Food in Czech Republic
In the vast majority of the best restaurants in big cities you can pay by credit card (EC/MC, VISA), but don’t be surprised if some don’t accept them. When entering the restaurant, look for the respective card logos on the door or ask the waiter before ordering. Czechs pay in some restaurants with special meal tickets (stravenky) – these are tax-privileged and subsidised by employers. You only get these cards if you find a job in the Czech Republic, but don’t be surprised if you see them.
Traditional local food
Traditional Czech food is hearty and appropriate after a hard day in the field. It is heavy and quite fatty and is perfect for winter. Recently, the trend has been towards a lighter diet with more vegetables. Today, heavy and fatty traditional Czech food is not usually eaten every day and some people even avoid it altogether. However, nothing goes so well with excellent Czech beer as some of the best examples of traditional Czech cuisine, such as pork, duck or goose with knedlíky (meatballs) and sauerkraut.
The traditional main meal of the day (usually lunch) consists of two or three courses. The first course is a hot soup (polévka). The second course is the main one, very often with meat and side dishes (both served on the same plate). The third part, optional, is either something sweet (and coffee) or a small vegetable salad or something similar.
Czech cuisine knows many types of soups (polévka). The most common are bramboračka – potato soup (sometimes with wild mushrooms), hovězí vývar – clear beef soup (sometimes s játrovými knedlíčky – with liver balls), gulášovka – thick goulash soup, zelňačka – thick sour cabbage soup, česnečka (strong garlic soup, very healthy and tasty, but do not eat it before kissing), kulajda – thick soup with wild mushrooms and milk, hrášková polévka of green peas, čočková polévka of lentils, fazolačkafrom beans, rajská polévka – tomato soup, and many others. A special case that does not suit all tastes is dršťková polévka (tripe soup). Rybí polévka – thick fish soup made from carp (including the head, some entrails, eggs and sperm) is the traditional soup for Christmas dinner.
Some soups are eaten with bread, sometimes small croutons are added to the soup just before eating. The soup can also be eaten as a single dish, especially for a smaller dinner.
The second course (main course, hlavní jídlo) of a meal is (in traditional cuisine) often the famous heavy and fatty part, very often made from pork, but also from beef, chicken, duck or other meat. An important part of most main dishes is the side dish (the whole dish, including the side dish, is served on a single plate) – usually baked or au gratin potatoes, French fries, rice, noodles or the most typical side dish of Czech cuisine – knedlíky.
Knedlíky (usually translated as dumplings) come in several varieties. Most are used as a side dish, but some are garnished and serve as a dish in their own right. The most common type, which is still used as a side dish, are houskové knedlíky (bread dumplings). They are baked in the shape of a cylinder and then cut into round slices about 8 cm in diameter that resemble white bread. Czech classics such as guláš, which is similar to Hungarian goulash but with a finer, less spicy sauce, are served with houskové knedlíky; Svíčková na smetaně, beef tenderloin with a creamy root vegetable sauce (carrot, celery, parsnip) served with a tablespoon of cranberry sauce, a slice of orange and whipped cream; Vepřová pečeně se zelím a knedlíkem, locally called Vepřo-knedlo-zelo, the combination of roast pork, knedlíky and sauerkraut. The latter combines very well with the world-famous Czech beer. The most important brands are Pilsner Urquell, Gambrinus, Budvar, Staropramen, Velkopopovický Kozel and Krušovice. If you are lucky enough to go to a pub that serves Svijany, be sure to order it, as it is considered one of the most delicious brands in the world.
Another common variety is bramborové knedlíky (potato dumplings), the slices are smaller, have a rather yellow colour and are always served as a side dish. A typical combination is roast encounter (e.g. pork or lamb) with spinach and bramborové knedlíky or duck with sauerkraut and bramborové knedlíky (or a combination of bramborové knedlíky and houskové). Less common are chlupaté knedlíky (hairy but hairless balls, don’t panic), which are cooked in the shape of balls rather than sliced. They are also usually served with fried meat and sauerkraut or spinach.
