I am not a vegetarian, but I have a few vegetarian and pescatarian readers, including Croft, who have asked if they would be hungry traveling through the Balkans so I thought the question merited a post. Just keep in mind that I haven’t specifically been looking for meat-free options, so these are just general observations based on things I’ve ordered or seen on menus in Bulgaria, Serbia, and Bosnia-Herzegovina.
There is a huge difference between the offerings in small towns and those in larger cities, and fish/seafood availability depends on how far you are from a water source. Here are some of the basics you will find just about anywhere:
First of all, fresh produce here is cheap, excellent, and a matter of local pride. I don’t know what the food situation is like in the winter, but in the summer months and well into the autumn, you won’t have a problem getting a basic salad with tomato, lettuce, sweet peppers, cucumber, onion, oil, vinegar, and local cheese. The vegetarians I met in Bulgaria say they combine different salads and add in cheese and bread for a simple meal when eating out.
Pizza and pasta are ubiquitous and really good. So you can often get plain cheese pizza (or sometimes add olives or other veggies!), both in sit down restaurants and at takeaway spots. If a restaurant has pasta on the menu, there will usually be one with a plain tomato sauce or with a cheese sauce.
Savoury pastries, like the Bulgarian banitsa (flaky pastry filled with crumbly white cheese) are very filling and make a good breakfast. When I was in Nessebar, my “typical Bulgarian breakfast” (according to the menu) should have suited Croft just fine — fried dough (or crêpes) with cheese, jam, coffee, and fresh fruit.
They are a major source of protein out here. I don’t eat them, but I’m pretty sure you could get an egg added to just about anything you want.
Bean soup (Bob)
I’ve only seen this in Bulgaria. I don’t know if, like in Mexico, the beans are cooking in animal fat/broth, but if you eat fish, you should be able to handle a little broth. I would imagine salad, bread, and bowl of bob would be a very filling meal.
Larger cities have all of the above, of course, but if you do research, you will find restaurants that specifically offer vegetarian food or with vegetarian options. You will also find fancier salads (I had one in Belgrade that had smoked salmon, capers, and broccoli, and more) and the ubiquitous doner shops usually have falafel on the menu. The Balkan version of Chinese food is pretty common in the larger centres and they have lots of veggie options.
Coastal areas (which include places along rivers, like Zemun, Serbia) have excellent fish and seafood and I’ve seen trout or other fish on the menu further inland, but it tends to be a special of the day. When I was on the Black Sea Coast, you could get many different fish, octopus, squid, shrimps, etc.
I haven’t seen tofu or mock meat here (and I did look for tofu when I was in Sofia because I like it for breakfast, but failed), but have seen ingredients like quinoa on the menu in some places. If you are cooking for yourself, you can find natural food shops all over the large cities with ancient grains and more.
The local food tends to be pretty bland, relying on salt for its flavour, so I’ve had better luck eating the more “international” cuisines. But there’s enough choice that even a strict vegetarian should be able to find something to their liking. If you like pizza, the Balkans will be heaven for you as the pizza here is super inexpensive and crazy good. Pasta has also consistently been a safe bet.
All told, I think that a vegetarian could get a filling meal at any restaurant they walk into. It might not be the most original or tastiest meal of their life, though. But in the summer months, with the tomatoes being as delicious as they are out here, even the basic “shopska salata” is an experience.
Thanks for the question, Croft!