Layers of rich mushroom-lentil mince, crisp roast potatoes and a creamy yogurt topping are baked in the oven for this take on Bulgarian moussaka. This hearty vegetarian dish is sure to be a crowd-pleaser!
Country Number 26: Bulgaria
Before we officially began this around-the-world cooking challenge, we played a little game in our household called cuisine roulette. The game involved using a random country generator to determine the cuisine that each of had to cook that week. It was actually this game that inspired us to undertake this whole crazy challenge. Bulgaria was one of the first countries that popped up. This game meant we were pre-acquainted with Bulgarian cuisine (unlike most obscure cuisines that we’ve been going into very blindsided).
History of Bulgarian Cuisine
Bulgaria is a Balkan nation that sits on very diverse terrain. It has a Black Sea coastline and an interior of mountains and rivers. Due to the varying terrain and climatic conditions of the country, there is a large variety of vegetables, fruit and herbs available. This has resulted in a diverse cuisine and various cooking traditions throughout the country.
Culturally, Bulgaria is melting pot of Greek, Slavic, Ottoman, and Persian influences. Its cuisine shares many characteristics with both its Balkan and Middle Eastern neighbours. In fact, the influence that Middle Eastern cuisine has had on Bulgaria dates back as early as the 7th century.
Meat, yogurt, cheese and vegetables are the four most common staples in Bulgarian dishes. As a starter, salads and soups are commonly served. Main dishes tend to take the form of stew or grilled meat/ vegetables. While meat is a prominent part of Bulgarian food, vegetables play just as important a role. This makes the cuisine in Bulgaria much more vegetarian-friendly than some of its Eastern European neighbours.
Popular Bulgarian Vegetarian Dishes
- Shopska– Almost every Bulgarian dish is accompanied by this simple, fresh salad. It is a combination of cucumbers, tomatoes, onions, peppers and grated cheese on top.
- Tarator– A simple cold soup made of yogurt, cucumbers, garlic, olive oil, and dill, often served as a starter.
- Chushka Biurek (Stuffed Peppers)- Red peppers are fried, stuffed with egg and cheese, and served in a thick tomato sauce in an iron pan.
- Sirene– The most popular cheese in Bulgaria, used in many salads and pastries.
- Banitsa– A Bulgarian pastry that is eaten for both breakfast and dessert. Buttered phyllo dough is filled with savoury filling such as egg, spinach, pumpkin or sweet fillings such as yogurt or sweetened milk.
- Madradjisko- A dish cooked in a clay pot that contains similar ingredients to chushka biurek. The bottom layer is made of fried onions and peppers, followed by a thick layer of Bulgarian cheese and a top layer of eggs.
- Garnish cake- A rather extravagant five-layer chocolate walnut cake. Each layer is baked, cooled, put on top of each other and covered in decadent chocolate cream.
Vegetarian rating of Bulgarian Cuisine:
Making vegetarian Bulgarian moussaka
I have very found memories attached to making moussaka. It is a dish that my dad and I make a lot together. However, we always make the Greek version, using layers of eggplant, mince and béchamel sauce. To be honest, I thought this was the only way that moussaka was made.
We have recently learnt that there are in fact many variations of moussaka across countries throughout Eastern Europe and the Middle East. In Turkey, the dish simply consists of mince, tomato and eggplant. In the Levant, the dish is always made vegetarian and chickpeas are added instead of meat. Bulgarian moussaka is made with potato instead of eggplant, and instead of a bechamel, a creamy yogurt topping is used.
Traditionally, Bulgarian moussaka includes a layer of beef mince. Of course, we made our version vegetarian, adding in a layer of mushrooms and lentils instead. Once added in to the tomato sauce, they lend the same kind of hearty texture you would get with meat and retain a lot of flavour. We also added in some extra vegetables such as carrots and capsicum.