Other Czech dishes include pečená kachna, roast duck still served with bread or potato dumplings and red and white sauerkraut; moravský vrabec, known as “Moravian sparrow”, but which is actually pork cooked with garlic and onions; smažený kapr, fried carp breaded and served with a very rich potato salad, eaten on Christmas Eve; pečené vepřové koleno, fried pork knee served with mustard and fresh horseradish; bramborák, garlic potato pancakes; smažený sýr, breaded fried Edam (the most popular cheese in the Czech Republic) served with boiled potatoes or French fries and tartar sauce; párek v rohlíku, long, thin hot dogs with crusty buns and mustard or ketchup. If necessary, you can always get hranolky – chips. And of course the ubiquitous zelí (raw cabbage), which is served with absolutely everything. Game is also very good and includes dishes like kančí, wild boar, bažant, pheasant and jelení or daňčí, two types of game. They are almost always served with either dumplings and red and white cabbage or guláš.
Don’t expect a wide selection of zelenina, vegetables, except in the countryside – peppers, tomatoes and cabbage are the most common side dishes, often served as a small garnish.
Visitors may be surprised to find “American potatoes” on the menu. These are actually potato wedges, usually spicy.
Meals not normally found in restaurants
In general, the best place to really try Czech cuisine is probably when you are invited to such a meal at someone’s home. However, this is not so easy, as people today tend to prepare simpler and more international dishes. Traditional Czech cuisine is often reserved for Sundays or certain holidays, or is prepared by the old grandmother when her children visit. This is not a rule, but a common situation. In ordinary restaurants, even the best ones, traditional Czech cuisine is usually not what the old grandmother serves. This does not mean that the food is bad or tasteless, but it lacks something that home preparation can offer. In luxury restaurants that specialise in Czech cuisine, the food may be excellent, but the chef’s luxurious style and creative improvements often do not match the style of the old grandmother. Again, this is not an absolute rule. Sometimes you can praise the food in a restaurant “as if my grandmother had prepared it”.
There are dishes that are not usually served in restaurants or pubs, but are prepared at home and are worth trying if you have the opportunity. Brambory na loupačku (“potatoes to peel”) is a simple and cheap meal usually prepared in the countryside. Whole unpeeled potatoes are boiled in a large pot and placed on the table in the pot itself or in a bowl. All you have to do is take a hot potato out of the pot, peel it yourself, put a little salt, butter and/or curd (tvaroh) in it and eat it. Drink it with plenty of cold milk. For such a simple meal, it can be incredibly tasty, especially when eaten in the countryside after a day outdoors.
Mushroom picking in forests is a very popular activity in the Czech Republic. It is therefore not surprising that the mushrooms collected are consumed on this occasion. As a rule, only cultivated mushrooms are used in restaurants. When wild mushrooms are served in a restaurant, they are usually just a small addition to the meal. Homemade mushroom dishes are a different story. A classic example is smaženice (the name is based on the verb ‘smažit’ – to fry), also known as míchanice (to mix) – the more wild mushrooms there are, the more they are cut into small pieces, mixed and steamed (with a little fat, onion and cumin). Later eggs are added to the mixture. Smaženice is served with bread. Smažené bedly are whole caps of umbrella mushrooms coated with breadcrumbs and fried. Černý kuba (literally “black tip”) is a traditional Lenten dish at Christmas based on dried mushrooms and hulled barley. Houbová omáčka (mushroom sauce), served with meat and bread dumplings, is also popular. Fresh or dried mushrooms are also a good addition to houbami (potato soup with mushrooms) from bramboračka. Kulajda is a soup with mushrooms and cream. Soups and sauces are the most common wild mushroom dishes in restaurants because they contain a relatively small amount of mushrooms.
