A surer bet in those days was a typical Czech pub offering standard Czech fare. But the quality of the food was not good, and you could be sure that you would be dining in a room so thick with cigarette smoke that sometimes your eyes would burn to the point of watering. And you could forget about variety and choice or any fresh vegetables (or, really, any vegetables at all other than boiled or pickled cabbage). Orange juice simply did not exist in the country, but Czech beer was always abundant, cheap and wonderful. That is still true for beer – though it’s not as cheap as it once was, it is still cheaper than water, Coke or, yes, the orange juice that I’m glad we have now!
These days, far from being associated with bland, heavy food, Prague has become known in some circles in Europe as a kind of “dining destination.” The city center is packed with more restaurants than you would think could survive, but most of them do thanks to the tremendous numbers of tourists who visit year-round. And now (perhaps surprisingly, given the fact that many of the establishments cater to a captive tourist crowd) it’s hard not to find a good meal in Prague.
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High quality traditional Czech food, which has a not-always-deserved reputation of being bland and heavy, is, believe it or not, becoming hard to find in the center of Prague (to be clear, you can find lots of Czech food in the historic center of Prague, but note that I said “high quality”). The rush to “modernize” and to explore varied cuisine after 40 years of nothing but Czech food has led many of the more adventurous and sometimes better restaurateurs and young chefs to shun local fare for the more sophisticated and exotic. While many of the trendier restaurants in town offer a few Czech dishes on their menus, and there are still a few (dwindling by the day) traditional pubs around, most of the Czech restaurants in the center of town are either tourist traps or of low quality or both. But there are some wonderful exceptions to this rule. My new Prague Restaurant Guide is filled with some wonderful places to find great Czech (and other) food.
Dumplings are a staple in Czech dishes. Czech dumplings come in many kinds and varieties. The basic categories are bread dumplings (“houskové knedlíky”) or potato dumplings (“bramborové knedlíky”). Then there are fruit dumplings (“ovocné knedlíky”), sometimes served as a dessert or, more commonly, as a main dish (a “sweet lunch,” as the Czechs call it). If the idea of a “sweet lunch” sounds a bit strange, think of pancakes or French toast served all day at an IHOP or Waffle House in the US (or at finer establishments for brunch).
Within these categories, there are many varieties, such as “špekové knedliky” (bacon dumplings) and “Karlovarské knedliky” (made with fresh parsley). Bread dumplings, pictured above, are made with wheat flour as the name implies. The dough is rolled into logs, steamed and then sliced very carefully with string. Though the name “dumpling” and their appearance conjures images of a heavy food and a stuffed belly, bread dumplings, if prepared properly and well, are actually rather light and fluffy. When dipped into sauce, however, they do get heavier (more on sauces later). Potato dumplings are made with flour and potatoes, of course, and are heavier than bread dumplings.
Despite all of the above, the most important thing to remember about dumplings is this: dumplings are intended to be served only as an accompaniment to certain dishes, and only certain kinds of dumplings go with certain (almost always meat) dishes. Other than fruit dumplings and other “sweet” dumplings, like those stuffed with poppy seeds for a delicious dessert, Czech dumplings are never meant to be eaten on their own.
This point is important because most people (most of us Americans, at least), think of dumplings as something moist that can be eaten – or that can at least be tasted – on their own or added to various dishes at whim. This is not the case with Czech dumplings. On their own they have very little taste and are quite dry. That is why they are always served with something and it is also why only certain kinds of dumplings go with certain dishes. These dishes are ones that come served in some kind of sauce, and that is why dumplings can be served with them: think of Czech dumplings as starch “fillers” that need a lot of sauce to give them flavor so that you can get them down.
To find great dumplings and other Czech food when you're in Prague, have a look at my Prague restaurant guide or some of the places by clicking here.