One of my first introductions to Bulgarian cooking was lyutenitsa, the country’s ubiquitous roasted red pepper and tomato spread, which is served at all times of day with everything from toast to rice to meat. I was 19 and falling in love with a lot of things at once: the person who would become my husband, the capital city of Sofia that would become my home, the Bulgarian foods like lyutenitsa that would become my favorites. But it wasn’t until a decade later, when we made the move to Sofia, that I acquired a chushkopek (Чушкопек), the pepper roaster necessary to make lyutenitsa, among other national dishes that feature roasted red peppers.
The chushkopek is a simple, unadorned countertop device, not much taller than the peppers it roasts. But the first time I plugged it in, I was terrified by the light of embers emanating from a peephole in the lid. My fear did not subside when I burned a cloth napkin while trying to lift up the lid, as well as the countertop where I set it down. After dropping in a pepper, I listened to it hiss and pop, then used the accompanying tongs to remove the lid and pull out a completely blackened pepper, its stem slightly aflame. I strongly considered unplugging the device for fear of burning down the apartment, but carried on.
I soon learned that slipping off that blackened shell revealed a divine roasted pepper, with a smokiness that no oven can achieve. That hard-won flavor is the basis of lyutenitsa, providing a smoldering framework for tomato, salt, pepper, and sugar. By the time I reached pepper No. 4, I had perfected the blackened char without combustion — and the chushkopek had secured a permanent spot in my arsenal.
What it is:
The chushkopek, literally “pepper roaster,” was invented in the ’70s in Veliko Tarnovo, Bulgaria’s old capital, and its design hasn’t changed much since. It is a sturdy metal cylinder with two small handles and a little lid on top that reveals an interior ceramic chamber. There are two standard sizes: the single pepper model and the triple-pepper model, called “the Mercedes” because the metal divider that keeps the peppers apart makes the roasting chamber look like the car logo.
There are no buttons, switches, or dials. It starts warming as soon as you plug it in, and takes nearly an hour to fully heat up. But once it reaches inferno-level temperatures, the chushkopek is ready to blast fresh peppers into beautiful roasted oblivion in minutes flat. I bought my roaster, a speckled deep-blue model, at a hardware store, where they’re commonly sold, for 32 leva (about $20). It came with a pair of narrow tongs, which I now know to use both for removing the hot lid and retrieving finished vegetables.
The chushkopek can be used to cook any cylindrical vegetable like corn or potatoes, eaten simply as-is, but it’s more commonly used for eggplant and peppers, which are incorporated into national dishes. Roasted peppers can be enjoyed in salads, combined with roasted eggplant in the condiment known as ajvar, or mixed with chopped tomatoes, cucumbers, a healthy crumble of sirene (white brined cheese), and parsley to make classic Bulgarian shopska salata. The chushkopek’s highest calling, though, is lyutenitsa. To embark on the full experience from scratch, the roasted peppers are coarsely ground and cooked into a homemade tomato paste with salt, pepper, and a little sugar.
Where it’s used:
Chushkopeks are used in cities and villages across Bulgaria, but are basically unheard of outside of the country.
Bulgaria has a long history of pickling and preserving. In the fall, village residents would traditionally build massive bonfires to roast peppers and make lyutenitsa to store for the winter. In the 1950s, Bulgaria’s communist leadership launched a massive industrialization and urbanization campaign, spurring villagers to move to cities, away from producing their own food and toward relying on industrially packaged items. But the state’s own food production lines couldn’t keep up. So, out of necessity, new city residents continued the late summer ritual of roasting and preserving peppers and other vegetables, recreating their communal fires in the grassy areas commonly found between prefab communist-era blocs.
The chushkopek brought the roasting from street-level fires into apartments and onto balconies. It wasn’t an immediate hit due to distrust in Bulgarian manufacturing and the communist government’s campaign to discourage home cooking, promote industrial production, and encourage women to join the workforce. But in the years after the fall of communism in Bulgaria, people came to rely on the chushkopek to make lyutenitsa and other dishes at home, and national pride grew around the roaster as an original Bulgarian product. While many folks still return to their home villages to make a day of communal roasting, the chushkopek has become a beloved appliance. A Bulgarian National Television survey ranked it the “Household Revolution of the 20th Century,” beating out electricity and cell phones. Today, some Bulgarians will disparage a restaurant by saying their peppers are baked in an oven, which doesn’t lend the same smokiness to the vegetables.
Why we all need it:
Beyond its national importance, the chushkopek is the best way to prepare vegetables, hands down. There’s a certain badassery that I feel operating it, a pride in my fiery dominion. Before the chushkopek, I rarely cooked with such high heat, but now I love watching a fresh red pepper deflate under blistering temperatures. It emerges blackened and soft, continuing to shapeshift as it sits on the counter. Its charred exterior slips off smoothly, like shedding skin.
It’s also great for entertaining. Like its smoky high-heat cousin, the grill, the chushkopek is a social tool. Every few minutes, a charred pepper comes out and a fresh one goes in. The process is straightforward without being totally passive, making it easy for people to chat as the cooking progresses. In a post-pandemic world, I can’t wait to set it up on our balcony and entertain friends over beers and fresh-roasted peppers.
The chushkopek has earned a coveted spot on our precious kitchen countertop, the only device we have besides a microwave. I’m usually not a fan of appliances and gadgets when a stovetop or oven will work just fine, but once you’ve had vegetables from the chushkopek, there’s no going back. It’s a single-use tool, but it’s so good at what it does it’s just hard to argue. I find myself using it even more than the oven, and I don’t limit myself to the seasonal harvest, either.
It takes time and confidence to get the hang of using a chushkopek. It might blow a fuse. It might leave a lingering burning smell in your kitchen. It’s just super intense, okay? But all that power, heat, and effort yields a pepper with flavor and texture that’s otherwise impossible to achieve without a raging bonfire. It delivers the experience of the communal Bulgarian vegetable roast in a small, apartment-friendly package.
The chushkopek has become a bit of a touchstone for my life in Bulgaria, and when we’re in Sofia, I roast away to my heart’s content. As a foreigner, my love of the roaster is a way to connect with my adopted country, its culture, and its people. Nearly everyone has a fond memory of a late summer day spent making lyutenitsa from scratch — usually following a mother’s or grandmother’s recipe they’ll swear is infinitely superior to the supermarket jars. After plenty of practice with the chushkopek, I now have fond memories of my own to share, too.
How to get one:
It is basically impossible to buy a chushkopek in the U.S., not even at Bulgarian food stores. There was an Indiegogo campaign in 2014 to bring the chushkopek to the world, but the effort went unfunded. Like Bulgaria’s doorless elevators, the device probably wouldn’t pass an American safety inspection.
The most surefire way to get a chushkopek is to take a trip to Bulgaria with some room in your suitcase. Enjoy yourself, eat some lyutenitsa, and lug your own roaster home.
Ashira Morris is a freelance writer, editor, and art director based between Tallahassee and Sofia, Bulgaria.