Anyone spending more than a couple of days in Bulgaria will have dined out at least once. That's about enough to discover the Ultimate Bulgarian Dining Experience and its main pitfall: how to survive without offending your hosts – and actually eat something at the same time. In itself, Bulgarian food is very similar to all other Balkan food, so anyone who's been to Tottenham or Kreuzberg will not be very surprised. However, what an international traveller will find hard to stomach is that unique Bulgarian combination of either perfunctory or obsequious service, how the various dishes are introduced, the drinking habits, and of course the cigarette smoking. This brief Do-It-Yourself Guide, served promptly with recipes of how to circumvent the major potholes, will illuminate some of the idiosyncrasies of eating in Bulgaria.
OK, let's suppose on your first night in Bulgaria you've been invited out by your Bulgarian friends/partners. You have been given a menu to choose from, and someone has politely explained to you the difference between "chicken stripes with sesame seeds" and "stuffed peppers." Do not order! Bulgarians will always have a rakiya and a salad first, then pause for a couple of smokes, and then the waiter will come again with the menu. That's the time for ordering the main course.
Anyone ordering their food the Western way, all at the same time, will end up with soup, steaks and dessert in front of them simultaneously. Timing is not one of Bulgaria's culinary virtues: even at the more expensive restaurants waiters and chefs will be confounded if they have to bring out beef soup, shopska salad and pancakes in the sequence you would like to eat them rather than in the manner you have ordered them. So, do not experiment. When in Sofia, do as the Sofianites do.
This concerns mainly soups. As a rule of thumb, Bulgarians will bring your soup tepid, at best. Hot food (meaning hot hot, not hot spicy) is considered dangerous and you will see mothers telling their children to wait for the soup to cool down before venturing near it. If you want your soup hot, make your wishes known to the waiter at least twice at the time of ordering. There is no guarantee that nothing will go wrong on the way from the kitchen to your table, but at least you've tried. One of the things waiters will not frown upon is when you ask them to heat up your soup because it is, well, too tepid. They will take it back and microwave it, usually with no questions asked.
This is a tough one, and a surefire sign that you are not in Greece, Turkey or Serbia. On the one hand, Bulgarians are very proud of their bread which they consider a staple of "national cuisine" – and the best in the world. On the other hand, bread is not readily available in public eateries anywhere in Bulgaria. You have to specifically ask for it. And if you do, you will be confronted with one of the most difficult questions ever posed in Bulgarian restaurants: "How many slices of bread do you want?"
A tough one, no?
Bulgarians like their bread toasted, like for breakfast, so you will also be expected to say whether you want your bread toasted or not.
Timing is also very important. Make sure the waiter understands that you want your bread at the beginning of a meal, not with the chips.
Under Communism, from which Bulgaria is still slowly emerging, public service was like any other kind of service: cursory at best and hostile at worst. Things have gone a long way from the Todor Zhivkov days and now most service is either bad or overly obsequious. You will either have to wave your arms and pull faces to catch the waiter's eye, or you won't be able to get rid of them.
In the posher restaurants, waiters have adopted a strange kind of diminutive language that is supposed to demonstrate Bulgarian hospitality. If you order a beer, you will be told birichkata idva, or "small beer coming up." A slice, filiya, becomes filiyka, "a small slice"; a pitka, or bap, will be pitchitsa, or "mini bap"; purzhola is purzholka, or "small steak"; and desert is – you've guessed it! – desertche.
I do not know what to do in such cases. Sometimes I try to balance the scales by asking for the smetchitsata, or "small bill" at the end – but the irony usually gets lost. The bill is still large.
There is nothing special about it. As in France, there are many people who wouldn't touch it, but then there are many more who swear by it. You should try it at least once, but perhaps it would be best not to put tons of garlic in it. The local peculiarity is that many people consider it the best cure for a hangover. Some people say that the best time to eat tripe soup is in the wee hours of a Saturday morning, and the best location is near a bus station or a prison.
Your salad will not be dressed, but each table will have small bottles of sunflower oil and vinegar, and small jars of salt and black pepper. If you want olive oil you will have to pay extra. Some more expensive restaurants have switched to keeping only balsamic vinegar in stock, not a very good idea if you are having a green salad. If you order a Caesar salad you will probably end up with greens coated with some creatively modified mayonnaise.
The real shock comes if you order pizza. Ketchup and mayonnaise will be served with it. Bulgarians really do put those on their pizzas.
Typical Bulgarian food
This is a very sensitive issue. The overwhelming majority of Bulgarians sincerely believe that their food is absolutely unique in the world. That said, an increasing number of folks do know that it isn't that unique, because you get the same sort of things in Turkey, Greece and the countries of the former Yugoslavia, plus Romania. Still, they will insist that the Bulgarian version is better. Ask why, and you will end up with a very long explanation involving history, culture, "natural" ingredients, the Bulgarian sun and the fantastically fish-rich waters of the Black Sea.
The truth, sadly, is that with the possible exception of tarator, the cold cucumber and yoghurt soup eaten only in summer, there is nothing very special, in Balkan terms, about Bulgarian food. You get kebapche, kyufte, stuffed peppers and chicken soup all over the Balkans.
Temperature of drinks
Red wine will be at room temperature, and white wine will be cool. OK. The surreal experience starts with the mineral water. Bulgaria is arguably the only country in the world where you will be asked whether you would like your mineral water studena – cold, or topla – hot. Topla means both "hot" and "warm." Don't be afraid that if you order topla the water will have been pre-heated.
Ice is becoming increasingly popular, as many restaurants have discovered that stocking ice cubes is not actually against the law. Still, no one will offer ice with soft drinks or water.
An interesting development in recent years has been the combination of rakiya and ice. Traditionally, Bulgarian rakiya should be drunk ice-cold, as an aperitif and preferably with a salad. Some places, however, keep their rakiya bottles out of the fridge and give you ice cubes when you order. Well, the rakiya does get cold, but it also gets diluted, and I am not very sure it is supposed to be taken diluted.
The most obvious explanation for this is that bar tenders do not have space in the fridge for all the rakiya bottles in stock. A more sophisticated explanation, however, is that in this way rakiya will look like whisky. We are all in the West now.
Paying the bill
Succeed in catching the waiter's eye and you will be given a small folder with a printout of the bill. Deciphering what you have ordered will be impossible. The waiter will not be waiting at the table to collect the money. So, put it inside the little folder and catch the waiter's eye again.
Tips are expected, especially when you are a foreigner. Forget the 10 percent or double-the-tax routine. You can easily round up to the next five or 10 leva, and that will be OK.
What is not OK, however, is that many waiters, especially in the expensive places, will not even bother counting out your small change for you. If they show up with some return bills at all, it is highly unlikely that there will also be coins. They have presumed that you are so rich that you couldn't be bothered with coins. It is not like this in Turkey and Greece.
Being invited to a friend's house
When you are invited to dinner at a friend's home it is customary to bring a small present, like a bottle of wine and flowers for the lady of the house. The dishes on offer will probably outdo most eat-out experiences, as you will discover why Bulgarians are such great admirers of "soul food." If you want to be polite, eat as much as you can. That means that you are really enjoying it. A "no" is not necessarily a "no" when you are invited to take more lukanka, so don't use it unless you are absolutely stuffed. Take a short break, have a cigarette, and then eat some more.
If you really want to make your hosts happy, tell them you have never tasted anything like their food. Tell them that Bulgarian cuisine is indeed unique – nothing at all to do with Turkey or Greece.