Traditional local food:
Traditional Czech food is hearty and suitable after a hard day in the fields. It is heavy and quite fatty, and is excellent in the winter. In the recent time there was a tendency towards more light food with more vegetables, now the traditional heavy and fatty Czech food is usually not eaten everyday and some people avoid it entirely. However nothing goes as well with the excellent Czech beer as some of the best examples of the traditional Czech cuisine, like pork, duck, or goose with knedlíky (dumplings) and sauerkraut.
A traditional main meal of a day (usually lunch) consists of two or three dishes. The first dish is hot soup (polévka). The second dish is the most important part, very often based on some meat and side-dish (both served on the same plate). The third, optional part is either something sweet (and coffee) or small vegetable salad or something similar.
Czech cuisine knows many different kinds of soup (polévka). The most common are bramboračka – potato soup (sometimes with forest mushrooms), hovězí vývar – clear beef soup (sometimes s játrovými knedlíčky – with liver dumplings), gulášovka – thick goulash soup, zelňačka – thick and sour cabbage soup, česnečka (strong garlic soup, very healthy and tasty, but do not eat this before kissing), kulajda – thick soup with forest mushrooms and milk, hrášková polévka from young green peas, čočková polévka from lentils, fazolačka from beans, rajská polévka – tomato soup, and many others. A special case not to everyone’s tastes is dršťková polévka (tripe soup). Rybí polévka – thick fish soup made from carps (including its head, some innards, roe and sperm) is the traditional soup of the Christmas Dinner.
Some soups are eaten with bread, sometimes small croutons are put inside the soup just before eating. Soup can be also eaten as the only dish, especially for a smaller dinner.
The second dish (main course, hlavní jídlo) of a meal is (in the traditional cuisine) often the famous heavy and fatty part, very often based on pork, but also beef, chicken, duck, or other meat. Important part of most main courses is side-dish (the whole dish including the side-dish is served on one plate) – usually cooked or baked potatoes, fries, rice, pasta or the most typical side-dish of the Czech cuisine – knedlíky.
Knedlíky (usually translated as dumplings) come in many different kinds. Most kinds are used as side-dish, however some kinds with filling are used as dish by itself. The most common type, always used as side-dish, are houskové knedlíky (bread dumplings). These are cooked in a shape of a cylinder, which is then cut into round slices about 8 cm in diameter remotely resembling white bread. Houskové knedlíky are served with Czech classics such as guláš, similar to Hungarian goulash but with a thinner sauce and less spicy; Svíčková na smetaně, beef sirloin with a creamy root vegetable (carrot, celeriac, parsnip) sauce, served with a tablespoon of cranberry sauce, a slice of orange and whipped cream; Vepřová pečeně se zelím a knedlíkem locally named as Vepřo-knedlo-zelo, the combination of roast pork, knedlíky and sauerkraut. The latter combines very well with the world-famous Czech beer, the major brands being Pilsner Urquell, Gambrinus, Budvar, Staropramen, Velkopopovický Kozel and Krušovice. If you are lucky enough to enter a pub serving Svijany, you should definitely order it, as it is believed to be one of the most delicious brands worldwide.
Another common kind is bramborové knedlíky (potato dumplings), the slices are smaller, more yellow in color, and are also always served as a side-dish. A typical combination is roasted meet (pork or lamb for example) with spinach and bramborové knedlíky or duck with sauerkraut and bramborové knedlíky (or combination of bramborové and houskové knedlíky). Less common are chlupaté knedlíky (hairy dumplings, but there are no hairs, don’t panic), which are not sliced but cooked in shape of balls. They are also usually served with roasted meat and either sauerkraut or spinach.
Other Czech dishes include pečená kachna, roast duck again served with bread or potato dumplings, and red and white sauerkraut; moravský vrabec, known as ‘Moravian Sparrow’, but which is in fact pork cooked in garlic and onions; smažený kapr, fried carp breaded and served with a very rich potato salad and eaten on Christmas Eve; pečené vepřové koleno, roast pork knee, served with mustard and fresh horseradish; bramborák, garlicky potato pancakes; smažený sýr, breaded deep-fried edam (the most popular cheese in the Czech Republic) served with boiled potatoes or french fries and tartar sauce; párek v rohlíku, long, thin hot dogs with crusty rolls and mustard or ketchup. If you must, you can always get hranolky – french fries. And of course, the ubiquitous zelí (raw cabbage), which is served with absolutely everything. Game is also very good, and includes dishes such as kančí, wild boar, bažant, pheasant and jelení or daňčí, both types of venison. These are almost always served either with dumplings and red and white cabbage, or as guláš.
Don’t expect a wide selection of zelenina, vegetables, unless in the countryside – peppers, tomatoes and cabbage are the most commonly-seen side dishes, often served as a small garnish.
Visitors may be surprised when they find “American potatoes” on the menu. These are actually potato wedges, usually spiced.
Also try traditional beer snacks, often the only food served in some pubs (hospoda, pivnice), and designed to be washed down by a good beer:
- Utopenec – (means ‘drowned man’ in Czech) a pickled sausage with onion, garlic and other vegetables and spices.
