When we were travelling vegan in Macedonia as part of our vegan travel challenge, we scoured menus for traditional Macedonian dishes that were naturally vegan – and surprisingly there are quite a few vegan options in Macedonian cuisine.
I have to admit though, we were also excited when we reverted to our vegetarian diet at the end of the challenge and were finally able to tuck into some tasty burek – a local breakfast pastry filled with spinach and cheese – that a friend of mine who’d previously travelled around the Balkans enthusiastically recommended to me.
Of course, as he told me, while the locals in Maceodonia say burek is a Macedonian speciality, as soon as you cross the border to Albania, they’re adamant that burek is their own local breakfast invention. And the same in Serbia and Croatia. Not to mention that I distinctly remember eating something very similar for breakfast in Montenegro…
It seems that nearly all of the countries in the former Yugoslavia lay claim to the traditional dishes we ate in Macedonia – but we were travelling vegetarian and vegan in Macedonia when we ate them, so our guide is all about eating vegetarian and vegan in Macedonia.
Traditional Macedonian Foods for Vegans
I have no idea why this delicious spread isn’t found in all the vegan restaurants and hipster cafes in the UK. It is made by slowly roasting red peppers, aubergine and garlic in olive oil, seasoning with paprika and pepper then blending into a chunky relish. You can order ajvar with bread in all Macedonian restaurants to get a sumptuously moreish meal. We enjoyed ajvar so much that we made our own batch as soon as we got home to England! Charlie reckons it’s even better than hummus…
Lutenica is ajvar’s spicier cousin. The primary difference in the way it’s made is that lutenica also contains carrots, onion and tomatoes. Like ajvar, lutenica is a spread which is best eaten with bread or an accompaniment to salad.
Gevrek has to be the cheapest food in Macedonia. These circular white bread rings come covered in sesame seeds and are sold by street vendors around bus stations for just 15 denar (18p). You can grab gevrek in any bakery for not much more. In most of Macedonia, gevrek rings are really large, but in Lake Ohrid they have smaller versions that are a bit more like bagels.
The two most important words that you’ll need when travelling vegan in Macedonia are undoubtedly “Tavche Grache.” This healthy and wholesome bean stew is made from beans, tomatoes and onions and flavoured with a handful of spices including paprika. It’s cooked in an earthenware pot which gives it a pleasing smoky flavour. We were able to find tavche gravche in the majority of restaurants that we visited, including kebab houses, so it makes an excellent no-fuss vegan option while travelling vegan in Macedonia.
Traditional Macedonian Dishes that Can be Adapted for Vegans
Peppers play an important role in Macedonian cuisine, which is great because peppers are yummy. Peppers are usually stuffed with meat, but they can also be stuffed with a mixture of rice, veggies and spices before being roasted in the oven. We were lucky enough to have a vegan version of this dish made for us by the amazing ‘baba’ Tatyana at Robinson Sunset House, the guesthouse we stayed in at Lake Ohrid.
Sarma is a cabbage roll… stay with me… that punches way above its weight in terms of deliciousness. To make sarma, you traditionally roll cabbage leaves around minced meat, onion, paprika and chopped veggies — but soy makes an excellent substitute. ‘Baba’ Tatyana made us an exquisite vegan version.
After a hard day’s doing not much in Lake Ohrid, you couldn’t ask for much more than tuli tava: a hearty and wholesome stew. Like tavche grache, turli tava is slow cooked in an earthenware pot, giving it a distinctive flavour. Traditionally turli tava contains meat, but you can make it vegan-friendly by taking out the meat and enjoying the potatoes, green beans, aubergine, peppers, carrots and onions by themselves.
Traditional Macedonian Foods for Vegetarians
This dangerously delicious breakfast pastry is typically filled with either feta cheese, spinach or meat and traditionally enjoyed with drinking yoghurt (we liked the ‘Bitolski’ brand in the pink cartons) to offset the salty taste. However, while burek tastes delicious, the amount of fat pigeons in Skopje bus station suggest to me that it is not the best option for your waistline! You’ll find burek in any local bakery.
To an uneducated Balkan palette like ours, zelnik is exactly the same as burek. When we first went out to get traditional burek for breakfast, we actually ended up getting zelnik but thinking it was all the same as burek. Well, a quick Google search informed us that zelnik is different from burek because it has either onions, leeks or cabbage in the filling as well as the usual fillings you get inside burek. Now we know our mistake…
So shopska sounds very much like skopsko (the national beer) to my less than adept ear — which meant that more than once I accidentally ordered an embarrassing salad when what I really wanted was a beer! Shopska salad is normally made of big chunks of tomato and cucumber and sometimes onion that are then completely covered with grated white cheese. Our favourite version of this salad – which we ate at the very cool Matka Canyon – also came with fresh parsley. Shopska salad is really cheesy, so it’s the kind of dish that works well as a one-between-two (which we realised after making the mistake of ordering one each, of course!)
Take a typical pizza base, squash it into an off-square shape then wash egg over it instead of going for the usual cheese and tomato thing and you get pavijelik, Macedonia’s answer to pizza. A pavijelik is normally covered in hunks of meat, but we had a vegetarian version that was cooked in a wood oven.
We successfully finished our month-long vegan travel challenge in the town of Bitola, which just happens to specialise in Macedonian ‘baked cheese’. Baked cheese is exactly what it sounds like — a big ol’ hunk of cheese whacked in the oven until it goes hot and gooey. Honestly, eating this much cheese made me lose sensation in half of my face. Eating it once was definitely enough. Baked cheese is best-served with warm bread or potato wedges (often enjoyably referred to as ‘wiijez’ in Macedonian-English).
Palacinki are Macedonia pancakes which are thin like crepes but much chewier. You can find savoury versions with feta cheese, but we mostly came across sweet versions filled with figs and covered in honey.
That’s it for our list of traditional foods that are vegetarian and vegan in Macedonia. While we only talked about Macedonian food (simply because that was the country we visited) you’ll find similar versions of the same dishes in the other Balkan countries. In fact, anyone from a Balkan country other than Macedonia will likely tell you that their version of burek or shopska salad is actually the best one! We know that Macedonia’s versions are pretty darn delicious though.