Food can give you insight to a country and its people beyond what they enjoy to eat. You can gain a better understanding of their history, geography, and traditions. During our trip to Central Europe Mark and I attended a food tour in Prague with Jan, a Czech who works as a translator and manages Taste of Prague with his fiancee’ Zuzi.
When you think of the best cuisines in the world, Czech food does not come to mind. And there’s a reason for that. Until recently, history has not been kind to the Czech people. Because of the reach of the Habsburg Monarchy, much of Central Europe shares culinary staples like goulash, schnitzel and wiener sausages. Forty years of communist rule followed shortly after and restaurants in Czechslovakia were governed by the National cookbook ‘Recipe for Warm Meals’ which dictated menu and portion sizes. It’s only in the past two decades that Czech chefs have started to rediscover their culinary roots.
After a shot of Silvovitz made by Zuzi’s dad, our first stop was Sisters Bistro. The small restaurant is more of a dine and dash eatery known for their open-faced sandwiches. We had the beetroot puree with goat cheese and caramelized walnut, and the celery root salad “chlebicek”. Czech’s definition of “fast food” puts ours to shame with healthy ingredients and manageable portions.
Meat, Meat, and More Meat
Next door is Nase Maso, a butcher shop that sells raw meat, sausages, and ham as well as prepared foods. We sampled the meatloaf on bread, Debrecen sausage, braised pork belly, and beef steak tartare. Until this point, Mark and I had avoided beef tartare like the plague (literally) but had a positive first experience.
You can’t visit Prague without stopping by Lokal which is known for fresh Pilsner Urquell beer from tanks and traditional Czech dishes. The Czech Republic has mastered the art of beer making and they drink more beer per capita than any other nation in the world. Young women traditionally drink Kozel dark lager to increase their breast size. I tried it but the results were inconclusive (oh well). We had chicken schnitzel with potato salad (my favorite) and an array of other traditional dishes.
We then continued with a tasting at the Vinograf wine bar. Like the food, communism had an impact on wine making which resulted in quantity over quality and a loss of influence on the grape. Non descriptive wine labels left much too the imagination of what was in the bottle. With privatization, Czech wine producers are making up for lost time and are starting to be recognized at international competitions. Many natural wines have been introduced to differentiate from the timeless beer. Because of the climate white wines are more popular but there are a few good Burgundy reds for those that have doubts.
Breaking the Mold
After a short tram ride to the Karlin district we finished at Eska, an eatery that combines a restaurant, bakery, and coffee shop. The food is inspired by Nordic cuisine focusing on seasonal/fresh vegetables and preservation. Meat dominates much of the cuisine in the Czech Republic though Eska strives to break from tradition. My favorite dish was burnt potato in ash with potato espuma. Jan shared stories of tossing potatoes into ash and making the dish with his family as a young child. We also enjoyed fermented red wheat with raw, sautéed and pickled mushrooms, and zemlovka: bread pudding with apples in an espuma of vanilla and rum.
You’ll go to Prague for the beautiful buildings and old city charm, but you will leave impressed with the food and moved by the resiliency of the people. Cheers!