In February of this year, Becky and I have moved from Malta to Bulgaria. One of the most challenging parts about leaving Malta after four years was saying goodbye to their crispy, fatty, cheesy pastizzi.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with pastizzi, I recommend reading the article I dedicated to this wonderful snack. For those of you who don’t like clicking on links, I’ll give a quick summary here:

The pastizzi is a flaky pastry that can contain various fillings; ricotta and mushy pea are most common. They are being sold at virtually every street corner of Malta in dedicated pastizzerias. They are extremely affordable as they usually go for as little as €0,40 (even though inflation has effected the prices recently).

Close up of the Maltese ricotta pastizz; flaky pastry filled with ricotta cheese.

As you can understand, it was quite upsetting leaving these heavenly snacks behind on the tiny Mediterranean island. But what made the parting more bearable was the knowledge that these pastries are part of a long food tradition that transcends all borders.

The international tradition of flaky pasties

Every country has their own national hearty, fatty pastry. A pastry for the people, a pastry that unites all layers of society, a pastry that can be found in every city, at every corner. You’ve probably just visualised your own national pastry. Did it make your mouth water? I bet it did. My favourite Dutch examples are the frikandelbroodje, worstenbroodje, en saucijzenbroodje. The English readers might be thinking about the Cornish pastie, or a classic Greggs sausage roll.

So with the knowledge that every country has their own version of such a pastry, it was just a matter to find the Bulgarian variant.

Fortunately, we didn’t have to search for long for the Bulgarian take on this pastry.

The answer is banitsa.

banitsa
Me, enjoying a banitsa in front of the Regional History Museum of Sofia 🙂

What is banitsa?

Simply put, a banitsa is basically the same as pastizzi. It’s white cheese, wrapped in a flaky pastry. But there are some subtle differences. The pastizzi pastry consists of flour, butter, salt, and water, where the banitsa leaves out the butter. The big difference is in the filling. Pastizzi is basically straight up ricotta, even though it can be augmented with a bit of parmesan. The banitsa filling on the other hand contains a mixture of traditional Bulgarian white brine cheese, yogurt, and eggs. Already you can tell there is a bit more going on here. The flavour ends up being is more tangy than the salty ricotta filled pastizzi.

banitsa
A banitsa we recently ate. Looks very much like a pastizz, doesn’t it?

I have to be honest here and say that the salty ricotta gets a slightly more favourable ranking from me. What I also very much like about the pastizzi is that they are absolutely filled to the rim with cheese. They might be small, but you get a lot of cheese per bite.

The banitsa on the other hand usually is much larger than a typical pastizz (see picture below). This is great for when you are hungry, because it actually helps you feel full afterwards, whereas the pastizzi is more like a snack than an actually meal. The only downside to the large size of the banitsa is that the filling is spead a bit more thinly, which means less cheese per bite, which is a bit of a pity.

banitsa
And this was only 50% of the banitsa we got! Very large sizes.

Different shapes

One of the most common banitsa shapes you’ll run into is this swirly concoction that you can see in the picture below. They are made up out of many different layers of dough, cheesy filling, and a bit of oil. Other possible shapes are fat cigar shapes, or the big rectangular shapes from the pictures above.

banitsa-web
Circular banitsa – photo via Tara

Various fillings

The most common filling they sell on the streets is the white cheese mixture. We’ve also encountered versions with spinach and white cheese, reminiscent of the Greek Spanakopita. Apparently each region of Bulgarian has slightly different versions of the banitsa, and there are many different fillings. You can have savoury veggie versions with o.a. cabbage, leek, onion, nettle, shard, there are versions with rice, meat, and even sweat ones with apple and or pumpkin!

Historical context

Many other Balkan countries have similar pastries that are similar to banitsa. Usually they are called something like burek, börek, or borek. This family of dishes seems to originate from Turkey, after which the Ottoman Empire spread the concept throughout the Middle East and the Balkan peninsula. Now there are many different versions, but all somewhat similar in the basic concept of flaky pastry + various fillings.