Fresh fruit, vegetables, dairy and grilled meat form the basis of Bulgarian cuisine, which has been heavily influenced by Greek and Turkish cookery, as well as home-grown Balkan traditions. Pork and chicken are the most popular meats, while tripe also often features. You will also find recipes including duck, lamb and venison, and fish is plentiful along the Black Sea coast and in the Rodopi Mountains. Yoghurt and two types of cheese are also key ingredients.
Cheese & Yoghurt
It’s amazing how much Bulgarians make of their two types of cheese, sirene (‘white’; brine cheese, similar to feta) and kashkaval (‘yellow’; hard cheese, often melted in omelettes). Those who are lactose-intolerant or non-cheese-lovers should read menus carefully.
Bulgarians claim to have invented yoghurt (kiselo mlyako; literally 'sour milk'), and, indeed, the bacteria used to make yoghurt is called lactobacillus bulgaricus, named in honour of its Bulgarian origins. Yoghurt is used in many sweet and savoury dishes, including salads and desserts, and drinking yoghurts are very popular; ayran is a refreshing, chilled, slightly salty, thin yoghurt drink that makes an ideal accompaniment to light meals.
Coffee is the beverage of choice for most Bulgarians, though tea is also popular. Most common are the herbal (bilkov) and fruit (plodov) varieties; if you want real, black tea, ask for cheren chai, and if you’d like milk, ask for chai s’mlyako (though some bewildered waiters may bring tea and milk in separate cups).
Beer (bira) is sold everywhere, either in bottles or in draught (nalivna) form, which is generally cheaper. Leading nationwide brands include Zagorka, Kamenitza, Ariana and Shumensko, while there are several regional brews, which are rarely available far beyond their home areas. Lower-alcohol fruit beers have become popular in recent years.
The national spirit is rakia, a clear and potent kind of brandy. Distilled from plums, grapes or apricots and ideally served ice cold, there are numerous brands available (as well as some powerful homemade versions made from quince, cherries and apples). It’s drunk as an aperitif, and served with ice in restaurants and bars, which often devote a whole page on their menus to a list of the regional rakias on offer. Shopska salad is considered a superbly salty accompaniment to rakia.
Bulgaria produces huge quantities of both white and red vino (wine), which varies greatly in quality.
Salads & Starters
Salads are an essential part of most Bulgarian meals, and are often eaten as a starter, but some are so large that they could be a full meal in themselves. There's a bewildering array of salads available at most restaurants.
Shopska salad, which is made with chopped tomatoes, cucumbers, green peppers and onions and covered with feta cheese, is so popular it’s regarded as a national dish. Snezhanka (‘Snow White’), or milk salad, is made with cucumbers and scoops of plain yoghurt, with garlic, dill and crushed walnuts; it's essentially a more solid version of tarator (chilled cucumber and yoghurt soup), and is especially tempting in summer.
Ruska (Russian) salad features boiled potatoes, pickles, eggs and chopped ham, while the hearty ovcharska salad includes ham, mushrooms, chopped tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, cheese and olives. Rather lighter, and more common, green and Greek salads are served everywhere, and restaurants often have their own inventive concoctions worth trying.
Appetisers, or starters, are eaten before a meal, sometimes with a glass of rakia (fruit brandy). Plates of sliced, dried sausage (lukanka), stuffed vine leaves (losovi sarmi), roast peppers stuffed with cheese and egg (chuska byurek) and fried, breaded cheese (sirene pane or kashkaval pane) are all very popular.
Grilled Meats & Stews
Grilled meats (skara), especially pork, are among the most popular dishes served in Bulgarian restaurants, mehana (taverns) and snack bars. You can't escape the omnipresent kebabche (grilled spicy pork sausages) and kyufte (a round and flat pork burger), which are tasty, filling and cheap staples of Bulgarian menus, usually served with chips, fried potatoes or salad. The kyufte tatarsko, a seasoned pork burger filled with melted cheese, is another variant. The Greek-influenced musaka (moussaka), made with minced pork or veal and topped with potatoes, is a quick lunchtime staple of cafeterias.
Shish kebabs (shishcheta), consisting of chunks of chicken or pork on wooden skewers with mushrooms and peppers, as well as various steaks, fillets and chops, are widely available.
Meat stews and 'claypot meals' (hot, sizzling stews served in clay bowls) are traditional favourites. Kavarma, normally made with either chicken or pork, is one of the most popular dishes. Exact recipes vary from one region to the next, but the meat is cooked in a pot with vegetables, cheese and sometimes egg, and is brought sizzling and bubbling to your table.
Pig, cow and lamb offal, in various forms, is a distressingly common feature of many a restaurant menu. If you're in the mood for something different, though, you could try such delights as stomach soup (shkembe chorba) or perhaps brain (mozâk) or tongue (ezik), which come in various forms, including in omelettes. Spleens and intestines also turn up in soups and grills.
