The ultimate guide to Czech cuisine

If you’re anything like me, then food is not only one of the highlights of travel, but also one of the joys of daily life. Growing up, where eating for my family was more of a pastime than a nutritional necessity, so it’s no wonder that food was often the highlight of any family vacations — and now of the trips I take as an adult. Food is often a window into exploring a new place, and the dishes that locals chow down on for certain occasions can tell you a lot about local customs and culture. Now that I live in Prague, I’ve found that Czech food has its own story to tell — flavours that I’ve rounded up into this guide of regionally specific, delicious dishes you’ll find on menus served up by babičkas (grannies) at Sunday lunches across the country!

The defining characteristics of Czech food are deeply connected with other Central European dishes. Because of the constantly changing borders and rulers in the area (not to mention their various ethnic backgrounds and marital ties), Czech cuisine has a lot in common with the cuisines of its neighbours. In fact, most of the food you’ll find labelled as “Czech Specialties” on menus has roots or sister dishes in surrounding countries, but is served up here with a Bohemian twist. (But before you read further, note that it’s probably better not to read any further on an empty stomach!)

The first thing that anyone needs to understand about Czech cuisine is that it’s not exactly known for being light… or particularly healthful, for that matter. Czech cuisine consists of a lot of meat, carbs, and sauces that will keep you warm and full during the cold, Central European winter (although grilling meat and veggies is a popular summer alternative). If you want to get really authentic food-wise, you’ve got to go with something hearty and delicious that demands to be washed down with a classic Czech lager.

All about the Knedlíky

Now, we’ve got to start off with a bit of the basics, and with Czech food, there’s nothing more basic than a good ol’ knedlík, or dumpling. In fact, I’m even going to go out on a limb here and state that traditional Czech cuisine is all about the knedlíky. Czech dumplings are great, because they can be both sweet and savoury and are perfect for soaking up all of the delicious sauces and toppings that Czech food seems to have in abundance. The only cardinal rule is to NOT eat them with your hands or to spread butter on them, no matter how much the dumplings floating in your guláš (goulash) remind you of English muffins.

Bread knedlík, beef, and plum sauce. Yummy!

While the types of dumplings one might meet around Prague could be the basis of a whole article in and of itself, I’m going to give you the quick and easy summary of the base carbs you’re likely to see on your plate. The most popular (and most easily confused with bread) has got to be standard bread dumplings seen sliced on plates across the country. The base of these is generally slightly stale bread, though in recent history, flour and other ingredients have been added. These, like most Czech dumplings, are then shaped and either boiled in a pot of water or steamed. You’ll usually see fluffy, carb-laden dumplings as sides for dishes like guláš and svíčková, and they’re perfect for soaking up some of those delicious sauces we in Prague love so much. Just don’t eat them dry in front of your Czech friends, as many consider this to be a sin — not to mention they’re kind of bland on their own. That being said, if you like the taste of plain bread dumplings, have at it! Just don’t be shocked if any Czechs eating with you begin to eye you as if you’ve grown a second head.

The next type of dumpling you need to know about comes from the favourite Czech starch besides bread:the humble potato! Boil ‘em, mash ‘em, stick ‘em in a stew — here in Prague, we love this tuber just as much as any hobbit. (Samwise Gamgee, eat your heart out.) Potato dumplings, like their bready counterparts, are prepared in roughly the same way, although the finished product is much more dense and moist — they’re lead sinkers, as my grandfather would say. Fair warning, you might need a nap or a stroll through Old Town after eating these. Potato dumplings are basically the hybrid offspring of bread and potatoes, and in the best way possible. They pair well with roasted meat and sauerkraut (a cabbage side included with most traditional dishes). For the die-hard starch lover, these delightful dollops of dough are the next love of your culinary life.

The innovative Karlovy Vary dumplings

Bread and potato dumplings are standard, but this next variation is how you know that Czech cuisine is getting creative. The Karlovy Vary dumpling is a variation on the traditional bread dumpling, and made in very much the same way — but with butter and herbs mixed in with the bread and sometimes slightly stale pastry. These dumplings up the flavour and texture game of the traditional dumpling, and are typical of a variety of other dumpling types you can find across the country. Some are even mixed with lard or bacon — to which the only appropriate response from the carnivores out there is yum!

Now that we’ve covered most of the types of savoury dumplings you’ll find here in CZ, the one field we’ve saved for last is the sweet dumpling variety — the one that’s most loved by locals and visitors alike. It’s the Czech equivalent of breakfast for dinner, or lunch, or even breakfast! Basically, fruit dumplings are here for you whenever and wherever the craving strikes, and trust me, once you try them, that craving will never disappear. The bad news for all of you dumpling lovers with a sweet tooth, though, is that these dumplings are a bit time-consuming to make — so much so that most places will give you a 30-minute wait time once you order them. But once that wait is over, the best dumplings of your life await!

