A food walk in Sofia

Raul Dias | Updated on September 13, 2019

Day in, day out: Bulgaria’s version of fried dough, mekitsi, is often had with cheese at breakfast   -  ISTOCK.COM

Bulgaria likes to eat well. A food walk in its capital gives an introduction to its favourite dishes

The place I’ve been told to reach for our afternoon rendezvous isn’t hard to find. Almost everybody seems to be a fan of it, including my hotel’s ever-helpful receptionist who directs me to it. Aptly named Supa Star, this 10-year-old soup-only restaurant in downtown Sofia is Bulgaria’s first soup bar. And, thus, the perfect place to embark on a tour that’s said to be the first of its kind in Europe and perhaps even in the world.

Ever the frugal traveller, I had signed up online for a free food tour (no charges at all; tipping, as always, is optional) after hearing about it from a fellow backpacker a few days earlier. Organised by a company called Balkan Bites, the two-hour long guided walking tour takes place every day at 2pm and stops in at around five places where one can get acquainted with the flavours of Bulgaria bite by bite. Or, as in the case of our first stop, spoonful by spoonful.

Chilled tarator soup   -  ISTOCK.COM


My initiation into the realm of Bulgarian cuisine will always be the taste of refreshingly chilled tarator soup that our guide Lila hands out in tiny, bright-red paper cups. The yogurt-cucumber-dill summer soup tastes like a watered down cross between the Greek dip tzatziki and the Indian raita with the tiny bits of cucumber providing texture to it.

Sweet, salty and sour

It’s barely a few minutes into the tour and I’m already being made acutely aware that the Balkan country likes to eat well. We stop by a tiny hole-in-the-wall kiosk at the Zhenski Pazar Women’s Market in the heart of Sofia for a bite of the city’s famous on-the-go breakfast combo of the double ‘B’— bozo and banitsa. While the former is a fermented wheat-and-millet drink that tastes like mildly flavoured and sour chocolate milk, the banitsa is a national obsession.

Similar to both the spinach and feta cheese-stuffed Greek spanakopita and to the Turkish börek, the banitsa is a coiled breakfast pastry of eggs, a yellow cheese called kashkaval and yogurt, all ensconced in layers of phyllo pastry. Interestingly, every Easter, grandmothers across Bulgaria bake a banitsa for their grandkids with a coin hidden in its folds.

Another seemingly simple but greatly significant dish is what Lila has us try next at the chaotic Central Food Market, diagonally opposite the ancient Roman historical site of the Serdika ruins. According to Bulgarian tradition, shopska salata or shopska salad is what newlyweds sit down to eat as their first meal together after the ceremonies. The recipe may seem straightforward, with just a few chopped vegetables such as cucumbers, tomatoes, onions and capsicum as ingredients, but the taste is almost Mediterranean when coupled with a sprinkling of the crumbly, salty sirene cheese and oregano.

Say cheese

Speaking of cheese, at our next stop which is the hipster-chic Mekitsa & Coffee shop in downtown Sofia, we sample a cream cheese and fig jam-smeared mekitsa.

Like most world cuisines, Bulgarian food, too, has its own iteration of fried dough. Made with a wheat-based dough enriched with yogurt and eggs, the deep-fried mekitsi (plural) can also be had in a savoury avatar. And that’s exactly what the very generous counter staff ply us with next — a scrumptious slice slathered with another Bulgarian dairy staple, the salty-sour cream called smetana.

There seems to be no escaping the cheese onslaught as we sit down at our final stop of the afternoon — the tongue-twister of a restaurant called Hadjidraganovite Izbi or Hadjidraganov’s Cellars — for a tiny bowl of the traditional Bulgarian dish of gyuvech. This hearty one-pot wonder is a stew made with beef, mushrooms, sweet peppers and onions with a sprinkling of grated kashkaval cheese Lila tells us that a good gyuvech has boiled eggs and a whole lot of paprika.

It is here that we get a parting shot of the traditional Bulgarian drink called pelin. The wine, which can be either red or white, is made with a bouquet of 24 herbs along with sugar, chopped apple, quince and an ancient Roman-era fruit called medlar. Left to macerate for two weeks, the drink is imbued with a mellow, fruity bitterness coupled with an alcoholic punch.

It’s the perfect toast to a cuisine that’s both exotic and strangely familiar.

Raul Dias is a food and travel writer based in Mumbai

Travel log
  • Getting there

As there are no direct flights from India to Bulgaria, one can reach Sofia by connecting flights from most European cities such as Paris, Zurich and Amsterdam. Alternatively, one can also fly in to Sofia via Istanbul. Given its compact size, most of Sofia can be accessed on foot or by its very convenient and affordable metro train system.

  • Visa

Though one needs a Bulgarian visa to enter the country, a multiple-entry Schengen visa, too, will suffice.

  • Stay

Sofia has accommodation options to suit most budgets. Two such options are the conveniently located Les Fleurs Boutique Hotel (₹7,500 approx for two without breakfast, lesfleurshotel.com) along the city’s main Vitosha Boulevard and the more upmarket Grand Hotel Sofia (₹12,000 approx for two without breakfast, grandhotelsofia.bg).

  • BLink Tip

Take the metro to the Business Park station in the suburbs of Sofia to visit the Kambanite Bell Park. One of Sofia’s lesser-known attractions, the peace park was built in 1979 as a global children’s monument to commemorate Unesco’s International Year of the Child. The idea here was to include a bell from every country in the world and to have children ring these as a gesture of peace.

Published on September 13, 2019

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