This is not going to be an objective blog post you probably hoped for. It’s going to be bias and emotional. The Czech Republic is a country where I grew up and where I first started eating like a vegetarian. This is where I first experienced hardships of not eating meat and had my first conversations on “Carrot feels the pain too.”
Just to put this straight, I am not the purest of a vegetarian as I don't object to fish sauce in my meals and I occasionally do eat fish. At such circumstances, I try to ensure that such fish was caught sustainably. It's pretty easy because I eat fish very rarely.
The situation for vegetarians has improved dramatically over the past few years. These days, vegetarian, vegan and raw restaurants open up every year, there are more and more food bloggers focusing on vegetarian food who write in Czech and people generally don't bully you when they realise you are not a meat eater. Well, most of the time.
If you stay in the Czech Republic for a while, you will eventually find the best vegetarian places and meals by yourself. However, if you come just for a couple of days, you might have a hard time finding a decent meal.
The problem is not even a lack of vegetarian options on the menu of traditional Czech restaurants and pubs. There is usually at least one meat-free meal or you can order several side dishes. The problem is that nutritional value of these meals equals zero. Czech vegetarian meals are either fried (or at least very oily) or it is basically a dessert served as a main. Very rarely you find a well-balanced meal with enough fresh veg, suitable proteins and good carbs.
Especially if you are coming to the Czech Republic with a bunch of friends, you will find yourself in a typical Czech restaurant at least once. It’s time to acquaint yourself with your new Czech friends.
Click through the links in each word to listen to the Czech pronunciation. Some words weren't in Forvo's database so I just linked to the pronunciation of the most similar word.
STEP 1: Identify your true Czech friends
What you can eat in restaurants
Smažený sýr or smažák, it can’t get more Czech than this. A chunk of eidam cheese, breaded and deep-fried, usually served with chips or boiled potatoes and tartar sauce. It’s as delicious as it’s unhealthy.
Nakládaný hermelín, another part of weird Czech cheese family. A round of hermelin, brie-like cheese, is marinated in spice, oil and onions for a couple of days until it’s all nice and tender. You will mainly find it in pubs as a snack to eat with beer. They sometimes serve it with cranberry sauce and walnuts too.
Bramborák is a Czech take on hashbrowns. This version is greasier, full of garlic and marjoram. Even if they don't mention meat in the menu, always double-check if they are actually vegetarian. Some restaurants “improve” them with bacon or ham.
Smažený květák or smažené žampiony. Together with deep-fried cheese, the deep-fried cauliflower and deep-fried mushrooms sometimes make for the only meat-free meals on the menu. And you thought the Scots were crazy about deep-frying, right?
Nudle s mákem literally means “noodles with poppy seeds”. Wide pasta-dough noodles are sprinkled with ground poppy seeds, sugar and poured over with melted butter.
Palačinky are Czech pancakes. Palačinky are slightly thicker than French crêpes but larger and thinner than American pancakes. They are usually served with fruit, cream or ice-cream, sprinkled with sugar or topped with chocolate paste.
Česnečka, bramboračka or zelňačka are the most common Czech soups. Česnečka, or česneková polévka, is made of veg and heaps of garlic, bramboračka or bramborová polévka from potatoes and zelňačka from sauerkraut. Again, double-check with waiter to make sure there isn't any cheeky wee sausage hidden in your soup.
Guys, I must say, at any given moment I prefer veggie pasta or nice fresh stir-fry to these Czech vegetarian dishes. But as unhealthy as they are, they are really worth trying!
What you can buy from a shop
Obviously, the choice of vegetarian ingredients in shops is different from your country’s one too. Nowadays, you generally buy the same sort of stuff as anywhere else in Europe. Some of it is more common than elsewhere, some of it is more expensive than elsewhere. These are some the most common vegetarian products sold in Czech shops.
While in the Czech Republic, you should try local sauerkraut. It is pickled white cabbage with caraway and onion. It’s super healthy and perfect as a side to oil-heavy meals such as bramboráky (Czech hashbrowns, you remember?).
Unfortunately, it is almost always packed in plastic bags. The alternative is sauerkraut in jars which is, however, not fermented in the same way and might contain sugar and preservatives. If you aren't used to sauerkraut though, you might like this better because it's not as sour.
As much as Czechs love sauces, they love spreads. It is usually a mix of the staple ingredient and mayo. E.g. garlic spread, cheese spread, fish spread etc. You get them in deli sections in supermarkets and even though they aren’t anywhere near healthy, a lot of them are vegetarian at least.
Czechs also love their beetroot. Actually, they loved it long before hipster foodies started putting it into everything in their cafes. You can buy raw beetroot in every shop or try the pickled version in jar. It’s far nicer than the sour British stuff!
If you’ve never had it before, try kedlubna, kohlrabi. It’s sweet, crunchy and super cheap in summer.
