Bulgarian food, relatively undiscovered, is making its way onto the culinary world map.
Bulgarian food culture is Mediterranean influenced, rooted on local ingredients. It’s not unusual to find gardens everywhere and locals and restaurants growing their own produce.
The food of Bulgaria shares similarities with its neighbors.
With the Black Sea to the east, Bulgaria borders Romania, Serbia, Macedonia, Greece and Turkey.
The food in Bulgaria is influenced by Turkey, having been under Ottoman rule for hundreds of years.
You’ll also find similarities with Greek cuisine, it’s neighbor to the south, and of course Bulgaria’s own traditional recipes.
While not exhaustive, this authentic Bulgarian food guide will introduce you to the country’s rich culinary tradition.
Find what to eat in Bulgaria from starters, meats, dishes, desserts and more.
Table of contents
- Main Characteristics of Traditional Bulgarian Food
- Traditional Bulgarian Appetizers & Starters
- Traditional Bulgarian Meats
- Traditional Bulgarian Dishes
- Traditional Bulgarian Yogurt and Cheese
- Traditional Bulgarian Desserts
- Traditional Bulgarian Drinks
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Main Characteristics of Traditional Bulgarian Food
Traditional Bulgarian food is varied, yet specific to certain regions of the country. In the Thracian Valley, claypot dishes like gyuvech are popular.
Beans as well as cherverme, slow cooked lamb, reign supreme in the Rhodopes region.
From the Pirin mountains, you will find specialties like Kapama. Traditional restaurants called mehana’s welcome you with authentic folkloric decor.
Fish and seafood are plentiful from the Black Sea coast.
Herbs, play a huge role in the general flavor of Bulgarian foods.
Summer Savory or tsubritsa also spelled chubritsa is described as the “Queen of Bulgarian spices.”
Nuts, honey, bread, and the famous Bulgarian yogurt also feature prominently in traditional Bulgarian food.
Rakia, the national alcohol, made with grapes or fruits such as plums, apricots or quince usually kick off the meals.
Traditional Bulgarian Appetizers & Starters
Meals in Bulgaria often begin with a salad or some sort of starter. The options will vary based on seasonality and region.
Tomatoes and cheese are a beloved combination. Traditional Bulgarian spices and herbs enhance the flavors.
And, Bulgarian yogurt, the symbol of Bulgarian cuisine is omnipresent.
Tarator – Cold Yogurt Soup
In the hot summer months, there is nothing more refreshing than tarator, a traditional Bulgarian soup.
This simple soup contains very few ingredients.
Just cucumber, Bulgarian yogurt, water, garlic, salt, and a handful of fresh herbs like dill, mint and parsley.
It is particularly refreshing and light.
There is also a version of Tarator, where no liquid is added to the yogurt.
This dry tarator goes by the names snezhanka or “snow white.” This is more of a salad than a soup.
Traditional Bulgarian Salad – The Shopska Salad
Described as the “National Dish of Bulgaria”, the shopska salad is one of our favorite Bulgarian salads.
The main ingredients are tomatoes, cucumbers, bell peppers, red onion, Bulgarian white sirene cheese, parsley, vinegar and olive or sunflower oil.
Interestingly, the Shopska salad was created in the 1950s by Balkan tourists as a way of promoting tourism to the country. Over time, its appeal has gone international.
In a 2014 Taste of Europe contest, the Shopska Salad took first place, ahead of Italian spaghetti, Spanish gazpacho, French boeuf bourguignon, and British fish and chips.
On restaurant menus, you’ll find several variations of the Shopksa salad such as the Shepard’s Salad or Ovcharska, which is like the shopska with eggs, mushrooms and ham.
Other salads include, Russian salad, potato salads and red pepper based salads.
Lutenitsa – Bulgarian Red Pepper Dip
Lutenitsa also spelled lyutenitsa is a very popular and traditional spread, found all over the country.