- Zavináč – (rollmop) a slice of pickled fish, most often herring or mackerel, rolled-up and filled with various pickled vegetables (sauerkraut, onion, sometimes carrot or pepper).
- Tlačenka s cibulí – (brawn with onion) a slice of haggis-like meat pudding, sprinkled with vinegar and garnished with fresh onion slices. Beware, can be rather acidic due to vinegar.
- Nakládaný Hermelín – pickled Brie-like cheese, often marinated with garlic and chilli.
- Pivní sýr – beer cheese – a soft cheese, with a strong, Cheddar-like flavour. You should add a splash of beer to the cheese, and then mash it all together, and serve it on traditional Czech bread – Šumava (the name of a region in South Bohemia) is the most common bread, a very tasty dense loaf made from rye and carroway seeds.
- Tvarůžky or Syrečky – traditional cheese with a very strong aroma, and very much an acquired taste. Often served deep-fried, but can be eaten alone, just with some chopped onion, mustard and bread. Sometimes also marinated in beer (‘syrečky v pivu’). This cheese naturally contains almost no fat (less than 1%).
- Romadur – traditional cheese with strong aroma. Aroma is similar to Tvarůžky, but Romadur is different type of cheese.
- Matesy s cibulí – (soused herring) cold fish served with onions.
If you want a warm, bigger, and more complicated meal which goes excellently with beer, get some of the typical Czech meals based on fatty meat (pork, duck, or goose) with sauerkraut and knedlíky (dumplings). Another excellent option is a whole pork knee with horseradish and bread (ovarové koleno s křenem).
Czechs like sweets but consumer patterns are different compared to France, USA or the UK. As everywhere some traditional treats have become a mass-market production for tourists, others are pretty difficult to find.
On the street:
- Lázeňské oplatky – spa wafers from Mariánské Lázně and Karlovy Vary (major spa towns in Western Bohemia, better known by their German names of Marienbad and Karlsbad) are meant to be eaten while “taking the waters” at a spa, but they’re good on their own, too. Other major spas are Karlova Studánka (favourite destination of Václav Havel – former Czechoslovakian president), Františkovy Lázně, Jánské Lázně, Karviná, Teplice and Luhačovice. You will find them most easily not only in spa resorts but also in Prague. Have them either out of the box on your own or heated and iced with sugar, cinnamon, etc.
- Trdlo or trdelník – is available in dedicated sell-points in the streets of Prague. It is a mediaeval style sweet roll made from eggs and flour.
- Jablkový závin or štrůdl, apple strudel, often served warm with whipped cream.
- Medovník – a newcomer having quickly spread in most restaurants. A brown high cake made of gingerbread, honey and walnuts.
- Ovocné knedlíky – fruit stuffed dumplings served either as main course or a filling dessert. The smaller ones (‘tvarohové’) come with plum, apple or apricot filling, the bigger ones (‘kynuté’) come with strawberries, blueberries, povidla (plum jam) or toher fruits. Knedlíky are served with melted butter, iced with tvaroh (curd cheese) and sugar, and topped with whipped cream.
- Palačinka – not much in common with French crepes, these pancakes are usually thicker and served with a wide choice of fillings including chocolate, ice-cream, fruit and whipped cream.
Also try the wide variety of rich cream cakes usually found in a Kavárna (a cafe), or a Cukrárna (a shop which sells all things sweet together with ice cream and drinks, found throughout the Czech Republic and often the only place open in small towns and villages on Sundays). Czech cakes are similar to their Viennese cousins due to the shared history of both countries under the Austro-Hungarian empire. Also sample Vídeňská káva (Viennese coffee), coffee served with a mountain of whipped cream.
- Rakvička (literally a little coffin) is a light crispy biscuit with cream,
- Větrník is a round French éclair style cream cake,
- Punčák is a rum soaked yellow/pink biscuit sugar-glazed cake,
- Laskonka is a coconut and cream based sandwich cake, and many more!
- Bábovka – a traditional cake, similar to marble cake, fairly dry, and usually served dusted with icing sugar.
- Buchty – (singular Buchta)traditional buns filled with tvaroh (curd cheese), mák (poppy seeds), or povidla (plum jam)
- Koláče – (singular Koláč) rather popular flat tarts topped with various sweet fillings like tvaroh, povidla, mák, fruit jams, chopped apples and nuts. Their size ranges from bite-sized (‘svatební koláčky’) to pizza-sized, which often contain several fillings combined into an elaborate pattern (‘Chodský koláč’ or ‘frgál’).
The Czech Republic is the country where modern beer (pivo in Czech) was invented (in Plzeň). Czechs are the heaviest beer drinkers in the world, drinking about 160 litres of it per capita per year. Going to a cosy Czech pub for dinner and a few beers is a must!
