This article was first written for the international reporting class taught by Dinah A. Spritzer for NYU in Prague.
When young vegan Czech couple Daja Tycova and Vojta Ocelik attended a wedding in a small Czech town near the border of Poland, they found themselves in the middle of a tear-filled argument with the family of the groom, the chef, and the entire waitstaff over the couple’s refusal to eat a non-vegan dish.
“They tried to argue with us that a spread made from cream cheese was plant-based,” said Tycova, Prague native and current Charles University student. “When we said no, the waitress took my plate and pushed me away when doing that.” The waitstaff then continued to lie about the ingredients in the dishes served to trick Tycova into eating them.
After an awkward meal filled with stares, jokes at their expense, and multiple shouting matches between Tycova’s mother and the waitress, Tycova and Ocelik were served food they could finally eat. “But it didn’t really take away all that embarrassment beforehand.”
Although Prague is known for its fried cheese, pork, and beef, it has recently been named one of the world’s top-five most vegan-friendly cities, with more than 48 vegan restaurants within a 2-mile radius, as reported by Expats.cz, a popular English news site in the Czech Republic. The trend has been widely accepted by Czech millennials, but older generations have yet to be convinced that vegan food can replace the country’s long-standing food traditions.
Many Czech dishes revolve around meat, like goulash, dumplings, and schnitzel. On average, the Czech Republic consumes 72.83 kilograms of meat per capita, compared with the rest of the world, which consumes 43.22 kilograms per capita, according to Our World in Data in 2013.
Tycova’s parents raised her on meat and dairy, although they were both vegetarian for the first few years of her life for health reasons. Often times, Tycova’s mom would make healthier versions of Czech dishes by replacing meat with cooked vegetables, like “kuře na paprice,” a traditional dish made with melt-in-your-mouth, warming chicken and a smooth, mustard-colored paprika cream sauce.
Tycova decided to become vegan because of health issues, much like her parents, but eventually made the full switch after becoming educated on the impact of meat and dairy on animals and the environment. Because her parents had experience being vegetarian, it was not difficult for them to accept Tycova’s vegan lifestyle. However, they seem to be in the minority of the Czech parents.
“My dad was a bit disappointed at first, he didn’t understand it,” said Vojta Ocelik, a 24-year old vegan airline pilot who was born and raised in Prague. “But now he is okay with it, occasionally he has a vegan meal with me as well.”
Ocelik’s mother is supportive of his decision to be vegan, which he decided on for health reasons. When he visits home, he said his mother loves the challenge of cooking new vegan food and desserts for him to try.
While Ocelik’s parents have adjusted to his new diet, being vegan still brings judgement in the Czech Republic. For Irene Bartikova, a 21-year-old resident of Prague who grew up in a small Czech area, her parents were worried when she first decided to become vegan. “They accept it, but they don’t see any positives in it.”
Jan Valenta, a food tour guide at Taste of Prague, has years of experience in the Czech food world, and believes Ocelik’s experience is not unique. “Grandmas, and many people, still see meat as, in a way, somewhat superior to vegetables, like more manly,” said Valenta.
Regardless of negative stereotypes surrounding veganism, the vegan food scene in Prague has grown immensely since Tycova, the Charles University student, became vegan three years ago. “Now you can get anything veganized in Prague,” said Tycova. “Donuts, ice cream, waffles, brunch, traditional Czech food, pizza.”
The surge in vegan food in Prague aligns with trends in the United States. In 2014, 1% of American consumers were vegan; in 2017, that number grew to 6%. That’s a 600% increase in number of consumers that are vegan, according to a report by research firm GlobalData.
Unlike Tycova, not all Czechs believes a push toward more vegan food is a good thing for Prague. Goulash, a salty, savory stew made of soft pork and moist vegetables with fragrant paprika and cumin, is a long-established Czech dish that can be found in almost any restaurant in Prague. In an effort to create an authentic Czech dining experience, vegan restaurants have attempted to recreate their own versions without meat.
“I think they’re awful,” said Valenta, the food tour guide. “They’re making tofu goulash. I mean if you want a goulash, just have goulash.”
Valenta gives frequent food tours around Prague, and finds it impossible to provide vegan options to those attending their tour because they want to focus on traditional Czech food.
One issue Valenta has with vegan food in Prague is that they do not use local, seasonal vegetables that Czechs love. “We’re a nation of mushroom pickers, this is something I don’t think the vegan restaurants have embraced that much,” said Valenta. “A lot of Czechs have a lot of warm, fuzzy feelings toward mushrooms, yet you wouldn’t know it from looking at the vegan menus.”
Valenta is also critical of the quality of food in Prague’s vegan restaurants. “I don’t think there’s a vegan restaurant in Prague that could just stand on its own as a great restaurant.”
Not only does vegan food fail to win over some Czechs based on taste; its prices are almost 1.5 times as much as traditional Czech food. At the popular vegan restaurant in Prague called Maitrea, goulash is priced at 225 koruna, or $9.93, compared with another popular traditional Czech restaurant in Prague called Lokal, which has its goulash priced at 159 koruna, or $7.02.
“I don’t prefer to have zucchini with potatoes for 250 koruna,” said Bartikova. “For a person who grew up on the country, and I’m really careful about my money because my parents were poor, I really don’t see myself happy to eat it anymore.”
Being vegan has proven to be costly for Ocelik as well. “Vojta is an airline pilot and the food that they give to him during the flight is not ever vegan,” said Tycova, Vojta’s girlfriend. “He also has to pay for it. It’s deducted from his pay, even if he does not touch it.”
Most Czechs in Prague have become accustomed to the introduction of vegan foods and vegan restaurants. The next battle for vegans like Tycova and Ocelik is to deal with being vegan in smaller areas of the Czech Republic.
“When I eat out in smaller cities, I have to be very careful about specifying what vegan means, since they usually think I eat dairy products,” said Tycova, “or that fish isn’t meat.”
Caroline Weinstein is a student at New York University studying Politics and Journalism. Originally from Marietta, Georgia, she currently lives in New York City and spent the last four months studying in Prague, where she caught the travel bug and has a love for learning about different cultures. She has previously written for Washington Square News, and worked on news-gathering at NBC New York.