Shopska Salad: the Most Iconic Dish of the Balkans

Shopska salad is a bone of contention between a few Central European nations. However, its origins are easily traced to the post-war creation of Bulgaria as a socialist paradise of sun, relaxation, and good food. The red, green, and white salad easily fits the image of traditional Bulgarian cuisine.

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Vegetable Bulgarian shopska salad. Wooden background. Top view
Shopska Salad, made of diced tomatoes, diced cucumbers, sliced red peppers, sliced red onion, grated white sirene cheese (local feta made from sheep's milk), and vinaigrette dressing made from red wine vinegar and sunflower oil, is the most widely known dish of Bulgarian cuisine. Photo: iStock.com / Anna Pustynnikova

Not all the countries in the Eastern Bloc under communism were created equal. Among the roles of Bulgaria in the Bloc was to become the perfect picture of a tourist paradise. (*Its main competition was next door in Romania.) Creating this image was the raison d’être of the communist tour agency Balkantourist. Its long-term projects included building hotels and beach resorts to improving dining experiences, upgrading (or sometimes outright creating) traditional Bulgarian cuisine, and beyond.

The success of creating an international “bazaar” (as described at the time) is easily seen in numbers, with 3 million foreign visits to the Bulgarian Black Sea coast by 1972. The region became one of only a few places of free interchange of goods and ideas between East and West. One of those ideas – or perhaps one of the tools to ease such interchange – was the standardization of the tourist experience.

Shopska salad is a perfect example of this. The signature dish of Bulgarian cuisine – now a true staple of Central and Eastern European food – widely known as shopa or shopska salad, is the local response to horiatiki, more commonly known as a Greek salad. It was an entirely novel invention in 1955. However, because it was made from local, readily available ingredients, Balkantourist decided the salad would have more appeal if it were marketed as a traditional peasant’s dish.  

Simple ingredients, complex history

The ingredients include diced tomatoes, diced cucumbers, sliced red peppers, sliced red onion, grated white sirene cheese (local feta made from sheep’s milk), and vinaigrette dressing made from red wine vinegar and sunflower oil. Delicious as it is, shopska salad also has formal and symbolic functions. For one thing, it’s easy to recreate in any kitchen, from fancy restaurants to Bulgarian households alike. Because of the ready availability and consistent quality of ingredients, it became a staple of the gastronomic tourist experience, thereby reinforcing the image of Bulgaria as a tourist destination.

Secondly, the dish consists primarily of ripe, raw vegetables, creating the image of Bulgaria as a sort of Eden in the westerner’s eye. A place where the sun is guaranteed, and the people live healthy lives in harmony with nature. Lastly, and maybe most importantly, shopska salad conveniently resembles the colors of the Bulgarian flag, with its red tomatoes, green cucumbers, and white cheese.

Shopska was named after the Shopluk region in western Bulgaria. However, Shopluk is divided between Bulgaria, Serbia, and North Macedonia, hence the dispute over the salad’s origins. Some claim that shopska salad is a centuries-old dish and thus use the fact that it was named after the region as proof.

The invention of a culinary icon

Not so, said Petur Doichev, doyen of Bulgarian tourism, who worked with Balkantourist to revamp Bulgaria’s image. “It was invented in the Chernomoretz restaurant in the Druzhba resort (Eng: “Friendship,” though nowadays it is called “St. Constantin and Elena”). We had to diversify Balkanturist’s menu. The salad replaced the Harvest salad and immediately started to be served in all the companies’ hotels and resorts everywhere in Bulgaria,” he explained.

While renowned chefs worked with Balkantourist to create other salads to feature prominently on menus across the country (all incidentally named after regions in Bulgaria), the shopska salad is the only one still standing. It was declared a national culinary symbol in the 1970s and 80s and is still today the most recognizable Bulgarian dish internationally.

Przemysław Bociąga

is a Polish journalist and essayist based in Warsaw. An anthropologist and art historian by education, he specializes in combining cultural phenomena with compelling narrative. He has authored and co-authored several books covering lifestyle and history. The most recent of them is “Impeccable. The biography of masculine image”. He has contributed to many leading magazines, both in print and online, and teaches cultural anthropology to college students.

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