I have a confession. I’m not a fan of vegetarian restaurants or veggie-specific menus generally. Yes, they can be helpful for finding food that fills a hole. But, unless they are particularly creative, I’ve found far too often that they either present the same few dishes (think veggie lasagne, vegetable noodles, etc.) or that the people who created the menu associated vegetarianism with healthy eating/macrobiotic diets/raw food diets/gluten free diets, etc., so instead of getting a plate of food created for your individual dietary need, you get a dish that is so restrictive it lacks taste and appeal.
But the worst thing? It’s rare to find traditional dishes on a vegetarian-specific menu and, for me, that is unforgivable. When I go to a country, I want to experience what I can of its culture, and food is one of the many ways in which countries express their culture. And, do you know what? So many countries have meat and fish free dishes that are simply part of their traditional cuisine too. They’re rarely marketed as vegetarian however, they just appear on the normal menus of normal restaurants, and usually they are DELICIOUS.
So, a few exceptions aside, I generally prefer to eat in places that feature good vegetarian food that is not specifically marketed at a vegetarian audience. It also means that I can eat with friends and family without anyone feeling restricted or being singled out. Of course, I am a flexible vegetarian – I usually check with the waiting staff that dishes are ‘without meat or fish’ unless it is obvious, but I generally turn a blind eye to where food is prepared, etc. If you’re a strict veggie, you may find that you have to check a bit more thoroughly in some places.
And, with that in mind, in no particular order, here are my top 5 recommendations of places to visit in Europe with amazing vegetarian food as part of their traditional cuisine:
Before visiting, I imagined Poland to be one of those tricky veggie-friendly destinations, and I was happily proved very wrong!
They have many wonderful vegetable-based soups, such as the famous barszcz (borscht or beetroot soup). Be careful to check though that the soups have been made using vegetable stock.
Their selection of pierogi (steamed or fried filled dumplings) is also great. Coming in both sweet and savoury varieties, pierogi can be found everywhere in Poland, and are often served with sour cream, butter or a jam-like sauce. Traditionally served as a dish on Christmas Eve, mushroom and cabbage pierogi are delicious at any time of the year. Another savoury option is ruskie pierogi, filled with potatoes, onion and cheese.
Added to these, placki ziemniaczane, fried potato pancakes similar to hash browns, and numerous salads often based around cucumber, cabbage and fragrant dill, you are sure to eat well and stay full whilst visiting fascinating Poland.
For me, France is my shock entry. France has, for a long time, had a reputation of being most-definitely not veggie friendly, and I think that’s unjustified. I’m sure it’s true that veggie food is hard to come by in some areas, but there are some fantastic options available to veggies that really need to be celebrated.
One of my favourite things about France is their fresh produce – wonderful crunchy bread, smooth butter, powerfully tasty cheese, and succulent fruit and veg. Add to that a bottle of wine, and you have a delicious picnic to enjoy in the picturesque French countryside.
But that doesn’t help when you’re eating out at a restaurant, right? Well, fear not, there are options everywhere. For
instance, the addictive galette, a buckwheat flour-based pancake filled with many different options such as cheese, spinach and egg, originally from Breton but found in many places in France now. And of course, there is always the ubiquitous omelette which, although winning no prizes for originality
tend to be pretty good, ratatouille (vegetables in a tomato sauce), and cheese-heavy dishes, such as the well-known fondue.
Most importantly though, the beauty of French cuisine is that it stays with the times. Yes, they use traditional methods, but French cuisine evolves, and with that comes delicious vegetarian food. Veggie food is everywhere now, and I’m not talking boring, unappetising dishes. I mean dishes on Michelin-guided restaurant menus standing alongside meat and fish dishes, and they are wonderful!
It may come as no surprise to many that Italy makes it on to my list. It’s true, Italy has so much to offer us veggies – delicious pizzas, risottos and pastas, as well as myriad cheeses, breads and salads. I love Italian food.
Where I live in the south of Italy, traditional pasta pomodoro (pasta with fresh tomato sauce) is both simple and satisfying, a real Napolitan margherita pizza is a mouth-watering treat, and words cannot describe either the taste of a plate of bufala mozzerella, tomatoes, olive oil and bread, or a portion of gorgeous melanzane parmigiana (a lasagne-like dish of baked aubergine, tomato sauce and mozzarella). A steaming plate of oricchiete con cime di rapa (pasta with turnip tops) from Puglia, and pasta alla Norma (pasta with tomato, aubergine and ricotta) are two of my other favourites. For dessert, nothing beats creamy gelato or homemade tiramisu. Generally, the south of the country tends to rely more on vegetable and fruit production, and so is more veggie-friendly.
However, one word of warning: in my experience, vegetarianism is not widely understood in Italy. It’s changing, that’s very true, but I have had many experiences in my two years living here where I have asked if a dish is vegetarian, only to later discover a piece of ham in my tomato sauce, or that my parmigiana was made with a meat-based ragu. Adding meat for flavouring to seemingly veggie-based sauces is more common than you’d think. My advice? Ask if your dish contains meat (carne) or fish (pesce) just to cover all bases.
Moldova is the poorest country in Europe according to the World Bank, and so Moldovans really know how to use their resources well. In rural Moldova, people still grow their own fruit and vegetables, and this is reflected in their traditional foods which, as well as using meats, make use of hearty grains, dairy products and local vegetables.
Finding so much traditional veggie food in Moldova was one of my nicest travelling surprises. Moldovan food is so veggie-friendly in fact that their national dish – mamaliga, a polenta-like grain topped with sour cream or cheese – is vegetarian. It’s delicious, rich and hearty.
Moldovan cuisine is heavily influenced by neighbouring Romania’s cuisine, as well as by other countries such as Greece and Poland. There’s really no wonder it makes my top 5! It’s easy to find lovely vegetable stews and soups, including borscht made with vegetable stock, and interesting salads in most restaurants, and cheese and mushroom based dishes are both tasty and everywhere. Walk out onto the street of the capital, Chisinau, and you’re likely to find stalls selling crispy potato-filled pastries – they really are a treat!
Most people are familiar with at least one Greek dish, and veggies in particular will be familiar with Greek salad, a staple on many vegetarian menus. And while that is lovely – fresh, juicy and moorish – there are so many other excellent Greek dishes that are veggie too.
Take some of their appetisers for instance. At one end of the scale, fresh pita bread and tzatziki is simply lovely, each bite of dolmades (vine leaves stuffed with rice and fragrant herbs) is like eating freshness itself, whereas filling spanakopita (pastry filled with spinach and feta cheese) and tyropita (layered pastry filled with cheese) are both delicious and substantial enough to be served as a veggie main course.
And there are so many other vegetable based dishes that can be found elsewhere on the menu. Peppers and other vegetables stuffed with rice and herbs and vegetable, and briam (a type of vegetable ratatouille) are wonderful, as are side dishes such as gigandes plaki (beans in a tomato based sauce) and kolokythokeftedes (fried courgette balls).
In fact, the list could go on, there really is that much variety for veggies.
So, there we are. Check out more of my foodie pictures on Instagram.
Do you have a favourite country to travel to as a veggie? Do you agree with my selections? Feel free to comment below – I’d love to hear your experiences!