When Bulgaria is mentioned, many may first think of its golden sandy beaches or picturesque mountain landscapes. But for lovers of good food, this Balkan country offers much more. The most famous Bulgarian dish is undoubtedly Shopska salad, which combines the freshness of tomatoes, cucumbers, and peppers with the rich flavor of the local sirene cheese. For meat lovers, it is a “must” to try the local grilled meat with perfect flavor or the excellent Balkan pljeskavica, or kebabche. A refreshing vegetarian dish is the yoghurt soup tarator. Bulgarian cuisine can also offer excellent fish dishes. The country has ideal conditions for producing wine, which is also worth trying.
What to taste in Bulgaria?
- Soups, salads, and starters
(Shopska salad, katak, Snow White, tarator, fish soup, pork ear)
- Main dishes
(grilled meat, pljeskavica, fish, kebabche)
- Desserts and sweets
(garash, kurabiiki, soldier’s cookies)
- Local specials
(lutenica, sirene cheese, sujuk sausage, pastarma, filet Elena)
- Non-alcoholic beverages
- Alcoholic beverages
(beer, wine, Pliska brandy)
- Interesting facts
- Additional information
(prices, tips, recommended restaurants, Michelin, food festivals, souvenirs)
Bulgarian soups, salads, and starters
Shopska salad is an iconic Bulgarian dish, beloved for its freshness, simplicity of preparation, and distinct flavor. The basis of Shopska salad is fresh vegetables: ripe tomatoes, crisp cucumbers, and green peppers. These ingredients are chopped and form the foundation of the salad. Tomatoes add sweetness and juiciness, while cucumbers contribute their crunchiness and lightness. Another important element is fresh onion, which adds a sharp and aromatic taste to the salad. Bulgarian Shopska salad is generously topped with grated or crumbled cheese. Traditionally, Bulgarian sirene cheese is used, similar to feta cheese but with a stronger flavor. This cheese adds creaminess and a distinct dairy note to the salad. Shopska salad is traditionally served as an appetizer or as a side dish to the main meal. Its popularity is worldwide, making it perhaps the most famous Bulgarian dish.
Katak is a traditional Bulgarian salad, known for its simplicity yet rich flavor. It is a popular dish often served as an appetizer, especially favored during the summer months when peppers are at their peak. The main ingredient of Katak is red peppers. These are first roasted or grilled until their skin blackens and begins to peel. This process imparts a smoky flavor to the peppers and facilitates the removal of the skin. After roasting, the peppers are peeled and cut into thin strips or cubes. Other important ingredients of Katak are garlic and herbs, which add a fresh and aromatic taste to the salad. This mixture is then thoroughly mixed with Bulgarian cheese, creating a perfectly flavored salad.
Snow White (also known as “Snezhanka”), is a popular Bulgarian yoghurt salad. It is a typical example of Bulgarians’ skill in combining simple, yet quality ingredients into an interesting and delicious appetizer. The main component of the salad is thick Bulgarian yoghurt with finely grated or chopped cucumber. Another typical ingredient is garlic, and the salad is often seasoned with dill and garnished with chopped walnuts. The salad is an ideal accompaniment to spicy or grilled dishes, as its cooling and refreshing taste balances out strong flavors. Snow White salad is very similar to the Greek tzatziki.
Tarator is a simple yet tasty Bulgarian soup made from yoghurt, cucumbers, fresh dill, garlic, walnuts, and other ingredients. It requires no cooking and is served chilled, making it an ideal dish for hot summer days. Sometimes, you may encounter variations of this dish (such as with beetroot).
Fish soups are a significant part of traditional Bulgarian cuisine, thanks to Bulgaria’s access to the Black Sea. The base is a broth made from fresh fish, cooked with onions, carrots, and other vegetables. The broth is then finely strained to be clear. Fish meat, deboned, is returned to the broth. Additional ingredients like potatoes, onions, or celery can be added, which provide richness and depth to the soup. In Bulgarian fish soup, the use of herbs and spices is also a key element. A touch of lemon juice or vinegar is often added to finish, giving the soup a delicate acidity.
