How to make Shopska salata – a classic cucumber tomato salad with onions and feta cheese.
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- Read on for relevant tips and workflow steps (1-2 mins)
Cucumber and Tomato Salad with Feta (aka Shopska Salad)
This vibrant tomato and cucumber salad is in the spirit of traditional Bulgarian Shopska salata (see below for the background). It brings about the fresh taste of juicy, ripe tomatoes, crunchy cucumbers, onion, and green pepper (optional). All of these veggies are further flavored by fresh parsley, dill and tangy, salty feta cheese. The feta is shredded in order to easily be folded into the medley of vegetables. As it partially dissolves into the neutral oil (and a touch of vinegar) with which the salad is dressed it coats every bite.
If I had to give up every other salad in the world and only be left with one to enjoy until the rest of my days – this tomato cucumber based deliciousness would be it. I grew up eating it, as can be said of pretty much everyone in Bulgaria. Shopska salad is more than just a staple of Bulgarian cuisine – it is a glorious culinary feat few can fail to appreciate.
The recipe I am sharing here is based on the exact way the salad was prepared by my family in Sofia. For variations see the notes below.
- Tomatoes. Choose organically grown, ripe tomatoes. You want them to be fragrant, sweet and juicy as they comprise the backbone of this salad.
- Cucumber. The best type of cucumber to use is thin-skinned English cucumber or the shorter version of it, Persian cucumber. English cucumbers are also known as greenhouse or European cucumbers and have a firm flesh, few seeds and mild/sweet, crisp flavor. Simply salad perfect!
- Onion. Yellow onion is the traditional choice for Shopska salad. Substitute with the whites of spring onions or red onions.
- Green pepper. Optional. You can use green bell pepper or sweet green pepper which has much thinner skin.
- Feta. For best results use cows milk feta in brine. It should not be crumbly, but firm enough to be grated. I recommend Bulgarian feta (known as sirene). Others have said (and I whole heartedly agree) that Bulgarian feta is betta!)
- Parsley. Flat leaf parsley also known as Italian parsley. Add it to taste.
- Dill. Fresh dill typically goes really well with cucumbers and here lends its unique flavor to all the other ingredients.
- Red wine vinegar. Optional, see dressing notes below.
- Neutral cooking oil. Sunflower oil (traditional) or vegetable oil because their flavor is neutral.
- Salt. To taste, adjust based on how salty the feta cheese is.
A Tip On Cutting the Tomatoes
You can cut the cucumber, tomato and pepper in any shape you’d like, but for a traditional Shopska salad the veggies are usually chopped.
For the tomatoes it is helpful to remove the seeds and the gel-like sacs that surround them first. This allows you to control the moisture they will bring to the salad.
Here is how to properly cut the tomatoes for Shopska salad.
- Be sure to use a sharp slicing knife to handle the delicate texture. A serrated knife can work too.
- Begin by slicing each tomato in half – down from the top near the base of the stem. Carve out the stem and its immediately surrounding flesh. Cut each half in two.
- Working with each tomato quarter use the tip of the knife to force the seeds out or use a small spoon to scoop them out. Then slice each quarter into wedges and chop those into dice.
Workflow for Tomato Cucumber Salad with Feta
- Prep. Peel the cucumber, quarter it lengthwise and dice. Chop the green pepper (if using) and the onion, then dice the tomatoes as described above. Pick the parsley leaves and give them a rough chop, do the same for the dill.
- Assemble. Place the chopped veggies and herbs in a bowl and drizzle with oil. Season with a bit of salt. If your tomatoes were not too acidic, add a splash of red wine vinegar. Otherwise you may leave it out. Mix everything together.
- Feta! Carefully grate the feta cheese using a box grater. If you use the large shred side (see above) the feta flavor will come through more powerfully. The fine side (see picture below) results in a better distribution of the feta and the overall flavor comes through in a milder way. You can grate the feta separately on a plate and then cover the salad with it or grate it directly over the salad.
