I’ve travelled to and fro from Ukraine many times over the last 4 years. However it’s only in the last year that I’ve been moving towards a vegan lifestyle. So this time I’ve been looking around the city with slightly different eyes, and investigating whether or not it’s practical to be vegetarian or vegan here, and how easy it is.
Over previous trips I’ve found Ukrainian cuisine to involve a lot of сало (lard), сметана (sour cream) and small amounts of meat hiding in most dishes, such as борщ (beetroot soup), pasta dishes and even mixed veg. For this reason, on coming back here more long term, I was seriously wondering whether it would be possible to find vegan or vegetarian food…
But as it turns out, it’s not really that hard. If you’re travelling to Kiev and you’re vegetarian, vegan or just looking for a break from meat-based dishes, then read on…
Eating in as a vegan
Coming from London, I’m used to a huge range of meat and dairy-free options just jumping off the shelves at every possible supermarket. Even the smaller local shops have ‘Free-From’ shelves with at least a range of dairy-free snacks, plant milks and veggie frozen meals. I was used to load up my trolley with Quorn mince, Linda McCartney sausages, vegan fish fingers, bean burgers and Alpro dairy products with no effort whatsoever. Most things you can just chuck in the oven or microwave and they’re ready, making animal-product-free life a breeze. Not so in Ukraine. Ukrainians are not quite as lazy as us Londoners yet, and still manage to cook the vast majority of their meals from scratch. This means that ready meals and prepped foods are few and far between, and meat substitutes like Quorn haven’t really hit the shelves yet. So what strategies can you use when cooking or eating at home, or in your hostel/AirBnb?
Cook from scratch
Yes it’s pretty obvious that when a country isn’t quite as vegan-friendly as major Western cities, you’re going to have to cook a bit more yourself. But home-cooking doesn’t have to be crazy complicated. Pasta with tomato sauce, wraps with beans and vegetables, baked potatoes and soups are super easy options that you can make anywhere.
Grab the few vegan products
There are a few vegan bits and bobs that you can buy quite easily such as hummus, falafels, wraps, jars of beans in tomato sauce. It is also possible to buy soy milk, although it’s not cheap, and tofu in bigger supermarkets such as Ашан (Auchan). There’s also a token vegan brand called Veggie Land which does little plastic boxes of prepped vegan food of varying quality. They do a Chinese-style seitan dish that’s really nice, good falafels and some seitan cutlet things that are a bit meh, but they’re an option. There’s always a small stock of them in the freezer at Ашан.
Be prepared to do without some faves, or pay more
Sweet potatoes, nut butter and avocados used to be the cornerstones of my diet. Well, not any more, unless I want to pay over 35 uah (£1) per mushy, brown, tiny avocado or more like £2 per sweet potato. If you do want fancy vegan stuff like nooch, nut butters and ‘ethnic’ ingredients, you need to check out Good Wine, which doesn’t just sell wine but also a range of imported goodies including vegan staples such as the all-important nutritional yeast.
Make your own
Some things it’s just easier (and cheaper) to make yourself. In particular milk. I make my own oat or nut milk (recipes here – it’s so much easier than I expected). You may also want to make your own vegan baked goods since vegan cupcakeries are not really a trend here yet.
Eating out as a vegan
Eating out in Kiev is so much cheaper than in London, so unsurprisingly I eat lunch or dinner out at least 2-3 times a week. Luckily though, there are some dedicated vegan places, or ways to make your meals vegetarian or vegan in the majority of restaurants.
Caveat: Beware the labelling in Ukraine. There does not seem to be a real system. Some restaurants will label vegetarian options with a big V. So far so good. Except when they mysteriously have ‘meat-free’ and ‘vegetarian’ as separate options, with no apparent logic behind them. Or when some dishes which are definitely vegetarian are not included on the list of vegetarian foods. So quite often it seems they label things with a V pretty much at random unfortunately, unless the place is a vegetarian restaurant.
Here are some of my favourite places to eat…
Green 13 (inside Besserabsky Market)
This place is famous among Kiev residents and has been recommended by practically everyone. It’s just a quick grab and eat stop in the market, but has great wraps, juices, homemade nut milks and more. Definitely a good option if you’re popping into the market, which every visitor to Kiev should do. There are actually two places next to each other here, so there are plenty of options.
Nebos, Mala Zhitomirskaya 3
I recently tried this place and loved it. It’s a raw vegan restaurant with a nice casual vibe and lots of great food. We tried the ‘cheese pie’ made from cashews which tasted like cream cheese, a raw beetroot burrito and a vegan version of the Eastern European obsession – Olivier Salad, aka Russian Salad. All delicious. What’s more, the bill only came to about £6 each including wine and dessert. What’s not to like?
Imbir (Zhylianska Vl. 7)
I went here with a big group and everyone loved the food. There’s a mix of vegetarian and vegan, clearly labelled, and staff speak great English so it’s easy to choose something that’s right for you. I didn’t try the desserts, sadly, but they have a great range of teas and the main dishes were all fabulous. It’s not the cheapest option, but still good value.
Eating out in non-vegetarian places
This can be tricky but it’s certainly doable. A fair few places seem to do at least a couple of vegan options now, or you just have to be smart about what to order.
Some places I like are…
Menya Musashi (various)
This is a cosy little ramen chain and they actually have a couple of random vegan options on the menu including a vegan rice plate, edamame and a vegan salad.
СушиЯ (Sushiya, various)
This place is a fast-food style sushi chain that’s everywhere. I absolutely love sushi and luckily they do a ‘vega sushi’ here which is vegetable-stuffed sushi and really really nice.
Катюша (Katiusha, various)
This chain is also everywhere and is a must for any visitor to Ukraine. It’s got a super kitschy design which I love, just like dining in your babushka’s living room. It’s very traditional and offers all the possible Ukrainian dishes with nice big pictures so you know what you’re getting.
There are so many things on the menu that you can easily make up a huge buffet of veggie dishes.
Disclaimer: I don’t know full details of how they cook everything, e.g. the fried vegetables and borsch, so if you are a super strict vegan then stick with the places above that have labelled options. I just go with the flow here and order vegetable based dishes.
Mama Manana (various)
Mama Manana is a trendy new chain of Georgian restaurants that’s really nice. I am simply obsessed with Georgian food and luckily lots of it happens to be vegetarian-friendly. If you’re vegetarian, you have to try a Khachapuri Po Adjarski, an incredible Georgian bread with suluguni cheese and an egg cracked on top. It’s the best thing in the world.
For those who want to avoid cheese and eggs, though, there are still so many options! I love the Georgian aubergine rolls with walnut paste inside, ‘adjabsandal’ which is a kind of stew made from aubergine, tomato and peppers, lobio (bean stew) and salad with nut sauce. The Georgian bread ‘shoti’ is also usually vegan and a close second to a cheesy khachapuri. So many options!
So to summarise, no matter your diet you will not go hungry in Kiev. Yes the cuisine in general features quite a bit of pork and sour cream, but you can find lots of other options, plus a handful of dedicated vegetarian and vegan restaurants. I haven’t tried them all yet, so let me know if you can recommend anywhere else!