.

While the Greek variety of musaka may be based on eggplant, the Bulgarian dish relies strictly on potatoes to layer the meat. The whole thing is traditionally covered with thick Bulgarian yoghurt on top.

  • Standard price: 3-6 BGN (1.50-3 €)

5. Childhood favourite: lyutenitsa (лютеница)

Childhood favourite: lyutenitsa (лютеница)

Childhood favourite: lyutenitsa (лютеница)

Ask a Bulgarian and they would say this thick relish of tomatoes and peppers is the best thing you can spread on your toast. Nowadays it is commercially produced and sold in small jars, though it is still commonly made at home by many Bulgarian families. When you can smell the aroma of roasting peppers emanating from balconies throughout the country in autumn, you know homemade lyutenitsa season is soon to be upon you!

Due to the onions, garlic and cumin used to make it, lyutenitsa is always going to be at least somewhat hot in taste, to which it owes it name… and its popularity. Lyutenitsa is a particular favourite of children. Parents know that a slice of bread spread with lyutenitsa (and sprinkled with sirene cheese, as everything seems to be in this country!) is one of the few ways to persuade their kid to have a snack in-between rounds of hide-and-seek in the neighborhood, for example.

  • Standard price for a small jar: 2-3 BGN (1-1.50 €)

6. Dragon’s breath: shkembe chorba (шкембе чорба)

Dragon’s breath: shkembe chorba (шкембе чорба)

Dragon’s breath: shkembe chorba (шкембе чорба)

While lyutenitsa may be a kids’ favourite, shkembe chorba is strictly the preferred territory of adults. Indeed, it takes more than a bit of guts to try this tripe soup, whether because tripe is a somewhat unusual offal to be used in a soup or because of the way shkembe chorba is customarily generously spiced. You are expected to add vinegar, oil, salt and crude pepper to taste – though you will discover that to Bulgarians this usually means in generous quantities.

Cherished as a hangover remedy, shkembe chorba is offered by many small restaurants and is often consumed by companies during the early hours of the morning right after a night of binge drinking. And because shkembe chorba is very difficult to eat without a cold beer to accompany the hot sips, this anti-hangover strategy naturally fits with the “fight fire with fire” hangover cure that is a beer after a heavy night out.

  • Standard price: 2-4 BGN (1-2 €)

7. Summer refresher: tarator (таратор)

Summer refresher: tarator

Summer refresher: tarator

Tarator and the previous soup on the menu, shkembe chorba, couldn’t be any more different. Unlike shkembe chorba’s firey spiciness, tarator is light, refreshing and cold. A yogurt-based soup of cucumbers, garlic, dill and sometimes walnuts (and even ice cubes!), tarator is a must in those scorching summer days when, say, the sun has forced you into the cool shade of a small restaurant on the Black Sea coast. And if you want to try it in the comfort of your home, here’s how to prepare it!

Tarator is also a great introduction to the renowned Bulgarian yoghurt, famous the world over for its health benefits. You may also like to try Snezhanka (Snow-White), the salad version of tarator which uses strained instead of watered-down yoghurt and is quite similar to Greek tzatziki and Turkish cacık.

  • Standard price: 2-4 BGN (1-2 €)

8. Cloudy with a chance of meatballs: kyufte (кюфте)

Cloudy with a chance of meatballs: kyufte (кюфте)
Cloudy with a chance of meatballs: kyufte (кюфте)

Kyufte is not just your average meatball. You might assume kebapche’s eternal rival is basically the same meat in a different shape… But first of all, unlike a kebapche, a kyufte will typically have pieces of onion mixed in with the minced meat. Parsley is also a regular addition, in contrast to kebapche. And finally, kyufteta are not necessarily grilled (which is the rule with kebapcheta) – in fact, every Bulgarian seems to claim their mother’s home-fried kyufte recipe is the best!

As with kebapche, a mix of greasy pork and beef mince is common in kyufte recipes. Pure pork and/or beef variations are also standard, and lamb kyufteta are a rarer, but well-appreciated specialty. There’s plenty of options for the vegetarians too: potato kyufteta are a beloved lunch classic, but parsley, zucchini or spinach kyufteta have appeared in restaurant menus recently too.

