The Irish have the potato, the Ukrainians the pierogi. The Czechs have dumplings (“knedliky”). They look like little oval shaped slices of bread and are made of either dough or potatoes.The magic of dumplings is how well they soak up sauce. Five dumplings can easily soak up a plate full of sauce.
The most popular dumpling meals are Svičková (read “svitch-co-va”), Rajská (read “raiska”) or Gulas. They have completely different tastes which are impossible for me to describe. I remember them by their colors. Svičková is a white/green creamy color, Rajská is red and Gulas is brown. I like them all but my favourite and the one that is truly distinct to Czech is Svičková.
These sauce based traditional foods are so common that they are called ‘finished food’ (“hotovi”). This means the food is already cooked and stewing in the kitchen. The waiter disappears into the kitchen, grabs a plate, arranges a crescent of five dumplings on the plate, dips a ladle into a pot and pours the contents of meat and sauce over the dumplings. It is faster than ordering a hamburger at McDonald's.
The unfortunate drawback of this food is that it sits like a brick in the stomach. Every time I eat it I get the strong urge to stop what I am doing and slip into a nap. It gets worse if a half litre of beer is included with the meal, which unfortunately is customary. The number of calories in these dishes is considered a state secret.
A pig is a big ball of meat held up by four rickety stick legs. Which is why it is surprising that for Czech’s the most delicious meat of the pig is in the knee.
Order a pig knee and you will be presented with a cavemanish hunk of bone on a wooden cutting board. After the obligatory claims that you will never be able to eat it all you will start to doubt yourself as you peel away at the juicy meat that just slips off the bone. The abundant dose of fat and crispy skin will quickly turn you into a knee praiser and the next time you see a pig your eyes will dart straight to the legs. Served with brown bread, horse radish and mustard you will peal meat with one hand, chew on bread with the other and use both to washing it down with beer - like a true caveman.
Czech cows have miserable lives. They do not spend their lives roaming open plains in the sunshine. They spend their days in a dank barn with the limited exercise of move head down to eat and up to look around. This is unfortunate not only for them but also for those eating them. Cows lacking exercise can not produce lean and tender steaks. There are plenty of beef options on the menu but you will notice when the plate comes that the meat is well hidden in the sauce.
At birth a cow's only hope to avoid a pointless existence is to quickly become veal. The veal schnitzel known as a smažený řízek or just řízek is served with potatoe salad, boiled or mashed potatoes. It is slowly usurping carp as the traditional Christmas meal - carp is still served out of obligation to tradition but deep down everybody at the table is looking forward to the řízek. Sandwiched between two slices of bread řízek is also must for any Czech on a daytrip to the woods or cross country skiing.
Men like to shoot at fast moving things. Czech fields are full of rabbits. It is no wonder that the rabbit has been forced onto the dinner plate and into traditional Czech cuisine. But as the younger generation turns to the pleasures of the screen and less to stomping through fields in green hunters garb the rabbit is more a favourite of the previous generation. The meat is gamy and dry, but once again, saved by the sauce.
If you need to take a nap there is no better way to prepare yourself than to have the traditional duck with dumplings and braised red cabbage - all drenched with duck fat juice. Somehow this combination induces a need for a duck feathered pillow and blanket. Add beer if you need to fall asleep instantly.
We have all been taught to be frightened of raw meat. Always wash hands thoroughly after handling, vigorously wipe the cutting board with hot water and make certain the meat does not touch anything in the fridge. Salmonella poisoning is why every home chef cooks the meat just a little bit longer, just to be sure.That is why tatarak is considered a brave food. It is a mound of raw minced beef. Exactly the same as you buy at the butcher and which you are not suppose to touch with your hands.
To prepare the chef, using his hands, moulds the meat into a volcano and plops it in the middle of the plate. Into the crater he breaks a raw egg. Around the volcano he creates little piles of condiments: diced onion (uncooked of course), various spices, salts, ketchup, mustards. Ion a separate plate are a stack of deep fried bread slices. Design wise it looks pretty but now you have to eat it.
Take two forks and start to mix and mash everything together until you have an evenly distributed blob of meat. Next take a slice of deep fried bread and spread the garlic over it, both sides if you like garlic. Now scoop the meat and spread a thick layer on the bread. The final and most difficult step is to forget everything you have ever heard about raw meat and swallow.
Knock on wood, I have not gotten sick yet. But I would strongly suggest that you avoid the tatarak if it is being offered at a discount.