If you want to collect mushrooms yourself, be careful. There are hundreds of species, some very tasty, some simply edible, but some poisonous or even deadly. There is also a species that is used as a hallucinogenic drug. A tasty and edible species can look like a deadly species. If you are not familiar with mushrooms, you should be accompanied by an experienced mushroom picker.
Also try the traditional beer snacks, which are often the only food served in some pubs (hospoda, pivnice) and are meant to be washed down with a good beer:
- Utopenec – (means “drowned man” in Czech) is a sausage marinated with onions, garlic and other vegetables and spices.
- Zavináč – (rolled mop) a slice of marinated fish, usually herring or mackerel, rolled up and garnished with various marinated vegetables (sauerkraut, onion, sometimes carrot or pepper).
- Tlačenka s cibulí – (muscles with onion) a slice of haggis-style meat pudding drizzled with vinegar and topped with slices of fresh onion. Be careful, can be quite sour due to the vinegar.
- Nakládaný Hermelín – marinated Brie-like cheese, often marinated with garlic and chilli pepper.
- Pivní sýr – beer cheese – a soft, strong-tasting, cheddar-like cheese. You add some beer to the cheese, then puree it all and serve it on traditional Czech bread – Šumava (the name of a region in southern Bohemia) is the most common type of bread, a very tasty, dense bread made from rye and carob seeds.
- Tvarůžky or Syrečky – traditional cheese with a very strong aroma and acquired taste. Often served fried, but can also be eaten plain, with a little chopped onion, mustard and bread. Sometimes also marinated in beer (syrečky v pivu). This cheese naturally contains almost no fat (less than 1%).
- Romadur – traditional cheese with a strong aroma. The aroma is similar to that of Tvarůžky, but Romadur is a different type of cheese.
- Matesy s cibulí – (herring soused) cold fish served with onions.
If you want a warm, hearty and more complicated meal that goes well with beer, get one of the typical Czech dishes based on fatty meat (pork, duck or goose) with sauerkraut and knedlíky (dumplings). Another excellent option is a whole pork knee with horseradish and bread (ovarové koleno s křenem).
Czechs love sweets, but consumption habits differ from those in France, the United States or Great Britain. Like everywhere, some traditional sweets have become mass-produced for tourists, while others are quite hard to find.
On the street
- Lázeňské oplatky – Mariánské spa wafers Lázně and Karlovy Vary (large spa towns in West Bohemia, better known by their German names Marienbad and Karlsbad) are meant to be eaten during a spa “cure”, but they are also delicious on their own. Other important spa towns are Karlova Studánka (favourite destination of Václav Havel – former Czechoslovak president), Františkovy Lázně, Jánské Lázně, Karviná, Teplice and Luhačovice. You can find them more easily not only in spa towns, but also in Prague. You can take them out of the package yourself or warm them up and sprinkle them with sugar, cinnamon, etc.
- Trdlo or trdelník – is available in specialised outlets on the streets of Prague. It is a sweet medieval-style bun made from eggs and flour.
- Jablkový závin or štrůdl, apple strudel, often served hot with whipped cream.
- Medovník – a newcomer that has quickly spread to most restaurants. A high-quality brown cake made of gingerbread, honey and nuts.
- Oocné knedlíky – dumplings filled with fruit, served either as a main course or as a garnished dessert. The smallest (“tvarohové”) are filled with plums, apples or apricots, the largest (“kynuté”) with strawberries, blueberries, povidla (plum jam) or other fruits. The knedlíky are served with melted butter, glazed with tvaroh (cottage cheese) and sugar and topped with whipped cream.
- Palačinka – not much different from French pancakes. These pancakes are usually thicker and served with a variety of toppings, including chocolate, ice cream, fruit and whipped cream.
Also try the wide selection of rich cream cakes that you can usually find in a kavárna (a café) or a cukrárna (a shop selling all things sweet with ice cream and drinks, found all over the Czech Republic and often the only place open on Sundays in small towns and villages). Czech cakes resemble their Viennese cousins because of the two countries’ shared history under the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Also try Vídeňská káva (Viennese coffee), a coffee served with a mountain of whipped cream.
