A Guide to Surviving the Swiss Alpine Region as a Vegetarian

A Guide to Surviving the Swiss Alpine Region as a Vegetarian

Trip Alfresco

Switzerland’s mountainous landscape has been a favourite destination for Indian tourists ever since the release of Raj Kapoor’s first color film Sangam (1964). Countless song-and-dance sequences in Hindi cinema have since been filmed against a backdrop of snow-capped Alpine peaks, sloping green meadows, and picturesque suspension bridges, lending Indian viewers a taste of otherworldly beauty in an exotic locale. Accordingly, Indian tourists have followed the trail of film locations in Geneva, Interlaken and a host of other places. Indeed, guided “Bollywood tours” have also sprung into existence in recent times. Although some films are now being shot in cheaper locations than Switzerland, such as in the Eastern European countries or in New Zealand, Indian tourists continue to flock to Switzerland. Although some tourists are drawn to adventure sports such as cross-country skiing, the majority simply prefers to enjoy viewing the picture-postcard natural scenery with the help of guided bus tours.[1] 

However, a trip to Switzerland often proves to be less of a fairy tale for Indian tourists when it comes to food and cuisine, particularly for vegetarians with specific dietary requirements. Swiss cuisine, be it in the German, French, or Italian-speaking regions, certainly features dishes that vegetarians/ vegans (i.e. vegane lebensmittel) can enjoy. In fact a recent study completed by the Eco Experts named Switzerland the “Vegetarian Hotbed of Europe” with over 165 vegetarian restaurants per 100,000 people. [2]  These dishes include fondue and raclette, which may include well-known varieties of cheese such as Emmentaler and Gruyère, as well as potato-based dishes such as Rösti. Yet, these may not be the dishes of choice for some vegetarian tourists, such as communities of Gujarati Jains who may not partake of onion, garlic and ginger. Such tourists are often left with no option but to pack up satchels of khakra and other dry foods for their trips, making for an added responsibility for mothers, aunts and grandmothers. Surely, if a holiday is meant to be an escape from the routine of everyday life, tourists deserve better if they wish to relax and perhaps even connect with the places they happen to visit.

At Trip Alfresco, we have given some thought to the issue of access to vegetarian food in Switzerland for tourists with specific dietary requirements. We have consulted people who have visited and experienced the sites and surroundings of the Alpine peaks constituting the Jungfraujoch, the neighboring towns of Grindelwald and Interlaken, as well as the cities Lausanne, Basel, Lucerne, Berne and Zurich.[3] One can safely generalize that in the cities of Zurich, Geneva, and Berne, restaurants will certainly offer some vegetarian options, but in towns and villages one may well have to cook vegetarian food for oneself.[4] Having considered personal recommendations by friends and acquaintances, as well as tips from social media resources, we would like to present a series of suggestions that may be of use to tourists looking for vegetarian food with specific dietary requirements. We have grouped our suggestions into a few categories for convenience, and we have only tried to indicate a few possible options. Our Team at Trip Alfresco is more than happy to provide a list of detailed recommendations based on your customized tour itinerary.[5]

The most obvious option for tourists in search of vegetarian fare would be to drop into an Indian restaurant. This shouldn’t be too difficult, given that the enterprising and hardy race of the Punjabis has ensured that a North Indian restaurant named “Namaste India” or “Curry Palace” can be found at most tourist destinations around the world, and might even be found at the North Pole one day. In Switzerland, the town of Interlaken itself, according to our sources, has about 10 Indian restaurants to offer, among which the “Taj Mahal” will not disappoint you. Also worthy of mention, in Zurich for instance, are the centrally-located ISKCON Centre and the fashionably ayurvedic restaurant “Mohini.”

A less pricey–if also less exciting–option than an Indian restaurant would, of course, would be buying Indian ready-to-eat food items or groceries and cooking for oneself, especially if one is staying at a vacation home through one’s visit. Common Indian food items such as Basmati rice, naan, readymade curry sauces and spices can be found at  supermarket chains such as “Coop,” “Migros,” “Aldi” and “Lidl,” as well as departmental store chains, such as “Manor” and “Globus.” Large cities such as Geneva and Berne do have specific Indian stores. Other places might have Asian stores which cater mainly to East and South-East Asian customers, but they are also likely to stock standard spices used in Indian cooking such as garam masala, cloves, cinnamon, turmeric, cumin and so on.

