Veggin’ Out With a Side of ‘Lovin’

Vegan Chain Fuels Expansion in City’s Meat-Free Dining Scene

By Lumielle Choi

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Thai curry is a popular option among Loving Hut customers. Photo by Marilyn La Jeunesse.

It appears to be a normal local restaurant, slightly on the run down side, with Czech-only menus posted in the window. I sit down and ask the waiter to order the most popular dish.

Having constantly heard that Loving Hut is the holy grail of vegan, I decided to have a seat at the Prague 5 location and experience it for myself.

Though the interior was spacious and airy, there was not much in the way of decor. The focus was on the steam table where the food is displayed. The waiter came out with the appetizer quickly after my order. Where a typical plate of sausage and pork should be, there was a mini garden all neatly wrapped in a rice paper sheet. When the pho came out, I warily took the first sip of broth, expecting a blander taste since pho broth is usually made up of meat broth. The fullness of the flavor was revolutionary.

Originally founded in Vietnam by an entrepreneur and spiritual leader, Ching Hai, Loving Huts chains can now be found globally, including nine in the Czech Republic. The 2007 opening of the first Loving Hut in the land of pork and more pork is a welcoming sign to vegetarians; there is a fast-growing restaurant segment for those who want a meat-free diet.

“I always thought about being vegetarian but it’s very difficult in Prague.”

Still, a mere 1.5 percent of Czechs embrace a vegetarian lifestyle, according to a STEM agency poll from 2003. “Czech cuisine tends to be heavy on the protein and starches, with very few or no vegetables,” said Keely Fraser, registered dietician and founder of Nutrition Expert, a nutritional therapy practice based in Prague. In an email she explained, “Vegetables seem to be more of an afterthought, like a side dish you order separately.”

About a decade ago, you would be hard-pressed to have found even a handful of meat-free dining outlets in Prague. However, in the past few years, development of vegan and vegetarian culture has begun to take root in the Czech capital.

“I always thought about being vegetarian but it’s very difficult in Prague,” said college student, Petra Dvorakova, 24. “But with new restaurants coming up everywhere now, it was much easier to declare my diet as vegetarian.”

There are now 131 listings of restaurants and health food stores in Prague, according to HappyCow, an online guide designed to find the nearest vegan or vegetarian restaurant in the vicinity.

Loving Hut, which now has nine locations in Prague, offers many noodle-based dishes, along with fried and steamed vegetables, soy steaks, and curries. One of the most popular dishes, Thai Curry, which comes served with creamy coconut soy milk, tofu and assortment of vegetables, costs roughly 125 koruna (6 USD) a pleasant surprise to New Yorkers who are accustomed to paying almost double the price for the same meal. From Monday through Friday, Loving Hut offers a special lunch menu and food is served buffet style and paid for according to weight.

Loving Hut’s cheap, plant-based dishes with a traditional Asian touch make it a popular go-to among young adults who want a quick meal. With the quick and efficient take out option, it gives off a fast food joint vibe – almost like a McDonalds or a KFC, without the artificiality and tofu and falafel in the place of meat patties.

Other veggie options:

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A vegetable buffet is one of many vegan entree options available at Country Life. Photo by Marilyn La Jeunesse

Country Life, conveniently located just a few blocks from Old Town Square, offers the best of all worlds, from the perspective of variety, location and quality. “Our chefs are very personal when it comes to their food,” said cashier Lucie Klennerova.

Everything in this pay-by-weight restaurant is vegan. I headed straight towards the display of cakes and treats and ordered a Kokoska, a traditional Czech dessert, for 25 koruna, and the multi-layered goodness was so delicious that I immediately ordered another. The biscuit incorporated with a light mousse cream, with a tart fruit center and shaved coconuts rivaled some of the top pastries I’ve tried in New York City.

“I’m not a vegetarian but I like that it offers healthier options,” said New York University, Prague student Erin Wong. “I like that you can get it quickly so I can grab food between classes.”

Dhaba Beas, on Belehradska in Prague 2, has the same buffet style on offer as Country Life, but offers Indian cuisine. I was skeptical of Dhaba Beas; I didn’t want to taint my utopian experience with a pseudo veggie Indian meal gone wrong.

I warily approached the steam table and was met with a familiar assortment of almost all the traditional Indian dishes, including tikka masala, without the chicken of course; instead, it was replaced with tender chunks of tofu and a colorful variation of vegetables.

I piled my plate with as much food as the flimsy plastic plate could withstand, ran my way towards the cash register, put my plate on the scale, and my entire meal, including a fresh fruit juice, at 19,90 korunas per 100 grams (or 3.4 ounces), came out to a grand total of 169 korunas.

The taste rekindled memories of the first glorious time I went to an authentic Indian restaurant called Devi right outside of Manhattan’s Union Square. Only this experience was incalculably heightened by the fact that every ingredient in my meal was free of any artificial flavors or additives and no living creature was touched to achieve the dish.

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The log cabin interior of Country Life offers patrons a peaceful escape from the bustling Prague streets. Photo by Marilyn La Jeunesse

While dining at Dhaba Beas, Akash Goyal, a student of Indian heritage who attends New York University, Prague, discussed his appreciation and fondness for this culture preservation. “I didn’t expect much at all,” he said. “But now that I’ve had a taste, I know I can come here whenever I start to miss the foods that my mom used to cook for me.”

Thoroughly impressed and satisfied with the meal, I asked a good friend and self-declared vegan tour guide, Nicole Song, a fellow New York University veteran when it comes to finding vegan delicacies, to take me somewhere we could get dessert.

She took me to the outskirts of Old Town to a large quiet shopping department in Havlickova and into an ice cream shop called Hajek & Bousova. I ordered a strawberry and banana cone for 20 korunas and looked around.

Although they don’t carry soy ice cream, their gelatos made from fresh fruit, with exotic flavors such as papaya, pineapple and Bosc pear, make it clear why the small, hole in the wall store is always crowded with satisfied customers, vegans and carnivores alike.

Prague is perhaps, finally shedding its image among tourists of a meat-only lifestyle and is beckoning foreigners with its culinary expansion.

“The demand for vegan cuisine may reflect emerging food trends and speak to the city’s growing cultural diversity.”

“Before I applied to study abroad, I researched cities in Europe that were more vegan friendly,” said Elena Lutfy, a vegan student at New York University in Prague. “Prague showed up consistently as one of those places.”

Some posit that the growth of vegan and vegetarian restaurants are bolstering the progressive reputation of the country, from cultural and ethnic homogeneity to a greater tolerance.

“The demand for vegan cuisine may reflect emerging food trends and speak to the city’s growing cultural diversity,” said Fraser, the Prague-based nutritionist.

Anthony Bourdain, renown American chef and author, once called Prague the “land that vegetables forgot.” But steadily, one meat and dairy free restaurant at a time, the phrase jsem vegetarianka (I am a vegetarian) is no longer met with skepticism and wariness, but a smile of confidence, open menus and mouth-watering dishes.

Lumielle Choi is in the NYU College of Arts and Science Class of 2016. Her hometown is Long Island, New York.

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Categories: Fall 2014 Issue Number 1, Food

Author:The Prague Wandering

The Prague Wandering is an NYU based study abroad webzine- the only one of its kind. It focuses on issues in contemporary Czech culture and the city of Prague, exploring beyond the study abroad bubble.

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