Turkey's sweet tooth truly crossed the border into Bulgaria. Tooth-tingling lokum, known worldwide as Turkish delight, is a common treat in Bulgarian sweetshops, dusted with confectioner's sugar, coconut or nuts. Halva, made with semolina or sesame paste, is also widely sold, while plenty of cafes serve syrup-drenched baklava (pistachio pastry) and tolumbi (honey-soaked pastry logs).
If you just fancy a quick bite, there's a wide choice of cheap and tasty street food available all over Bulgaria. By far the most popular takeaway snack is the banitsa, a flaky cheese pastry, freshly baked and served hot from simple counters and kiosks. They are often eaten for breakfast. Fancier bakeries will offer variations of the basic banitsa, adding spinach, egg, ham or other ingredients. Sweet versions (mlechna banitsa) are made with milk.
Sweet and savoury pancakes (palachinki), croissant-shaped buns (kiflichki), filled with marmalade, chocolate or cheese, and deep-fried yoghurt doughnuts (mekitsi) are all worth sampling.
Bulgarians are great snackers and in big towns you will see vendors in parks selling toasted sunflower seeds wrapped in paper cones. Steamed corn on the cob is served on street corners and around parks, and bagel-like, ring-shaped bread rolls dusted in poppy or sesame seeds (gevrek) are commonly sold by street vendors.
Vegetarians & Vegans
Vegetarianism has been slow to catch on in Bulgaria, but cities are finally wising up to the diet. In smaller towns, the lack of dedicated veggie eateries is not usually an obstacle to following a meat-free diet. Most restaurants offer a dozen or more salads, which are sometimes large enough for a main course. Omelettes, vegetarian pizzas and pasta dishes are common, but note that the ‘vegetarian’ designation is applied with varying degrees of accuracy. Similarly, some restaurant menus now label the allergens of each dish, but it is worthwhile asking about the rigour with which 'dairy-free' or 'gluten-free' labels have been applied (dietary requirements remain a slightly alien concept to most Bulgarians).
Tasty vegetarian meals and snacks include sirene po shopski (cheese, eggs and tomatoes baked in a clay pot), gyuvech (potatoes, tomatoes, aubergine, onions and carrots baked in a clay pot), mish-mash (scrambled eggs with peppers, tomatoes and cheese), kashkaval pane (fried breaded cheese), chuska byurek (fried, breaded peppers stuffed with egg, cheese and parsley), bob chorba (bean soup) and the ever-popular banitsa (pastry). Tarator (chilled yoghurt and cucumber soup) is a deliciously refreshing dish at any time of year.
Vegans will have a trickier time because of the ubiquity of cheese and eggs in Bulgarian vegetable dishes. Self-catering can ease the stress for vegan travellers, though there are now a few cosmopolitan cafes in Sofia and Plovdiv catering for plant-based diets. Grilled veggies and salads are a vegan-friendly fall-back on many traditional menus (but double-check about cheese).
Where to Eat & Drink
Cafes & Markets
Cafes are cheaper affairs and include basic self-service cafeterias offering pre-cooked meals, soups and salads. In the cities, small basic cafes or snack bars offer drinks and snacks, sometimes with a few chairs outside, or just a table to lean on. Some bake their own produce, especially banitsa. Look out for signs reading закуска (zakuska; breakfast).
Self-caterers will find plenty of choice at Bulgaria's many street markets; this is where most locals do their shopping, and much of the produce will be fresh (though in many villages, locals whisper that produce touted as organic and locally grown is quietly imported).
A mehana (tavern) is a traditional restaurant, often decorated in a rustic style, adorned with rugs and farming implements, and offering only authentic Bulgarian cuisine. Some of these, of course, are tourist traps, luring foreign tourists with noisy ‘folk shows’ and waiters in fancy dress, though the genuine places provide a pleasant atmosphere in which to sample the very best of local food. Look out for those frequented by locals. Rounding up a bill is common; some waiting staff simply don't bring back change.
Most outlets providing seating describe themselves as restaurants, and this covers a pretty broad range of dining spots and every imaginable type of cuisine.
In the big cities and coastal resorts, most restaurants will offer menus in English and, occasionally, other languages. Reservations are rarely necessary, unless you are in a large group or the restaurant is especially popular. Bills will usually be ‘rounded up’, and a service charge of 10% is sometimes added. If it isn’t, a small tip is expected.
Bulgarian dining is dominated by local cuisine, though Italian, Turkish and other European food is also popular. Unless you plan to eat at high-end restaurants or in festival season, reservations are rarely needed.
- Bakeries For pastries and pillowy bread, go to bakeries early: when the banitsa (pastry) runs out, that's it for the day.
- Mehanas Traditional taverns with outdoor seating and folksy decorations serve Bulgarian fare.
- Guesthouses Most guesthouses double as mehanas, and serve just-like-grandma-made cuisine.
- Cafes Most cafes also serve light snacks such as salads, sandwiches and grills.
- Restaurants Huge range – from small and cosy to glitzy and glamorous.