Czech Cuisine

Pavel Maurer: Splendours and Miseries of Czech cuisine

"What on Earth is it, this Czech cuisine? Spanish ‘meat roulade’, Wiener schnitzel, Hungarian goulash, Frankfurter sausage soup, or Turkish coffee? Foreigners would find it hard to believe that in this country, these are common coinages that have rarely anything to do with their foreign names. Understandably, a certain role in this regard is played by the historical influence of the former Austro-Hungarian Empire, during which this country was a crossroads of diverse cultures, languages, and political, ethnic and ethical mores. Jewish, German, Russian, Hungarian, and even French gastronomy have left us with many influences and ingredients, as well as specialities that we have, over time, adapted to our own tastes and resources.

So what is really typical of Czech cuisine?

I recently asked several top artists to design a logo or simple icon for a planned festival of Czech gastronomy. I wanted the symbol to be easy to understand not only for us Czechs, but also on an international scale. I received dozens of designs, but was unable to make a choice. It’s simple for Italian cooking: a tomato, spaghetti, a pizza. A pepper for Hungarian cuisine, sushi for Japanese, perhaps a frog or a snail for French. But what about Czech cooking? A dumpling? A duck? Beer? It’s really not that straightforward, because none of those suggestions is particularly typical for any one nation. Bavarians also make similar dumplings – Knödel (Klöße) – and I am sure they are very proud of them. One of the most famous and most prestigious publications on dishes from all around the world  claims in its European edition, Culinaria: European Specialties, that the Czech Republic’s traditional delicacies are dumplings, damson-cheese, carp, Prague ham and – of course – beer.

Yet statistics on the most popular food among Czechs tell their own story: most respondents (about 85%) prefer the typical Czech dishes, such as dumplings, pork and sauerkraut, sirloin in cream sauce, and goulash. These are the classics; this is what we want to eat. Czechs might try other cuisines occasionally, but on the whole they cherish tradition.

Before the Velvet Revolution in 1989, Prague boasted a grand total of three foreign restaurants: the Mayür (Indian), the Berjozka (Russian), and the China (Chinese). Actually getting a seat was an experience in itself, as you had to book weeks in advance. When capitalism burst in upon us, exotic cuisine came with it. These days, you can enjoy more than 40 types of cuisine from all four corners of the world in Prague alone.

You can personally sample raw fish wrapped in seaweed in innumerable sushi bars, giant steaks from quality Uruguayan or Argentine beef, and French foie gras sprinkled with black or white truffles (that rarest of fungi sought out by trained dogs which costs a small fortune for a few meagre shavings). Or you might want to order octopus salad, unfrozen fish from the Indian Ocean, cuts of skewered Brazilian meat , crocodile steak, organically farmed food, or perhaps typical Jewish kosher food prepared under the watchful eye of a rabbi.

But what happens when you ask chefs or food critics about their views on the most distinctive and truly unique Czech food? There is no clear answer: Krkonoše sour soup, pork with dumplings and sauerkraut, sirloin, buns stuffed with damson cheese, open sandwiches, ‘mushroom Jake’, potato pancakes, noodles with poppy seeds, or even fried cheese with tartar sauce. So, the professional foodies have yet to concur in one or two typical dishes.

For me, this merely goes to show that our country – in the heart of Europe, as a historical point of intersection for various cultures, influences, languages and views – is also, quite understandably, a crossroads of gastronomy. That is why it is so important that certain enlightened cooks and restaurateurs today try to dust off the old forgotten recipes in Czech cookbooks and foster the development of local specialities using quality domestic ingredients."

Pavel Maurer

Pavel Maurer

born on 28 April 1959

Author of a national survey on the best and most interesting restaurants.

His business card bears the title ‘Gourmet’, and he is also the founder and publisher of the only independent guide to Czech restaurants – a handbook entitled Maurer’s Choice of Grand Restaurants. Every year, he announces ten winning restaurants. He regularly organises the Prague Food Festival, a major gastronomic event.

Last update: 16.8.2011 16:02

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