Many towns worldwide have food tours, but the capital of Bulgaria, Sofia, is special for a completely free food tour! A group of young Bulgarian enthusiasts formed Balkan Bites, a tour that offers a delicious way to discover Sofia. On quite a rainy November day, we joined them for a 2-hours tour featuring many typical Bulgarian flavours.
The Balkan Bites offers Sofia Free Food Tour as the only such tour in the whole of Europe. The places where we stopped offered us samples of food typical for Bulgaria, and the tour guides were incredibly passionate about showing their culinary tradition. We talked with them at length here.
Our first stop was somewhat unusual. Newly opened Sri Lankan restaurant rCurry blends Asian foods with Bulgarian tastes into something quite delicious. The young team of this restaurant prepared deep-fried tuna balls and veggie-friendly zucchini dipped in Bulgarian yoghurt (kiselo mlyako). Indian masala chai accompanied this short stop, but the story about the Bulgarian yoghurt was essential.
It cures everything, from mild flu to cancer. It comes with an abundance of garlic, which repels even those tiny numbers of illnesses yoghurt cannot. At least, this is what the Bulgarian grandmas taught generations of Bulgarians who cannot think of a day without kiselo mlyako. But there is more to this dairy product, traditionally served in nicely decorated jars.
Kiselo mlyako is often cited as one of the oldest and the first types of yogurt that appeared worldwide. It is made without any additives, typically from cow, sheep, buffalo, goat milk, or a mixture of these and the two types of probiotic bacteria – Streptococcus thermophilus and Lactobacillus delbrueckii subsp. bulgaricus, which was discovered by the Bulgarian microbiologist Stamen Grigorov. Thus, Bulgarians even have their bacteria, proudly presented by our guide, Ivo!
Kiselo mlyako is praised for its rich, creamy flavour and nutritional value. It is a staple in Bulgarian cuisine, and although it is commonly enjoyed as a drink, it is also often used as an ingredient or a condiment. In rCurry, they elevated it to an entirely new level and showed how this famed product could blend with more exotic dishes from Asia!
ul. Stefan Karadza 11b, Sofia
+359 88 882 6677
Garafa Wine Shop is another favourite stop of this food tour. This wine shop is capital’s representative of the Tipchenitza Winery, immensely proud of Vratitza Rubin red wine. Very nice and drinkable, with dark cherry and oaky flavours, low acidity, Rubin is a perfect introduction to Bulgarian red wines, and you can read more about this place here.
Healthy food is a growing trend and the Balkan Bites do not omit such pleasures. Therefore, one of the mandatory stops of this tour is Zoya, natural and organic shop with a great selection of organic and natural foods, local foods and natural cosmetics. It is probably the most recognisable Bulgarian chain of natural health and cosmetics, supplied by over 300 organic and natural retailers across Bulgaria. It was established in 2008 and still grows.
Ivo takes here many varieties of milkshakes and we had excellent brownies that gave us strength to continue our Sofia walks. But Zoya has something else which is essentially Bulgarian. While the capital has several “tourist-friendly” shops with rose products, Zoya offers pure products of rose producers, from essential oils to rose water. Bulgarian rose oil, also known as "liquid gold", is one of the most sought-after essential oils in the world. Derived from the Rosa Damascena (Damask rose), primarily cultivated and harvested in the Rose Valley of Bulgaria, this oil is prized for its incredibly rich, multifaceted aroma.
Apart from its enchanting fragrance, Bulgarian rose oil is also valued for its array of skincare benefits, such as its anti-inflammatory, antibacterial, and soothing properties. Bulgarian rose oil is not only a celebrated component in skincare and perfumery but also finds a quaint yet exotic application in culinary arts. Renowned for its deeply floral and rich aroma, a tiny drop of Bulgarian rose oil can significantly elevate dishes and beverages by imparting a luxurious and nuanced flavour. It's often used in various sweets and desserts like chocolates, pastries, and baklava, as well as in certain drinks like rose lemonade or specialty cocktails to add a floral note.
22 Aksakov st., Sofia (plus other shops)
tel. +359 878 686 006
Bulgarian breakfast cannot begin without Banitsa. However, recent developments in bakery business brought back another fascinating pastry product: Mekitsa. It is a flatbread made with kneaded dough that is then deep-fried in hot oil. The dough usually consists of flour, water, salt, oil, eggs, yogurt, and a leavening agent.
The name mekitsa is derived from the Bulgarian root mek, meaning soft, referring to the flatbread's texture. These flatbreads can be dusted with powdered sugar or paired with yogurt, honey, cheese, or various fruit jams. We tried two sorts, one with powdered sugar, reminiscent of many similar kinds of sweetened winter doughs, and one with sour yoghurt, full of distinctive dairy flavours. We tried it in Mekitsa & Coffee, a traditional pastry shop with a modern twist. The food is always freshly made and even warm when being delivered. The prices are very affordable, and Mekitsa is a must!
Mekitsa & Coffee
Graf Ignatiev 28, Sofia
+359 89 870 9537
Rakia is a welcoming drink in Bulgaria, alike every other Balkan country. This strong spirit is distilled from different fruit and is sometimes additionally flavoured or used as a liqueur base. It is social and cultural stronghold of Bulgarian hospitality and Ivo took us to the shrine of this magnificent drink: The Rakia Museum. Read all about it here!
Finally, no Bulgarian food tour could be without a visit to a traditional Bulgarian restaurant. For that gorgeous end, the Balkan Bites take guests to the Hajidraganovite izbi (Hajidraganov’s cellars). Hugely touristic, it offers beautiful interior filled with the items from bygone ages. In it, you can find yourself surrounded by the atmosphere established by the stone walls and the barrels, woodcarvings, traditional Bulgarian garbs and items from the 18th century. The menu is based on traditional Bulgarian recipes all over the country, accompanied by an extensive wine list with Bulgarian wines. In the evenings there is live folklore music. To be prepared for it, Ivo asked several volunteers to dance the traditional Bulgarian dance.
Hadjidraganovite izbi offers dishes made on plate, fire or oven, with which every Bulgarian could be proud of. The menu contains selected Bulgarian meals of lamb meat (lamb made on plate), pork meat ("Mehandjiiski djolan" - knuckle), gingerbread sofras served on wooden carved plates (Balkan grill for four, voivodska sofra), delicious deserts (homemade biscuit cake), fresh salad and more than 60 other different trays. The menu is given in wooden carved covers.
We had a selection of three appetizers, such as kiopoulu (an eggplant puree with pepper, tomatoes and garlic), aivar, and katak. The central position is given to Lyutenitsa. This famous relish, which lies somewhere between a spread and a chutney, is, at its basic, made with red bull horn peppers, tomatoes, salt, sugar, pepper, and oil.
Cumin is also often added. Variations do exist, and you will often find recipes that include eggplant, carrots, garlic, and even parsley and hot peppers. Lyutenitsa is traditionally consumed as a spread, accompanied by bread, crackers, or toast. It is also commonly served on the side with meat dishes, especially grilled meat and meatballs. Depending on the region and personal preference, the ingredients, thickness, and level of spiciness might slightly vary. Lyutenitsa and other similar spreads are often found across the Balkans; however, the relish has been regarded as an authentic Bulgarian product. Even though it is hard to trace when it originally appeared in the country, the mass production of this national favourite started in the 1950s. Today it can be bought in stores and is commonly served in most traditional restaurants. However, the homemade variety, prepared in late summer, when the vegetables are at their peak, is still considered the ultimate version.
Hristo Belchev 18, Sofia
+359 898 77 5936
Photos by: Taste of Adriatic, Taste Atlas & Pixabay