Then again, some tourists may be willing to try out the readymade salads with dressing at supermarkets and departmental stores. Some supermarkets and departmental stores also have a restaurant section with salad bars. The “Migros” menu for each week, for instance, can be viewed online regularly, and features dishes close to Indian culinary tastes, such as South-East Asian Bami Goreng and Thai vegetable curry.[6]

Or else, one can hop into the many eco-friendly vegetarian and vegan restaurants that have become a recent trend across Europe. Taking this option, of course, also might mean shelling out a bit more from one’s pocket than one might expect to pay in a “normal” non-vegetarian restaurant. For fans of eco-friendly restaurants, the family-owned “Haus Hiltl” in Zurich’s central banking district would be an essential stop. In fact, this restaurant features a fascinating historical connection with India that may well intrigue the curious.

Haus Hiltl is credited in the Guinness Book of World Records as the world’s oldest continually-running vegetarian restaurant. The beginnings of this restaurant can be traced to the efforts of the German immigrant Ambrosius Hiltl in the early years of the 20th century. Being afflicted with rheumatism, Ambrosius Hiltl switched to a vegetarian diet around the same time that vegetarianism was popularised by Dr. Maximilian Bircher-Benner, inventor of the original “Bircher Muesli” commonly stocked at Indian supermarket chains today. In an era when vegetarians were mocked as “eaters of grass,” Ambrosius Hiltl used to have his meals at a humble vegetarian establishment called the “Vegetarierheim”. Ambrosius Hiltl took over the management of the “Vegetarierheim” from 1904 onwards.  Thanks to Hiltl’s felicitous marriage with Martha Gneupel, the restaurant’s cook, the Hiltl couple eventually pioneered the redesigning of the “Vegetarierheim” as the “Haus Hiltl.”

In 1951, the restaurant’s vegetarian offerings took an Indian turn when Margrith Hiltl, from the family’s second generation, travelled to India and collected various recipes. In India Margrith Hiltl also got to know Morarji Desai, who would eventually become Prime Minister and would dine at Haus Hiltl one day. In the early years of struggle as a vegetarian restaurant, the Hiltl family had to battle for access to everyday Indian spices such as turmeric, cumin and cardamom, and had to trust to visits from Indian friends for supplies of such items. Indian recipes were kept as a trade secret. Since then, Haus Hiltl has come a long way in offering over 200 dishes on the buffet menu, a sizeable number of which are of Indian origin.[7]

In recent years, Haus Hiltl has shared its knowledge and experience with the vegetarian restaurant chain “Tibits.” The name “Tibits,” as one might guess, derives from the English word “tidbits.” The chain has branches in Zurich, Berne, Lausanne, Basel as well as London. Tibits’s “pineapple curry” is worth a try for tourists inclined towards Indian cuisine. However it makes sense, if one wants to try out a particular dish of theirs, to call in advance and ask if the restaurant uses ingredients that may not be suitable to one’s dietary requirements.[8] We hope that this overview helps. Please feel free to contact us at Trip Alfresco with further questions about your travels. Our part-Indian, part-international team has been living and working in India (headquarters in Bangalore with representatives across India), and Zurich in Switzerland, Vienna in Austria, and Frankfurt in Germany. In view of our familiarity with the food cultures in these parts of the world, we would be more than happy to help out with further information and guidance.

[1] See https://houseofswitzerland.org/swissstories/history/bollywoods-long-standing-love-affair-switzerland, accessed 19 July, 2019.

[2] See https://www.theecoexperts.co.uk/blog/best-country-to-be-vegetarian-europe, accessed 04 February, 2020.

[3] For this I am especially grateful to people who responded to my queries on Facebook groups catering to Indian communities in Germany.

[4] I would like to thank my friend Shashikant Warerkar from Frankfurt for having volunteered this information.

[5] We found a helpful list of venues at

https://www.tripadvisor.co.za/Travel-g188045-c211126/Switzerland:Vegetarian.And.Indian.Cuisine.html, accessed 11th July, 2019.

[6] https://www.migros.ch/dam/jcr:43909d37-68fd-4be0-bb6b-496447609b4b/Menüplan%20vom%2015.7.2019%20-%2020.7.2019.pdf, accessed on 19 July 2019.

[7] https://hiltl.ch/wp-content/uploads/2018/12/Hiltl_Saga_english_2018.pdf, accessed on 18 July 2019;

https://www.dnaindia.com/lifestyle/report-swiss-bankers-with-a-yen-for-tadka-1721152, accessed on 18 July 2019; https://www.ndtv.com/world-news/the-world-s-oldest-vegetarian-restaurant-and-it-s-indian-links-1725464, accessed on 18 July 2019.

[8] https://www.tibits.ch/de/essen/menuekarte, accessed 18 July 2019.