This is my last post from my blog series on Bulgaria. In a dozen articles I relived the fourteen days that I spent in my home country this summer. Every home-coming brings so many emotions. From happiness to be surrounded by my family and old friends to a deep feeling of national pride when exploring the centuries-old heritage of Bulgaria to bitter moments of upset when faced with the reality of certain facets of the country.
So, to complete the cycle of reminiscing of all the things I saw and did there in July, today I am going to tell you about ten truly scrumptious Bulgarian dishes.
Food is the most amazing medium. Just the smell of a certain dish can transport you thousands of miles away to a place which is dear to you or can help you relive a defining moment in your life. Flavours, textures, colours, combinations and spices – eating and savouring is such a big part of our lives, that it is easy to say that food is the stepping stone of our cultural identity.
Bulgarian food is delicious and truly satisfying. Expect fresh salads, hearty soups, slow-cooked stews and lots and lots of red meat. With its juicy, melt-in-the-mouth quality pork tastes the best in Bulgaria. From large grilled chops to thinly sliced dry cured sausages, you will find pork taking a pride of place on the national table in every season. Vegetable- and meat-based stews are very popular, too. A beaten egg is usually blended in soups. Seasonal vegetables provide the bulk for enormous bowls of salads which are then sprinkled with soft and crumbly brined cheese and seasoned with salt, vinegar and copious amounts of oil.
Ah, the sunflower oil! It plays a leading role in Bulgarian cooking. The Bulgarian woman knows how to use it generously so that the meal hits all the pleasure points in the brain and the stomach of the lucky eaters. After spending several years in London and getting used to cooking with a spoonful of oil at the very best, I remember gasping at the liberal amounts of oil my mum would use in her home cooking every day.
She would lift the bottle, tip it over the large pan or pot where that day’s dish would be prepared, and let the golden liquid flow freely for a while. Watching her, I would grow increasingly stressed over the tick layer of oil now greasing the bottom of the pan, but she always thought that it was not quite enough and add another little glug just in case. The flavour of her dishes is incomparable though, whereas mine are usually a bit dry.
Being an off-shoot of the Balkan cuisine, our national cooking shares several dishes with the countries bordering on Bulgaria. Yet, we usually employ slightly different techniques when preparing them. For example, a moussaka back home is customarily made with potatoes rather than aubergines. For this article, I picked ten dishes to share with you and, believe me, I could have easily picked a hundred. There are so many that deserve wider recognition.
Now, before we dig into the dishes and their stories below, let me tell you something. All the food (bar the kebapche in white bread roll) in the following photographs was cooked by my mum this summer. It was very difficult to photograph it, I am afraid. People around the table were so eager to savour their meal that I was rarely given more than a few seconds to snap a quick photo here and there. I had to be really quick; there was no time to experiment with light and angles.
Eating the food whilst it was still hot and sharing the meal with relatives and friends around the table was much more important. So, I invite you to this virtual Bulgarian feast.
I hope that you will enjoy it!
1. Banitza (Bg: баница)
You can’t go to Bulgaria and not eat banitza! It is a national staple – a beautiful pie of filo pastry, several eggs and lots of crumbly brined cheese which is baked to perfection. There are many different recipes for banitza across Bulgaria and a slice of it can be eaten at breakfast, as a snack or even enjoyed as a light dinner or lunch usually coupled with a bowl of thick natural Bulgarian yogurt. My English husband became a staunch fan of banitza and while we lived in England, I would make it every fortnight. As in Italy, or at least in the region where we reside, we find it very hard to source proper brined cheese, we hadn’t had banitza for close to a year. So, when my mum treated us to this beauty for breakfast, it was so quickly eaten, that I had to guard my slice in order to take this picture.
2. Shopska Salata (Bg: шопска салата)
This is Bulgarian summer in a bowl. Fresh crunchy cucumbers are peeled off and sliced thinly. Big red juicy tomatoes are then added to the bowl cut in bite-size pieces. If you are feeling particularly healthy or generous, add a handful of julienned peppers. Season with salt, vinegar and oil and then spread on top a very generous helping of crumbled brined cheese. Grab a salad spoon and mix it all, not too vigorously though so as not to crush the tomatoes. The Shopska salad is a staple in every Bulgarian restaurant. At home, people serve it as a starter while enjoying a drink. Definitely give it a try when you are in Bulgaria. There is something like a national obsession with it, so it is unlikely that you won’t have it at least once.
3. Green Bean Stew (Bg: яхния от зелен боб)
This is such a simple dish to make, yet it is so flavoursome and satisfying. All you need is a kilo of fresh green beans, some ripe tomatoes, onions, seasoning and oil and in no time you can enjoy a tasty vegetarian stew for lunch or dinner. Once you have eaten all the green beans off your plate, the sauce is not going to go to waste. In Bulgaria thick slices of bread are served on the table with every meal. Breaking off a bite of bread to mop the green bean stew sauce is a pleasure like no other. Give it a try!
4. Kebapche (Bg: кебапче)
Kebapche (pl. kebapcheta) is one of my most favourite things to eat. Luckily, they are sold everywhere – grilled in restaurants and food shacks and frozen in the supermarkets for you to prepare at home. A kebapche is made of a mixture of pork and beef minced meat with added spices. My favourite is the cumin which gives the kebapche its amazing flavour. You can have the kebapche simply in a bread roll or served as a dish with a garnish of French fries with grated brined cheese and a fresh salad. Definitely one to enjoy as often as you can when you are in Bulgaria.
