We stayed in Bansko, Bulgaria for the month of November. During that month we fell in love with Bulgarian food. In order to learn more about the food of Bulgaria we reached out to fellow food blogger Darina and asked her to teach us more about the unique foods of her home. She graciously answered all of my questions regarding the foods of the regions:
Q: Bulgarian cuisine is sort of a hidden gem- it’s absolutely incredible, but still (unfortunately) relatively unknown in the US. How do you define Bulgarian food? What are some of your favorite traditional dishes?
A: Bulgarian cuisine combines the cooking traditions and flavour preferences of the Mediterranean, Slavic and Oriental cuisines. Typically, all ingredients of a dish, both vegetables and meat, are cooked together at the same time. Dishes are usually spiced up with onions, garlic, black pepper, paprika and summer savoury. The most characteristic products used in Bulgarian cuisine are the Bulgarian yogurt and white brine cheese. Bread is consumed with almost every dish.
My personal favourites are moussaka (potato and meat casserole style dish), banitsa (fillo pie with white cheese), tikvenik (fillo pie with sweet pumpkin filling), mekitsa (fried dough breads), chicken and rice casserole.
Q: As the world gets smaller, how has Bulgaria managed to keep its food identity? How has the culinary scene shifted in the last few years?
A: I think there are several factors that helped Bulgarian food keep its identity.
Some Bulgarian dishes are so traditional and so dear to us Bulgarians, that they can never change. For example, Bulgarian banitsa, moussaka and shopska salad (containing tomatoes, cucumbers, onions and white Bulgarian cheese) are so iconic and beloved that we would never change or forget them. We do, however, create new varieties of the dishes using foreign ingredients.
Another factor, I think, is that most Bulgarians prefer to stick to our own cuisine on a daily basis. Some combinations of tastes that are considered classics in other popular cuisines are perceived as strange for most Bulgarians. For example, the combination of pork and apples, jam and meat or jam and cheese are very strange in the eyes of the average Bulgarian. We prefer our sweet and savoury foods separate.
Having said that, there is a certain hunger recently, mostly in the younger Bulgarians, to try new flavours. I think it started with the falling of communism, which made a lot of foods available on the Bulgarian market and made us free to leave and explore the world. Simple things, like broccoli or blue cheese were not available in Bulgaria in my childhood. Some Bulgarians still don’t know how to use those, but they can all find them in the market now.
The globalisation and, of course, the internet has also changed a bit the way we cook. You can find a lot of foreign recipes in the Bulgarian recipe portals. People cook them and like them, and often add their own twists to them.
Q: I have seen similar dishes on menus throughout the Balkans. How does Bulgarian food differ from that of other Balkan countries?
A: The Balkan region has always been very tightly connected. Many of the countries have similar languages and traditions, and a lot of common history. The similarities in the food reflects that.
However, each region has their own way to doing things. The Serbian chevabcici are similar to the Bulgarian kebapche, but the different spices used to season the meat makes a huge difference. The Greek feta cheese is very similar to the Turkish and Bulgarian white brine cheese, but there are differences in consistency, saltiness and texture. The Serbians use thicker filo sheets for their variant of banitsa.
Q: How has Bulgarian food been influenced by neighboring countries?
A: The Balkan countries have been intertwined for centuries. The Slavic countries have some common foods that they share, such as the typical bakeries like banitsa. Adding to that is the period of the Ottoman empire’s reign which influenced the Balkans significantly. Bulgaria, and most of the Balkan countries, have been under the empire’s reign for roughly 500 years. That’s a lot of time to mingle together and influence each other. And the result is unique.
A: How does the cuisine differ from region to region- the mountains to the coast and everywhere in between?
It is not that much of a difference between mountains and coast, it’s more between older cities and villages where traditions have been preserved. In Panagyurishte, you have to try Panagyurski style eggs, in Bansko – chomlek and Banski starets, when in the Rhodope mountains – Patatnik.
Q: As a dietitian, I am very interested with the nutrition aspect of a culture- what kind of a role do fruits, vegetables and whole grains play in the Bulgarian diet?
A: Sadly, whole grains had fallen out of fashion recently on the Bulgarian culinary scene. Bread is very important to Bulgarians, we eat it with almost every dish. But when you walk trough the supermarket nowadays you see that it is mostly highly processed white bread that is produced and purchased. What is worse, it is sold in plastic bags which makes it gummy. Historically, grains like millet, oats, barley, rye and wheat were main ingredients in the Bulgarian dishes.
The Bulgarian cuisine is rich in vegetables. There are plenty of vegetarian and vegan dishes because of the customary religious fasts. Also, most of the dishes that do include meat have a vegetarian variant. The stuffed peppers can easily be turned vegetarian by adding raisins or eggs to the rice filling instead of minced meat.
Bulgarians like their salads too. A well kept tradition is to have a salad with a little rakiya (our strong alcoholic drink usually made of grapes) before a meal. It is not something to rush trough either. The salad and rakiya are consumed slowly. You’re supposed to savour every bite while catching up with friends and family around the table.
Fruits are mainly considered a dessert and eaten fresh or conserved in a compote or jam. There aren’t many traditional dishes including fruit.
People used to make their own preserves before store brought products became so available. I remember my grandmother’s impressive collection of different compotes, jams and liutenitsa (spread made of tomatoes and peppers) jars in her basement that she stocked up every year.
Meat-wise, Bulgarians prefer pork, chicken and fish, but they also often eat beef, lamb, and turkey.
Traditionally, Bulgarians have only two kinds of cheese – the white brine cheese and a hard yellow cheese called kashkaval. When a Bulgarian makes a pizza, it’s always kashaval on top, never mozzarella. And I must say, I personally prefer it the Bulgarian way. But I am biased.
Another typical thing is Bulgarians like to eat seeds for a snack. Usually roasted and salted sunflower or pumpkin seeds.
Q: You have been blogging about Bulgarian food, what inspired you to start blogging? How do you develop your recipes? What recipes are most special to you?
A: I’ve always been a foodie. I’ve had different food blogs over the years, but they had some sort of identity crisis. Food is a giant topic to write about. You have to have a niche. I am a cofounder of a Bulgarian language learning website and I posted some Bulgarian recipes in the blog there. A lot of people were interested and wanted more. So I made a Bulgarian food blog.
I often present recipes that are well-loved family staples. The difficulty there is that most of the time, I don’t measure ingredients, I cook “by feeling”. Actually, most Bulgarians’ cooking style is like that. So to write a blog post article I measure the ingredients while cooking and research how other people do it.
The most special recipes are the ones that were passed on me from my family. My grandmother and I often made a Negarche Cake together. My mother makes an excellent Sweet Pumpkin Casserole. I grew up eating Printsessi. These recipes I’ve shared on my blog are all dear to me, because they are connected with my personal history.
Darina is a passionate foodie and creator of bulgarianfood.net. On her blog, she is popularizing the Bulgarian cuisine by presenting recipes of traditional and modern Bulgarian dishes in English.