Porking Out with a Side of Goo

Czech Cuisine’s Reputation is in Flux

By Alison Wallach

Photo by Emily Liu

Bread dumplings are staple within Czech cuisine. Photo by Emily Liu

Would you like the meat with the potato dumplings, the meat with the bread dumplings, or maybe the meat with the potato pancake? For an American in Prague, perusing the menu at a traditional Czech restaurant might be an overwhelming experience, plagued by the questions, “Which rib-sticking meat, in which caloric sauce, with which heavy side will go straight to my thighs tonight?”

“Czech food is considered to be heavy and unhealthy, but the original tradition was not like this. The basis of the everyday diet was potatoes, legumes, and cabbage. As society got richer, there was a growing part of meat and fat in the diet,” said Petra Pospechova, food critic for the Czech daily, Mlada fronta dnes.

It’s the rather excessive amounts of “meat and fat” and what Pospechova calls “monotonous” flavors that might turn away foreigners from partaking in Czech cuisine. Lacking in aesthetically pleasing elements, traditional Czech dishes don’t always win over foreigners’ eyes enough to win over their stomachs.

Courtesy of Simplydeliciouz

American fast food can probably rival Czech specialties in their fat content. Courtesy of Simplydeliciouz

That’s why many foreign visitors opt to dine at the city’s seemingly endless supply of international restaurants – Thai, Italian, Indian, Mexican, Japanese – and skip the Czech fare altogether.  Or for a quicky, they head to KFC.

And even Czechs do not view their food as a national treasure, according to one of the city’s better-known chefs.

“As a Czech, you would read a book from an author from like the 18th or 19th century, you would go to a gallery to see paintings from a long time ago, but we don’t see food as culture,” Jan Michalek, a chef who has represented the Czech Republic in international culinary competitions, said.

 

Sushi, Not Fried Cheese

Since the fall of Communism in 1989, the Czech Republic has seen an invasion of ethnic restaurants and American fast food chains, forever altering the appeal of “tradition” when it comes to the Czech palate.

“The first reaction of people after the fall of Communism was huge hunger after anything exotic in all senses of the word – Chinese, Italian or even anything ‘from the West,’” Pospechova said.

Scarcity of ingredients, import restrictions, and limits on individual food purchases took their toll on Czech cuisine under Communist rule. Since then, the increased availability of choices has been both a blessing and a curse for the nation’s traditional food culture.

“To be honest, I don’t like very much Czech traditional meals. I prefer French meals or Italian meals.”

“Czech food is very big when you see it on the plate. A lot of people, when they come to the Czech Republic, like Americans, they don’t eat the Czech stuff,”  22-year-old Zuzana Michalkova, a student at Charles University said. “It’s a shame that they don’t try it. In order for people to get to know the country they are visiting, it’s useful and fun to try its cuisine.”

Michalkova suggested that tourists take the plunge and try svickova – hunks of beef sirloin in a hearty cream sauce, bramboraky – flat potato pancakes, topinka – fried, dark bread doused in garlic, or tatarak – raw, minced beef that she refers to as “an experience.”

A new movement is afoot in the Czech Republic to raise the profile of traditional Czech cuisine, both going back to pre-communist recipes that were big on quality and using a modern approach to presentation.

Michalek has worked to make Czech food “look nice” in culinary competitions. In an effort to appeal to foreign standards, Michalek downsized the portions of his dishes and paid closer attention to the details of visual presentation.

 

Pork Neck to Die For

There are many new Czech restaurants that emphasize this new approach to Czech cuisine, including Vinohradsky parlament. Its stainless steel appliances and chic black-and-white decor, epitomize continental chic.

It was here that I succumbed to the sweetness of the beer-marinated, tender pork paired to perfection with tangy, spicy peppers and whole baby potatoes with just the right amount of butter. For dessert, I melted into warm, soft potato dumplings and fresh, stewed plums.

pork neck

Pork neck in Vinohradsky parlament’s original beer marinade. Photo by Alison Wallach

Celebrity chef Zdenek Pohlreich, a proponent of this new Czech cuisine, claims to bring “the Western standard of cooking and service” to his patrons at Prague’s Hotel Imperial restaurant and to the restaurants he overhauls in his television show, Yes, Boss!,  but Pohlreich puts the ultimate onus of power on the consumer.

“People ask me when we will improve the food in this country, because they think our show is a mission for better food. And I always say that it is in their hands as consumers. The consumers have this tremendous power of not putting up with it, not going to those places, simply not accepting it as a standard. So I think it’s in the consumers’ hands to change the situation,” Pohlreich said in a 2012 interview with Radio Prague, an English-language news service.

Despite the ascent of the new-old Czech cuisine, many young Czechs instead crave international culinary variety.

“To be honest, I don’t like very much Czech traditional meals. I prefer French meals or Italian meals,” Alena Krivankova, a Prague native at Charles University said. Only when dining with her “very traditional” grandparents does Krivankova eat according to their pork and dumpling tastes.

 

Vinohradsky parlament

Korunní 1 / Praha 2 – Vinohrady

Alison Wallach is in the NYU Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development Class of 2016. Her hometown is Lansdale, Pennsylvania.

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Categories: Spring 2014 Issue Number 2

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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