Fish and seafood play an important part in many national styles of cooking, and Bulgarian cuisine is no exception. Thanks to its vast Black Sea coastline, its extensive access to the Danube and its numerous high-mountain rivers, lakes and reservoirs, Bulgaria has an abundance of freshwater and saltwater delicacies to choose from!
The Bulgarian fish and seafood tradition has a lot in common with how seafood is prepared and eaten in the wider Mediterranean region. However, the peculiarities of the Black Sea, with its relative isolation from the World Ocean, its anoxic depths, lower salinity and variety of marine life, add a unique touch to Bulgarian seafood. You won’t find native calamari, scampi or octopus dishes in Bulgarian restaurants, for instance (as they’re more than likely to stem from the markets in Thessaloniki), but you can feast on freshly-caught mussels, shrimps and rapa whelks!
From Bulgaria’s ubiquitous alternative to fish and chips to the Eastern Balkans’ favourite roe dip, kashkaval tourist presents 7 mouth-watering Bulgarian fish and seafood dishes. And as a bonus, there’s a list of my favourite fish and seafood restaurants at the end!
1. 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!
2. Black pearls of the sea: Mediterranean mussels
Dark Mediterranean mussels (Mytilus galloprovincialis) are one of the most widespread molluscs in the Black Sea and a favourite Bulgarian seafood. These days, over 40 mussel farms produce them in ecologically pristine areas of the Bulgarian coast, so they’re a regular feature in restaurants.
In Bulgarian cuisine, Mediterranean mussels, called simply midi (миди), are cooked in countless variations. These tasty and quite nutrient molluscs can be the chief ingredient of a mussel soup or a mussel salad. And as a main course, they’re usually stewed (often in white wine) and served with the shells. In that case, they’re accompanied by a vegetable sauce as midi plakia (миди плакия) or simply seasoned with fresh lovage.
3. Straight from the Pontic depths: Black Sea fish
The Black Sea’s vast expanse of brackish waters is a marine heaven for hundreds of fish species… and many of them happen to be very tasty! In coastal restaurants, Black Sea fish is offered either fried or grilled, commonly with French fries or a fresh cabbage and carrots salad and always with lemon on the side.
Black Sea fish delicacies include smaller fish like the goby (popche, попче) and the jack mackerel (safrid, сафрид), with multiple fish in a portion. The migrating Pontic shad (karagyoz, карагьоз) is incredibly delicious, though its many small bones make it tricky to cook and eat. For carnivore lovers, there’s the spiny dogfish or Black Sea shark (akula, акула), which is served as a fillet, and the eel-like, green-boned garfish (zargan, зарган). And the Black Sea turbot (kalkan, калкан) is a rare and valuable flatfish specialty!
4. Roe dip that unites the Balkans: tarama hayver
A delicious small dish that’s equally enjoyed in Bulgaria, Greece, Romania and Turkey, tarama hayver (тарама хайвер) is a creamy dip with a mild flavour that’s often served as an appetizer. As expected, the recipe tends to vary a bit between countries, but in Bulgaria, it’s commonly made from cured and salted carp or goby roe, mixed and blended with sunflower oil, lemon juice, bread and onions.
Tarama hayver works perfectly as a spread on toast and its taste seems to remind many Bulgarians of their childhood. For Bulgarian parents, tarama hayver on toast was a quick and tasty snack they could fix for their children in-between regular meals, much like bread with lyutenitsa relish sprinkled with sirene cheese.
5. Danube delicacies: Freshwater fish
Bulgaria’s countless rivers and reservoirs, high-altitude streams and glacial lakes and of course, its long shoreline on the Lower Danube, are a dream source of fresh fish. Spending a weekend out fishing is a favourite local pastime of Bulgarian men and 6th December is celebrated as Saint Nicholas’ Day (Nikulden, Никулден), the feast day of sailors and fishermen… and the day when every Bulgarian family must have fish on the table!
The oxygen-rich upper courses of Balkan rivers are the perfect place to catch delicious trout (pastarva, пъстърва). By contrast, the bigger European carp (sharan, шаран) prefers slower waters; baked carp stuffed with rice, raisins and walnuts is the most popular meal on St Nicholas’ Day. Large, sometimes even huge, carnivorous fish like the northern pike (shtuka, щука) and the wels catfish (som, сом) are regularly caught in the Bulgarian reservoirs and are usually memorable dinner highlights.
6. Invader salad: rapa whelks (rapani)
The veined rapa whelk (Rapana venosa) is a big carnivorous sea snail with a gorgeous heavy shell that, to many Bulgarians, is the trademark Black Sea souvenir. Well, they’d be surprised to find out that the curious sea creature they call rapan (рапан) is in fact an invasive species native to the Pacific waters of Far East Asia! In fact, it only appeared in the Black Sea in the 1940s, possibly transported in the hulls of ships.
Its exotic origin and its status as a marine pest aside, in recent years the rapa whelk has established itself as a popular seafood on the Bulgarian coast. Boiled and thinly sliced, rapa whelks are a great salad ingredient when paired, for example, with red onions, olive oil and some lemon juice. They’re commonly served as a salad in seaside eateries, though they can be fried and prepared as a main course too.
7. Seafood starter: fish soup (ribena chorba)
There’s a million ways to prepare this staple dish worldwide, and there are multiple versions of Bulgarian-style fish soup (ribena chorba, рибена чорба) throughout the country. Whether it’s Varna-style, Burgas-style or Danube fisherman’s style, a top-quality Bulgarian fish soup uses at least two kinds of fish, but usually not more than four.
Besides pieces of fish, other common ingredients include potatoes, carrots and onions. Spices tend to vary by the recipe, but tarragon, celery, black pepper, allspice, bay laurel and especially lovage are often in the mix. And lemon juice is a must for that classic gentle sour taste!
Where to eat seafood in Bulgaria
Needless to say, there’s hundreds of seafood restaurants in Bulgaria and the majority should be more than a decent choice. But here’s a few places I’ve tried personally and can wholeheartedly recommend.
- In Varna, Nord is a quality cheap eat right on the central beach with lots of fish options to choose from.
- For an authentic family-cooked seafood experience further up north, check out Levana Guest House in Balgarevo and Guest House Nash Dom in Kavarna.
- In the same area near Kaliakra, The Dalboka Mussel Farm might be the best place in Bulgaria to try fresh mussels. And that with a sea view just next to the farming facilities!
- In Burgas, Goldfish / Zlatna Ribka is a very cozy eatery with a chic hipster-sailor vibe. They also serve seafood paella and other Mediterranean delicacies.
- In Sozopol, I’ve been strongly recommended Panorama Sveti Ivan by multiple trusted people, but I’m yet to try it.
- Down south in Varvara, my go-to seafood restaurant is Pri Dimo. It has a pleasant maritime ambience, it’s incredibly spacey and the fish has always been amazing.
- For a freshwater fish meal with panoramic Danube vistas, check out Nikulden in Silistra.
- If you’re doing the Erma River Gorge hike near Tran, by all means stop by Ribarnika in Bogoyna. It’s the most no-nonsense fish “restaurant” ever, all they offer is grilled trout with fries or salad, but it’s super fresh and incredibly tasty.
- If you’re in Sofia and enjoy an informal atmosphere of “beer, fish & rock’n’roll”, make your way to Delfincheto in Studentski grad.