The best-known export brands are Pilsner Urquell (Plzeňský Prazdroj), Budweiser Budvar (Budějovický Budvar) and Staropramen (freely translatable as “Oldspring”). Other major brands which are popular domestically include Gambrinus, Kozel, Bernard (a small traditional brewery, with very high quality beer), Radegast, and Starobrno (made in Brno, the capital of Moravia). Other fantastic beers worth tasting are Svijany and Dobřanská Hvězda. Although many Czechs tend to be very selective about beer brands, tourists usually don’t find a significant difference. And remember, real Czech beer is only served on tap – bottled beer is a completely different experience. High-quality beer can almost certainly be found in a hospoda or hostinec, very basic pubs which serve only beer and light snacks. Take a seat and order your drinks when the waiter comes to you – going to the bar to order your drinks is a British custom! But beware, the handling of the beer is even more important than its brand. A bad bartender can completely ruin even excellent beer. Best bet is to ask local beer connoiseurs about a good pub or just join them.
Beers are sometimes listed by their original sugar content, which is measured in degrees Plato (P/°). The difference is generally apparent in the final alcohol content. Normal beer is about 10° (such as Gambrinus and Staropramen, which results in 4% ABV), lager 12° (such as Pilsner Urquell, which results in about 4.75% ABV). The latter is stronger and more expensive, so you should specify which one you want when you order.
Czech lager is nothing like the fizzy lagers found in many other countries. Instead, it has a very strong, hoppy, almost bitter flavour, and goes very well with heavy dishes like duck or pork and dumplings or strong cheeses. It always has a thick head on the top when it is served, but do not be afraid to drink “through” it, it is fun and it slowly disappears anyway, nevertheless do not drink the beer too slowly as the fresh cold taste (especially in hot summers) quickly fades – the “true” Czech connoisseurs do not even finish this “tepid goat,” as they call it.
The right beer bought in shops is only in half-litre brown glass bottles with sheet-crown cap. Experienced earthy beer drinkers drink it directly from the bottle. Some breweries distribute also big (two-litre or 1.5 litre) plastic bottles but they are considered a bit barbarian and degraded by Czechs, and the better breweries ridicule such form. Also sheet-can beer is perceived as an alien.
Wine (víno in Czech) is another popular drink, particularly wine from Moravia in the south-eastern part of the country where the climate is more suited to vineyards. White wines tend to be the best as the growing conditions are more favourable for them. For white wines, try Veltlínské zelené (Green Veltliner), Muškát moravský (Moravian Muscatel), Ryzlink rýnský (Rhine Riesling) or Tramín (Traminer), or red wines such as Frankovka (Blaufrankisch), Modrý Portugal (Blue Portugal, named after the grape, not the country), or Svatovavřinecké (Saint Lawrence). Also try ice wine (ledové víno) made when the grapes are harvested after they have frozen on the vines, or straw wine (slámové víno) made by leaving the grapes to ripen on straw) – these wines are more expensive and are similar to dessert wines. Bohemia Sekt is also popular with Czechs, and is an inexpensive sweet, fizzy wine, similar to Lambrusco, and drunk at celebrations. The best places for wine are either a wine bar (vinárna), or a wine shop (vinotéka) which sometimes has a small bar area too.
For spirits, try Becherovka (herb liqueur, similar to Jägermeister, tastes of a mixtures of cloves and cinnamon, and drunk as a digestive), slivovice (plum brandy, very popular as a pick-me-up), hruškovice (pear brandy, less fiery than Slivovice), and so on. Spirits are made out of almost every kind of fruit (Plums, Peaches, Cherries, Sloes, etc.). Czech unique tuzemský rum (made from sugar beet, not from sugar cane as the Cuban rum, sold under brands like Tuzemák to conform with EU market rules). Be careful as all are about 40% alcohol.
Generally, fruit sparkling waters (as well as coke waters) are named limonáda in Bohemia or sodovka in Moravia. Draught “limonades” of various types used to be a very cheap and available beverage in common pubs in rural and hiking areas. Now, more expensive “Cola-Fanta-Sprite” choice or draught or bottle Kofola are available usually. Kofola, a coke-like drink is also very popular, and some Czechs say it is the best thing the communists gave them.
Mineral waters are popular, but tend to have a strong mineral taste. Try Mattoni, or Magnesia, both of which taste like normal water and still claim to be good for your health. If you want bubbles, ask for perlivá. If you want it non-carbonated, ask for neperlivá. Sometimes you can see jemně perlivá – it is “lightly bubbled” water. Many restaurants don’t make any difference between “sparkling water” and “sparkling mineral water”. Sparkling water (without flavour) is traditionally named sodovka (sodová voda, soda water) in Bohemia and sifon in Moravia.
Usually, also some fruit juices are on offer.
Restaurants and most of pubs offer also tea and coffee. The basic form of coffee is turecká káva (Turkish coffee) with grounds, but it is offered also drip coffee or instant coffee or milky coffee, especially with whipping cream (vídeňská káva, Viennese coffee). Broader assortment is offered in cafes (kavárna) or tea rooms (čajovna). Cofes are visited especially by seniors, ladies or intellectuals, tea rooms have east-oriented atmosphere and are very popular among non-alcoholic young people in last decades.
At many train and subway stations and other places, cold and hot non-alcoholic beverages are available in 24/7 vending machines.