It is sometimes referred to as, Bulgarian ketchup, and is eaten on toast or with different kinds of meat or meatballs.
The ingredients used vary by region and family recipes. The sauce-like spread typically contains, roasted bell peppers, eggplant, tomato, onion and garlic, pureed together.
Even though lyut means spicy in Bulgarian, it really isn’t.
You’ll find it on restaurant menus or in jars in local stores. If you would like to try it, Lutenitsa is also available on Amazon.
You’ll find several other types of dips made with yogurt, cheese, cucumbers and more.
Traditional Bulgarian Meats
Meat is one of the main staples in Bulgarian cuisine.
The most common meats found in Bulgarian food are pork, lamb, veal and chicken.
Beef is used less frequently as cattle are raised for their milk. Though beef consumption is increasing.
Meats are typically either grilled or slow cooked in stews. You won’t find deep fried meats.
Meat dishes are celebrated across Bulgaria with different characteristics to each region.
In the Rhodopes, you will find traditional lamb roasted dishes like cheverme.
While in the Pirin mountain, pork dishes are numerous with sausages and traditional pork stews dominating.
Bulgarian Cold Cuts – Sudjuk, Lukanka and Elena Fillet
They are numerous cold cuts offered in Bulgarian food. Bansko, the main ski resort in the Pirin mountain, is well known for flavorful cold cuts.
During our three month stay in Bulgaria, we spent most of our time in Bansko, and had the chance to try several different cured meats.
Sudjuk is one of the most popular cold cuts. Resembling a salami, it is cured sausage, round in shape, made with ground pork, spiced with black pepper, salt and cumin.
Every year, Gorna Oryahovitsa, in the north of Bulgaria, celebrates the traditional festival of Sudjuk at the end of May.
You can taste several types of sudjuk as well as dishes made with this local specialty.
Lukanka another popular cold cut, is very similar to sudjuk. It has a distinctive flattened shape, almost rectangular.
Traditionally Lukanka is made with pork, veal and spiced with black pepper, cumin and salt. Lukanka is somewhat spicier than sudjuk in taste.
One of our favorite cured meats is the Elena fillet. Made with lean pork meat, it is less fatty than other cold cuts.
The cured meat is dark while the outside of the fillet is covered with spices typically salt, paprika and savory. It has a mild taste and a unique aromatic flavor.
Cold cuts are offered as an appetizer in restaurants and they are perfect to eat paired with Bulgarian red wines.
Grilled Meats – Kyufte, Kebapche, Shische, Shashlik
Meats cooked on the grill are characteristics of Bulgarian food.
The two most popular everyday grilled meats are kebapche and kyufte.
Both are made of ground meat typically a mix of pork and veal with salt, pepper and cumin.
Kyufte has one additional ingredient: onion.
Kebapche has a similar shape to a small sausage while kyufte is shaped like a fat round patty.
You will find kyufte and kebapche on restaurants menus or grilled at farmers market and local festivals.
Don’t miss out on meat skewers in Bulgaria. They are typically prepared with chicken, pork or veal.
The meat is seasoned with salt, paprika and thyme or savory and grilled with onions, peppers, tomatoes on a skewer.
You will find two different types of skewers: shische and shashlik.
For a dramatic effect go with the shashlik with their impressive meat stuffed skewers that look like swords. The shische are smaller, with wooden skewers.
Grilled meats are offered at all traditional Bulgarian restaurants.
You’ll also find grilled sausages specialties, grilled chicken, lamb and more, everything to satisfy any meat lovers.
Meat Combos – Sache
If you want to share and try several meats order a Sache.
Sache is a traditional Bulgarian hot plate with different meats including veal, chicken and pork.
Roasted red peppers, onions, tomatoes and potatoes also accompany the meat.
The size of the dish makes sache ideal for sharing.
For vegetarians, rest reassured, grilled vegetables are also widely offered in Bulgarian restaurants.
