This story is part of an occasional series of articles from the Prague Wanderer, a webzine created by New York University students in Prague. Learn more about the Prague Wanderer here.
In a meat-lover’s paradise, Lenka Pozarová quit her stable job as a tax adviser to write a cookbook — using vegetables as her main ingredient.
Like many central Europeans, Czechs have made bread, pork, and potatoes the stars of their meals for centuries. Statistics show that about 85% of Czechs favor typical Czech dishes such as pork, bread dumplings, sirloin in cream sauce, and goulash, according to the Czech Presidency European Union 2009 website.
Since the fall of communism 20 years ago, however, there seems to be a trend in urban areas towards a lighter diet containing more vegetables and fruits. While Lenka Pozarová is an example of this trend, she is still an iconoclast.
“When people see what they can do with vegetables they can start to eat them. I just had to find a way for them to see that,” said Pozarova, while pouring her steaming green tea into a white luster mug. “I think vegetables were always tasty for me, and I suffered when I saw that some people believe they are un-eatable.”
In 2004, Pozarová left her nine-year job because she was not satisfied. After about a year, she started writing a cookbook and called it “Což takhle dát si…” (“How about…”), featuring recipes such as baked bell peppers stuffed with tvaroh (a mix between ricotta and cottage cheese), sheep cheese, spinach, and cranberries.
Since then, she has published 14 cookbooks and sold the series in the Czech Republic. She uses a vegetable, fruit, or “liquid pleasure” as her main recipe ingredient. Each book contains 50 recipes and is bound by a bright, simple cover with a photograph of the key ingredient such as a carrot, a banana, or a glass of milk.
“She’s great,” said Maria Dzurnakova, a Czech staff member of New York University in Prague. “She always has a little story about the recipe and suggestions. It is written in a friendly way and the pictures are very precisely taken.”
Dzurnakova noted that she and her friends use the recipes all the time.
Pozarova’s local popularity turned international in April 2008.
Her cookbooks, with help of translators, won the award for the “Best Cookbook Series in the World” at the international Gourmand Awards in London. She beat out 40 other cookbooks from 26 countries.
“The project is great,” said Pavel Maurer, founder of the Prague Food Festival and the author of the Grand Restaurant Guide. “Maybe it will start catching on next generation,” he added, in recognition that vegetable based cooking is still viewed with suspicion by the majority of Czechs.
Pozarova claims that all vegetable-based cookbooks are either for diets or are ugly and she wanted to change that misconception. Her work proved that it can do just that when her meat-loving husband marveled at her creations.
“She managed to prepare things I wouldn’t previously have touched with a three foot pole, like pumpkin, in a way that suddenly turned them into delicacies for me,” said Michal Pozar, who normally shows signs of “true addiction” to duck with red cabbage. Her eggplant recipe has become one of her husband’s favorite dishes.
Pozarova, who is originally from Brno, the Czech Republic’s second-largest city located about 135 miles from Prague, had her share of meaty favorites as a child, like her mother’s goulash with beer sauce.
She only started using more vegetables and eating lighter when she had her own house with her husband and began encountering different cultures.
“Perhaps during my traveling I realized that the taste is very important and that in other countries they can cook much better with vegetables,” said Pozarová. She recalled that even going to neighboring cities like Vienna, where the food culture had evolved over the past few decades to include more healthy options, influenced her cooking.
“What affects the general public’s diet is tradition. At public canteens or average households you can see dishes similar to those of 50 or 100 years ago,” said Monika Divisova, nutritionist from Wellnessia, a weight management and nutrition center in Prague. Public canteens, meaning workers’ cafeterias, are known for their fat-filled, meaty food.
This is one reason that Czechs, particularly men, regularly come second or third on the list of the fattest European Union members, according to various obesity watchdogs.
Meat has long been a key staple of Czech cuisine.
A study conducted by Radio Prague in 2007 shows that the Czech Republic consumes around 80 kilograms of meat (including white meat) per capita— double the world average of about 42 kilograms per capita. However, there has been a decline in the Czech Republic’s beef consumption over the last two decades, and a twofold increase in consumption of poultry.
“Over the past 15 years we have experienced a significant decrease in meat consumption in total— we are talking about some 17 percent,” Jan Katina, executive director of the Czech Union of Meat Processing Plants, told Radio Prague in 2005.
Since the so-called Velvet Revolution in 1989, Czech cuisine has changed for what some think is better. Under the Communist regime, a variety of fresh vegetables was not a common commodity, and meat was preferred as it was very cheap. Pozarova herself did not know what broccoli was in her childhood.
She recounted a certain time when her mother came running up the stairs in their apartment building, screaming in excitement for her to come down so she could go buy oranges being sold on the street corner. The crowds were already multiplying in front of the booth.
But, communism did not just limit the types of ingredients available to the public; it also closed the Czech Republic off from international cuisines.
There were only three international restaurants in Prague during the regime— Indian, Chinese, and Russian— Maurer said in a 2007 interview with Radio Prague.
Now one can sample more than 40 types of international cuisine from all over the world in Prague’s sophisticated restaurants.
“Communism did not have an effect on cuisine, it destroyed it,” said Maurer. “It just simplified cuisine to five to seven types of food not made in a very nice way.”
He explained that if people were unaware, they could not compare foods.
Maurer, Pozarová, and Pozar also all said that some people have a negative stigma with vegetables because of their grade schools’ cafeteria food. The vegetables they were served were inferior and cooked to a flavorless pulp, so Czechs came to associate vegetables with the lowest common denominator of cuisine.
Pozarova vividly recollected an instance when she and her classmates were given spinach, or rather a serving of flour with some spinach, and the next day they had the leftover spinach in a soup.
“When we didn’t like it, we couldn’t just throw it away. We had to sit there and they made us eat it. I was always sitting with something here,” said Pozarova, pointing to a self-inflated air pocket on her pale, left cheek. “When the teachers weren’t looking, we would just spit it on the ground,” she added, and demonstrated by pursing her lips together and dryly spitting.
Now Pozarová chops up fresh spinach and mixes it with feta cheese, spring onion, yoghurt, salt, and pepper, stuffing the mix between two salty crackers— a stark change from a murky soup.
When the communist regime was ousted, the Czech Republic’s taste buds were introduced to new flavors. After the revolution, the price of meat drastically rose and people were slowly introduced to more fruits and vegetables.
While the Communist and post-Communist palates differ partly due to an increase in Western influences, there is another difference of tastes— the rural villages and urban areas.
Maurer notes that big cities eat lighter, but in villages, “they are not prepared to pay the same price for cheese like meat,” said Maurer. Meat makes them feel like they have had a complete meal, and paying the same price for vegetables does not make sense to them.”
The quality of vegetables and price do not match up. There has been an influx of Vietnamese vegetable stores selling better quality vegetables, but the prices are still high relative to quality in comparison with the United States and Western Europe.
In the Czech Republic, Pozarová is aware that her books are an acquired taste.
She declined to provide sales figures, but said sales were rising annually.
“This is not for everybody. It is for modern people and people that like to experiment, people that like to play in the kitchen.”
More Czechs, it seems, are playing, but it might be some years before most Czech men think of a salad as anything more than a meal suitable for rabbits.
Deena Sami is a second-year student at New York University studying journalism and Middle Eastern and Islamic studies. She is from Orange, California.