Being a Vegetarian or Pescatarian in the Balkans

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:

Salads

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.

Eggs

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!

9 thoughts on “Being a Vegetarian or Pescatarian in the Balkans

  1. Thank you for this post! I have been wondering the whole time you have been in the Balkans about menu options and you have answered my concerns!

    During my work life I spent way too much time working out of town and eating in restaurants and only once did I find myself in a restaurant that had nothing but meat on the menu, even in the salads. The only thing I could have eaten in this German restaurant was bread and deserts, there was nothing else.

    I am a life-long vegetarian / pescatarian and have always found something to eat wherever I am and am used to having to restrict myself to two or three things on a menu so thanks again for this post. I am sure I would get along just fine there.

    • Glad it answered your questions!

      Anyone who loves tomatoes as much as I do could live off the salad! 😀

      One thing I forgot to mention specifically are omelettes! The only egg dish that makes me wish I could eat eggs…. You can find them on lunch menus.

  2. I do not know what it might be like now but when I lived in Zlatograd, a small Bulgarian town, the winters did not offer much if any fresh vegetables. There were ‘winter vegetables,’ which were pickled. The locals canned a lot of roasted peppers and tomatoes also.
    I ate VERY little meat while there, I saw how they handled it and did not want to take a chance of getting sick. I did eat a lot of green salad and squash when available. Then during the winter it was potatoes, rice, ‘bob’ and canned peppers with lots of sirene . There was a river near by and you could find small sardine-like fish available sometime but I never ate them because the river contained VERY high levels of lead.

    I did not know that the diet that I have been on mostly for the past 3 years was ‘pescatarian ‘ (you taught me a new word) but that has been the way I eat when cooking at home. Then once a week when I eat breakfast out I may include some meat, usually Chorizo or sausage patty.

    • Thanks for the memories, Ed! I’m not surprised to read about the tomatoes and peppers. I also didn’t eat much meat in Bulgaria because it was terrible (overly salted). Thank goodness for sirene!

      I get really annoyed with people who say they are “vegetarian,” but eat fish. So I am on a mission to educate. 😀

  3. I became vegetarian when I was 15; so more than half of my life at this point.. dining out CAN be a challenge when traveling.

    Vegetarian is ‘easy’ and vegan near impossible as so many dishes rely on cheese as the protein. As croft mentioned above, you get pretty used to being limited to a very small amount of items off a menu but there is typically a dish you can consume and I have never come across a restaurant that wasn’t willing to make some substitutes to accommodate.

    That being said, at home I am very cautious of my diet but during travel I realize I may be consuming some animal product as the cooking techniques are not the same.

    In Mazatlan, I relied a lot on fresh produce for a bulk of my meals and happily ordered the guacamole when that was the only thing on the menu. There were a few restaurants that had a wonderful vegetarian/vegan menu and I ate well! Im looking at going to PV this year as flights to my beloved Mazatlan are just too high for me & I am interested in trying something new… A quick search – vegan/vegetarian paradise!

    I know even here at home, it is so much easier NOW to be a vegetarian than it was even 5 years ago. I think this trend is growing world wide

    • I was a vegetarian for 15 years and remember the struggle well! Scotland in ’98 was the easiest place to be one, believe it or not!!!

    • In my case it was not a “choice” but a necessity. Right from when I was a baby I suffered from violent contractions and projectile vomiting with any form of meat, even broth. I avoided meat for the rest of my life (71 years and counting) except for one memorable dinner party 40 or 50 years ago when a workmate of my wife’s invited us for dinner, forgot (or did not think it was important) and cooked a “special, just for you” plate with traces of meatballs in it. It stayed in my stomach for no more than two seconds and she then had a major table, floor and wall cleaning job. I did not know there was meat in the dish so the reaction was not psychosomatic but actually was an allergic reaction.

      • I absolutely believe that. When I was several years into being a vegetarian, I would get ill if I was fed meat. I was not one of those militant vegetarians and would, say, eat potatoes roasted with meat or soup with chicken broth if it was served to me. but soon as I had some real meat one day to not make a fuss, I was soooo ill.

  4. Colin and I eat very similar to Croft however if I knew something was cooked in beef broth I would not eat it. Our diet is by choice.

    A strict vegetarian would have trouble getting protein there as they do not eat dairy products. When we started to RV we had to add eggs and cheese to our diet and eventually fish so that we had something we could eat while traveling. The first time we went to India we pretty much starved.

    There are strict vegetarians or vegans, then there are lacto ovo vegetarians who eat cheese and dairy and then there are those lacto ovo vegetarians that also include fish.

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