Vegetarianism in a meat-dominated land

Illustrative photo: Kaleff / freeimages

This week I challenged myself by eliminating the prime ingredient from the Czech diet — meat. I learned the phrase jsem vegetariánka (I’m vegetarian) in preparation for my endeavor. It seems that in most Czech dishes, meat is the main event, whether it be little bits of smoked pork snuck inside potato pancakes, intestine casing in soup, or just a plain knuckle roasting over an open flame. So how do Czech vegetarians cope here?

Smažený sýr, photo: Barbora Kmentová
So far, I’ve only managed to discover a few Czech dishes that are traditionally vegetarian, and their calorie count may often be higher than many meat dishes. Smažený sýr, or in English fried cheese, is usually a large piece of breaded Edam or camembert served with French fries and tarter sauce. It can be found on most pub menus and is a very typical late night meal. For something on the sweeter side, Ovocné knedlíky are round dumplings filled with fruit, sometimes topped with chocolate, cottage cheese or poppy seed. And the dish knedlíky z vajčkama is simply diced dumplings fried with eggs. All three recipes remain fairly constant in most restaurants as a safe choice for veggies.

What I learned is that most Czech vegetarian fare is enjoyed outside traditional pub culture. Lehká hlava (Clearhead) and Maitrea are the city’s two most well-known vegetarian restaurants, according to one local review site. Lehka Hlava or Clearhead in English is an intimate venue, with a Celestial room sports a ceiling that resembles a starry night, while glowing tables and colorful mosaic tiles create a peaceful, almost meditative dining environment. I sat down to lunch with the owner of the restaurants, Martin Dobeš, to discuss his original concept and what it is like being a vegetarian in a meat-dominated culture. I learned that his concept originated 10 years ago when he decided it was time for Prague to have restaurants that plant based eaters like himself could dine at. While enjoying the daily lunch dish of savory seitan roasts and vegetable fries, Martin tells me of his childhood living under communism, when the only vegetables available in the grocery store primarily consisted of potatoes, carrots, and cabbage. During those times vegetarianism was almost unheard of, so it was not until communism fell and Martin travelled to Thailand where he learned about the Buddhist practice, and decided to transition to a plant-based lifestyle. The menus at the 10 year old Clearhead and 7 year old Maitrea consist of a variety of western and oriental dishes prepared without the use of meat. Each day, one of the four chefs chooses a dish to prepare for the restaurant’s 115kc lunch menu.

Maitrea, photo: archive of the restaurant
To my surprise, not one of the lunch menu items repeats itself over the year. The restaurant’s menu includes two Czech dishes, vegetarian goulasch and svíčková, but besides that the restaurant does not have much Czech influence. Martin seems somewhat disappointed to admit that Czech food revolves almost entirely around meat, and finds it to be an interesting paradox that those living in the countryside, with the most accessibility to fresh produce, are the least likely to take advantage of it. Martin’s two restaurants seem to dominate Prague’s vegetarian market, and as he watches the demand increase each year, he plans to expand the concept to further the supply. The restaurant’s clientele is about half and half foreigners and locals, and since tables are full at most mealtimes, it’s clear that the cuisine is enjoyed by a wide variety of people.

I don’t really have a preference between the two restaurants, since the menus offer similar flavors, but there are a few dishes that I find myself reordering frequently. At Clearhead, the quesadilla with jalapenos, guacamole, and cranberries is very good, and a includes real cheddar cheese, not the gouda that many restaurants in town use for Mexican dishes. The potatoes au gratin with goat cheese is one of my favorite dishes on the menu, and especially good when paired with a Brasil Trip, a fresh orange juice with Guarana syrup and mint. At Maitrea both the green curry with vegan shrimps and thai eggplant with tofu are delightfully spicy, and I’ve frequently gone to the restaurant just to enjoy one of their vegan desserts. The raw chocolate cake with dates, dry plums, chia seeds, maple syrup, and orange is divinely rich, and somewhat guilt-free.

Illustrative photo: Kaleff / freeimages
Radost FX in Prague 2 offers a fantastic vegetarian brunch with some of the best breakfast potatoes I have ever had. Country Life is a vegetarian market that has several locations throughout Prague, and the Dejvice and Malentrichova branches both have self-service lunch buffets. However it is best to get there when the food is fresh, which is first served around 11.

Even as a meat eater, I find myself frequently dining at Prague’s vegetarian restaurants, because they offer the most dishes with the best quality vegetables. Even though vegetarianism does not follow the traditional Czech dining culture, it has slowly made its way into the mainstream restaurant scene in Prague.