Seek Peking Duck and Ye Shall Find

Relentless Hunt for Authentic Chinese Food Finally Pays Off

By Kristin Curtis

Photo from Peking Restaurant

Authentic Chinese food proves difficult to find in Czech Republic. Photo courtesy of Peking Restaurant

Two large stone lions guard the entrance to Peking Restaurant in Prague’s Pankrac neighborhood, about a 20-minute metro ride from the more trodden streets of Old Town. A fat golden Buddha sits at the center of the restaurant’s main floor while red fabric cover the walls and tables. The bright room is lit with Chinese lanterns hung up from the ceiling, the room decorated with paintings of misty mountains and ancient Chinese villages. It is the epitome of traditional Chinese decor.

The delicious meal that was to follow – stir-fry beef with green onions and Peking duck – was a rare delight among the four Chinese restaurants I sampled in Prague in search of good Chinese cuisine foodies told me did not exist here.

The mediocrity of the dishes I tried closer to Prague’s center seems due to the expectation that local Chinese food be cheap – hence poorer quality ingredients are used – as well as a bizarre effort to make the food taste more Czech in a country known for goulash and dumplings, not chicken chow mein.

“No these are different. The dishes are different.” She points at my friend’s menu, “For Czechs menu,” then back at me, “For Chinese menu.”

“I gave up looking for good Chinese restaurants in Prague quite some time ago,” well-known food Czech critic Petra Pospechova said. “If I want nice Chinese food, I always wait to travel to other Western European countries.”

Photo from Peking Restaurant

Some  restaurants offer two menus, one in Czech and one in Chinese. Photo courtesy of Peking Restaurant

Meanwhile, at Peking, something takes me by surprise. Resting on the beautiful traditional Chinese placemats showing Chang’e the Chinese goddess of the moon, was a knife and fork.

The waitress approaches me and my friend with menus; both large and filled with colorful pictures of items like chow mein and kung pao chicken. I greet her in Mandarin, my native language, and tell her I am excited to finally get a taste of Chinese food to remind me of home. Before I could say anything else, she rushes off and comes back with chopsticks and a separate menu. I flip open its pages, and this time there are no pictures. It is just black and white and filled with Chinese characters.

“Here is our Chinese version,” said the 40-something waiter, who referred to herself only as “Mrs. Tang” despite my many attempts at getting her first name. She gleefully handed me the photo-free menu.

I tell her the first menu would have been perfectly fine, but thanked her for bringing out the Chinese replica.

“No these are different. The dishes are different.” She points at my friend’s menu, “For Czechs menu,” then back at me, “For Chinese menu.”

In my friend’s hand was a menu specifically crafted for what she called the Czech palate. It offered Dim sum dishes like cha siu bao (roast pork buns for 80 crowns, roughly $4), guotie (fried dumplings for $70 crowns, $3.5) and har grow (shrimp dumplings for 90 crowns, $8.5), stir-fry dishes and their signature dish Peking duck. However, these dishes were altered and generally made sweeter, less spicy, or accompanied by thicker, gooier sauces.

Pospechova’s negative experience with Chinese food in Prague is perhaps due to the fact that the Chinese believe that Czechs require this alternate catering.

Stir-fry beef with green onions is a popular favorite. Photo by Kristin Curtis

Stir-fry beef with green onions is a popular favorite. Photo by Kristin Curtis

What I had in my hand was Peking’s traditional Chinese menu, something you might find if this restaurant were actually based in China. The dim sum dishes offered had a larger variety, as did the stir-fry and noodle dishes. This menu, unlike the other, served a variety of Szechuan style dishes like Mapo doufu (tofu in a spicy chilli bean based sauce, with minced pork and black beans) and Kung Pao chicken (chicken stir-fry). Szechuan style dishes are generally heavily spiced, almost entirely red from chilli when served.

According to Macho Liu, 23, a Chinese waiter at Mats Uko on 5 Stepanska street in New Town, “There is not one restaurant here in Prague that serves true authentic Chinese food.”

Mats Uko, opened not too long ago by a Chinese family, serves an Asian fusion of dishes like Korean ramen, Japanese sushi, and Chinese stir-fry foods.

