An Ode to Ajvar

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Yugo-Veg

(Written in October 2010)

For the sake of my culinary sanity, it’s good to be out of Romania.  I had read that Serbia and Kosovo were also majorly carnivorous countries but, in my experience, it was much easier to find satisfying vegetarian and vegan meals here than in Romania. Tomato, cucumber and pepper salads are back with a vengeance and a selection of vegetarian soups are common at most restaurants. Veggie pizza and pasta is ubiquitous but it’s also easy (and generally tastier) to piece together meals from typical local appetizers and sides: grilled vegetables, stewed beans, bell pepper dips, roasted mushrooms, potatoes, etc. For snacks, street vendors and kiosks selling roast corn, hot chestnuts and salty nuts are also commonplace. Below are a few places that stood out:

Belgrade, Serbia:

Trattoria Kosova (Kralja Petra 36)

This friendly casual bistro just off the main pedestrian shopping street looks like it could be on a trendy New York street corner.  House-baked breads perfume the air of the cosy country-kitchen inspired dining area while busy business people pop in and out for sandwiches and pastries to go. Their huge portion of tomato soup served with crunchy herb croutons was the highlight of our meal, but a good selection of salads, pizzas and pastas would have kept us coming back if we’d had more time. Be sure to save room for some homemade pumpkin burek for dessert- it was fantastic!

Allo’ Allo’ (Svetozara Markovica 19)

A cute kitchy spot for pizza and creative salads. The grilled vegetable appetizer plate also proved to be very generous (and delicious).  All dishes were prepared with a remarkable attention to detail and presentation that belied their very reasonable prices.

Prizren, Kosovo:

Ambient Restaurant (on the Shadrvan side of the river, in the farthest upstream spot)

Only the food was more awesome than the fact that our waiter greeted us on the street after we’d eaten here only once. Their very generous Mixed Salad was the best in the Balkans, featuring lettuce, two kinds of marinated cabbage, tomatoes, cucumbers, boiled potatoes, olives and (optional) cheese.  Delicious tomato soup, bruscetta, and reliably good pizzas, pastas and omelets make this a good bet for repeat visits. The setting, with ample outdoor seating, is quiet and atmospheric. Prices are great considering the location and large serving. A full meal for two shouldn’t set you back more than 10 or 12 euro.

Beseni Cafe (just behind Sinan Dasha Mosque)

This relaxed cafe with big white picnic tables covering their porch offers no real menu but offers expertly made coffee drinks and, unexpectedly, tasty waffles served with Eurocreme (like Nutella, only different). A great breakfast or afternoon handout spot.

Eating Veg in Romania (aka “Good Luck!”)

(Written in October 2010)

Leaving Bulgaria I was feeling quite ready for a change from the monotonous tomato, cucumber and pepper salads that were offered everywhere for every meal of the day. Now, here in Romania (statistically the most carnivorous country in Europe), how I long for those lovely fresh veggies.

Romanians seem to lack the sort of lively restaurant culture present in Bulgaria, perhaps because of more widespread poverty or simply a much larger rural segment of the population. Restaurants are hard to come by and their food tends towards unimaginative heavy meat-based dishes or ubiquitous (and generally mediocre) pizza. Eating as a vegan has proved nearly impossible, though it is heartening to know that most milk and eggs here are extremely fresh and local. The meat too – we watched transfixed and a little horrified as our innkeeper slaughtered two roosters outside the window where we were having breakfast.

The saving grace of this otherwise vegetarian-challenged land is the proliferation of very good and very cheap bread and bakery products. Many bakeries (and some restaurant menus) even helpfully label items as “de post” meaning in accordance with the Orthodox fasting diet (no milk, no meat) and de facto vegan. And… Romanians like peanut butter! As any other PB-loving traveler to Europe knows, most European culinary tastes abhor the stuff and finding a small jar of grossly overpriced Jif in a rare imported foods store in Italy or France is akin to finding the holy grail. So with peanut butter and bread in hand to cover your bases, navigating the meager vegetarian options on Romanian menus becomes a little more bearable. Be prepared to eat little more than veggie soup, small simple salads, pickled veggies and the occasional pasta dish or stew in restaurants.  If at all possible, get your own kitchen. Supermarkets and fresh fruit and veggie stalls are common in towns and cities.

