When you’re a staunch vegetarian (not even eggs, thank you) and you want to feast on the world’s very many attractions, immersing yourself in cultures that don’t understand the concept of vegetarianism can be daunting. In many East Asian countries fish sauce and shrimp paste are equated to vegetables. Even if you ask for vegetarian food in the local language, you might end up with some of it in your dish added “for flavor.” Several parts of South America treat beef in the same way. And in Prague, if you are not eating at a specialist vegetarian restaurant, watch out for ham pieces that may find their way into your dish.
Fortunately, through years of travel and practice I’ve realised that wherever you go, people eat the things you do – vegetables, grains and cereal and if you are not vegan, dairy products. Also, a little planning goes a long way to make your holiday more relaxed and fun, without having to constantly forage for vegetarian food and sniff suspiciously at what’s put in front of you.
Websites like Veg Dining list restaurants in Prague that serve vegetarian food. Others like Happy Cow curate not just vegetarian and vegan restaurants but also health food stores you can source a meal from. Also look at local tour companies, like Prague Walker whose guides will show you not just the sights of the city, but also vegetarian restaurants you can keep returning to for a good meal.
If you find yourself in a restaurant that doesn’t offer many vegetarian options order a familiar dish without the meat – for instance, a burger with soya bean or mushroom patty. Sometimes talking directly to the chef helps, too.
That may not always be feasible and you’re not confident your vegetable soup will arrive without chicken stock in it, order a meal of salad and starters. I have often had success with this when there have been no vegetarian dishes for the main course or they have been too bland for our fiery Indian palate (really, how much bulgur or polenta can one eat?). And if you go pub hopping in Prague – remember, popular beers Pilsner and Budweiser come from this country – most of them have some vegetarian short eats to keep you going.
It good to learn phrases like: Je to vegetariánské? (Is it vegetarian?) or Jsem vegetarian (I am a vegetarian). And when ordering at a restaurant a simple and forceful ‘no meat or fish’ instruction delivered in English, accompanied by a vehement shake of the head, always helps.
At the other extreme, it is important to emphasize what your vegetarian meal can include – for instance, can you eat egg or milk? There are times when vegetarian inadvertently translates into boiled vegetables, which you end up poking at like a wretched human rabbit.
And finally, vegetarian or not, always try to eat away from the obviously touristy places, for food is an intrinsic part of the travel experience and only when you have eaten where locals so, have you truly left home.
WHAT TO EAT:
It’s an Eastern European thick stew of meat and vegetables, especially potatoes. Some specialist vegetarian restaurants in Prague offer meatless versions.
It’s fried cheese and one of Prague’s famous dishes.
Make your own sandwich with this commonly available mini-baguette that can be had with slices of cheese and vegetables.
It’s a fruit-filled pastry that you can grab and eat on the go.
This melt-in-your-mouth Slovakian baked dessert is a hollow cylinder of dough coated with sugar, cinnamon, nuts and sometimes, chocolate.
WHERE TO EAT:
Country Life: These organic vegetarian health food stores also serve pre-packaged sandwiches, burgers and salads. They also have a few seats for those who want eat in-store. The Melantrichova branch, close to the Old Town Square, offers a vegetarian goulash.
Lehka Hlava: The name translates to Clear Head in English and is one of Prague’s most popular vegetarian restaurants, right by the picturesque Charles Bridge. It is known for its special brunch (check their website for what’s on their ever-changing menu) and lunch packages. The menu has tapas, soups, salads, pasta and daily specials.
Maitrea: A sister concern of the Lehka Hlava, it’s closer to the Old Town Square and serves a mix of Mexican, Italian and even some Czech food.
Govinda’s: The restaurant is the Prague branch of the worldwide chain run by the International Society for Krishna Consciousness. It serves both Indian and international cuisine, including the occasional pakora and kheer, soul food for when you’re missing home.
Gopal: Strict Jains will love this Indian restaurant, in the Nerudova area. Dishes on their menu are prepared without eggs, garlic or onions and its outdoor seating is perfect for lunch on a summer afternoon.
This chain of vegan restaurants serves a mix of Vietnamese, Thai, American and other international cuisines. And many of them have English-speaking staff, so you can ensure what you order is what you get.
A slightly different version of this was published in the December 2012 – January 2013 issue of Conde Nast Traveller, India.