  • Standard price: 1-2 BGN (0.50-1 €)

9. In a pretty pickle: turshia (туршия)

In a pretty pickle: turshia (туршия)
In a pretty pickle: turshia (туршия)

In the past, fresh produce was impossible to get hold of in wintertime, so most people resorted to pickling for their daily dose of veggies. That’s where turshia, Bulgaria’s favourite winter appetizer, comes in. The Balkan and Middle Eastern equivalent to Italian giardiniera, turshia might have a Persian origin, judging by the name.

Turshia is essentially an assortment of vegetables, pickled in vinegar, sugar and brine, with herbs and spices like black pepper, dill, parsley, celery or bay leaf added for taste. Two varieties of turshia are the most popular in Bulgaria: royal turshia (царска туршия, tsarska turshia) and village turshia (селска туршия, selska turshia). The difference between the recipes is a matter of debate, but common turshia ingredients are various peppers, cauliflower, carrots and perhaps green tomatoes, cucumbers, cabbage, onions and garlic.

  • Standard price: 3-5 BGN (1.50-2.50 €)

10. Dial PKS for deliciousness: French fries with sirene

Dial PKS for deliciousness: French fries with sirene
Dial PKS for deliciousness: French fries with sirene

French fries might not even be originally French, but fries with sirene are certifiably Bulgarian! More than that, they’re a Bulgarian national obsession. In every restaurant menu that you find French fries in (so basically all of them), you’ll find fries with sirene just next to those. Also, you’ll quickly notice that Bulgarians are typically ordering the fries with sirene much more often. And who would blame them, the combo of freshly-fried potatoes with a layer of white brined cheese sprinkled on top is absolutely irresistible. So basic, so good and so ingeniously Bulgarian.

This yummy side dish is known in Bulgarian as пържени картофи със сирене (parzheni kartofi sas sirene) and the abbreviation waiters use for it has entered popular usage among the cool kids. So next time, you’d be impressing all the locals at the table if you simply ordered PKS (ПКС)!

  • Standard price: 3-5 BGN (1.50-2.50 €)

11. Baked sandwich royalty: printsesa

Baked sandwich royalty: printsesa
Baked sandwich royalty: printsesa

A uniquely Bulgarian invention, this warm open sandwich variety has been bizarrely named printsesa (принцеса), or “princess” 👸 as you might have guessed! The origin of its name is hotly debated, with highly implausible explanations linking it to medieval Bulgarian rulers and ancient Thracian monarchs. Could it have been just the golden colour of the melted kashkaval cheese that inspired it?

Regardless of printsesa’s origin, this sandwich is a beloved Bulgarian fast food. Basically a single slice of white bread topped with a mix of eggs and yellow kashkaval cheese (and optionally with minced meat or lukanka salami), printsesa is then baked until it acquires its trademark golden colour and the bread turns into crunchy toast.

  • Standard price: 1.50-3 BGN (0.75-1.50 €)

For more Balkan street food, keep reading here.

12. Dried to cure: lukanka (луканка)

Dried to cure: lukanka (луканка)
Dried to cure: lukanka (луканка)

Another thing Bulgarians love is their cured and dried sausages and salamis. So many kinds exist that you can easily lose count, and even most locals won’t know the exact difference between banski starets and babek, for example. The one type that stands out, though, has to be the all-popular lukanka, a flavourful semi-dried sausage with a flattened shape.

Lukanka is made from pieces of pork and beef meat, seasoned with spices like cumin, black pepper and salt and traditionally stuffed in a dried cow’s intestine. It is then dried for several weeks and pressed into its trademark shape. During the drying process, lukanka also acquires a thin layer of white mold on top of the casing, which contributes to its taste.

Three regional varieties of lukanka are known and sold all over Bulgaria: Karlovska, Panagyurska and Smyadovska, respectively from the Balkan towns of Karlovo, Panagyurishte and Smyadovo. The Karlovo and Smyadovo versions both have a higher pork ratio, with Karlovska adding sweet red pepper for flavour and Smyadovska relying on cardamom and garlic. By contrast, Panagyurska lukanka, which has a EU-wide traditional specialty (TSG) status, includes more beef than pork in the mix.

