The specific assortment of spices and the way they are used plays a huge part in shaping the general flavour of a national style of cooking. In Bulgarian cuisine, which is a trademark representative of Balkan cooking, spices serve the important task of bringing out flavours and hold the key to making a dish taste quintessentially Bulgarian.
Needless to say, preparing authentic Bulgarian food would be unthinkable without the local variety of seasonings. After all, Bulgarian cuisine is not just what we eat or drink, it’s also how we flavour it!
From the nation’s all-time favourite spice mix to the most appropriate spices to use for Bulgarian-style beans, meat or fish, kashkaval tourist will introduce you to the world of 8 Bulgarian spices that define the local cuisine.
1. Colourful cornerstone of Bulgarian cooking: sharena sol
Sharena sol (шарена сол), meaning “colourful salt”, is without a doubt the most popular spice mix in Bulgaria and a feature in practically every Bulgarian spice rack. Ingredients and proportions tend to vary a bit, depending on the preferences of whoever prepared it. Sharena sol just can’t go without the holy trinity of salt, dried summer savoury (chubritsa) and sweet paprika, but fenugreek is a popular fourth ingredient, and thyme or roasted maize are common additions too.
Sharena sol tastes great on freshly baked bread or any other kind of savoury pastry, but it can also be applied to eggs, soups and almost every other dish, as long as you want an unmistakably Bulgarian flavour.
2. Perfect companion to beans: spearmint (dzhodzhen)
Legumes like beans and lentils are the basis of many Bulgarian soups and main courses, particularly in the mountainous regions where they are most often grown. And the seasoning Bulgarians most often use in bean recipes has to be the aromatic spearmint (Mentha spicata), locally called dzhodzhen (джоджен) or less often gyozum (гьозум).
The leaves of this Mediterranean perennial plant can be used fresh or dried. In any case spearmint brings a strong fresh aroma to the table that is a perfect match for those delicious Smilyan beans from the Rhodopes. In Bulgarian cuisine, spearmint is also used in lamb and rice dishes. It tends to be a very dominant taste, so it should be carefully paired with other spices, which it can easily overpower.
3. Queen of Bulgarian spices: summer savoury (chubritsa)
No other national cuisine in the world has such a strong relationship with summer savoury (Satureja hortensis), or what Bulgarians call chubritsa (чубрица). Indeed, to other Balkan peoples that don’t use this spice nearly as much, it may very well be a definition of the Bulgarian taste and the queen of Bulgarian spices.
Summer savoury is an annual plant with a specific herbal taste. Its leaves, whether dried or fresh, contribute a characteristic aroma to meat, legume or fish dishes and stews. Unlike spearmint, summer savoury is a lot more of a team player that works well with parsley, celery or bay laurel. And of course, it’s a key part of the sharena sol spice mix that you can’t leave Bulgaria without trying!
4. Taste of the Eastern Balkans: Bulgarian honey garlic (samardala)
Bulgarian honey garlic (Nectaroscordum siculum ssp. Bulgaricum), locally known as samardala (самардала), is something of a cult spice in several pockets of eastern Bulgaria, particularly in the Balkan Mountains around Stara Zagora and Sliven, as well as in Strandzha. A native of the Black Sea and Mediterranean Basins, honey garlic prefers shady and damp habitats and it grows in bulbs.
Bulgarian honey garlic is usually mixed with salt before it’s dried and crushed, or its taste would otherwise be too strong. It’s a great addition to potato meals, rice, meats, mushrooms or fresh salads, particularly if you want to evoke the taste of eastern Bulgaria.
5. Fisherman’s friend: lovage (devesil)
Whether it’s freshly-caught mountain river trout or some amazing Black Sea mussels, lovage (Levisticum officinale) is your companion to Bulgarian-style fish and seafood. Called devesil (девесил) or rarely lyushtyan (лющян) in Bulgarian, this perennial southern plant has a taste best described as middle ground between celery and parsley.
Fresh or dried, lovage’s leaves are a preferred seasoning for fish or chicken soups, broths and lamb dishes. Cooking with lovage is quite possibly the easiest way to make your fish and seafood taste Bulgarian. A very different alternative that is used sometimes is dried sumac (Rhus coriaria), which will add a decidedly Middle Eastern flavour to your fish.
6. Classic flavour of Bulgarian meat: cumin (kimion)
In Bulgarian cuisine, no other spice has such a particular association with meat as does cumin (Cuminum cyminum). Bulgarians call this Eastern Mediterranean plant kimion (кимион) and its aroma is practically synonymous with the taste of local ground meat dishes like kyufte and kebapche, as well as barbecue and dry sausages.
Cumin grows in its wild form in shaded hilly areas of northeastern Bulgaria, though nowadays it’s most often cultivated. Its finely ground yellow-brown seeds have a warm and bitter taste. In the local tradition, cumin is not only a great seasoning for meat, but works well in soups and salads too.
7. Four shades of red: paprika (cherven piper)
Bulgarians love their paprika (Capsicum annuum) so much that they divide it into no less than four grades, depending on its sweetness and hotness. What Bulgarians call cherven piper (червен пипер) can be sweet, mildly hot (or gentle), hot (compared to cayenne pepper) or extra hot (compared to chili pepper).
In Bulgaria, mild paprika is most often finely ground and used on bread or especially white brined cheese (sirene). On the other hand, extra hot paprika is only coarsely crushed and along with garlic and vinegar, it’s a must-have addition to the shkembe chorba tripe soup.
8. Dry sausage’s loyal ally: fenugreek (sminduh)
Although it’s a spice mostly associated with the Indian and Middle Eastern cooking traditions, fenugreek (Trigonella foenum-graecum) also has its place in Bulgarian cuisine. An annual plant in the legume family, fenugreek is locally referred to as sminduh (сминдух) and chimen (чимен), the latter usually with regard to the seeds only.
Fenugreek’s strong and bitter aroma contributes to the taste profile of Bulgarian dry sausages and salamis, pastirma, eggs, meat and fish meals. It pairs well with parsley, summer savoury, paprika, dill and even spearmint, and it’s sometimes used in sharena sol.