Fruit dumplings are great, as they can be made with any number of fruit (whatever you happen to have on-hand, really) and are then encased in soft doughy goodness and boiled until warm and soft. Once your individual dumplings are done cooking, they’re then plated and served up with a multitude of delicious toppings. The most traditional way is to slather them in melted butter or sprinkle them with sugar and a pinch of cinnamon. Call me crazy, but my personal favourite is to add both and create what could possibly be termed as the Best. Dinner. Ever… or at least the sweetest. If you’re looking for a spot in Prague to try these out, one of our team favourites is Krystal Mozaika Bistro, which serves up some tasty Czech treats with a French twist. And if you’re looking to bring some fresh dumplings back to where you’re staying to make a lovely Czech dinner, we highly recommend heading to one of our local farmer’s markets and purchasing fresh ones at one of the local stalls. Just be warned, the shelf life on a dumpling isn’t very long, so the best advice we can give is to eat them within the same day of purchase.

To the meat of the matter

After covering one of the basics of Czech cuisine, it’s now important to get to the very heart of the matter: the meat! (Vegetarians, we do have a few great options for you, too, so just skip ahead.) Even though meat was scarce for common people (the peasants and serfs) throughout Bohemia’s storied history, the standard traditional cuisine served up these days is based on the popular dishes of the Austro-Hungarian upper classes — a fact that will be undeniable once we start naming a few Czech standards. Each type of meat (usually pork or beef) is generally roasted low and slow in the oven, with a few exceptions (no fast food here!), and served up with whichever dumplings fit the dish. If you’re aiming for expert-level foodie cred here, try matching up the correct dumplings with the right dish. We dare you!

Out of the whole of Czech cuisine, the main traditional meat has got to be pork. This is only fitting as the national dish consists of roast pork, cabbage, and dumplings. This dish, which is ubiquitous on the “Czech kitchen” section of menus here in Prague, is really quite simple; however, when it’s done right, it is so good. You’ll think it came straight out of your grandma’s kitchen – even if your grandma isn’t Czech! It consists of succulent and juicy slow roasted pork, served up with a gravy or sauce made from its own juices. As if that wasn’t hearty enough, it’s often accompanied by white cabbage, which for those of you who don’t know, is very much like the Germanic sauerkraut, but a bit less sour and even slightly creamy. The whole thing is then topped off with potato dumplings, whose dense deliciousness pairs perfectly with the tangy cabbage, and provides some substance to soak up some of that extra gravy.

Chowing down on svíčková!

The next dish you’ve got to keep in mind when trying to impress friends with your culinary know-how is iconic in the Czech diet. Svíčková is most likely a dish you’ve never heard of before, but don’t sweat it, we’re here to tell you everything you need to know about this staple. Old wives’ tales (or at least, smug men in pubs) often say that no young woman can find a good husband until she’s mastered this classic and notoriously difficult dish — the metaphorical soufflé of the Czech cuisine. (To that, this modern feminist says, “HA! If you want svíčková from scratch, it’s time to learn how to cook on your own, gents!”)

In actuality, the word svíčková refers to beef sirloin, a quality cut of beef that in the case of this meal, is served covered in a delectable vegetable cream sauce and topped with whipped cream, cranberry sauce, and often a slice of lemon, just to add a little tang. What makes this dish so daunting, you may wonder? The sheer time it takes to cook — which can be upwards of three hours, making it truly a labour of love. If you’re thinking of making this Czech classic at home, then Godspeed and good luck! Just make sure you set aside plenty of time (perhaps an entire day?) to cook. If you do stick it out, the final product will be well worth the wait.

Most Czechs don’t prepare this dish regularly, instead keeping it for dining out or on special occasions like dinner at grandma’s or at weddings. The sauce alone is enough of a reason to add this dish to your shortlist of things to try while visiting the Czech lands. A good thing to note is that since most Czech delicacies take so long to cook, most traditional restaurants will cook up large batches each day, so you can have your favourites served up fresh and without the wait!

The main star of this dish for the carnivores out there has got to be the slow-roasted beef sirloin, which is cooked along with the veggies that will eventually become part of the cream sauce. When done right, its tender, beefy flavour pairs amazingly with the veggie cream sauce, making it the cherry — or shall we say, cranberry sauce — on top of this delicious delicacy. For all you dumpling connoisseurs out there, it’s served up with fluffy, white bread dumplings, which double as carb-y vehicles for more of that labour of love (but totally worth it) veggie cream sauce. If you’re looking for a local spot to try svíčková, most places with a traditional Czech menu will serve it all day long, but one of our favourites (and the personal favourite of our team photographer Alexandra) is Lokál, a beloved group of Czech pubs focusing on fresh food, traditional fare, and serving up some of the freshest Pilsner Urquells we’ve had the joy of tasting. While we love all of their Prague locations, the Hamburk branch in Karlín serves up what we think might be the best svíčková in the city. Pro tip: try the fried cheese!

