Breaking news: vegan travels in Eastern Europe, does not die of starvation! »
Vegan traveling can be rough. A two-week trek through Peru five years ago left me exhilarated by the stunning beauty of the Andes and Machu Picchu but at least 10 pounds lighter. Seriously, I starved. I like to think I survived due to the twin graces of those lovely Hare Krishnas who own the Govinda’s chain of vegetarian restaurants, and beer—it’s like liquid bread! I was bracing for a similar experience in Bulgaria. In addition to mastering the Cyrillic alphabet and learning enough rudimentary Bulgarian to mitigate my tourist buffoonery, I was not heartened to read this from Lonely Planet:
Vegetarianism remains an alien concept to most Bulgarians, but it’s relatively easy to follow a meat-free diet here. On the down side, variety may be lacking and those with an aversion to cheese may find their options very limited…. Omelettes, vegetarian pizzas, and pasta dishes are common, but note that ‘vegetarian’ meals may simply mean that they include vegetables (as well as meat) or fish. Sometimes this designation doesn’t seem to mean anything at all. Vegans will have a much harder time.
The authors go on to describe a series of Bulgarian dishes they assume are what I, as the frantic vegan researcher I am, want to hear about. All but one of these involve cheese or eggs or eggs and cheese together. Fried cheese! Scrambled eggs with cheese! Cheese fried and stuffed with egg, then baked in more cheese! Okay, I’m kidding about that last one, but would you really know? I think not.
The internet was about as helpful as the Lonely Planet guys, which is to say, NOT. A search for “vegan Bulgaria” yields a bunch of forums in which nervous-sounding vegans plead for advice on what they’ll be able to eat during their visit. So you will forgive me for thinking I was about to starve. I was totally psyched to see the Balkan landscape, the Black Sea, the grand cathedrals and mosques, the rolling hills through which the Thracians (did someone say Spartacus? Bad. Ass.) once roamed. But I thought I was going to starve. On the off chance that anyone reading this is preparing for a trip to Eastern Europe generally, or Bulgaria specifically, I want to urge you to take heart! Bulgaria is a beautiful country, more than worthy of an extensive trip to linger in the university cafés of Plovdiv and be hypnotized by the insanely blue waters of the Black Sea and look at ruins and fortresses and monasteries until your eyes bleed. As a bonus, I am here to testify that not only is it totally possible to find vegan food in Bulgaria, but it is not the “alien concept” our friends at Lonely Planet say it is. Maybe things have changed dramatically over the last couple of years since they joined the EU, or maybe the folks at Lonely Planet don’t give a shit about the plight of vegan travelers. (Hint: They totally don’t.)
In addition to a host of meat and meat products, prepared in just about every way my tiny brain could fathom—and then some, almost every Bulgarian restaurant also offers some kind of boiled, roasted or barbecued vegetables. Additionally, nuts are ubiquitous. There are other dishes that show up on almost every menu, like risotto, but I personally fall in line with Captain Marty’s skepticism about soup, and I feel like it applies equally to cooked grains of any description. All any intrepid and enterprising vegan needs to know—I think this may apply equally to almost any language (correct me if I’m wrong, you cosmopolitan vegan travelers of the world)—is the word for “without” along with the words for “meat,” “meat stock,” “butter,” “eggs,” “cheese,” and the like. I know that right now you may be feeling overwhelmed. That’s a lot of words, right? But what else are you doing with your brain while you aren’t learning how to order food in Bulgarian? Go forth and starve not.
Vegetarian hot pot in Bansko. After asking for a completely vegetarian meal, the server told me that this dish was “for me.” My mother’s cheese-drenched Shopksa salad is in the background. I would hate to give you the impression that Bulgarians, unlike Americans, don’t drench every item of food in cheese. ‘Cause they totally do. Especially salad.
The bean-stuffed baked potato in Sofia was vegan when they left off the no-doubt copious layer of shredded cheddar cheese. Those bits on top that are maybe making you suspicious are actually very thinly sliced, caramelized onion. Complete protein was a bit challenging, so I was ecstatic after locating this dish.
Barbecued vegetables in Burgas. These were perfectly cooked and so delicious that I insisted on returning to this restaurant three of the four nights we spent in this seaside university town.
Marla Wick lives in Sebastopol, a small community in Sonoma County, California, where people never change out of their yoga pants. She spends her time cooking, baking, knitting, and raging about politics when she’s not working as a freelance editor and writer. She blogs about food, animal ethics, cultural politics, and horror movies at vegan-squared.blogspot.com and www.bullypulp.com.