5. Pork Chops (Bg: свински пържоли)
I wasn’t fast enough! By the time I had the camera all set up and ready, the big plate piled up high with pork chops which my mum had just placed on the table was all but empty and everyone around me was too busy munching for me to take any good pictures at all. You know the old saying – when you can’t beat them, join them. So, I tossed the camera aside and tucked into my own juicy pork chop. I don’t know if it is the climate or a closely guarded secret, but pork in Bulgaria tastes the best in the world. It is usually so dry in England, that I never enjoyed cooking it there. But in Bulgaria is what most people eat on a regular basis and you need to try it for yourself to appreciate the difference. Pork chops are a very popular dish. They are often prepared for special celebrations. They are best grilled, but you can also roast them in the oven in a tray covered with a generous glug of oil.
6. Mekitzi (Bg: мекици)
Mekitzi are little balls of sticky dough which you pull with your fingers into a flat patty which is then dropped into a pan with hot oil and fried to golden perfection. Eaten hot the mekitzi are crunchy on the outside and soft inside. You can also have them cold when they turn slightly chewy. Mekitzi are usually served for breakfast or you can have them as a snack through the day. They are great enjoyed with a little bit of brined cheese or with jam. They are also delicious simply dusted with icing sugar. If you can’t get them home-made, then you may buy them from the little shacks selling pastries and doughy snacks which are ubiquitous in every Bulgarian city and town.
7. Meatballs (Bg: кюфтета)
There is nothing like a juicy Bulgarian meatball! It really puts its competitors from around the globe to shame. First, it is much larger than, say, a minuscule Swedish meatball, and, second, it tastes great grilled or fried. To make meatballs the Bulgarian way, you need pork mince meat, chopped onion, a slice of stale bread dipped in water, an egg (to bind the mixture) and seasoning, like black pepper, cumin, paprika and salt. You need to work all the ingredients together, leave the mixture in the fridge for at least half an hour to settle and then tear it into plum-sized balls. Roll these between your palms and gently squash them. Roll them in flour, dust off the excess and fry them in hot oil. Skip the flour stage, if you decide to grill them instead. Yum!
8. Milinki (Bg: милинки)
No-one can resist milinki. You can’t help it, but treat yourself to yet another one and then another one and… You get the drift. Milinki are little balls made of dough and filled with pieces of brined cheese which are baked tightly packed in a large tray, so that they expand, stick together and resemble one large bread when you take them out of the oven. Each milinka that you tear off melts on the tongue. The crust is nice and crunchy. The fine breadcrumbs that the milinki are dusted with, add a little salty exaltation to the whole experience. Best enjoyed with a bowl of thick natural Bulgarian yogurt, a glass of ayran (yogurt thinned with water and with added salt) or a cup of boza – a drink made of fermented wheat or millet. If you don’t have anyone to treat you to a tray of home-made milinki, you can buy them very cheaply from one of the little shacks selling pastries and doughy snacks in every Bulgarian city or town.
9. Tarator (Bg: таратор)
This is a lovely and very refreshing dish, perfect to have in summer when the temperatures hit an impossible high. It is made of yogurt, thinned with water, and grated or cubed cucumber. It is seasoned with dill, (optional) garlic, salt, vinegar and a glug of oil. Right before you serve it, sprinkle a generous portion of crushed walnuts on top. If you don’t thin the yogurt with water, but otherwise complete all the other steps of making a tarator, then you will end up with a cold dip, which in Bulgaria is called ‘Salad Snezhanka’ (Bg: салата Снежанка). Snezhanka means ‘Snow White’ in Bulgarian. Here is the right place to also recommend that, when in Bulgaria or if you can buy it abroad, you eat lots of Bulgarian natural yogurt. It is thick, refreshing, sates the appetite and it has a slightly sour taste. We, Bulgarians, are very proud of it, not least because for the correct production of proper natural yogurt you need to use special bacteria, called ‘Lactobacillus Bulgaricus’, where ‘Bulgaricus’ obviously means ‘Bulgarian’. These wondrous bacteria take care of the intestines and promote long life and health.
10. Stuffed Vegetables (Bg: пълнени зеленчуци)
A lovely meal – very healthy, tasty and it can be made either with meat or purely vegetarian. You need peppers, aubergines, courgettes and/or large tomatoes. Basically, any vegetable which can be hollowed out (for example, in the picture above you can see a stuffed green pepper and a stuffed courgette). Then you fill them up with a mixture of seasoned and lightly fried minced meat and rice, put them in a large pot, cover them with water and simmer them for a while. Then serve and enjoy. If you prefer a meatless meal, you can use mushrooms instead of the mince or simply increase the quantity of the rice. I remember posting the picture below on my Facebook page some time ago and it got so many likes and comments, proving how well-loved this simple dish is.
I hope you enjoyed this little walk through some of the most popular
Bulgarian dishes. Have you tried any of them or any other
Bulgarian meals? I am curious to find out what you thought,
so let me know in the comments below.