A Bulgarian restaurant chain called Happy Bar & Grill is readying to debut in the UK, with its first site slated to open on London’s Coventry Street.
The brand was founded in 1994 and currently operates over 20 sites in Bulgaria and two in Barcelona.
Familiar international favourites are on the all-day menu, like burgers, pizza, pasta and sushi, but the fast-food outfit also serves traditional Bulgarian dishes. These include a popular cheese-stuffed bread called tutamanik and kyufteta, a kind of roasted meatball.
While there are some small independent Bulgarian restaurants in London, the wider British public has yet to be exposed to the cuisine’s charms.
Could the Happy Bar & Grill give a peep into the nation’s food and what dishes might get diners excited?
Breakfast through dinner
While many of the staples of Bulgarian cuisine can also be found with their Balkan neighbours in Turkey, Greece or Serbia, it has its own local flavours to set it apart. It is also said to share traits with Middle Eastern food and India’s Gujarat cuisine due to traders bringing the spices through the country.
Bulgaria is a country where vegetables, mild spices and dairy products dominate the food scene. Pork, chicken and lamb are also popular.
Pop into a local bakery and you can’t miss the banitsa, a breakfast pasty that can be filled with anything from cabbage, spinach, mushrooms or pumpkin. The country’s signature banitsa is cheese, a feta-like white cheese called sirene, with yoghurt and honey, while those looking for a sweet treat can opt for an apple and walnut version. Often the locals pair this morning pastry with a thick fermented wheat drink called boza.
Mekitsa, the Bulgarian take on a deep-fried doughnut, consists of flatbread kneaded with yoghurt and served hot with jam, fruits, honey or powdered sugar. There’s also the Bulgarian bagel, gevrek, that is covered in sesame seeds – akin to the simit or Turkish bagel.
For those looking for a more substantial mouthful, grilled meat (usually a mix of pork and beef) is seasoned with black pepper and cumin in a dish known as kebapche. The Bulgarian version of a kebab, it is generally served with a side of fries and sirene cheese grated on top.
Claypots are also common, such as gyuveché, made with diced sausage, veggies, cheese and egg.
If this all sounds a little unhealthy, shopska salata is what people eat for their salad fix, combining diced tomatoes, cucumbers, onions and either fresh or cooked peppers with grated sirene and parsley. Add some ham and hard yellow cheese to the mix and you have ovcharska.
Air-cured ham sausages, spicy salami and beef sausages, along with sujuk (a spicy sausage found throughout the Balkans and Middle East), are also widespread in the country.
Borrowing from the Greeks, the Bulgarians also have their version of moussaka, which is layered with potatoes, mince pork and egg. Similar to dolmades, sarmi are vine leaves stuffed with grain and minced meat, with raisins occasionally added for a pop of flavour.
Then there’s lyutenitsa, a thick relish of tomatoes and peppers that can be made at home but has also found commercial success in ready-made jars sold by neighbourhood stores. It’s often spread on bread for a tasty snack.
Soups are popular as well and two in particular work for winter and summer. Shkembe chorba is a tripe soup prepared with the lining of the cow’s stomach, which consumers customise with vinegar, salt, oil and pepper. More appetising – at least for the average Brit – istarator, a cold, yogurt-based soup of cucumbers, garlic, dill and walnuts.
Can Sparkie see Bulgarian food breaking through this year?
From what I know of Bulgarian food, it seems like a melting pot of all the countries around it. They seem to have their own version of a lot of other European dishes – though this is not necessarily a bad thing for a restaurant.
The popularity of new authentic cuisines is definitely a continuing trend. Retailers are going to struggle with the similarity of some of these dishes so it will take some time and a lot more influence for them to get involved.