Grilled pork ear is an unusual but traditional Bulgarian appetizer for the locals. The preparation of grilled pork ear begins with careful cleaning and marinating. The ears are first thoroughly cleaned and any undesirable parts are removed. They are then marinated in a mixture that may include olive oil, garlic, lemon juice, and various herbs and spices. This marinade helps to tenderize the meat and adds rich flavor. The ears are then grilled over open flame or on a grill until they are crispy and golden brown. The dish is quite fatty, making it a great preparation for tasting Bulgarian wines or beers.
Bulgarian main dishes
Bulgarians are masters of grilling (similarly excellent grilled dishes can also be found in Armenian cuisine). Tasting something grilled in Bulgaria is almost a must. The main stars of Bulgarian grilling are various types of minced meat, including kebabche and pljeskavica. Whole pieces of meat such as chops, pork neck, or chicken breasts are also grilled. These meats are often marinated overnight in a mixture of olive oil, garlic, lemon juice, and herbs such as rosemary, thyme, and marjoram, which enhances their juiciness. The juiciness is indeed incredible. Bulgarians use charcoal for grilling, which gives the meat a unique smoky flavor. Grilling is done slowly and carefully to ensure even cooking and retain the meat’s juiciness. Sausages like lukanka or sujuk are often grilled as well. The range of grilled dishes in Bulgaria is so wide that for me the best choice is to order a plate with a mix of different types of meats and sausages. Bulgarians really know how to grill incredibly well.
Pljeskavica, considered one of the most famous specialties of Balkan cuisine, is a meat dish extremely popular in Bulgaria. Pljeskavica is made from minced meat, usually a combination of beef and pork, though lamb variants are not uncommon. The meat is carefully mixed with various spices and herbs, which gives it a distinctive and rich flavor. Cheese can also be added. The meat mixture is formed into flat patties that are grilled over open fire or on a grill. The surface of pljeskavica is crispy, while the inside remains juicy and flavorful.
Black Sea fish
Bulgaria is located on the coast of the Black Sea, and the Bulgarian cuisine often utilizes sea fish. One of the most popular types of fish used by Bulgarians is cod, known for its firm and juicy meat. Cod is often prepared baked or grilled, seasoned with olive oil, garlic, and herbs. However, you may also find small fish (such as goby), which are prepared whole. Bulgarian cuisine excels in the preparation of grilled dishes, and missing out on local fish would be a great loss.
Kebabche (grilled minced meat rolls)
Kebabche is one of the most popular and characteristic dishes of Bulgarian cuisine. Kebabche is made from minced meat, usually a combination of beef and pork, though sometimes it may also contain lamb. The meat is mixed with onion, garlic, salt, and a blend of spices, which gives the dish its characteristic taste. The meat is then manually formed into elongated rolls. This shape is typical for kebabche and distinguishes it from other types of minced meat dishes (e.g., pljeskavica). Traditionally, kebabche is grilled over an open fire or on a grill.
Bulgarian desserts and sweets
Garash is a traditional Bulgarian chocolate cake, known for its taste and elegant appearance. This cake was named after a pastry chef from Austria-Hungary, who created it in Bulgaria in 1885. Garash has become one of the most beloved and iconic desserts in Bulgarian cuisine. The base of the Garash cake consists of thin layers of walnut dough, typically made from ground walnuts, sugar, and eggs. The dough is baked until golden, becoming slightly crunchy, and then alternated with rich chocolate cream. The cream is made from dark chocolate, butter, sugar, and sometimes a drop of rum. The cake is often finished with a layer of glossy chocolate glaze. Since flour is not used in the Garash recipe, the cake is naturally gluten-free. The taste of Garash cake is exquisite!