Normally, for this recipe, you dice up potato and boil them. However, we have a healthy disdain of boiled potatoes, so we decided to adapt this method by cutting the potatoes into thin slices and roasting them instead. We are pretty convinced that this cooking method for the potatoes improved the whole dish substantially.
How to make vegetarian moussaka
This recipe is a labour of love, so it does take some time to come together. However, it is a great recipe when you have a few hours to prepare, such as for a dinner party. Here are the steps to making this Bulgarian Moussaka.
- Preboil the potatoes for 5 minutes
- Roast the potatoes for 30 minutes in a casserole dish in a pre-heated oven.
- Meanwhile, prepare the vegetarian mince by sautéing the ingredients in a frying pan, then leaving to simmer for 20 minutes.
- Make the yogurt topping by combining all the ingredients in a bowl.
- Take the potatoes out of the oven, add mince and bake for another 15 minutes.
- Add the yogurt topping and bake for another 15 minutes or until the yogurt has set.
Ingredient notes for vegetarian moussaka
- Vegetables- You can add as many or few vegetables as you like to this recipe. We added carrot and red capsicum to our vegetarian moussaka, however you can use whatever is in the fridge (just make sure it is finely diced for the texture).
- Lentils– We used a tin of brown lentils for this recipe to save on cooking time. If you use dried lentils, cook them first.
- Make it vegan– Skip the yogurt topping and instead top with vegan cheese.
- Make it gluten-free– Replace regular flour with cornflour in the yogurt topping. Every other element of the dish is naturally gluten-free.
Serving suggestions for moussaka
Given the heaviness of the dish, Bulgarian moussaka works really well when accompanied by a light, fresh salad. If you want to stay true to Bulgarian flavours, serve it with a shopska salad, which includes cucumbers, tomatoes, onions, peppers and grated cheese on top.
Other vegetarian dinners to try
Bulgarian Vegetarian Moussaka
Vegetarian mince layer:
- 1 tbsp olive oil
- 1 onion (diced)
- 2 garlic cloves (minced)
- 200 g mushrooms (finely chopped)
- 1/2 cup carrots (diced)
- 1/2 red capsicum (diced)
- 1 tin of lentils
- 1 tbsp tomato paste
- 1/4 cup red wine
- 1/2 cup vegetable stock
- 1 tsp paprika
- 1/2 tsp oregano
- 1/2 tsp cumin
- 1/2 tsp nutmeg
- 5 large potatoes (peeled and thinly sliced)
- 1 tbsp olive oil
- Salt & pepper
- 1 cup Greek yogurt
- 1/4 cup flour
- 2 eggs
- 1/2 tsp baking soda
- Salt & pepper (to taste)
- Preheat oven to 180˚C. Parboil sliced potatoes for 5 minutes in a pan of boiling salted water. Drain and leave to steam dry.
- Layer in large casserole dish, coating with olive oil and seasoning with salt and pepper. Roast for 30 minutes or until golden and tender.
Make vegetarian mince:
- Meanwhile, heat a tablespoon of oil in a large frying pan over medium heat. Add in diced onion and sauté for about 5 minutes, until translucent. Add in garlic and sauté for another minute.
- Add in mushrooms and cook until mushrooms are tender. Add in diced carrots, pepper, lentils, tomato paste, wine, vegetable stock and spices. Leave to simmer for 20 minutes or until you are ready to assemble the moussaka.
Make yogurt layer:
- In a bowl, beat together yogurt, flour, eggs, and baking soda. Season with salt and pepper.
- Take casserole dish layered with potatoes out of oven and top with vegetarian mince. Return to oven and bake for 15 minutes.
- Take moussaka out of the oven once again and pour the yogurt mixture on top. Return to the oven. Bake for 15 minutes, or until the top turns golden and the yogurt is just set.
- Allow to stand for 10 minutes before serving.
Did you make this recipe? We’d love to know! Tell us how it went in the comments below or tag us (@gourmetvegetarians) in your photos on Instagram.
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