Vegetarianism in a meat-dominated land
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?
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.
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.
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.