Traditional Kurabiiki cookies are a Bulgarian sweet treat popular among all age groups. The basis of Kurabiiki is butter, which gives them a rich and creamy taste. Honey (sugar) is added, giving these cookies their sweetness. Other important ingredients are egg yolks, flour, and baking powder, which give the cookies their crispness and lightness. Kurabiiki are baked in a preheated oven until they acquire a light golden color. The result is a cookie that is crispy on the outside and fluffy and soft on the inside.
The Soldier’s cookie is a simple yet significant part of Bulgarian culinary history. These cookies have their roots in times of conflict and scarcity, where there was a need to produce food that was nutritious, long-lasting, and easily transportable. The Soldier’s cookie was designed to meet these needs and was often part of military rations for Bulgarian soldiers. A characteristic feature of the cookie is its firm structure, designed to withstand long-term storage and transport under challenging conditions. Their primary purpose was to provide enough energy and nutrition in limited or crisis situations. In modern times, the Soldier’s cookie has become a symbol of nostalgia and a reminder of the difficult Bulgarian past.
Lutenica is a traditional meat dip, popular for its rich flavor and versatility. It’s a favorite not only in Bulgaria but also in many other Balkan countries. Lutenica is made from roasted (or grilled) vegetables, primarily peppers and tomatoes, which form the basis of this tasty dish. Other key ingredients include onions and garlic, and some recipes may also include carrots or eggplant. Seasoning typically includes salt, black pepper, and sometimes chili for added spiciness. Traditionally, ljutenica is served as a dip for meat or as a spread on bread, but it can also be used as a base for various dishes, such as pasta sauces. If you order grilled meat in a Bulgarian restaurant, you will almost always receive ljutenica with it.
Sirene is a traditional Bulgarian cheese, an integral part of Bulgarian cuisine. Known for its distinct flavor and versatility, it is similar to Greek feta cheese. Sirene is typically made from cow, sheep, or goat milk, each type lending a specific flavor to the cheese. You can also find sirene made from buffalo milk. The cheese has a firm, yet crumbly texture. Quality sirene is characterized by its ability to crumble well. It is an incredibly versatile cheese, a fundamental element in many traditional Bulgarian dishes. It is an essential part of the Shopska salad, can be added to soups and sauces, or used as a filling in baked goods and pastries.
Sujuk (flat sausage)
Sujuk is a traditional Bulgarian flat sausage, notable for its distinctive flavor and specific preparation. Sujuk is typically made from ground beef, pork, or a mixture of both. The meat is carefully mixed with a rich blend of spices, including garlic, black pepper, cumin, and often paprika, which gives the sausage its characteristic spiciness. The meat mixture is filled into natural or artificial casings and then shaped into flat pieces under pressure. This shape not only aids in the drying and smoking process but also increases the surface area of the sausage, supposedly allowing for better integration of flavors and aromas. In Bulgarian cuisine, sujuk is often consumed as part of cold appetizers or mezze, served sliced into thin pieces.
Pastarma (air-dried pressed meat)
Pastarma is a traditional Bulgarian meat delicacy. Pastarma is similar to the Armenian delicacy called basturma or the Turkish pastirma, but it has its specific Bulgarian characteristics. The production of pastarma begins with the selection of quality meat, usually beef or lamb, although pork or goat can also be used. The meat is first cured in a salt brine or salted, which helps preserve the meat and enhance its flavor. This is followed by a long process of drying and aging, during which the meat acquires its characteristic texture. An important part of pastarma production is the use of various spices, which are rubbed into the meat. After marinating and seasoning, pastarma is air-dried or lightly smoked. This process can take several weeks to months, depending on the size and type of meat. The flat shape of pastarma has its roots in the practical aspects of its preparation and storage. In Bulgarian cuisine, pastarma is often served as part of cold appetizers or mezze, sliced into thin pieces.
Filet Elena (air-dried pork tenderloin)
Elena is a dried pork meat from pork tenderloin, named after the Bulgarian town of Elena. Its production involves salting and drying the meat in a freezing environment, which promotes the development of microflora, giving the meat its characteristic aroma. The meat is pressed into a flat shape and then coated with a mixture of black pepper and other spices, enhancing its aromatic flavor. Similar products can be found in Spain (caña de lomo), Italy (lonza stagionata), Cyprus (lountza), and elsewhere.
