Meat, cheese and potatoes make up a classic Czech meal, but here’s how one vegan steered her way around this with a mental map of alternatives in the capital city. Text and photos by Virginia Head.
Most people who meander through the winding roads of Prague see food everywhere they go. But as a vegan, I took to the streets with blinders on, the meat and dairy-heavy foods irrelevant to me. Although the Czech insistence on meat and cheese in every meal began as a deep burden, it soon became a challenge I enjoyed facing head on.
In my entire year in Prague, I met just one other vegan and only a handful of vegetarians among the diverse array of international friends I’d acquired. Many expected I would try converting them to veganism, and many more attempted to argue me back to what they considered sanity, which I kindly ignored. One friend spent the good portion of an evening at a nightclub citing all the nutritional benefits of milk and cheese.
Despite the culinary difficulties in Czech living, I also found hidden nests of vegan deliciousness waiting to be explored by a dairy-free girl such as myself. Many markets have excellent produce sections, and if you can look past the pork spits at Christmastime and the cheese sandwich stands sprinkled across the city, you can see a whole inner circle of animal-free fare that only those who want it get to experience.
I quickly learned to keep a mental food map of where I could eat around Prague. The HappyCow website turned out to be an invaluable resource to find excellent restaurants, so many that I couldn’t make it to all of them. My favourite restaurant was Lehka Hlava (Clear Head), where you can eat under the stars and where the chefs re-imagine traditional Czech meals with meat and dairy replacements. After forgoing the classic dishes of Prague for so long, it was a great joy finally to eat local food in a completely different way: vegan dumplings, roasted seitan, and classic cabbage, to name a few.
Aside from these Czech reinventions, most of the vegetarian offerings flow out of the constant stream of immigrants. Foreigners occupy 30-40 percent of the city and come from all over the world to experience Prague, while also sharing their foods of origin along the way. No strangers to foreign invasion, the Czechs embrace the culinary globalisation that constantly changes the city. The largest group of immigrants in Prague are Vietnamese, who colour the city not only with the corner grocery stores (potraviny) that can be found on almost every street, but also a large number of Asian-inspired restaurants. Second-generation immigrants have even taken to opening Asian-fusion restaurants, which I increasingly saw pop up around the city.
Thai chain Modrý Zub never failed me, while Indian chain Dhaba Beas has a great buffet for a spectacular price. Among entirely vegetarian and vegan restaurants, generally in the Old Town district, perhaps the best known is Loving Hut. The Asian, international network of vegan eateries has taken root throughout Europe, and everywhere from Sacramento to Saigon.
Being vegan in Prague was probably one of the most interesting challenges life has thrown at me. It required patience and stamina to defend my dietary choices continuously and sometimes unexpectedly in a country that’s much less accommodating than where I grew up. Locals don’t seem to believe in vegetables, so I quickly adjusted to looks of confusion whenever I passed through the supermarket lines carrying nothing but produce.
Vegans get our share of negative reactions, but I faced more scrutiny here than ever before. Still, I can’t complain about the money I saved or the weight I lost by cooking for myself so often, especially compared with Austria, an equally meaty culture where I often spent my pre-Czech days taking the lazy way out and settling for falafel sandwiches. In the Czech Republic I even did the unthinkable and made exceptions. On a hike outside Prague once, I had to accept a little dairy into my life, but I survived and got a bit closer to the reality of living in a different culture — which, after all, is the point of travelling.