|Czech cuisine was influenced by its neighbours, primarily the Germans and the Hungarians. Unlike Mediterranean cuisine with its abundance of fresh vegetables and seafood, traditional Czech cuisine was shaped by long cold winters without fresh produce and so is heavier and more demanding of digestion.
It consists of fresh and smoked meats, flour, potatoes, onions, pickled vegetables, all with a lot of animal fat. However, with fresh vegetables, fish and meat now available throughout the year, the situation is changing and healthier trends are emerging.
In Prague, as well as all over the Czech Republic, fanciful ‘Old Bohemian’ restaurants are being established, serving mainly roasted and grilled meat, soups served in loaves of bread, and similar treats. However, the Czech cuisine still contains a great number of good meals that are derived from the home cooking of our ancestors.
Ingredients of the Czech cuisine
Amongst the most important elements of the Czech cuisine belongs meat: pork, beef, poultry, rabbit and venison. The most common fish is fresh water carp, which is eaten primarily on Christmas Eve. Less common fish include trout, pike, zander and eel. Czech cuisine also utilises vegetables, fruits, beans and pulses, mushrooms, dairy products, grains, baked goods, vegetable and animal fat, spices, herbs and, last but not least, Czech beer.
Czech cuisine also favours various soups, which are usually served as the first course. Popular meals are also various sauces with dumplings, mushroom meals, eggs and also a great variety of baked sweet deserts. Sauce (similar to ‘gravy’ in English) and dumplings are a Czech specialty.
Sauces and dumplings
Sauces are usually made with butter and flour base (roux), cream, and flavouring ingredients, mainly vegetables. A wide variety of sauces is served with meat and dumplings – such as dill sauce (made with fresh dill), horseradish sauce, capsicum or green pepper sauce, tomato sauce, or even pickled gherkin sauce with beef; anchovy sauce with pork; or marjoram sauce with mutton. The Hungarian influence brought us the cream and sweet paprika sauces with chicken or veal.
There are many kinds of dumplings such as bread dumplings (with white or rye bread), potato dumplings, ‘hairy’ dumplings, so called because of their fuzzy surface, or dumplings filled with meat or fruits.
Local delicacies include open sandwiches, various salads, ripening cheese or Prague ham. Spices used in Czech cooking include primarily pepper, caraway, sweet paprika, allspice and nutmeg. Popular herbs include marjoram, bay leaf, lovage, sweet balm, savoury, sage, dill and garlic. Use of vegetables in Czech cuisine is closely linked to seasons. Traditionally, they were often preserved and pickled, to last through winter. Vegetables served with meals used to be mainly cooked. Nowadays, salads from fresh seasonal vegetables have become more popular. The most commonly used vegetables include potatos, cucumbers, tomatoes, onions, spinach, parsley, celeriac, carrot and radish. Of fruits, Czech cuisine utilises apples, plums, pears, berries, currants and apricots.
Beer is the most popular beverage in the Czech Republic. Its production is characterised by top quality and a tradition going back centuries. Small as well as large breweries are to be found throughout the country. They produce the unique Czech lager (bottom-fermented beer). The most famous brands of Czech beer are Pilsner Urquell (the original Pils) and Budvar (the original Budweiser). Beer is usually drunk with small bites of meat or cheese. Beer is consumed mainly in special beer halls or pubs, which usually have only a limited choice of meals.
Typical Czech specialties
Snacks, starters and soups
Delicious cold snacks accompanying beer in pubs include: Pickled Hermelín (a ripening cheese of Camembert type); Utopence /ooh-toh-pen-tse/ (pickled sausages); Matesy /mah-teh-si/ (maatjes herrings) and Zavináče /zah-vee-nah-che/ (rollmops) – pickled/marinated fish; Pivní sýr (Beer-cheese spread) (strong cheese mixed with beer); and Tlačenka /tlah-chen-kah/(presswurst or brawn) – pieces of pork in jelly served with finely chopped onion, vinegar and pepper.
Various hot snacks, made of pork, are eaten anytime during the day or night with bread or bread rolls and mustard or horseradish. Among these are Jitrnice /yee-ter-nee-tse/ (sausages made of liver and peeled barley, similar to white pudding); Jelita /yeh-lee-tah/ (sausages made of hash, blood and peeled barley similar to black pudding); Klobásy (thick smoked pork sausages); Párky (smoked continental frankfurters) and Zabíjačková polévka, a traditional butcher’s soup.
Tripe soup (Dršťková polévka) – thick soup made of strong beef stock with pre-cooked tripe, root vegetables, marjoram, paprika and garlic.
Noodle soup with liver dumplings (Polévka s nudlemi a játrovými knedlíčky) – beef broth with vegetables, noodles and dumplings made of ground liver. It is one of the most common soups, traditionally served as the first course at celebrations such as weddings.
Cabbage soup (Zelňačka) – thick soup made of pickled cabbage, potatoes and smoked meat. Smoked meat is sometimes replaced by a traditional sausage.
Kulajda /khoo-lai-dah/ – thick soup made of mushrooms, dill, potatoes and sour cream.
Sirloin in cream sauce (Svíčková na smetaně) – one of the most popular Czech meals, roasted larded beef sirloin in a sauce of cream and root vegetables, served with dumplings.
Roast pork with cabbage and dumplings (Vepřo-knedlo-zelo) – Czech national meal. Roasted pork belly, shoulder or leg, served with stewed pickled red or white cabbage (sauerkraut), or fresh green cabbage in the warm part of the year, and dumplings.
Schnitzel (Smažený řízek) – thin steak of pork, veal or chicken coated in flour, egg and bread crumbs, fried and served with boiled potatoes or potato salad.
Goulash – a rich stew of Hungarian origin which has found its second home in the Czech Republic, and now belongs to the most popular meals in all restaurants and beer pubs. It is made of meat, mostly beef, stewed with vegetables and hot red paprika. It is usually served with bread or dumplings.
Roasted duck or goose – an extremely popular Czech specialty, seasoned with caraway seeds and served with stewed pickled cabbage and dumplings. The meat is sometimes basted with honey.
Lamb rump with spinach (Jehněčí kýta se špenátem) – rump roasted on garlic and rosemary served with spinach or spinach puree and dumplings.
Grilled pork hock (Grilované koleno) – a German, rather than a typical Czech specialty, but so common in today’s restaurants that it deserves to be mentioned here. It is a marinated pork knee, roasted on a grill, served with bread, mustard and horseradish. Less common is grilled smoked knee.
Mushroom stir fry (Houbová smaženice) – fresh wild mushrooms fried on onions with garlic and eggs. Usually eaten with a toast.
Beef steak tartare – scraped or finely ground raw beef fillet mixed with spices and raw egg served with toasted bread. Originally from France, it may also be served with chips and green salad in the French fashion.
Potato pancakes (Bramboráky) – fried pancakes made of raw grated potatoes, sausage and spices (garlic, marjoram and pepper).