Bulgarian non-alcoholic beverages
Mursalski tea is valued for its health benefits and exceptional flavor. It is made from the plant sideritis scardica, which grows at high altitudes in the Rhodope mountains in southern Bulgaria. The tea is known for its medicinal properties, valued in Bulgaria for generations. It is naturally caffeine-free and contains a number of active substances, including flavonoids, tannins, and essential oils. These compounds contribute to its anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, and antimicrobial properties. Mursalski tea is recommended for boosting the immune system, aiding digestion, or helping with respiratory problems. It is also a popular drink for relaxation and calming. Its flavor is slightly sweet with hints of floral and herbal tones. If you order tea in a Bulgarian restaurant, they often bring herbal, Mursalski tea.
Bulgarian alcoholic beverages
Bulgarian beer holds a special place in the gastronomic heritage of Bulgaria, although the country is traditionally more known for its wine. However, in recent years, the Bulgarian brewing industry has seen significant development, especially in the area of craft and specialty beers. Bulgarian beer is characterized by its light lagers, which are popular for their refreshing and light taste. These beers are often marked by a subtle hoppy aroma, making them an ideal drink for hot summer days. Among the most famous brands are Kamenitza, Zagorka, and Shumensko, which have a long history and are well-known both domestically and internationally. Although the Bulgarian brewing industry is not as large as in some other European countries, its diversity and quality are remarkable and are increasingly gaining international recognition.
Bulgarian wine, with a history dating back to antiquity, is a significant part of the cultural and gastronomic history of Bulgaria. The country boasts ideal climatic conditions for growing grapes, making it one of the leading wine regions of the world. Bulgaria has several wine regions, each producing wines with unique characteristics. Bulgarian red wines are valued for their full flavor and complex aroma. Among the most popular local varieties are Mavrud, Melnik, and Rubin, but internationally known varieties such as Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Pinot Noir are also grown here. Bulgaria also hosts a number of wine festivals and events, showcasing local wines and winemaking culture. These events are a great opportunity for visitors to taste various kinds of wines and become acquainted with the country’s rich winemaking tradition.
Brandy Pliska is one of the most famous and respected brandy brands in Bulgaria. This prestigious brandy is carefully crafted by distilling selected Bulgarian wines in copper pots. The distillate is aged in oak barrels, which gives the brandy its characteristic golden color and rich aroma. Aging in oak barrels is, in fact, a key element of the production of any brandy. During this process, the brandy slowly oxidizes, allowing its flavors and aromas to fully develop. Pliska is known for its smoothness and finesse, with a rich and balanced bouquet. Its flavor combines notes of ripe fruit, vanilla, caramel, and subtle spices, making Pliska a very pleasant brandy both for sipping on its own and as a base for various cocktails. In Bulgaria, Pliska has a strong tradition and is a symbol of national pride.
Interesting facts about food and drink in Bulgaria
In 1905, Bulgaria made its mark in the history of yoghurt thanks to the pioneering work of Dr. Stamen Grigorov. Dr. Grigorov discovered and described the bacteria Lactobacillus bulgaricus, which is essential for the fermentation process in yoghurt production and responsible for its characteristic taste and texture. This scientific breakthrough had a profound impact on understanding fermentation processes and helped increase the popularity of yoghurt during the 20th century.
Bulgarian yoghurt is a fundamental part of Bulgarian cuisine. The local yoghurt (“kiselo mlyako”) has a long history and is valued worldwide for its quality and probiotic properties. Its uniqueness lies in the specific cultures of bacteria, mainly Lactobacillus bulgaricus and Streptococcus thermophilus. These bacteria are responsible for fermenting the milk and creating the characteristic thick, creamy texture and mildly sour taste typical of Bulgarian yogurt. Lactobacillus bulgaricus, named after Bulgaria, is known for its health benefits, including aiding digestion and strengthening the immune system. Traditional Bulgarian yoghurt is made from fresh cow, sheep, or goat milk. In Bulgaria, yoghurt is consumed in many ways. It is a common part of the daily diet and is often included in various dishes, such as the yoghurt soup tarator or the yogurt salad Snezhanka. Quality Bulgarian yoghurt is definitely worth tasting; its flavor and texture are truly different from other yoghurts.