Recently, it also became really easy to buy tofu or even tempeh although you can only buy it in tiny plastic packaging. In "zdravá výživa" shops (read more about them below) you can also get any fake-meats such as wheat gluten "seitan", "robi maso" or "sojové maso", dried mixture which resembles quorn after cooking.
Soy and almond milk are also quite widespread but as everywhere else, they are on the expensive side.
You might also get slightly disappointed about greens. Baby spinach and rocket are sold everywhere now, occasionally with romaine or iceberg lettuce. But ask for kale and you will get curly cabbage instead thanks to a botanical-linguistic difficulty where “kale” translates into Czech as “kapusta”. But what Czechs know as “kapusta” is curly cabbage. Classic dark-green leaf kale is still hard to get here. (Yup. Imagine 21-year-old Andrea coming back home from Scotland and telling mum all about this super-healthy exciting kale she had never seen before!)
All different kinds of nuts are easy to get but rather expensive.
And hallelujah, you can buy hummus now just like in other countries. Not as usual as elsewhere but I do see it more and more often. (Shame it only appeared at the time when I realised how terrible those little plastic tubs are!)
What is still surprisingly complicated to get is peanut butter. You find it fairly easily in every bigger shop but the quality is not great, choice limited, packaging almost always plastic and it always contains palm oil.
STEP 2: Know where to go
Best restaurants for vegetarians
I said you can find the meals above in "Czech restaurants". What are they? They usually don't care much about their interior and are slightly smoky. Their vegetarian menu consists of deep-fried meals but they have (in general) the best draft beer. In Prague and other touristy places they use slogans such as tradiční česká kuchyně, "traditional Czech cuisine". Fortunately, there are many other restaurants, bistros and eateries too. Hint: they are much more vegetarian-friendly than the Czech ones.
I can’t really explain this but Czechs LOVE Vietnamese food. You find Vietnamese restaurants everywhere and they usually offer a good selection of fresh vegetarian meals. In most places they can also prepare phở with tofu instead of chicken or beef although I can’t guarantee the broth is vegetarian too. My favourites are Vietnamese summer rolls (non-fried thick spring rolls with rice noodles, veg and strips of fried egg inside) from Wok&Sushi (Masarykovo nábřeží 2, Prague). When ordering, ask them for no-pork, no-shrimp version.
Pizzeria, a “pizza restaurant” is a general term for Italian. Although they cater for both camps, the choice of vegetarian meals is above average. Usually, there are at least three vegetarian pizzas and several vegetarian pasta dishes. From time to time, they also offer salads. Pizzerias are more versatile than anywhere else so if you want a pizza which originally contains meat, just try to ask for a vegetarian version. My favourite is Pizzeria U Kmotra (V Jirchářích 12, Prague). Their crispy base...ah!
Farmers market Náplavka - you think I’m going to make you eat raw carrot, right? Veg stalls really used to be all you could get here when the market started out years ago. These days, there are only a few together with dairy product stalls and a few bakeries. The rest turned into Prague's gastronomic centre. You get French raclette, Italian gelato, fair-trade coffee, vegan burgers, raw cakes, freshly pressed carrot or beetroot juice, cold-pressed oils, wild-plant pestos or traditional Czech cakes.
Farmers market is where they follow seasonal trends the most so make sure to try wild garlic in spring, hokkaido pumpkin in late summer and burčák in autumn. (It is partially fermented grape juice, one of the early stages of making wine. It is from grapes but it tastes like alcoholic apple juice. You will love it but be careful. It's stronger than you think!)
The best-known market is at Náplavka (Rašínovo nábřeží, between Palackého most and Železniční most, go down to the river). It is open every Saturday from 8am to 2pm. To enjoy the market before crowds arrive, be here before 9am. Check this website for more information.
This last one is rather a warning. You know it. It’s half two in the morning, you’re coming back from a club, starving, and then you stumble upon McDonald’s (or KFC or any other fast-food chain). Well, don't put your hopes up too high. Except Subway, Czech divisions of these chains still don't make any vegetarian alternatives. Unless you are fine with French fries and over-priced salad.
Vegetarian restaurants are getting more popular not just with die-heart vegetarians but also with classic omnivores. Many of them are also vegan-friendly or raw-friendly. Obviously, the highest density of vegetarian restaurants is in Prague, Brno and other bigger cities. To look up vegetarian restaurants near you, check HappyCow and Soucitně databases.
Soucitně doesn't have an English version. Choose "Restaurace" in the main menu, then go to "Česko". You should be able to see a map of the Czech Republic with vegetarian and vegan restaurants.
Some of my favourite restaurants are for example Indian buffet Dhaba Beas (Vladislavova 1587/24, Prague), vegan Thai Box Food (Senovážné náměstí 6, Prague) or vegan&raw Plevel (Jindřišská 5, Prague). Keep an eye on The Great Unknown Facebook for a post on Prague's vegetarian restaurants!
