So, here's the part that everyone really wants to know about: what did I eat while I was in Sofia?
Bulgarian cuisine has two major focal points: salads and dairy products, especially cheese and yogurt. This is possibly my idea of culinary heaven, but your mileage may vary.
Bulgarians really are crazy about salads. The archetypal Bulgarian salad is shopska salata, made with tomatoes, cucumber, bell pepper, onion, and a white feta-like cheese called sireneh. You can also get more ordinary green salads, Caesar salads, and so on. I frequently had some kind of salad at breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Shopska salata is even the traditional food to eat when you are drinking rakiya, Bulgarian brandy. (That struck me as a bit odd, considering that in most parts of the world, the traditional boozing-it-up food is usually salty and/or fatty. I suppose a shopska salata can be both if you load it up with enough cheese, but still...)
Besides the salads, some other traditional Bulgarian dishes that I sampled were:
- Tarator, which is a cold cucumber and yogurt soup. Very refreshing on hot summer days. Many places will also serve it in a mug as a beverage.
- Katok, which is a sort of dip or spread made with yogurt, sheep's milk cheese, walnuts, and roasted red peppers. You can eat it on its own or spread on bread or slices of raw tomato. I need to learn how to make this - I could happily eat it every day.
- Moussaka, clearly related to the Greek dish, but in Bulgaria it is most commonly a dish of diced potato and ground pork with paprika and other spices, topped with cheese and baked. It's traditional to pair this with tarator.
- Kyufteta, sauteed pork meatballs, which I had with a roasted red pepper sauce.
- Mishmash, this is just scrambled eggs with peppers and onions. But seriously, how can you not love a dish called mishmash?
- Bob, which is a bean and sausage stew.
For dinner, I frequently had a piece of grilled chicken or fish with some grilled vegetables on the side. Simple, but tasty.
You can get a pretty wide array of non-Bulgarian food in Sofia. Sushi seems to be quite popular - there was a restaurant very close to the office that served sushi alongside the usual array of Bulgarian foods, but I always stuck to the Bulgarian cuisine when we ate there. I ate at an Italian, an Indian, and an Armenian restaurant. The restaurant in the hotel I stayed in featured American pancakes (on the dessert menu, served with maple syrup and whipped cream), and "Texas Jailhouse Chili" (I was so very curious, but I never ordered it.)
As far as sweets go, the traditional Bulgarian pastry that everyone will tell you to try is banitsa, which is kind of a flaky dough filled with egg and cheese. (You can also get a version filled with pumpkin, and probably with other things.) I tried a bit of one and actually found it kind of heavy and bland, but it was at the end of a very long meal, and my reaction to everything at that point was, "Oh God, more food." The break room at the office always had a variety of tiny cookies, including little round ones about the size of marbles made with almond paste. I have no idea if these are traditionally Bulgarian, or just a thing that they liked having in the office. Lots of places served fruit for dessert - with the hot weather we had, I saw lots of people eating watermelon.
Given my jet-lag and general state of exhaustion, I didn't really sample the local booze. I did taste some rakiya. I've had other Americans describe it to me as a kind of novelty beverage, but it seemed reasonably pleasant. Hard liquors other than single-malt Scotch don't usually excite me, but I think if I were a brandy or cognac drinker, I might quite enjoy rakiya.