Czechs expect Chinese food to be cheap, and that might be one reason it is hard to also make it tasty. Relative to incomes and cost of living, fresh ingredients in Prague are more costly than in other Western European countries.

“Everybody wants cheap food but they also want good food,” Mrs. Zhan, owner of the restaurant Fu Man Lou, located on 1 Wenceslas Square, said. Zhan also preferred to give me her surname only, a commonality among Chinese when speaking to minors.

With the recent increase in EU VAT rates to 21 percent, groceries are becoming more expensive for restaurants to run a business and while still making a profit. Because good Chinese food relies on fresh ingredients, this has yielded two situations for restaurant owners: raise their prices to keep up with the economy, or dramatically lower prices to attract more customers.

“You see everyone lowering their prices, but I think they are only hurting themselves. Every Chinese restaurant wants to be cheaper than the next one down the block,” Zhan said.

“If we were to make it the traditional way that Chinese people like it, the Europeans wouldn’t enjoy it. So we make it European flavored.”

Right in the centre of Prague, Fu Man Lou pays a high rent. However Zhan’s policy remains that she will not lower or raise her prices.

“At my restaurant you’ll find good quality food, good quantity portions, good service and good atmosphere. My price may not be cheaper than other restaurants you’ve come across but it is still affordable,” Zahn said.

Zhan charges roughly 200 crowns ($10 US) per dish, nearly twice the price of what you might found outside of the city center.

Photo by Kyle Kuo

Chinese food in the Czech Republic often caters to a different palette. Photo by Kyle Kuo

Zhan explained that making alterations to Chinese dishes in Prague to suit cultural traditions is typical. For instance, Zhan and her chefs add starch to their sauces to make the sauce thicker and gooier.

“To serve Chinese, you don’t ever do this, you just add some water to the sauce and serve it as it is,” Zhan said.

Mr. Chen, 58, owner of Jin Yan Jiu Jia located on 57 Stepanksa street in the New Town center, also noted that the importance of changing recipes to suit locals.

“We pay great attention to the conditions of Europeans,” Chen said. “If we were to make it the traditional way that Chinese people like it, the Europeans wouldn’t enjoy it. So we make it European flavored.”

European flavored? Is there such a thing?

“For Chinese, we like the dish spicy when it should be spicy, salty when it should be salty, sweet when it should be sweet,” Chen said. “But Europeans are different. They particularly like salty and sweet flavors. They want the salty dish always a little saltier, the sweet dish always a little sweeter.”

One has to wonder: If Czechs are dissatisfied by the Chinese restaurant scene in Prague despite the fact that it is meant to be specially catered to them, are these restaurants getting the wrong idea?

Maybe not.

Those who venture to Peking Restaurant need not fear the inaccessibility of the special “Chinese menu.” Look out for a five-foot-tall Mrs. Tang. She will be happy to help you with your order in her best attempt at English.

My culinary hope for Prague is that more Chinese people move here. In a population of roughly 10.2 million, there were only 4,986 Chinese living in Prague, according to 2007 data from the Czech statistical office. Perhaps a larger Chinese population would mean more authentic restaurants, or at least more secret menus offering the real deal.

Chinese Restaurant Peking
Pujmanové 10, Praha 4
Phone: +420 241 730 688
Daily 11:30- 15:30, 17:30-23:00

Fu Man Lou
1 Wenceslas Square, Praha 1
Phone: +420 773 287 888

Jin Yan Jiu Jia
Štěpánská 57, 110 00, Praha 1
Phone: +420 224 210 299

Mats Uko: Asian Sushi Restaurant
Stepanska, 5, Prague 120 00, Praha 2

Kristin Curtis is in the NYU College of Arts and Sciences Class of 2016. Her hometown is Hong Kong, China.

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Categories: Culture, Food, Spring 2014 Issue Number 1

Author:The Prague Wandering

The Prague Wandering is an NYU based study abroad webzine- the only one of its kind. It focuses on issues in contemporary Czech culture and the city of Prague, exploring beyond the study abroad bubble.

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