PRAGUE, April 12 — Millions of visitors head to the Czech Republic every year, most of them congregating in the capital. Everyone wants to take a pose on Charles Bridge or coo in wonder at the ornate Astronomical Clock. The heart of Bohemia is a wonderland for everything gothic and medieval.
When it comes to food, however, the menu can be despairing as tourists flock to the usual suspects; American fast food franchises line both sides of the Wenceslas Square boulevard like infestations. Yet to miss sampling authentic Czech cuisine is to have missed one of the cultural (and culinary) highlights of one’s visit!
In many of the alleys away from the main tourist track are weather-beaten Czech restaurants and taverns frequented by locals. (Stop and ask one for a recommendation if you’re unsure.) A traditional Czech meal will comprise two or more courses; expect lots of dumplings and meat.
You can’t go wrong by ordering the soup as a starter. Nothing says “from the heart” (and hearth) like a steaming bowl of polévka, the Czech name for home-cooked broth. The most popular is bramboračka, a potato soup thickened with the addition of other vegetables such as onion, carrot, mushrooms and celeriac. Seasoned with garlic and marjoram, bramboračka is usually served in the crust of a hollow bread loaf.
Another firm favourite is gulás, the Czech version of goulash. Not unlike its Hungarian cousin, this soup is still heavily spiced with paprika but uses more root vegetables than meat. Expect more onions than beef, for example. Some versions even substitute the meat with oyster mushrooms for a vegetarian version.
During the summer months, look for lighter appetisers that take advantage of the warm weather. An unlikely winner is grilované kalamáry, or grilled squid with sun-dried cherry tomatoes, lettuce, chilli dressing, chicory and orange segments. Refreshing and tender, it’s the closest you’d get to a Czech salad.
Time for the main course. If the menu comes with English translations, you may be amazed at how many dishes come accompanied with knedlíky, or dumplings. Czech dumplings aren’t the petite and pillowy dim sum dumplings you may be used to. Instead, knedlíky are steamed rolls made from wheat or potato, which are then sliced into bread-like slices right before serving.
To serious Bohemian diners, no meal is complete without dumplings and some may argue meat is the accompaniment to dumplings rather than the other way round! The most common type of knedlíky is the Karlovy Vary dumpling, a bread dumpling made with egg-whites and seasoned with herbs and lightened with egg-whites. Potato dumplings tend to be smaller in size, and made from a mix of flour and boiled potatoes. Many dishes come with both bread and potato dumplings, perfect for mopping up the gravy and sauces.
Where meat is concerned, pork reigns supreme on the Czech menu, accounting for more than half of meat consumption in Bohemia. Roast pork (vepřová) is very popular, and often served with the indispensable knedlíky as well as sweet and tangy zelí (or Czech sauerkraut). Other takes on the porcine dish include medailonky z vepřové panenky (medallions of pork with jalapenos, grilled corn and cheese quesadillas) and the hearty farmářská krkovička (“farmer’s pork” braised in dark beer and served with mashed potatoes).
Strangely, what most Czechs consider the ultimate meat dish isn’t made from pork but beef. Svíčková na smetaně is a bit of a national obsession. Typically good beef sirloin is used. The beef is “larded” where strips of fat are inserted into the meat; the fat melts and keeps the beef moist. Served with bread and Karlovy Vary dumplings, cranberry sauce, a slice of lemon and cream, this dish is a divine dance of flavours and textures.
If you’re not keen on either pork or beef, look for duck on the menu rather than chicken. (Chicken is somehow too tame for the Czech palate.) A good choice would be the pečená kachna na kmíně, or Bohemian-style roast duck, served with white and red braised cabbage, and both bread and potato dumplings.
After a hearty, belly-bursting Czech meal, there’s nothing better than to wash it all down with some Czech beer or pivo. The Czechs take their beer seriously, and rightly so, with their ancestors brewing beer in the Břevnov Monastery since 993AD.
Furthermore, in most restaurants, beer costs half what drinking water would, so there’s little wonder that the Czech Republic has highest beer consumption per capita in the world. The most common pivo is Pilsner Urquell, a pale lager created in the city of Pilsen. Expect a clear golden colour, a foamy froth and light flavour. Bottoms up!
So the next time you find yourself in the heart of Bohemia, avoid the familiar fast food chains and feast like a real Czech! Dobrou chut’! (“Enjoy your meal!” in Czech.)