Typical prices in Bulgarian restaurants
The prices of food in restaurants are not very high, see the menu from a great Bulgarian restaurant in Varna (1 Euro = approx. 2 lv).
Tiping in Bulgarian restaurants
In Bulgaria, it is customary to leave a tip of 5 – 10 %, similar to many other countries. If the service was exceptional, the tip may be higher. In some smaller or rural restaurants, tipping may be less common. In such cases, it is still polite to round up the bill.
The best restaurants in Varna
In Varna, I recommend trying Bulgarian food from the Staria Chinar restaurant chain. My favorite was the one on Tsaribrod street, but visiting other branches is also a good choice. For delicious Bulgarian cakes and pastries, Kramer patisserie is a great option.
Michelin-starred restaurants in Bulgaria (Sofia)
Unfortunately, Bulgaria does not yet have any restaurants represented in the Michelin Guide.
What is the Best Bulgarian food?
If I had to choose three personal favorites, the best Bulgarian foods for me would be:
- grilled meat
- cold soup tarator
Bulgarian food festivals
- Banitsa Festival: This festival is dedicated to one of the most popular Bulgarian dishes, banitsa. Visitors can taste various versions of this traditional pastry made from filo dough, filled with cheese, spinach, and other ingredients. The festival is held in Radomir.
- Festival Rose Damascena: Held in Kazanlak, this festival is dedicated to the famous Bulgarian rose Damascena, used in both gastronomy and perfumery. It focuses on promoting products made from roses, including foods and beverages.
- Cherry Festival: Kyustendil, dubbed “the fruit garden of Bulgaria,” hosts this festival in June. The event offers craft demonstrations, artistic programs, and of course, cherry tastings.
- Plum Festival: The festival is hosted by the city of Troyan, famous for its plum orchards and plum brandy rakia. It showcases Bulgarian products made from plums.
- Chestnut Festival: This festival in Belasitsa celebrates chestnuts and includes tastings of chestnut-based dishes, music, and folk dance lessons.
- Festival of Peppers, Tomatoes, Traditional Dishes, and Crafts: The September festival in Kurtovo Konare focuses on peppers, tomatoes, and homemade ljutenica. Various culinary competitions and activities are a given.
- Bean Fair: This October event organized in the village of Smilyan focuses on bean dishes.
- Potato Festival: The festival in Chepelare pays tribute to potato dishes, includes children’s workshops, and a conference on potato cultivation in Bulgaria.
- Watermelon Festival: The village of Nikyup, known for growing watermelons, hosts an event where watermelon growers compete, watermelons are carved, and there is also a festive parade.
- Wine Festival: Held in Sofia, this festival offers wine tastings from various Bulgarian vineyards and gourmet dishes from local chefs.
- Yoghurt Fair: This event celebrates one of Bulgaria’s most famous products – yoghurt. Visitors can look forward to tastings and learn more about the production and history of Bulgarian yoghurt. It takes place in the city of Razgrad.
- Rakia Festival: Rakia is a traditional Bulgarian spirit. The festival, held in various cities, offers tastings of different types of rakia along with traditional Bulgarian dishes.
Gastronomic souvenirs from Bulgaria
The best gastronomic souvenir, in my opinion, is definitely Bulgarian sirene cheese. Whether it’s made from cow, sheep, or goat milk, it’s delicious in taste. Meat lovers will surely appreciate a gift of the local flat sausage sujuk. A universal and practical gift is Mursalski tea, which is tasty and also has health benefits. If you can bring liquids with you, definitely pack some Bulgarian wine or quality fruit brandy rakia in your luggage.
Enjoy Bulgarian cuisine!