You can also find vegetarian sache, which is an excellent alternative to a meaty meal.
Traditional Bulgarian Dishes
In addition to grilled meats, many Bulgarian dishes are slow cooked stews and soups, prepared either with meats or in a vegetarian version.
While they are numerous traditional Bulgarian dishes, we highlight three local specialties not to miss.
Gyuvech is both the name of a Bulgarian dish as well as the earthen cookware or clay pot it is cooked in.
The clay pot is used to cook meat, vegetables and spices, slowly in an oven. This slow cooking technique gives the dish its full flavors and aromas.
Gyuvech is typically prepared with meat, generally pork, mixed with tomatoes, onions, peppers, garlic, and savory.
There are many variations. We tried one with kashkaval or Bulgarian yellow cheese added to pork and vegetables.
You can also find a version with eggs and vegetarian options too. Other gyuvech dishes are prepared with rice, potatoes or vegetables like mushrooms and carrots.
Gyuvech has Turkish roots and it is very popular in the Thracian Valley. Though you will find gyuvech dishes in Sofia and other parts of the country.
Kapama is a traditional Bulgarian food that originated from the Pirin mountain. It features prominently on menus in Razlog and Bansko villages.
This dish is made with three different cuts of meats slow cooked together with pickled cabbage.
Meats cuts are typically pork, sausages, chicken legs, or veal. Sometimes blood sausage or rabbit are also used.
The dish is made in layers of meat and cabbage with a mix of spices usually black pepper, savory, salt and cumin added at each layer.
Rice is often added as a thickener.
Pickled cabbages is a traditional preparation used in Bulgaria to preserve the vegetables in the winter.
Kapama is slowly cooked for four hours before being served. It is a hearty dish, very aromatic and a popular holiday dish in Bansko.
You can also find vegetarian sache, which is an excellent alternative to a meaty meal.
Bob Chorba is a bean soup very popular in Bulgaria. Beans are used not only in soups but also in salads, baked, fried or as a side dish.
Bob chorba is typically made with white beans from the Smilyan village, a small village in the Rhodopes region.
The soup is prepared with white beans, onions, tomatoes, carrots, peppers and spearmint. It is traditionally cooked and served in clay pots and topped with parsley.
We tasted the bob chorba while visiting Melnik in Bulgaria. We found it hearty and comforting while surprisingly flavorful for a bean soup.
Bob chorba will delight vegetarians in Bulgaria as it is traditionally made without meat.
However, there are some soup versions that add pork meat or sausage to the broth..
You will find bob chorba on many menus in Bulgaria.
This is not to be confused with Shkembe Chorba, which is another popular Bulgarian soup, but this one is made with tripe.
Traditional Bulgarian Yogurt and Cheese
Bulgarian Yogurt or Kiselo Mlyako: The Bulgarian Recipe to Longevity
The Bulgarian yogurt is also known as Kiselo Mlyako or sour milk in Bulgaria and has been cultivated for more than 4000 years.
Known worldwide for its health benefits, the secret lies in a bacteria known as Lactobacillus Bulgaricus, native to Bulgaria.
This bacteria causes the milk fermentation and gives the incomparable flavor.
The discovery was made by Dr. Stamen Grigorov, a famous Bulgarian bacteriologist in 1905 in Geneva.
Research has shown that Bulgarian yogurt, thanks to its bacteria, is a factor of longevity in Bulgarian population.
It has also additional health benefits on the intestinal tract and respiratory system.
Bulgaria has many dairy stores where you can find the yogurt.
You can find it in large pots of 400g with different fat levels ranging from 2% to 10%. The most popular is said to be the 3.6% fat.
While the taste is slightly sour, it has a mild and creamy finish. Our best advice is to try several brands and % fat and find your favorite combination.
Yogurt is a staple of Bulgarian cuisine. You can find many yogurt based dishes including salads, dips, soups, and desserts.