Where to do your shopping
If you are a slow-traveller or even live in the Czech Republic permanently, you will probably get to the point when you just want to cook for yourself. Here, I enlist some of the most useful shops to buy your veggie ingredients.
Just like with vegetarian restaurants, it’s easier than ever before to buy vegetarian/vegan/gluten-free ingredients. Shops you should look for are for example Country Life (they sell their own brand of healthy food and run a stylish vegetarian restaurant in Prague), Brána ke zdraví (grains, nuts, oils, snacks, seaweed, you name it), Sklizeno (basically a usual corner shop with deli and wide selection of vegetarian foods, all in excellent quality). There are many more shops like these all over the country. Usually, they are called zdravá výživa, “healthy nutrition”.
If you want to go that extra mile (both physically and metaphorically), give Bezobalu a try. It is a first zero-waste shop in Prague where you can buy flours, grains, nuts, spices or even chocolate into your own boxes or bags. Their staff is extremely nice and you can ask general questions about zero-waste lifestyle. Don't forget to take jars or bags with you.
Vietnamese and Middle Eastern shops
If you enjoy cooking Asian or Middle Eastern meals, there is a good chance to buy stuff like curry paste, thin rice noodles, halva snacks or fish sauce (you are welcome, my pescatarian friend) you don't always get in other shops. Vietnamese shops are everywhere and in Prague, they are called mini market, it's usual corner shop with a section of Vietnamese ingredients. A good Middle-Eastern shop is for example Farah Food (Myslikova 5, Prague).
Great selection of seasonal vegetables, herbs, organic cheese, milk or eggs. There are several markets around Prague, the best-known ones being Náplavka and Jiřák (náměstí Jiřího z Poděbrad). For more farmers markets look at Czech Farmers Market Association. When in Brno, go and have a look at Zelný trh. This market has been around for hundreds of years and sells mainly vegetables and fruit. It's open every day except Sunday from March to November. However, to my knowledge, this market is not considered a farmers market and the regional origin of the produce is not necessary (just like in the picture below - "Řecko" means Greece). There are many local farmers selling their stock as well though.
In the best case scenario, you will do your veg shopping at farmers markets and the rest in package-free shops. However, it sometimes doesn't work out and you end up in the closest store wandering through aisles.
There are either massive stores you see in suburbs or smaller “express” versions inside of the city. Generally, Lídl and Kaufland are the cheap ones, Tesco and Albert somewhere between, Billa is supposed to be the one with high-quality stuff.
It always depends on how big the particular shop is when it comes to vegetarian goodies they offer. I love the choice of organic grains, nuts, pulses and snacks they sell in Albert. Also, when I can’t be bothered making my own, we buy the vegetarian spreads they have here. They sell them in cute little jars and they are delicious!
If I need something more specific such as wasabi or curry paste and a supermarket is my only option, I go for Tesco. They also finally introduced their Tesco Finest products in the Czech Republic.
STEP 3: Know What To Say
What czech is about
You will notice soon that Czechs still struggle with English. Prague, especially in the centre, and young people aren't too bad but as soon as you leave for less touristy places and speak to older people…they won’t understand a word. Good news is that the slightest effort to speak Czech is usually very appreciated and can open you many doors.
Czech is a Slavic language. It is pretty confusing at first and I totally get it. Each noun has up to 7 different forms you use in different context. So for example pes, "a dog", can also be psa, psu, pse, psem. It still means "a dog" but the form depends on kind of sentence you use it in.
What’s the takeway here? You need to decline nouns, adjectives, pronouns and even numbers. It happens in common conversation but also in written form, including menus. So even though there is vepřového or vepřovým on the menu, it is still the same word vepřové, "beef".
As for menus, again, these will be very likely translated into English in Prague but not in smaller non-touristy places. Here is a quick overview of some words and phrases which can come handy. For pronunciation, look up Forvo.com.
nudle s mákem
bramboračka, bramborová polévka
česnečka, česneková polévka
bio, bio potraviny
Já nejím maso.
Jsem vegetarián. Jsem vegetariánka.
Máte něco bez masa?
Nejím žádné živočišné produkty.
Můžete mi doporučit něco bez masa?
Je v tom maso?
Nejím maso, vajíčka, máslo, mléko ani sýr.
section in the menu, vegetarian meals
steamed buns with fruit filling, "fruit dumplings"
sweet pasta dish with ground poppy seeds
hermelin cheese pickles
organic, organic food
I don't eat meat.
I am a vegetarian. (m) I am a vegetarian. (f)
Do you have something vegetarian?
I don't eat any animal products.
Can you recommend something vegetarian?
Is there meat in it?
I don't eat meat, eggs, butter, milk, cheese.
Hey guys, you still there? That’s it! Now it’s up to you to go out there and get some summer rolls or cheese pickles if you dare! I hope you found this post useful. Comment, share, like if you did!
Have you visited the Czech Republic as a vegetarian or vegan? Did you find it difficult? What was your survival strategy?