Dressing for Cucumber Tomato Salad with Feta
Oil and vinegar is all you need to dress this salad, seasoned with a bit of salt. Traditionally the vinegar of choice is the red wine variety. Consider the fact that tomatoes have a relatively high acidity – go easy on the vinegar.
In order to avoid soggy vegetables add the salt, oil and (if using red wine vinegar) immediately before serving the salad. Otherwise the salt can draw out too much of the cucumber and tomato moisture.
How to Serve This Tomato Cucumber Salad with Feta
- A family style presentation is very common. If serving freshly dressed salad choose a shallow dish versus a salad bowl in order for the juices to not all sink to the bottom. Additionally, each helping will have a generous amount of feta topping it.
- Alternatively, you can leave out the oil, salt and vinegar and serve them on the side for everyone to dress and season their portion to individual taste.
- Shopska salata was originally presented in individual portions using traditionally decorated Bulgarian glazed ceramic plates as you can see below.
Shopska Salad Background
Shopska salad (salata = salad in Bulgarian) has the status of a national culinary symbol. It also uses vegetables that are traditionally grown in Bulgaria and a regionally produced feta to visually recreate the colors of the Bulgarian national flag – white, green and red.
According to various Bulgarian sources it was created as a tourist gimmick, by a group of chefs employed by Balkantourist, the country’s oldest tour operator. It was initially served at hotels and resorts where foreign tourists stayed but quickly made it to the tables of homes across the country and by the time I was born had practically become an emblem of Bulgarian cuisine.
The name Shopska means that it is affiliated with the shopi – the people who live in the region of Sofia (the capital and my once hometown) and the areas comprising its vicinity.
There are many variations for this salad, beyond how fine the feta is grated and if vinegar is added or not.
Some people do not peel the cucumber and swear that this is the best way to go. Some add roasted green peppers, not fresh. Others add roasted red peppers. Yet others slice the veggies instead of chopping them. Sometimes a fresh or roasted spicy Bulgarian pepper similar to jalapeno is placed on top of the salad as garnish. Another popular garnish are olives.
In the end – it is all about the fresh flavors of tomatoes and cucumbers and the powerful contribution of Bulgarian feta. Nazdrave!
Try Shopska Salad With These Dishes
- 3 medium sized tomatoes
- 1/2 large English cucumber*
- 1 small yellow onion
- 1 green bell pepper (optional)
- 6 sprigs flat-leaf parsley (or to taste)
- 4 sprigs dill (or to taste)
- 1 tbsp sunflower or vegetable oil (or to taste)
- 1 tsp red wine vinegar**
- salt (to taste)
- 4-6 oz feta cheese (Bulgarian cows milk feta in brine recommended)***
- Make sure all your fresh ingredients and feta are cold. Peel the cucumber, then quarter it lengthwise and chop it. Chop the onion and the green pepper (if using).
- Quarter the tomatoes, remove the seeds and chop.
- Pick the leaves of the parsley and dill and give them a rough chop.
- Combine tomatoes, cucumber, onions, pepper and herbs in a bowl. Add oil and season with salt. If using, add the red wine vinegar and toss everything together.
- Grate the feta (large or fine is up to you).
- Transfer the salad to a shallow(er) serving dish/bowl and scatter the grated feta on top.
*substitute with 3-4 small Persian cucumbers which have the same flavor and texture
**skip if tomatoes are on the acidic side
***Bulgarian feta has a sharp taste and is creamy but firm. It is very well suited for grating. It can be on the salty side in which case you can discard some of the brine and replace it with cold water (to draw the saltiness out).
Nutrition Information:Yield: 6 Serving Size: 1
Amount Per Serving: Calories: 344Total Fat: 27gSaturated Fat: 17gTrans Fat: 0gUnsaturated Fat: 8gCholesterol: 101mgSodium: 1142mgCarbohydrates: 10gFiber: 1gSugar: 8gProtein: 17g