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FOREIGN AFFAIRS

Herbivores in Slovakia: surviving as a vegetarian

One day in early 1999, our managing editor made a vow: no more pork in her diet. Although not a strictly practising Jew, she had begun eating so much ham, bacon and pork cutlet when she came to Slovakia a few months before that her conscience had grown heavy.
That day she went to the store and bought a seemingly innocent box of crackers. She was sitting at her desk when a shriek filled the office air. "Uhg!!! This tastes like ham too." Someone grabbed the box. Emblazoned on the front was the Slovak word for ham, šunka. She had bought ham-flavoured crackers.

One day in early 1999, our managing editor made a vow: no more pork in her diet. Although not a strictly practising Jew, she had begun eating so much ham, bacon and pork cutlet when she came to Slovakia a few months before that her conscience had grown heavy.

That day she went to the store and bought a seemingly innocent box of crackers. She was sitting at her desk when a shriek filled the office air. "Uhg!!! This tastes like ham too." Someone grabbed the box. Emblazoned on the front was the Slovak word for ham, šunka. She had bought ham-flavoured crackers.

Life can be miserable for foreigners in Slovakia who don't eat meat, which dominates this country's cuisine. Subtract it from most entrees in restaurants here and all you're left with is a pile of cabbage, a couple of slices of tomato and a small spread of fried potatoes.

Even dishes intended for vegetarians can be deceiving: under closer examination many entrees listed on Slovak menus as vegetarian (vegetariánske jedlo) actually contain meat. Watch out for the bryndzové halušky so slaninou (potato dumplings with sheep cheese and bacon) and vyprážaný syr so šunkou (fried cheese with ham) that are regularly offer to veggies as meat-free.

You may want to spell it out to your waitress that you don't eat any meat (žiadne mäso). But even that is no guarantee. A friend once did this in a Žilina restaurant and was given a cream of mushroom soup containing cut up hot dogs (párky) anyway. The source of the confusion: the waitress didn't consider hot dogs as mäso, although it's frightening to think she might actually have been right.

Studying your menu or learning to communicate with the wait staff will not change the utter lack of choice that vegetarians face. In many restaurants, the best you can do is to order fried cheese (bez šunky, without ham) or bryndzové halušky (bez slaniny, without bacon), cognisant that the cheese will probably be fried in the same oil that meat has been fried in. And unfortunately, the idea of meal-sized salads hasn't caught on yet.

Bratislava has only one vegetarian restaurant, Vegetka, on Laurinská Street 8 in the Old Town district. It offers about a dozen cheap (around 50 crowns a dish) and tasty vegetarian meals. However, the food is served cafeteria style, and no matter when you go between 11:00 and 15:00 you will have to stand in line.

I've considered becoming a vegetarian since I've been living in Slovakia, but decided there is no way to do it without changing my habit of eating on the run. A kingdom of fried cheese for a taco stand or pizzeria that sells vegetarian slices.

Three tips for vegetarians in Slovakia:

1. Learn to eat in

Vegetariankind cannot live on fried cheese alone. Slovak grocery stores in major cities have most of what vegetarian cooks need, although I've yet to find iceberg or romaine lettuce, fresh artichokes, a comprehensive selection of beans or reasonably priced avocados.

2. Take supplements

Especially important if you are not following tip #1. Vegetarians need to make sure that they are getting the proper amount of vitamins, minerals and protein wherever they are, but the lack of variety in restaurants here, plus the tendency of those restaurants to fry all the nutrients out of their vegetables, makes it a must.

3. Consider eating fish

Seafood provides vegetarians with important proteins and oils they are not getting from meat. Most Slovak restaurants serve fish, albeit - you guessed it - fried.

Foreign Affairs is a bi-weekly column to help expats and foreigners navigate the spills and thrills of life in Slovakia.
The next Foreign Affairs column will appear on stands October 8, Vol. 7, No. 38.

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