If you are in Prague, surely you must try out Czech food! I know, it can be a trial-and-huge-error thing but it can yield surprisingly good results. The quality of Czech restaurants is gradually improving and there are many to visit where you can enjoy a good Czech meal.
But what is a typical Czech meal anyway?
Czech cuisine is not only beer – though one Czech comedian used a catchphrase that “hunger is only thirst in disguise.” There are also several unique traits regarding the food itself.
Dumpling to rule them all… and to table bind them
In general, Czech cuisine originates from the dietary customs of the countryside and uses mostly ingredients which were available to farmers. It is a bit flour-heavy – a symbol of Czech cuisine might as well be the dumpling (knedlík). Dumplings can be served as a side dish with a piece of meat and creamy sauce or cabbage or goulash. Yeast dumplings are sweet and served as a main dish. In Czech restaurants, yeast dumplings are commonly filled with plums, strawberries, or apricots.
Talking about side dishes, potatoes are also very common in our recipes. The Czechs know many ways how to prepare them (yes, we even make potato dumplings!). If you have the opportunity, try a potato pancake (bramborák) – they are good with game.
Going to main meals, most menus contain primarily items with chicken, pork and beef. Quite common is the schnitzel, which we can make of each the three types of meat. In some restaurants, you can ask for tartar steak (beef tartare – tatarák, tatarský biftek) – it is made of raw beef and is served with a fresh egg yolk, garlic and a toast. There are two groups of people, those who love it and those who wouldn’t touch it – nothing in between. We also commonly serve chicken or pork liver. Less common, but still not rare, is game or rabbit. Or duck – served with (red) cabbage and a dumpling is another typical Czech meal to try!
Despite Shakespeare saying so in Hamlet, we do not have a sea. Therefore, tuna, mackerel, swordfish, lobster or coelacanth is not typical Czech food. We cook carp (a typical Czech Christmas meal) but it is a bit vapid in my opinion. I would recommend trout (quite common in restaurants) or, if you happen to be in one of the few restaurants cooking them – eel or pike-perch.
Typical Czech sauce is made of cream. If you ask for a typical Czech meal with a creamy sauce, you would almost surely be offered roast sirloin with cream sauce (svíčková – refers to the whole meal). Interestingly, if you order this meal at different places you will get different sauce – there are several different recipes with the same name. I can tell – my Mom does different sauce than my mother-in-law. By the way, both are excellent.
Cheese and chips
Fried cheese (smažený sýr) is a staple and typically made of Eidam. It is fried as a schnitzel and is served with fries and ketchup or mayonnaise. It’s a simple meal offered by restaurants and fast food stalls alike. I belong to very small minority of Czechs who dislike this specialty. Sometimes a small Quatro Formaggi pizza costs the same.
Something for a sweet tooth
Cakes alone can be a topic for a long tour across the whole Czech Republic. There are many tarts specific to a particular region. Tarts are commonly with curd cheese or marmalade or poppy seed – or all of it at once (which is typical for Chodsko in southwest Bohemia). A Czech specialty are cakes with fillings (buchty) – the same ingredients as in tarts. The apple strudel (štrůdl or jablečný závin) is also typical (which you also find in Austria).
Another quite common dessert is the pancake (palačinka) – which can go with whipped cream and some berries or marmalade. Sometimes it is just dusted with sugar.
What is truly unique? Czech Christmas treats. There are many types. The pieces are usually quite small. It can be biscuits, rolls, sweet balls of several flavors, small gingerbread pieces etc. Some are not baked at all, you just have to mix the ingredients together and put them into some form. Many Czech households boast a great number of types (record of our family stands at 22) and some even invent new recipes. Christmas time is, therefore, a very busy time for many Czechs. They have to buy Christmas presents as well as the ingredients and then bake the treats. Perhaps better examples of excellent time management has been seen outside the Czech kitchen – but not by reliable witnesses.
Few general remarks
Don’t expect to lose weight eating Czech food. With the use of flour, cream and fat, some Czech meals can have twice as many calories as your typical lunch. Many of the meals are also a bit hard to digest – but Czech beers helps with that (it really does!). Nevertheless, my list of typical Czech meals here is far, far from complete. I think everyone can find something typically Czech to eat and with some common sense, your visit to our country won’t be a dietary disaster either.
Taste, explore and enjoy Czech food!