Bucharest:

Mamas (several locations)

This mini-chain restaurant offers a full page of tasty veggies entrees and a good selection or salads. (I’m sure many other options exist in the capital too, we were only there one night).

Sighisoara:

Restaurant in Berg Hostel

This casual spot serves up a tasty vegan stuffed cabbage dish and mamaliga (polenta) with stewed veggies with egg and cheese (or without).

International Cafe

This atmospheric cafe on the main square in the citadel serves up homemade baked goods, pies, and sandwiches (including PB&J and a vegetarian cheese option).

Sibiu:

Einstein Cafe (Piata Mica)

This trendy cafe serves up coffee, ice cream and big satisfying salads. The vegan Turkish Salad (roasted eggplant with tomatoes, onion and herbs) is especially good.

Billa Supermarket (end of Nicolae Balcescu St. and under the central clock tower)

A typical western-style well-stocked supermarket. Great for all the basics if you have a kitchen.

Avicenna (24 Nicolae Balcescu)

This cute little health food store and pharmacy sells soy milk, soy sausages, tofu and healthy snacks.

Bulgaria: Tips & Observations

(Written in September 2010)

As we get ready to head to Romania, here are some observations on eating as a (somwhat flexible) vegan in Bulgaria:

Everywhere will have lots of salads and even the most hole-in-the-wall joints will have the two basics: Meshana Salata (tomatoes, cucumbers & roast peppers) and Shopka Salata (the same but with feta). Bob Chorba (bean soup) is also widely available, though you may want to check that it was made with vegetable broth. Sides of beans, potatoes and pickled or fresh vegetables are also very common.

Street vendors everywhere sell corn-on-the-cob, nuts and fruit. Banitsa also makes a good snack (look for windows advertising “zakuska”. Traditional banitsa or “banitsa sus cirene” is made with yogurt, cheese and egg. Apple and pumpkin varieties are also available seasonally and are usually vegan, but recipes vary so ask to be sure.

For the dairy-inclined, Bulgarian yogurt and “ayran” (a thin yogurt drink) are said to be the best in the world. They are widely available at restaurants, snack bars and street vendors. Another common drink/snack is “bo(r)za”, a thick fermented grain slurry. It’s slightly sour and tastes something like the milk at the end of a bowl of cereal. For most it’s an acquired taste, but it’s vegan!

Ve(g)liko Tarnovo

(Written in September 2010)

Veliko Tarnovo is the lovely crumbling medieval Bulgarian capital. It has far fewer dining options than Sofia, but a large student population and steady tourist traffic keeps things diverse.

Ego Pizza (2 locations: 17 Ul. Nezavisimost & Slaveikov Square)

This trendy place has a very extensive menu with lots of diverse salads, some with cheese and/or meat, but many without. A vegan meal is easy to peice together. The “Grilled Vegetables” listed as an appetizer are actually enough for a good meal for one or a meal for two with salads. Their “singed” bread is esentially wood-fired pizza dough, and delicious. A big basket will cost about $1.50USD. Watch out for the fruit salad on the dessert menu, which comes burried under a mountain of whipped cream.

Vehetarian options abound, with lots of vehetarian pizza options, pasts choices and a few baked vegetable dishes. Their is also an extensive beer, wine &  spirits selection. The location on Nezavisimost feels more upscale and has several tables on a balcony overlooking the beautiful old-town. The Slaveikov Square location is more laid back and pub-like.

