Before I came to Prague, there was one thing that I was uneducated about and thus a little worried about: the food. I had never heard anyone rave about Czech cuisine – like they do for Italy or France – so I was unsure of what to expect. Everyone I talked to was worried that I would only be eating “meat and potatoes” for every meal. Who wants to eat meat and potatoes every day? Now while there are a lot of meals involving meat and potatoes, fortunately there is a lot more delicious variance in Czech cuisine. Most meals are pretty heavy – because they are to be eaten at the pub with beer – but there are still plenty of options if you are looking for lighter fare, or are a vegetarian, etc. Here’s a look at the typical Czech meals and foods.
The most traditional Czech foods are usually found at the pub, so I will start my culinary tour with the pub menu.
If you are looking for lighter fare, choose from one of these:
- Utopenec – this literally means “drowned man” but it is a pickled sausage with onions and other spices. It is served with peppers on a bed of onions.
- Hermelín – this a type of cheese, similar to Camembert or Brie. It is also pickled and served with unions and peppers like the utopenec.
- Smažený sýr – if you want something savory and fattening (but vegetarian!) then this is for you. It means fried cheese, and it is just that – fried Edam or Hermelín cheese. The also serve them on the street with buns and either mayonnaise or tartar sauce.
- Pivní sýr – this means “beer cheese.” It is a soft cheese, usually mixed with raw onions and mustard, and spread on toasted bread. You also often mix in a small about of beer, and combine all of the ingredients together.
- Hranolky – this is the Czech word for French Fries. One of the many varieties of potato products available in the Czech Republic.
- Bramboráky – these are fried potato pancakes. They can also be eaten as their own meal, but smaller ones are a good side dish.
Most pubs will also have a selection of soups and smaller salads. The soups often change based on the day.
Most of the main dishes are heavy and are meat-based. Here are some of the more common dishes:
- Guláš (s knedlíkem)– this is one of the more common Czech meals, and it comes in a few different varieties. Normally it is pieces of roasted/marinated beef with bread dumplings (houskové knedlíky) and sauce like a meat broth but a little thicker, which covers the entire plate. This variety would be hovězí guláš. It can also come as vepřově guláš, which would be made with pork meat instead. I eat guláš pretty regularly, as it is a staple in the pubs and costs anywhere between $4-$10 – it is a pretty good lunch deal!
- Svíčková (na smetaně) – this is another really popular meal. It is made with slices of marinated beef (usually two larger slices) and served with bread dumplings, a cream sauce, and cranberry sauce and whipped cream. Now this probably seems like a weird combination – meat with whipped cream and cranberries – but it is really delicious. It is the sweeter cousin of guláš, since only really the sauces are different. Svíčková is just as popular as guláš, and around the same price.
- Jitrnice – this dish is made with a special pork-sausage that is cooked in a frying pan. It is served usually with boiled cabbage and potatoes. I actually haven’t had this in a restaurant yet, but I had it once for dinner with my host family.
- Vepřo-knedlo-zelo – this is considered the most typical Czech dish. It is roasted pork, dumplings, and boiled cabbage/Saurkraut.
There are several more traditional Czech meals, usually consisting of roasted meat with either bread dumplings or potatoes. Chicken is also popular, and either served roasted or as a chicken steak and breaded.
Outside the pub, there is also a lot of street food in Prague. A lot of street vendors serve Smažený sýr sandwiches, as well as hamburgers and hot dogs. In addition, the typical Czech street food is klobasa. This is like a bratwurst, just a sausage grilled and served with bread and your condiment of choice. These sausages are actually quite good, quite filling (they’re huge) and really cheap too. In addition, there are a lot of stands that sell gyros, also called kebab here in Prague. Cafes and convenience stores also sell chlebíček, which are small open-faced sandwiches. Baguette sandwiches are also really popular – there is even a chain restaurant called Baguette Boulevard! Cafes also sell small salads for lunch and as sides. These options are good for a quick lunch, or if you get hungry while out on the town.
There are also a lot of delicious desserts and pastries. One of the most popular is kolače, a small bread pastry (like a little cake) with usually fruit or poppy seed on top. There is also a special Czech cake called medovník. It is made from honey, and is more dense than a regular cake but really delicious. Another Czech specialty is trdelník. Trdelník is like a cinnamon roll that is baked over a fire to make it little more crunchy. It is then coated with cinnamon sugar and almonds. Apple streudel is also popular. You can find almost any kind of dessert or pastry in Prague, so sweet-lovers beware!
If you are not interested in Czech food – which I think you will be after you start trying it! – there are a lot of Italian restaurants in Prague – thus pasta, pizza, and the like are also readily available. There are also a lot of restaurants serving different varieties of Asian cuisine. I have had Thai and Vietnamese food, both of which have been very similar to Thai and Vietnamese food in America. If you need to quench your need for American food, there is only a small selection of American restaurants (which may actually be for the better?) consisting of McDonald’s Burger King, KFC, T.G.I. Fridays, and Hard Rock Cafe. (These alternatives to the Czech pub are probably the best options to fulfill any specific vegetarian or dietary needs.)
So far I’ve been talking about food available in the restaurants, which I usually eat for lunch or on weekends when I travel or go out. Since I live with a host family, I usually don’t eat these Czech staples every day. Instead, I get a wonderful, home-cooked meal every night, ranging from Italian roasted vegetables, Chinese food, soup, and more. The meals are made from fresh ingredients: My host dad Jirka buys fresh meat, breads, and cheeses at the market. In addition, my host parents get a basket of fresh produce and eggs every Tuesday from a local farmer/distributor. I look forward to Tuesday nights to see what is in “The Box” for the week. Thus, since the ingredients are fresh, the meals change with the changing seasons. For example, for a few weeks zucchinis were in season, so most of our meals consisted of zucchini in some way. Then a few weeks later, pumpkins were in season, so we had pumpkin soup and roasted pumpkin. We even made a pumpkin cheesecake! I’ve realized that I really like having fresh foods and produce instead of buying things at the grocery store most of the time. I’ve also noticed that cooking/making things from scratch is much more common. For example, whenever I explain or offer to cook some type of American food, I quickly realize that a significant part of the recipe involves something pre-made or pre-assembled. Maybe I am just a really bad cook – it’s true – but it is really interesting – and refreshing – to have home-made food.
Over the course of my stay in Prague, the change in cuisine has taught me one thing in particular: Do not be afraid of trying something new. A lot of times I don’t understand exactly what a meal is in a restaurant, but I will just try it and hope for the best. It usually turns out really well! This goes the same for with meals at home. Sometimes I don’t know what a certain food is, or it is something that I would not normally eat in America. For example, one night we had baked fish for dinner. The fish wasn’t filleted or anything – whole fish, head, tail, bones and all. My brother mentioned that the fish eye is the best part and asked me if I wanted to try it. I hesitated at first, but then I tried it and he was right! – it was the best part of the fish. Thus, I would definitely recommend a fearless attitude when trying Czech food. And yes, a lot of the meals are “meat and potatoes” but there is enough variety for it not to get old. As a matter of fact, the food that I crave the most now is definitely guláš! 🙂