If you are interested in learning more about Bulgarian yogurt, don’t miss the yogurt festival at the end of June.
It is celebrated every year in the village of Tran where Dr. Stamen Grigorov was born, west of Bulgaria near Serbia’s border.
Sirene – Bulgarian White Cheese
Sirene is the most famous and popular cheese in Bulgaria.
Also known as white cheese or Bulgarian Feta Cheese, sirene is typically made with cow, goat or sheep milk.
Sirene cheese is soft and salty, due to the maturation process in a brine solution.
The taste can be more or less salty depending on the percentage of salt used in brining.
It’s a crumbly cheese resembling the Greek feta, though we found it softer and more flavorful.
Sirene cheese is widely used in Bulgarian cuisine.
You will find it in salads, mainly in shopska salad, as well as in banitsa. It is also used as a topping for french fries or bread.
We recommend trying the sirene cheese made with sheep’s milk. it has a milder and rounder taste in the mouth, a delight!
Kashkaval – Bulgarian Yellow Cheese
After Sirene, Kashkaval is another cheese very popular in Bulgaria.
It is a yellow round cheese typically made with cow or sheep milk.
Kashkaval is semi-hard, soft in taste and slightly chewy in texture.
It is often referred as yellow cheese or cheddar cheese when translated on restaurant menu.
Honestly, it is much better than any cheddar cheese you can find in the U.S.
So don’t let that translation deter you from a dish as it did for me the first time I saw it on a restaurant menu.
It’s an excellent cheese for cooking with a nice mild taste when melted over oven baked potatoes.
Traditional Bulgarian Desserts
Banitsa is one of our favorite Bulgarian foods. It is also a signature dish of Bulgaria.
Made with filo pastry, it is prepared in layered with most commonly eggs, white cheese and yogurt.
Banitsa is traditionally served at breakfast. However, there are many other versions of banitsa.
Some include filling with spinach or other vegetables like leeks or cabbage.
We also enjoyed it with rice as a banitsa-rice pudding for dessert. Other sweets versions are made with apple or pumpkins.
As a result, Banitsa can be eaten at different times of the day, sweet or savory.
You will find sweet banitsa on the dessert menu in restaurants. To have banitsa for breakfast, look for it at the nearest local bakery.
Turkish Delight or Lokum
Turkish delight or lokum is one of the traditional sweets in Bulgaria.
While Turkey is the most well known for lokum, Bulgaria has unique traditional flavors.
Lokum or Turkish delight are a family of confections based on starch, gel and sugar.
In Bulgaria, Turkish Delight is generally flavored with rose petals, walnuts or honey.
In banitsa, lokum is layered into the filo pastry.
On top is a serving of honey that makes the combination particularly sweet with a semi-chewy and crispy texture.
We had it with rose petals and found it sweet and delicate, and at the same time, filling.
If you see it on a menu, don’t miss out trying the rose version.
These delicious donuts are Bulgaria’s famous traditional breakfast treat.
Known as Mekitsa, they are fried donuts made with flour, egg and yogurt and dusted with powdered sugar.
You can also find some variations topped with sirene cheese.
These donuts are surprisingly light, soft, and not overly sweet. They go well with coffee.
The best place to try them is at Mekitsa & Coffee in Sofia. This small bakery specializes in reviving this old breakfast tradition.
They serve the original Mekitsa as well as new versions with chocolate, honey, walnuts and more.
Traditional Bulgarian Drinks
Ayran is a very popular drink in Bulgaria. Made with their star product yogurt, Ayran is simply yogurt mixed with water and salt.
Ayran typically accompanies banitsa at breakfast. In addition to the plain flavor, you will also sweeter versions such as strawberry, blueberry or mixed fruit.
It is a refreshing drink in the summer, and you’ll find it on restaurant tables drank by adults and children alike.
You can also easily make by buying Bulgarian yogurt and mixing it with water and salt.