Shtastlivetsa (79 Ul. Stefan Stambolov)

Widely regarded as “the best” restaurant in VT, this spot is certainly the swankiest eatery and town and has the largest menu. Seating inside can be a little stuffy, but a few downstairs tables offer lovely fews from the glassed-in porch. Outside seating is along the busy-ish main street but surrounded by pretty flower boxes.

Lots of huge and creative salads, though most contain cheese. They offer a vegan “gyuvech” on the menu which is delcious and a bit like shepard’s pie. Their are lots of vegetarian options on offer and good quality pizzas made from scratch. They offer whole wheat crust on request and would probably be happy to do a pizza without cheese,if you ask.

Mehana Gurko (33 Ul. Gurko)

By far the most atmospheric place in town to have a relaxed lunch or dinner. Set away from the main street and overlooking the river and old-town, this charming tradition tavern feels like it has changed little for decades. Their food is very traditional and simple but very fresh.

Vegetarian and vegan options are limited but can be pieced together from their salads, baked vegetables, egg-dishes, and sides. Very reasonable pricing, friendly staff, fresh veggies and ambiance more than make up for the limited menu. This was our favorite VT haunt.

Veggin’ Out in Sofia

(Written in September 2010)

Compared to the rest of Bulgaria, Sofia offers a veritable cornucopia of vegan and vegetarian dining options. Though there are many excellent traditional mehanas (taverns) in the capital, save your sampling of traditional Bulgarian cuisine for places that have fewer options than Sofia.

Dream House (50 A Ul. Alabin – just around the corner from the McDonalds on Vitosha Ave.)

This place is a little hard to find, but worth the effort. Enter a small shopping arcade (with a small Dream House sign, among many others, above the entrance, look for the first big door on your left and take the stairs up one level. You’ll be met by a bright, quiet dining room overlooking the street for some fun people watching.

The (Bulgarian & English) menu explains that restaurant also runs an organic farm in the nearby mountains where it gets most of its produce and explains a bit of its admirable vegetarian philosophy. The salads and soups are both very good with some inventive deviation from the Bulgarian standards. The hummus plate (listed as a salad) is an excellent and filling starter. Entrees are generally simple but filling, and many are vegan. The Chinese-style tofu dishes are particularly satisfying. A substantial wine and beer selection is available as well as a selection of teas and (not to be missed) homemade almond milk.

Slantse Luna (corner of Ul. Gladstone & Knyaz Boris)

A gem! This charming bakery with a few tables on the sidewalk and additional seating inside, was the best food we tasted in Sofia. All their bread is made from whole grains ground into flour on-site. Sandwiches are huge and satisfying, with a few vegan options. The all-vegetarian menu is not extensive but well chosen and helpfully identifies items as “vegan” or “can be made vegan”. The only caveat is that they often run out of, or simple do not have, some items that appear on the menu, so be sure to ask before you get your heart set on a certain dish.

The “Artistically Gymnastics” Salad is a real stand-out: shredded beets & carrots, sweet corn, onion and basil dressed with olive oil. The rotating “Vegetable Stew of the Day” also proved a reliable winner.

Entrees are inventive, with a few Indian-inspired choices, but on the small side for their price. From the drinks menu, the apple-pumpkin juice and grapefruit beer are both unusually outstanding.

Kibea (2A Ul. Valkovich)

This Sofia veggie institution was unfortunately closed during our visit, but the menu posted outside looked great.

My Organic Market (2 stores: 48 Ul. Parchevich & 3 Ul. Yanra, (http://www.myorganicmarket.bg)

A tiny health food store (we only went to the Parchevich location) that carries soy and rice milks, tempeh and healthful snacks. They also carry organic cosmetics and have a small deli.

The “Ladies Market”

This is the major outdoor food market in Sofia where the locals buy their staples. Prices are low and food in fresh from the farms. A must-visit if you have a kitchen at your disposal or just to browse and see another side of Sofia. Be sure to watch your bag and get ready to practice your Bulgarian.