Beyond pork and dumplings - alternative diets in the Czech Republic

When you think of Czech cuisine, the first thing that comes to mind is pork, sausages and other meat dishes, such as the beef roast svíčková, which some would say is the country’s national dish. Certainly, the country is not known for its vegetarian and vegan fare. So how difficult is it to live on a meatless diet in the Czech Republic, and how is the country’s attitude to food in general changing? In this edition of Czech Life, we look at alternative forms of nutrition.

Photo: CzechTourismPhoto: CzechTourism “The land that vegetables forgot,” as famed chef Anthony Bourdain once referred to the Czech capital in the Prague episode of No Reservations, is certainly a label that most visitors to the city would agree with. Duck, pork, and beef roasts dominate the city’s menus, and even though choices for vegetarians in Czech restaurants have become more plentiful, the country is still perceived as a carnivore’s dream.

So how do vegetarians and vegans live in a country where meat is such an important part of the cuisine? While there are no up-to-date numbers on how many vegetarians live in the Czech Republic, according to a STEM agency poll from 2003, some 1.5 percent of Czechs embrace a vegetarian lifestyle, compared to 8 percent in neighboring Germany.

Vegans go a step further, and in addition to meat, also omit any dairy, eggs and other animal products from their diets – and substitute them with soy products, such as tofu.

When I met with her, Martina Čermáková, a vegan who lives in Prague and is currently working on a vegan cookbook, showed me her pantry.

“You can smell it, it has a cheesy flavor to it, and so anytime you want something to taste like cheese, nutritional yeast is the way to go.”

I asked her to describe how she went from being a carnivore to becoming a vegan.

“Well, it certainly wasn’t sudden, it was more gradual. I come from a meat-eating family, and although we lived in Holland, it was… I never had actually heard of a vegetarian, never mind a vegan diet, until I turned 17, 18, and then I was kind of experimenting with food.

“I just had a hard time eating meat and dairy. It turns out that I have an allergy to cows’ milk, which kind of explains things. And so I was vegetarian seven or eight years ago, and when I met my former boyfriend, who has been a vegan for over 20 years, and I never really paid attention to it, because it made no sense to me to be cooking meals that he couldn’t eat.

“And I never really missed anything, I didn’t miss dairy, I didn’t miss meat, I didn’t miss eggs, so it was just very natural and I didn’t even think much about it in the beginning. And I think gradually, I just started thinking about where my food comes from, how it makes me feel, what I am eating and why I am eating that way, it kind of became a more conscious, but that was only later on, maybe three years ago…”

Martina’s staples include soy milk, tofu, nutritional yeast and other products that cater to the vegan crowd. Across the Czech Republic, such foods are becoming more easily available now than in the past, when they were practically impossible to find, but is it still more difficult to shop for vegan ingredients here than in other European countries? Martina says it depends on where you live.

“I think it would say the basis of what you need, grains, legumes, vegetables, you can get them anywhere, and they are cheap. In most supermarkets, these days, and I think that has changed over the last two or three years, you can get basic vegan products like tofu, various soy products, like soy milk, faux meat, soy meat, which has always been around, I remember eating that as a kid.

“And I think, also, over the past few years, more and more of those health stores have opened up, and they have a really good selection, of vegan products, from fake meat sausages to vegan ice-cream, which I’ve missed. I wouldn’t say it’s so difficult, but also, I am judging from living in Prague, and I think that if you go to smaller towns, you probably won’t be able to get a lot of those specialized vegan products, maybe not even tofu.”

Not just vegans enjoy the fact that health food stores have mushroomed across the country – anyone who shops with an eye to health-consciousness, or who is concerned about the origins of their foods has welcomed the arrival of more choice on this segment of the grocery market. In 2010, the sales of fair trade products in the Czech Republic increased substantially. Tomáš Bílý is the head of the Czech Fair Trade Association, and he expects this trend to continue.

Tomáš BílýTomáš Bílý “Personally, I await a nice development in the following years, because if we consider, that fair trade in bigger numbers only started here in 2004, 2005, which was the first time that food products with the label became available here, then the growth of the figures was very fast in the beginning of course, since there was no market at all here before, then it slowed down three or four years ago, and then in 2010, there was a growth of 60 percent, which means there was a really big growth of that market here in the Czech Republic.