The famed guláš

The next important dish in the Czech culinary world is our Bohemian take on a dish that most people don’t usually associate with the Czech Republic, but rather with one of our regional neighbours to the south. If you’ve guessed that we’re talking about goulash (or guláš, as we spell it here) then you’d be correct. We’re sure that our friends at Budapest Urban Adventures will claim that goulash is their territory, and that’s a point we’re willing to concede. Yet, after spending years (sometimes rather reluctantly) as a part of the Austro-Hungarian sphere of influence and all of its past incarnations, we here in the historic kingdom of Bohemia are well-acquainted with the dish, which, as time has passed, has transformed into its own, distinctly Czech variation. While we’ll happily defer to our Hungarian friends on the cooking of authentic, Hungarian goulash, we’re here to spread the joy and the deliciousness of its Czech counterpart.

Just what is it that makes Czech goulash so tasty? Trust me, I’ve been trying to answer this question for years. My answer: it’s all about the flavour combinations. Czech goulash, like other goulashes, is made from slow-cooked meat (popular choices are beef or pork, but also look out for wild boar on some menus, especially in the fall), tomatoes, onions, and an arsenal of spices of which paprika is a main player. Goulash is one of those things that each restaurant and in fact, each family, cooks differently, although all of its many incarnations share one thing in common: deliciousness! If you’re thinking of trying your hand at making goulash on your own, check out our authentic goulash recipe, provided by our resident chef, Niki. And don’t worry, it takes way less time than svícková (although to be fair, most things do).

Depending on the recipe and personal preference, ingredients are either added ingredient by ingredient and slow-cooked in a large pot on the stove, or, as my Czech family does it, thrown all together into a pressure cooker. Whichever way it’s done, the finished product is a hearty, tender stew that you’ll think contains all that is good in the world. The stew-like dish is then garnished with personal favourites such as onions (fried or fresh) and maybe even a few chili peppers to add some heat.

Bramboráčky, or, potato pancakes! These things are super addictive

What’s great about goulash is that it’s a vehicle for other Czech specialties too, and can be served up either with the trusty bread dumpling (all the better to enjoy the sauce!) or, the much-loved Czech bramboráčky, or, potato pancakes. Maybe I haven’t been clear on our love for potatoes here in the Czech Republic, but like any hearty, versatile starch, we love them in what could be described as a borderline unhealthy way. (Although we’re inclined to disagree about that last part — potatoes are LIFE.) If, by chance, you give us the option of having that food made into patties of deliciousness and filled with other tasty treats, such as lard, spices, garlic, and even bacon, which is then fried — well, you’ve got a food that we’ll hold up in adoration! They’re often served on their own as street food and at festivals, but when added to goulash, these potato pancakes become half of one of the tastiest flavour combinations in town. Whether you go the dumpling or fried potato route, goulash is a regional classic that always has your back. We highly recommend trying it out on the town, and we think one of the best goulashes in the city can be found at Malostranská Beseda.

Think all Czech food is mainly beef/pork and potatoes? Trust us, that’s not all there is… we’ve got birds, too! In fact, one of the local traditional favourites is roast duck or roast goose (the latter is reserved more for special occasions). These dishes are so popular, you’ll often find that the mark of a good pub or restaurant here in Prague is that they’re generally very quickly sold out of all of the duck on their menu. Often eaten on special occasions like Christmas Day, or in commemoration of St. Martin’s Day (paired with a special wine), this delicacy is sure to please everyone.

Roasted goose and potato knedlíky

So exactly what does a meal come with when you sign on for roast waterfowl? Well, if we’re talking local favourites, then this roasted duck or goose dish is a well-balanced equation of flavour. Not only is the poultry roasted low and slow like in most Czech meat dishes, it’s also served up with what I like to refer to as “party cabbage.” No, I’m not talking about your standard white, sauerkraut-like leafy green here, but the real star of the cabbage world: red cabbage. Usually boiled and prepped remarkably similarly to its less colourful counterpart, there’s just something about red cabbage that makes me like it a little bit more. Maybe it’s the colour. Maybe it’s the slightly less tangy nature. Or maybe red cabbage is just superior. But what I do know is that this colourful cabbage pairs amazingly well with roasted duck, so I say viva la cabbage! (Apologies to any Spanish-speakers out there… you’ll have to let me know what cabbage is in Spanish!).

