Chasing food across borders: Banitsa at Sofia’s Tsentralni Hali

Weekend markets are either a great way to explore how locals shop and socialize. Or they’re a terrible tourist trap. Or, in the case of Sofia’s Tsentralni Hali (Централни софийски хали), I’m really not sure what it is supposed to be at all.

The market was a quick, 5 minute walk from the Sofia Hotel Balkan where I stayed on this trip. That made it a great option for sustenance before heading out to explore Sofia. And, yes, I was inside early on a January Saturday morning. But I was also the ONLY person there. Even most of the shops were not yet staffed when I got inside. It was slightly creepy.

All alone inside Sofia's Tsentralni Hali market. Even the security guard was surprised to see me there!
All alone inside Sofia’s Tsentralni Hali market. Even the security guard was surprised to see me there!

I wandered about, perusing the store fronts and finding mostly shops focused on the locals, not visitors. There were a couple souvenirs to be had but meats and produce and bakeries dominated the ground floor. Banks and a supermarket covered most of the upstairs level.

My plan for this morning stop included a snack of some sort. I wanted a first breakfast (more planned for later in the morning) and something from one of the bakeries seemed like a good idea. Alas, with everything labeled in Bulgarian and my complete lack of language skills on that front I was slightly stuck. Serendipity struck as I walked past one of the shops just as a woman pulled a hot tray out from the oven and placed it on the counter, preparing to transfer the pastries to the display case. I pointed and held up one finger. It was probably the best decision I made on this weekend trip.

Banitsa/Banitza, a/k/a Bulgarian Savory Cheese Pie, is a light and flaky pastry filled with a couple cheeses and maybe some egg. It is delicious.

It was also an interesting example of the gradient of food that can span large regions of the globe, showing off how cultures interacted over centuries. Banitsa is described as part of the börek family. In my mind börek is very much a Turkish treat and one I also happen to be a big fan of.

The Bulgarian version is slightly different but the influence is obvious. In Greece it would be spanikopita. In Morocco the pillowy goodness goes by the name birouat, filled with meat or cheese as desired. They’re all delicious. In Georgia you’re likely to get a doughier version known as khachapuri, though that starts to veer away from the flakiness that is a key feature of the Banitsa experience.

Of course, this flaky, savory pastry is hardly the only example of cuisines crossing borders. Many cultures spanning the globe have a fried dough covered in sugar dessert, for example (and I love ALL of them). Or dumplings, whether steamed or fried, served in a soup or not (ditto on loving all of them).

Discovering the evolution of food around the world in this way is one of my favorite things about travel. Yes, because it means I get to eat lots of delicious things as I wander about the globe. But also because it shows just how closely linked cultures are. Geopolitical borders rarely get in the way of food and I really, really love that.

More from this trip:

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Seth Miller

I'm Seth, also known as the Wandering Aramean. I was bit by the travel bug 30 years ago and there's no sign of a cure. I fly ~200,000 miles annually; these are my stories. You can connect with me on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.


    1. Sometimes that’s how the best stuff happens! Best street food I’ve had in recent memory (and very roughly in the same family) was shakshuka at a Yemini place in Jerusalem. In that case, though, I did read about it first and went looking for it.

  1. My mother says that before Second World War The Hali was the place to go for fresh and cooked food. Not sure if it was the same building but there was a covered market there. When I was there in the summer of 2005 it was crowded and busy. Fresh produce and produce in the first floor and small restaurants on the top floor. Frankfurt has a similar Hali in the center of town. Regarding the Banitza I think it is similar to Bourek and bourekas because it is all a legacy of the Ottoman Empire that dominated bulgaria and most of the Middle East for a few centuries.

  2. Great report! Very interesting and informative. And banitsa is the best. Excellent choice!

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