  • Standard price: 6-8 BGN (3-4 €)

13. Singe your bread: parlenka (пърленка)

Singe your bread: parlenka (пърленка)
Singe your bread: parlenka (пърленка)

What’s up with bread in Bulgaria, you must be wondering. Do these guys even eat bread? And yes, we very much do. Actually, our moms would not even let us have dinner without bread, even if we’re trying to cut on carbs. It’s a Balkan culinary tradition that bread must always be on the table, you see. And when it’s in the form of parlenka, freshly-grilled or baked Bulgarian flatbread, even those on a diet would find it hard to say no!

Parlenka varies quite a bit from restaurant to restaurant, but you can typically expect an uneven roundish flatbread about the size of a plate. It should have a soft doughy core and a slightly singed crust, and it’s the crust which gives parlenka its name. Very often, parlenka is offered filled with kashkaval and/or sirene cheeses. Garlic is another common addition you can pick, and this flatbread goes perfectly with some olive oil and sharena sol or oregano on top.

  • Standard price: 2-3 BGN (1-1.50 €)

14. The stuff of legends: sarmi (сарми)

The stuff of legends: sarmi (сарми)
The stuff of legends: sarmi (сарми)

One of the Balkans’ and the Middle East’s most ingenious culinary inventions must be sarmi, or stuffed vine or cabbage leaves. Universally beloved across the wider region, in Bulgaria sarmi are typically filled with rice or a mix of rice and minced meat. Onions and carrots as well as various spices are typically added to the filling.

The pickled cabbage variety (зелеви сарми, zelevi sarmi) is the preferred option as a main dish in the depth of winter. Grape vine leaf sarmi (лозови сарми,lozovi sarmi), which are smaller, are more often enjoyed as a starter or a side dish. A bit of yogurt on the side complements them perfectly and coupled with a vegetarian filling, they’re one of the highlights of a genuine Bulgarian Christmas Eve dinner.

  • Standard price (portion): 4-6 BGN (2-3 €)

15. Bulgaria’s own fish and chips: tsatsa (цаца)

Bulgaria’s own fish and chips: deep fried sprats (tsatsa)
Bulgaria’s own fish and chips: deep fried sprats (tsatsa)

Walk by any little park or beach eatery in Bulgaria at the height of summer and you’re almost guaranteed to sense the smell of fried sprats. A national obsession with the funny-sounding name tsatsa (цаца), this crispy seafood snack is the perfect companion to a cold beer on a hot day. It’s essentially a meal of dozens of small herring-like fish (Sprattus sprattus), salted, coated in flour and deep fried, heads still on and all.

Serve fried sprats with a slice of lemon, some French fries and an ice-cold Bulgarian draught beer and you’ve created a legendary dish with minimum effort. In summer days, fried sprats are so popular out in the open that they even rival the ever-present kebapche. Locally, their cult status is only comparable to the institution that is fish and chips in the United Kingdom!

  • Standard price: 3-5 BGN (1.50-2.50 €)

For more Bulgarian fish and seafood dishes, keep reading here.

16. Deep-fried mountain delight: mekitsa (мекица)

Deep-fried mountain delight: mekitsa (мекица)
Deep-fried mountain delight: mekitsa (мекица)

Spending the night in the comfort of a hut somewhere high in Bulgaria’s stunning mountains is a favourite weekend activity around here. And in the morning, you’ll awake to the unmistakable smell of mekitsi, one of the staples of a traditional Bulgarian mountain hut breakfast. At some more remote huts, mekitsi might even be the only breakfast option you get. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, though, as these kneaded pieces of deep-fried dough are usually super tasty.

In many ways identical to Hungarian lángos, a mekitsa is usually smaller than its Magyar cousin, so you’re unlikely to want just one in your plate. Typically, you can choose to eat your mekitsi sweetened with icing sugar and honey or jam or you can put white cheese (sirene) on top. In recent years, a few hipster joints in Sofia and Plovdiv have reinvented this breakfast food as a creatively garnished frybread to go with your afternoon coffee. So you can even try a mekitsa topped with ice cream or peanut butter, if that’s your thing!