“And it was because there are many campaigns, etc. but I think the main thing is that the supermarket chains started selling fair trade products in their stores. And that means that the fair trade market here in the Czech Republic is changing towards the normal stores, supermarkets and these kinds of possibilities and not only the world shops.”

Vegans and vegetarians are among those who pay attention to whether or not their coffee, chocolate or other products come from fair trade, says Mr. Bílý. They often are already used to reading labels and shopping at stores that carry such products as well.

“These consumer groups already have to pay attention to what they are buying, because they have a special diet, so they are more likely to think about what they are buying and think about the products they are buying and where they come from. That means, of course, they are more likely to also buy fair trade products, because of their origin.”

While cooking vegan meals at home is becoming increasingly easier as more and more supermarket chains carry the necessary products, Prague’s restaurant scene is not exactly dominated by vegetarian and health restaurants. I asked Martina if she finds it hard to dine out.

“I guess, as a vegan, you can go to pretty much any restaurant. You are probably going to have to eat a side dish, like potatoes, or fries, with a salad perhaps, a cabbage salad maybe. If you want something fancier than that, in Prague, we have two vegan restaurants, and three vegetarian ones that also cater to vegans, so there’s plenty of choice, but on the other hand, there are only five restaurants, so if you live here for a couple of years, you probably get bored with the selection.

And do you have vegan friends, who you can cook with, or is that not something that determines your social life so much?

“Cooking vegan probably does not determine my social life at all. Because I don’t actually have… I have two vegan friends, but we don’t actually cook together. I don’t think it is that important for me to have people who share that same lifestyle, it’s definitely great to talk to people who share the same values, but I found overall that the people I hang out with, my friends are very accommodating. There will always be a vegan cake at a birthday party, or a vegan burger at a gathering.”

While many cut out meat due to health reasons, being a vegetarian or vegan often also goes beyond a simple lifestyle choice. Many vegans cut out animal products from their diets because of ethical reasons, and Martina says that over time, this has become an important reason for her as well.

“I think that is a key issue for why I am vegan, as I mentioned before, it wasn’t a conscious choice at first. The more I became aware of where my food comes from, the more it became an ethical issue for me. So at this point, the only reason that I am a vegan is not for health concerns, but because I don’t want to contribute to what I think is needless suffering of animals.”

Martina has some firm beliefs when it comes to animal rights, but she also endorses a fun-filled approach to veganism and is not dogmatic about it. A book with vegan recipes that she has compiled, among the first few in the Czech language, is currently pending publication.

“This might be the first vegan cookbook that doesn’t emphasize the health aspect of meals, but rather focuses on how delicious they are. It kind of started off four years ago, when a former colleague of mine suggested that it might be interesting, because there are not many cookbooks of that kind on the market. Two years ago, when I had a part-time job, I finally had the time to do something that I enjoy, which is cooking and then writing about it, and taking photos of the foods.

“The whole idea of the cookbook is that, and I think that’s what sets it apart form the ones that are currently on the market, I try to make it fun to read, sort of a light-hearted, informal tone. It is not really preachy, it does not preach about animal cruelty or the health aspects of veganism, although of course that is a giant part of it.

“I also wanted to make it very accessible, so the ingredients are local, they are cheap, well, affordable, and there’s not necessarily that stress on ‘it has to be organic’ and I tried to make the meals easy to prepare.”

Do you have a title yet?

“Currently, and I hope that won’t change, unless the publisher really wants it to change. It’s called Veg mňamky nejen pro vegánky, which does not work as well when you translate it, but it’s basically Vegan Yummers Not Only for Vegan Chicks. Of course, it doesn’t rhyme in English.”

While pork continues to have a stronghold on Czech plates, the country is also embracing international nutrition trends such as shopping for local produce at farmers’ markets, buying organic and fair trade products and preparing vegetarian and vegan meals. And with her book chock full of delicious vegan recipes, due to hit shelves in January, Martina Čermáková is contributing to spread the appeal of vegetables in the “land that vegetables forgot.”