Fried cheese is a Czech classic. A 3cm thick bread-sized slab of cheese, dipped in egg yolk, covered in crushed bread crumbs and fried in a deep pool of grease. It is delicious. It quickly moved up in my list of favourite foods. But too much of a good thing can do damage. One day, instead of the usual two pieces, I ordered four. My stomach began to churn and bubble and then made pop noise. As it currently stands even a slight whiff of fried cheese instantly forces my stomach to rebel by contracting and grumbling. I ruined my ability to eat fried cheese because of greed. A warning: if you like it, be careful.
Besides cheese Czech grandmothers have discovered that deep frying and wrapping in bread crumbs can be applied to other foods in the fridge. There is also fried cauliflower. It is served with potatoes and tatar sauce (tatarská omáčka). There is something about the combination of warm cauliflower and cold sauce that makes an interesting sensation in the mouth, hot and cold at the same time. Once you have tried the cheese and cauliflower you can move on to the fried mushrooms.
If you are in the mood for something not deep fried then you are out of luck. But if you would like to avoid the bread crumb wrap then you can try the potato platters. This was a favourite in times of famine (except of course for the potato famine). Grated potatoes mixed with flour, egg, onion, spices and deep fried in vegetable oil. The oil is absorbed into the potato making it a abundantly greasy compliment to beer.
An alternative to sitting down for a meal is to venture into a traditional Czech deli. This takes a little courage because it is usually bustling with busy Czechs who know exactly what they want. and they expect you to make your choice and move on. The workers behind the counter hustle and have little patience for pointing and asking. It can be a bit daunting. With rows of meats, salads, and pastries – if you do not know how to combine them to make a meal you will be stuck in indecisive limbo. The simplest and least stressful is to get the little open-faced sandwiches. They are small round cuts of bread with a decorative assortment of meat, vegetable and egg. They are easy to spot and point to – no communication required. Grab a couple of these and your set for the next couple hours of sightseeing.
In Prague there are plenty of pizza and sausage stands. If you need a quick boost of energy, for around 20 CZK ($1 US), you can get a sausage with a piece of bread and mustard, or a slice of pizza. The price is good and the meal instant. A draw back is that you are never sure what exactly is in the sausage or how long the pizza has been baking under the heat lamp. Standard rule applies: the more you save, the greater the digestive risk.
When you have had your fill of dumplings, sauce, pig knees and slabs of cheese there is always a plentiful selection of non-Czech foods. For good or bad, McDonald's and KFC are everywhere. And so are the signs. It is a lot easier to find a McDonald's in Prague than the Prague Castle. Signs on the street state “400 meters to McDonald's” and a big arrow points the way. If somehow you miss the McDonald's you will see a sign stating, “Are you sure you did not miss something?” and a loop around arrow reminds you that there is a McDonald's behind you.
There are also Chinese and Thai restaurants. Plates full of rice with a hearty dumping of vegetables and ginger beef. Vietnamese is also slowly appearing - in 2006 there was only a few places to get PHO-BO, now there are more than 10.
Prague is an international city so regardless of your tastes and budget you will find what you are looking for.
Most local restaurants do not offer English menu’s or helpful pictures. So that you are not forced to decode the Czech hieroglyphics here are a few items that do not naturally translate. Hopefully with these few examples you will be able to peice together the items on most Czech menus. I included the price you would be paying outside the tourist zone.
|Svíčková white sauce, houskový knedlík dough dumplings||96|
|Rajská tomato sauce, houskový knedlík||88|
|Smažený řízek z vepřové pečeně deep fried schnitzel, brambor potatoe, okurka with pickel||95|
|Smažený sýr fried cheese, brambor, tatarská omáčka tatar sauce||92|
|Pečené kachní stehno duck, bramborový knedlík potatoe dumplings, červené zelí red cabbage||125|
|Králík rabbit, br. knedlíky, špenát spinach||120|
|Kuřecí prsíčka chicken breast na paprice on del pepper, rýže rice||91|
I hope you find this website helpful. I created the website because I love Prague, I enjoy writing about it, and I get a weird kick out of helping you make your trip to Prague more enjoyable.
I wrote a book about local travel in Prague. The book is my pride, my joy, my unbiological offspring. It was written with a passionate heart. If you find this website helpful consider reading my book. You will receive an entertaining book full of useful tips that will instil in you the confidence to wander the local streets of Prague. The book is also included in the popular Prague Local Explore Kit Bag.
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Roman : Prague 2015