  • Standard price: 1-2 BGN (0.50-1 €)

45 thoughts on “16 Bulgarian food classics you cannot afford to miss

  1. There is no finer tradition than the making of Bulgarian cuisine, which is as rich as the soul of the Bulgarian people. Bulgarian meals, like the colors woven into the nation’s rugs, represent the hospitality and rich spirituality of its people. From the mystical Rhodope Mountains, the birthplace of Orpheus, to the Thracian Valley, known for its roses, whether the dishes are light or hearty, they will always be savory. We have blog where we post different dishes:
    http://mysticalemona.com/baking/

  2. One of my very favorite Bulgarian foods when I lived there for a time was the Gyuvetch. You put a whole mess of ingredients in a clay pot and bake at a high temperature in the oven for a long time. When it comes out, it’s like magic! So delicious! Here’s a recipe:

    https://en.wikibooks.org/wiki/Cookbook:Gyuvetch

    But you can really add any ingredient you want. In addition to the above I’d add eggs, cheese, sausage, butter, and plenty of spices like savory, black pepper and paprika.

    • My Aunt Mary Parrott nee: Erkeneff live in Seattle and would make a dish called Pluketta. I cannot find a recipe although it sounds like Banitsa if you would you read the ingredients for the recipe. Since Bulgaria is next to Greece, a lot of Bulgarian dishes are similar to those found in Greece like mousaka

  3. This is a great list!! We just arrived to Sofia and are searching to eat each and every one of these!! We are also searching for a local who can teach us how to make a typical dish that they hold close to their heart and spend a few hours having fun with us and teaching it to us!! Do you know anyone in or around Sofia that cooks with love and would want to participate in our website as we recipe hunt around the world documenting people who make traditional food with Love to include their story, our experience with them, and the recipe on our website http://www.madewithlove.info !! We would really appreciate it! с любов,
    Anthony and Leila

  4. This list made me smile… I have learned to cook most of these for my Bulgarian girlfriend, except shkembe chorba… not so interested in that 😉

      • Well, strictly speaking tartar is minced meat served raw with egg yolk. On the side you can serve tartar dressing but nowadays tartar dressing is more often served with fish and chips. Read carefully 🙂 :-p

  5. This is a great post! However, it might also be a good idea to give the addresses of some restaurants in Sofia where these traditional Bulgarian dishes can be eaten.

    • They’re part of some dishes, but not *that* much really. And thanks to EU regulations, restaurants are required to list allergens in their menu, so you should be safe. It’s highly unlikely that mushrooms would be used in a dish without that being mentioned in the menu.

  6. I did tried the tarator once while I was on Velliko Tarnovo, me being from puerto rico, the ingredients did not sound like anything that belonged in a drink. I have to say, difficult for me to swallow. But, in the end my stomach felt great, very good as a starter before a meal. Deffinetly will drink it again when I am back in Bulgaria. ‘Cause I need to go back.

  7. -Awzumm dishes…
    am happy i chanced upon this blog..
    am indian..didnt know about bulgar food at all…i’m gonna try these….can you/anyone give any more veggie dishes plz? keep up the good work…cheers

  8. Hi there! This is a great resource. We just visited Bulgaria for the first time last month and I am busy writing a blog post about it featuring the restaurant scene and vegan options in Sofia. I will credit you for the information I found here and look forward to reading more. We loved Sofia and hope to get back to Bulgaria again. It is an underappreciated place for sure. Thanks!
    Check out http://www.peterandsarahandtheworld.org if you would like!

    • Hi Sarah! Glad you guys found the article helpful and loved Bulgaria! I’m actually in the process of updating this article with a few more classics, hope to post that soon. I’ve subscribed to your RSS feed and I’m looking forward to reading about Bulgaria on your blog 🙂

  9. Hi I think you must include a Kavarma is a traditional dish!!!
    Also I think Svatbarska soup should be add too…

  10. I miss some classics as Kjoopoolo, agneshko drob Sarma or tschuschki bjurek.

    As an idea for a BBQ sweet I love the large peaches from Sliven area cutted in halfs and fill the hole with bulgarian sirena, with honey and some hot pepper wrapped in alu foil and put it on the grill.
    Jummy

    Sune

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