Ayran is popular beyond Bulgaria and the Balkans. It is said to have originated in Persia, now Iran, as a way to preserve yogurt with salt.
Boza is a popular fermented beverage in Bulgaria also consumed at breakfast. It is generally made from wheat or millet flour, mixed with water, sugar and yeast.
Due to the fermentation process, Boza contains a very small percentage of alcohol, up to 1%.
Sold in small to large clear plastic bottles, you can spot its distinctive brown color on the shelves at delis or bakeries.
Boza is a very sweet and thick beverage. We personally didn’t enjoy it. It has a strong taste almost medicinal, nothing close to being delicate or tasty.
It is certainly an acquired taste.
We later learned that there are different qualities of boza. Harmonica, a brand we recently heard about makes traditional organic boza, which is said to taste good.
We haven’t had the chance to taste the Harmonica organic boza, so we leave it to you to tell us your thoughts.
Rakia in Bulgaria
Rakia is Bulgaria’s national drink. A strong brandy, it typically contains at least 40% of alcohol.
In Bulgaria, rakia is most commonly made from grapes, plums or apricots.
More than a drink, it is a way to receive guests and show hospitality.
It is popularly served with shopska salad at the start of a meal. With a light yellow color, Rakia is very strong, similar to a hard liquor.
The plums and apricots type of rakia have a more pronounced fruity taste than the ones made with grapes.
Similar to boza, there are differences in the quality of rakia. The best is to try it at a restaurant and ask for recommendations.
We tasted it several times, but cannot recommend a particular fruit base as we didn’t enjoy it.
Bulgaria is one of the oldest wine making countries in the world.
Historical evidence can be traced back to ancient Thracian tribes between 4000 and 6000 years ago.
The Thracians worshipped Dionysus, the patron God of Wine, and the old winemaking traditions have been kept alive.
Two of the most typical Bulgarian indigeneous varieties are Mavrud and Melnik Wines.
Mavrud wines from the Thracian Valley are popular. And from the Struma Valley wine region, Melnik wines are famous.
These are red wines deep red wines that we enjoyed.
Though our preference goes to the Melnik wines made with indigeneous native grapes.
RELATED: Read our article about Mavrud Wines at Villa Yustina, the best winery in the Thracian Valley
RELATED: For more about Melnik wines, read our article 7 Melnik Wineries You Want to Visit for Amazing Bulgarian Wines
Bulgaria is first and foremost a wine country. Bulgarians primarily drink wine or rakia.
While wine can be traced back to 6000 years ago, beer is relatively speaking a novelty in Bulgaria.
Imported by other European countries in the 19th century, beer is not embedded into the local culture in Bulgaria.
Furthermore, because Bulgarians make wine at home and drink it for free, it does not have the costs associated costs with purchasing beer.
The beers I had in Bulgaria were mostly light larger.
One of the most popular is Kamenitza owned by Molson Coors and brewed in Plovdiv. I personally didn’t enjoy it. I found it really light and with no particular taste.
I preferred the Pirinsko, owned by Carlsberg and brewed in Blagoevgrad in the Pirin Mountain. It has a light and refreshing taste and goes well with grilled meats.
The craft beer market has been emerging in the last few years. Sofia, Plovdiv and Burgas are the few places to find microbrewery in Bulgaria.
Have you had Bulgarian food or drinks before? What is your favorite from reading this list?
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Claire is a culinary explorer, digital nomad and engineer brain behind Authentic Food Quest. Together with her partner, Rosemary, they created Authentic Food Quest to help people find the best local food on their travels. For over 5 years they have eaten their way through South America, Southeast Asia, Europe, and North America while sharing the best local food experiences on their website. Authentic Food Quest has been featured on top publications such as Huffington Post, Business Insider, and Honest Cooking. Claire and Rosemary are also authors of Authentic Food Quest Argentina and Authentic Food Quest Peru, available on Amazon.