And the most important way to finish off this dish? Why, with a starchy carb, of course! If you predicted that this dish customarily uses potato dumplings, then you’d be correct (there’s little to no sauce, so no need for an overly porous carb). If you’re looking for a classic place to grab a fantastic half or quarter of roast duck (depending on how hungry you are), then U Bansethů, with its great beer and literary past is the perfect place for you. For a greater chance of grabbing a goose and special festive wine, try visiting the city in mid-November, when we celebrate St. Martin’s Day, or Martinmas, if you like to speak in the style of Mr. Darcy.

To meat or not to meat, that is the question

It’s no secret that the Czech Republic is not super into the herbivore way of life – at least not on the surface. Here in Prague, though, we do have an awesome selection of vegetarian and vegan-friendly restaurants — though we admit we’re a country where bacon bits may be surreptitiously added to a meal you thought was vegetarian in an effort to add some flavour. Never fear, though — if you’re legitimately vegetarian, there are plenty of options. We’re just a bit like that one aunt in My Big Fat Greek Wedding who isn’t sure if lamb (or bacon, in our case) really counts as meat or not. To play it safe, it might be good to ask the wait staff about the chance of meat appearing on your plate, just in case. While the traditional peasant fare in the Bohemian Crown Lands generally consisted of little to no meat, we’ve made up for it in our traditional cuisine since then — but we’ve still got some awesomely tasty vegetarian alternatives out there!

Sweet and sour lentils and guláš

The first traditional alternative is actually one that can and sometimes does come served with meat, so be careful, but sweet and sour lentils are well worth the minute spent asking the restaurant staff to leave off the meat. Traditionally eaten around New Year’s to bring in good luck, lentils are one of the staple peasant dishes that have survived and thrived in modern Czech cuisine. Cost-effective, hearty, and popular with locals, lentils are some of the best Bohemian comfort food. Sometimes served up with a slice of Prague ham (though this can be optional for all you herbivores out there) and a fried egg (also optional), sweet and sour lentils have all of the heartiness of the Czech classics. Our suggestion for a really well prepared batch is Malostranská Beseda. Bring your goulash-loving friends and make a feast out of it. You can walk it off by strolling up to Prague Castle afterwards.

When I said earlier that there was going to be no fast food here, I kind of lied. You see, when talking traditional Czech classics, you can’t have a list and not mention the modern classic smažený sýr, or fried cheese. Often billed as a students’ favourite meal, this dish is a go-to comfort food for many. While you can often get it at stands across the city, deep-fried and served up on a bun in a matter of minutes (really, it’s heaven on a bun if you’re coming home from a late night of beer drinking), you can get this masterpiece of cheese prepared in a foodie-friendly way.

Smažený sýr, or, fried cheese

Our favourite spot to get it is at any of the Lokál institutions, where instead of being merely deep-fried, they take a quality piece of edam, bread it, and fry it up on some awesome, buttery goodness, which, trust me, makes all the difference. Just what makes this dish stand out from other fried cheese specialties the world over? It’s all in the sauce, my friends. Fried cheese done right is served up with tartar sauce, which may seem strange to some, but hey, we’re a landlocked country, so there’s not much fresh seafood on which to use it. You don’t know fried cheese until you’ve dipped a warm, gooey piece into tartar sauce and experienced it in it’s full, fattening glory. The pièce de résistance, though comes from the sides it’s served with — no, not dumplings this time, but close: warm, salty potatoes in the form of either boiled and buttered potatoes or French fries. To get the real Czech dining experience, dip the fries in the tartar sauce too.

Our next, and last dish you need to know is another one that’s not exactly Czech, as our friends at Bratislava Urban Adventures will tell you, but is actually Slovak. Still, after the years of cultural exchange under the Czechoslovak state, halušky has a special spot in Czech hearts, and can be found on tons of menus throughout Prague. What exactly is halušky? Well, the best way to describe it is the Slovak version of gnocchi, which is actually the word it’s most often translated to on English menus. These delectable, potato-based dumplings are small enough to resemble pasta, and can be served up a number of ways. A lot of times, it can be found at street fairs and food stalls, served with bacon and cabbage mixed in, although a classic way to eat it is with a special sheep’s cheese called bryndza and often topped with bacon. This dish is filling, cheesy, tasty, and contains potatoes — basically everything we love. Thanks for sharing, Slovakia!

And, that, my friends, brings us to the end of our list. Hopefully by this point, you’ve got at least a handle on the types of Central European foods we enjoy here in Prague. We like to think that these dishes convey our heart, realness, love of authenticity, and great food. Don’t worry, though, we won’t blame you for having to switch to a salad one night, either, as most Czechs do that too. What we are sure of, though, is that all of these dishes go exceptionally well with a cold, Czech beer, and to that, we say “Na zdraví and dobrou chuť!” or, “Cheers and bon appetit!”

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Contributor @ Urban Adventures. Prague explorer, history and English buff, self-proclaimed nerd, and musical theatre fanatic.

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