Authentic traditional food is one of the strongest impressions a country and a culture leave to the visitor. Bulgarian culinary tradition is one of those who quickly win new fans. Created in the span of centuries, while absorbing foreign influences and building up its own traditions, it steps on the richness of the local land and produces an appetising, impressive result.
Bulgaria's emblematic dishes are a result of its nature and the skill to take the best of it. The gorgeous vegetables traditionally grown in the country form the base of the marvellous, rich salads without which one literally cannot sit on the table, and of a variety of vegetarian and meat dishes like Gyuvech, or stew in earthenware pot; Mishmash, or red pepper stir fry; Kachamak, or polenta; Patatnik, or potato dish; fried courgettes; beans; Sarmi, or meat or rice in sauerkraut or vine leaf; stuffed aubergines; and appetisers like Kyuopoolu, or aubergine paste, and Lyutenitsa, or tomato and pepper paste. Without the Bulgarian tradition in produce of yoghurt and cheese would be unthinkable favourite dishes like Banitsa, or pastry with cheese, spinach, leek; as well as Tarator, or cold yoghurt soup, and Ayran, or cold yoghurt drink. Sheep breeding, which in the 19th century was one of the main means of living in the country, has left a strong heritage: roast lamb is an integral part of feasts like St George's Day and Easter. Pork is probably the most popular type of meat on the Bulgarian table, mainly in the shape of steaks, meatballs, skewers, and as a part of rich stews.
Some regional dishes have become true classics, like Kapama from Bansko, an earthenware pot stew of several types of meat and sauerkraut. The Northwest is famed for its dried red peppers stuffed with beans, and the Rhodope are the territory of Patatnik, Rhodope Klin, or a rice pie, and beans from Smilyan village. In Elena is prepared the one of a kind Elenski but, or ham, and Gorna Oryahovitsa is the birthplace of the classical Gornooryahovski sudzhuk sausage. Bulgarian national cuisine is seasonal. Today, the main products are available the year round, but Shopska salad always tastes best in the summer, when there is a plenty of tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers grown under the sun. Kapama and sauerkraut Sarmi are for the cold months, while warm weather is the time for Tarator, fried courgettes, Musaka, or an oven baked dish of mince and potatoes.
Some Bulgarian dishes are cult classics. Like tripe soup. Plenty of people claim that it is the best way to begin the day after a night with too much drinking. The spit-roasted lamb, or Cheverme, is the most attractive way to enjoy this type of meat, particularly if you are in the Rhodope, surrounded by the sound of the region's folklore music. Stuffed carp is a dish with which thousands of families celebrate St Nicholas's Day, and the odd number of lean dishes, required by tradition for the Christmas Eve dinner, is among the most discussed festive topics every year.
Let's not forget the beverages. Bulgaria is the homeland of wonderful wines and aromatic Rakiyas from grape, plums, apricots, quinces and other fruits. Their degustation, of course in reasonable amounts and with a suitable accompanying food, is one of the most memorable experiences in this country.
The best way to discover the culinary diversity of Bulgaria is to visit Bulgarian homes and to travel as much as possible. When this is not an option, you have a delicious alternative: the good restaurants for Bulgarian national cuisine in Sofia.
Designed in the style of 19th century architectural tradition, they look like pieces of past that have somehow survived into modernity. With overhanging tiled eaves, whitewashed or painted walls, an abundance of traditional pottery and decorations of folklore costumes and artefacts, they create a distinctive atmosphere that remains unharmed by all the culinary changes and fads.
The menus of good traditional restaurants obligatorily cover the classical recipes and the regional specialities, who define the face of Bulgaria's national cuisine. What makes the food worthy trying is the careful selection of the best products and the desire for achieving the most authentic taste. This, however, doesn't mean that your risk being bored. The chefs at these restaurants have mastered the art of traditional cuisine to the level of being able to create new dishes that use the established principles and achieve a taste that is both authentic and innovative.
Bulgarian folklore music always accompanies the dining in traditional Bulgarian restaurant, and the most ambitious establishments organise live music nights. Thanks to this, the pleasure of traditional Bulgarian cuisine gets bigger, becoming a part of a more wholesome experience.
Hadjidraganovite Kashti: The home of tradition
Hadjidraganovite Kashti (Sofia, 75 Kozlodyi St, phones: + 359 2 931 31 48, + 359 899 917 837, www.kashtite.com/bg) appeared in 1866, when the merchant Hadzhi Dragan invited master builders from Koprivshtitsa, Zheravna, Melnik and Bansko and commissioned each of them to built a house in the respective architecture tradition. The result is still impressive. After a renovation that took 3 years and ended in 2004, the restaurant is the best way to fall in love with the classic and regional cuisine of Bulgaria. Regardless of whether you sit in one of the houses or in the wonderful summer garden, Hadjidraganovite Kashti are a culinary trip back in time and in the tastes of Bulgaria. The menu includes a wide range of traditional meat and vegetarian dishes, the revived old recipes in the Meat/Lean initiative, and of unique specialities like whole chicken in clay egg, porcini soup in a bread bowl or giant Voevodska sofra for 10 people. All of this is accompanies by an excellent selection of Bulgarian beverages and life folklore music.
Vodenitzata: The spirit of Bulgaria
The feel that you are about to experience something memorable and authentic will begin long before you approach Vodenitzata (Sofia, Dragalevtsi, Vitosha Park, first station of Dragalevtsi chair-lift, phones: +359 2 967 1058, +359 888 70 31 03, www.vodenitzata.com), while are gradually climbing the feet of the Vitosha, with its beautiful landscapes and crystal air. The feel will become stronger when you enter the restaurant's blossoming garden, and when you open the menu the pleasant surprises will continue. On the pages are listed fresh traditional salads, a wonderful selection of Bulgarian cheeses and salami, a variety of meat and vegetarian hot starters, and classical meatballs and skewers, plus more exotic suggestions like knuckle in Haydut style and specifically created gourmet steak menu. But Vodenitzata is not only a pleasure for the palate. It is also a pleasure for the soul – every evening from 9pm the restaurant becomes a stage for life traditional Bulgarian music and dance performances, the best companion to everyone who has decided to discover the spirit of Bulgaria.