Bulgaria occupies a strategic position on the tastiest Balkan crossroads – a merging point for the tastes of Europe and the Orient, East and West, North and South. The dishes on a Bulgarian table today, the products, the spices and the cooking techniques form a beautiful mosaic of thousands of pieces collected in the course of millennia by ancient Thracians, Slavs, Proto-Bulgarians, Greeks, Turks, Arabs and Persians. The Bulgarian gastronomy has taken something from everyone who has crossed our lands, leaving trace in our history and culture, the best, the staunchest, and the tastiest.
Proof is found in the sources of Bulgarian ancient culinary history – ever since the times of the Thracians, dishes with cabbage, parsnip, mint, thyme, dill, lovage, garlic, onion, lettuce, carrots, purslane, celeriac, dock and sorrel have been prepared in our lands. Various kinds of cheeses have been made. There is information that the Thracians were the first to sour milk with ferment of green plants, rich in Lactobacillus delbrueckii subsp. bulgaricus and Streptococcus thermophilus, which made the milk much easier to be assimilated by the human system. The Slavs, on the other hand, baked the highly nutritious millet bread. They also grew rye and wheat, leeks, green peas, lentils, chick peas and turnips. From the Proto-Bulgarians, considered to be a nomadic people of meat and milk diet, we took jerked meat.
The most ardently protected space in Bulgarian cuisine is that of the spices. Savory and spearmint embody the fragrance of the typical Bulgarian dish. The first axioms taught in the kitchen of any Bulgarian home are beans or lamb with mint, lentils or potato stew with savory. The attempts to rebel against these rules of combination are usually met with complete disapproval, especially by the elderly. Paprika, parsley and dill are the runner-ups in the fragrance charts. Among the spices from the Orient the preferred ones are black pepper, bay leaf and cumin. Allspice and nutmeg are used mainly in sausages. In some of the regional dishes spices are used, which, in spite of our country’s relatively small area, are completely unknown in other parts – honey garlic, tarragon, wild cumin, fennel seeds, lovage, costmary, chervil and fenugreek.
Seasons are still of great importance in the traditional Bulgarian cuisine. In Spring, tasty dishes are made of spinach, dock, nettles, sorrel, green onions, lettuce, ramsons, orache, courgettes, broad beans, strawberries and cherries. They are combined with lamb, kid meat and poultry meat. In the Summer, we turn to vegetarian dishes and salads with tomatoes, string beans, young potatoes, peppers, aubergines, cucumber, garlic and onions. The Autumn abundance of aubergines, leeks, red peppers, cabbage, celeriac, cauliflower and carrots is combined with weaned lamb meat and veal. Winter is the season for pork with potatoes, beans, lentils, green peas, rice, fermented cabbage and many types of pickles or preserves.
Holidays and celebrations are the natural time when food is displayed to be seen, handed out and shared to take part in rites and rituals. The Bulgarian ritual breads are richly decorated with sacred symbols, the round banitsa pastries embody the heavenly bodies, the dishes traditional for St. George’s Day, St. Peter’s Day and St. Nicholas’ Day with lamb, chicken and carp respectively, are remnants of pre-Christian offerings.
The Bulgarian cuisine has always been part of the Mediterranean tradition and still is. Apart from dishes prepared with regional products, it is also the heart and soul devotion to tasty food, joy in experiencing and sharing the table with other people.
The most emblematic Bulgarian dish remains the Banitza, which is made from filo pastry, eggs and cheese and can be consumed alone or with yogurt. Sometimes it will be stuffed with leeks or spinach too. Other typical starters include: Lyutenitsa – a puree of roast peppers and tomato; Kyopulu – roast aubergines and peppers mashed together with garlic and herbs; Katak – a very thick concentrated yoghurt, sometimes mixed with peppers; Mlechna salata – yoghurt, pickled cucumber, wallnuts and dill. Cured meats are also very good, such as lukanka, sujuk, pastarma and elenski but (Bulgarian prosciutto crudo). A soup (or chorba) comes next – tripe or meat soups are popular but vegetarian options include beans (chorba bob) or lentils, or cold soup called tarator made from yoghurt, garlic and cucumber.
A typical meal will start with a salad, and traditionally a glass of Rakiya – the strong local spirit made typically from grapes (but also other fruits, like plums or apricots) – usually using the skins left over from winemaking (like grappa or marc).
Some main dishes
Among the soups we can mention the Tarator (cold soup based on yogurt, cucumbers, garlic, parsil and nuts) and the Shkembe Chorba, a milk soup made from lamp’s or calf’s stomach cooked with vinegar and garlic, heritage from the ottoman period.
Other traditional dishes are Shishcheta, made from grilled meat, Kapama, made from three types of meat , rice, fermented cabbage and spices slowly cooked in a clay pot, Sarmi (rolls of rice and meat in vine or fermented cabbage leaves). There is the local Rodopean variation, called Apratsi – the bite size sarmi in cabbage. Kavarma is a slow-cooked meat and onion stew. Gyuvech is an earthenware vessel that gives its name to stews cooked in it – vegetable or meat. Classical gyuvech is made with lamb or mutton meat and over 10 different types of vegetables. Stuffed peppers and aubergines are also often prepared. Bulgaria’s version of moussaka is popular and in summer a dish called mish mash with tomatoes, peppers, cheese and eggs.
Few words a part deserve the cheeses from which the most popular are Sirene, traditional white cheese and Kaskaval, a yellow cheese generally more aged, both can be from cow or sheep milk.
Quite interesting is the so-called Green Cheese from Cherni Vit, a naturally molded sheep cheese with a distinctive taste.