A Little Adrift

A Little Food… Vegetarian Survival Guide: Bosnia & Herzegovina

Pretty patterns while wandering Old Town Sarajevo.

I love Bosnia & Herzegovina. Completely and with the whole of my heart, this country has won my affection. My couchsurfing hosts played a big part in those first days, as they walked me all over Sarajevo, imploring me to dig beneath the surface to see the city’s deep charms. I was skeptical — I rarely enjoy capital cities, instead choosing smaller towns and rural regions.

But after reaching the flat and meeting Furkan and his roommates, there was no chance they would let me leave before I had seen the sights and sampled the foods of Bosnia & Herzegovina. After recharging with Turkish tea (Furkan brings it back from his visits home because he loves it so much!), we all headed to the city-center to explore.

A sticky situation popped up with Anida when I told her I’m vegetarian — she was flat-out appalled. And while she couldn’t understand my decision to eat vegetarian, she was also sad that she could not share with me most of Bosnia’s food culture. In fact, she even asked “Well, why don’t I order you a meat one and you can just stop being vegetarian for today?”

She was so sweet about it as she calmly explained that I would have exponentially better experiences if I stopped eating vegetarian for the week. I explained that having been vegetarian for more than 11 years, that I would still love to experience the vegetarian parts of Bosnian cuisine. Once she understood, she vowed to find every dish possible that I could enjoy as a vegetarian.

We took the handy tram into Old Town, and wandered across the cobbled streets and between the cobbled buildings in Sarajevo’s Turkish section, called Baščaršija. It’s impossible to miss two of Sarajevo’s most iconic sights: the pigeon tower and the huge Turkish mosque. But we weren’t there to sightsee just yet. We were there to eat. Anida led us to a busy street-side café serving “the absolute tastiest bureks around,” according to our hosts. Buregdžinica Bosna in Old Town Sarajevo has only grown in popularity over the years, but it’s a solid option for your first lunch in Sarajevo.

A spinach and cheese pita with yogurt at Buregdžinica Bosna in Sarajevo.

The Bosnian Burek/Pita

Apparently, traditional bureks are made out of cow/hamburger-type meat — Furkan, Sidak, and Anida enthusiastically ordered that version. But I opted for a cheese and spinach version. Once you remove the meat, the burek is instead called a pita (though myself and most tourists continued to call any dish with phyllo a burek). The cheese and spinach is a common flavor and usually easy to find on the streets. At the time, however, I had no idea what flavors awaited me. Our server served us all a perfect triangle of dough, with the cheesy green spinach tucked into the flakey phyllo. Served with a smother of plain yogurt,  I couldn’t have been more pleased with our lunch. I love Greek spanakopita, and bureks are simply a Bosnian version of this dish. Anida gently noted that it was a good thing I liked the dish, as it was pretty much my only budget lunch option for my entire week in Bosnia!

Over the coming week, I would discover a few other versions to help vary things up. The pumpkin pita adds a bit of sweetness, while I usually grabbed a plain cheese version when I needed a snack, not a full lunch.

Here are the common vegetarian versions of burek/pita that you find around the country:

The tart sour cream is called pavlaka and you should surely order it too, if you eat dairy.

Glimpsed through the window: a range of bureks and pitas hot and ready to eat!

Finding Vegetarian Dishes

Over the years, eating vegetarian in Bosnia will only get better as the city welcomes more tourists. But right now, it’s just not on the beaten path. Even in Kathmandu and other small developing world tourist towns, there was a selection of vegetarian food to cater to the vegetarians backpacking through. This is not the case in Bosnia; so although we managed to eat really well, it wasn’t precisely budget-friendly; we had to search through a lot of cafes and often pick the more upscale restaurants if we wanted a veggie option.

A few other dishes to consider, as well as pitfalls you might face:

Čorba
Bosnians eat a wide range of soups, but unless it’s specifically marked as a vegetarian option, it likely has a beef or meat broth. If you’re in a small town outside of Bosnia or Mostar, you can almost certainly assume that soups have meat bases. Inside the cities, some restaurants with English translated menus have cottoned on to the vegetarian trend and may list these as options.

Peksimeti and kajmak
This is good to fill your belly if you need a snack. Kajmak is a sweet yogurt and it’s often served alongside fried dough for a simple and budget dish.

Veggie Dishes
While most meals in Bosnia contain just meat, cheese, and some type of dough, a few dishes heavily involve vegetables. Only problem: they are never inherently vegetarian. Cevapi is never served vegetarian at general restaurants, nor are the stuffed peppers or the stuffed grape leaves (japrak, also known as dolma in other countries). Always ask questions before picking these items out on a menu.

Salads
Look for shopskata salate if you’re in the mood for fresh vegetables. Many restaurants offer this mixed salad, which is usually served with cucumbers, tomatoes, lettuce, and cheese.

Turkish Coffee

After our delicious lunch, we headed to another nearby café for traditional Bosnian/Turkish coffee to follow the meal. Sevdah Kavana is another popular spot in Sarajevo, but it’s tucked into a courtyard and filled with tourists and locals alike. It’s a must-stop to fuel up for a day of sightseeing.

We ordered a tray of coffee and it was beautifully served. Each tray has strong coffee, sugar cubes, and a small sweet (in our case, it was Turkish delight). Sidak laughed at me just a little bit when we began to drink our coffee because I had never before mastered the art of precisely biting into a sugar cube while sucking hot coffee through the sugar. Furkan explained that it’s a traditional (if tricky for foreigners) way to enjoy the coffee.

After everyone watched me fumble through it, Furkan gave me a reprieve though and suggested that rather than drinking all of my petite cups of coffee through the sugar chunks, I should instead slowly soak the cubes into the piping hot coffee and let it disintegrate. It wasn’t as traditional but it did save me from continuing to spill coffee down my fingers, forearm, and a bit on the floor!

A beautiful tray of Turkish Coffee in Old Town Sarajevo

Traditional Sweets

Turkish Delight
Topping off the meal was a bit of Turkish Delight – squishy, sugary, jelly candies with nuts. While I don’t love squishy sweets, I definitely tried some! Of note is that real Turkish delight is not made with gelatin, but cornflour instead, so it’s pretty reliably vegetarian in this part of the world. A travel friend named Amir met us at the coffee shop — his English was amazingly good, and between my four ambassadors, I felt more at home in that moment than I had for months. It was nice to feel surrounded by friends. By couchsurfing and meeting up with friends, I had deeper connections than I would have with the guidebook suggestion of a random hostel in town.

Baklava
No day in this part of the world is complete without baklava, and I had a Baklava challenge to complete throughout my single week in the country. I love sweets so much that I dedicated an entire post to the best sweets places in Old Town Sarajevo, and in Mostar, where I traveled after Sarajevo.

Quick Tips: Eating Vegetarian in Sarajevo/Bosnia

  • A local’s list of vegetarian restaurants: Although this post is older (from 2010), many recommended spots in Sarajevo still exist and this is a great beginning point. I recommend checking her recommendations in Google/TripAdvisor to be sure they still exist, and to check traveler reviews.
  • Happy Cow restaurant index: All travelers should bookmark Happy Cow and use this site in a pinch if you can’t locate vegetarian restaurants nearby.
  • A handful of vegetarian (and veg-friendly) spots in Sarajevo:  Apetit, Avlija, Barhana, and Karuzo.

Heading to Bosnia? My Bosnia & Herzegovina Travel Guide gathers my best tips, advice, and stories for travelers interested in exploring the best parts of the country’s cuisine, sights, and culture.