- Rakvička (literally a small coffin) is a light and crispy pastry with cream,
- Větrník is a round cream cake in the style of a French eclair,
- Punčák is a yellow/pink sugar ice cream cake soaked in rum,
- Laskonka is a sandwich cake with coconut and cream, and much more!
- Bábovka – a traditional cake, similar to marble cake, quite dry, and usually served sprinkled with icing sugar.
- Buchty – (singular Buchta)traditional rolls filled with Tvaroh (cottage cheese), Mák (poppy seed) or Povidla (plum jam).
Koláče – (singular Koláč) fairly popular flat cakes filled with various sweet fillings such as tvaroh, povidla, mák, fruit jams, chopped apples and nuts. Their size varies from bite-sized (“svatební koláčky”) to pizza, which often contains several toppings combined in an elaborate pattern (“Chodský koláč” or “frgál”).
Finding a vegetarian meal in the Czech Republic is not as difficult today as it used to be. At least in tourist areas like Prague and the Bohemian Paradise, most restaurant menus include a category for vegetarian dishes (bezmasá jídla or vegetariánská jídla) with 2 or 3 options. However, everyone can have their own interpretation of the term ‘vegetarian’ and it is not uncommon to find dishes such as ‘bacon broccoli’ or prawns in the ‘vegetarian dishes’ category.
In traditional restaurants, the choice of vegetarian dishes is usually limited to fried cheese, dumplings (knedlíky), an omelette, potatoes (baked, fried or in “potato pancakes”) and sometimes a Greek salad or cooked vegetables. Note that vegetables should almost always be ordered separately, even if they appear to be part of the dish: the vegetable listed in a menu option called “vegetable-potato patties” is most likely a side dish consisting of a few lettuce leaves and a slice of tomato.
In the big cities, there are restaurants with foreign cuisine, especially Italian and Chinese, that can serve you meatless dishes like vegetarian pasta.
Drinks in Czech Republic
The Czech Republic is the country where modern beer (pivo in Czech) was invented (in Plzeň). Czechs are the biggest beer drinkers in the world, with about 160 litres per capita per year. A visit to a cosy Czech pub for dinner and a few beers is a must!
The best-known export brands are Pilsner Urquell (Plzeňský Prazdroj), Budweiser Budvar (Budějovický Budvar) and Staropramen (freely translatable as “Oldspring”). Other popular brands on the domestic market are Gambrinus, Kozel, Bernard (a small traditional brewery with a very high-quality beer), Radegast and Starobrno (produced in Brno, the capital of Moravia). Other fantastic beers worth tasting are Svijany and Dobřanská Hvězda. Although many Czechs are very picky about beer brands, tourists usually don’t find a significant difference. And don’t forget that real Czech beer is only served on tap – bottled beer is a very different experience. Quality beer can almost certainly be found in a hospoda or hostinec, very simple pubs that serve only beer and light snacks. Sit down and order your drinks when the waiter comes to you – going to the bar to order your drinks is a British custom! But beware, the way you handle your beer is even more important than its brand. A bad bartender can completely ruin even an excellent beer. The best thing to do is to ask local beer connoisseurs if there is a good pub or just join them.
Beers are sometimes listed according to their initial sugar content, which is measured in degrees Plato (P/°). The difference is usually reflected in the final alcohol content. Regular beer is about 10° (like Gambrinus and Staropramen, which gives 4 % ABV), lager 12° (like Pilsner Urquell, which gives about 4.75 % ABV). The latter is stronger and more expensive, so you have to specify which one you want when ordering.
Czech lager has nothing in common with the sparkling lagers of many other countries. On the contrary, it has a very strong, hoppy, almost bitter taste and goes very well with heavy dishes like duck or pork and dumplings or strong cheese. It always has a thick head when served, but don’t be afraid to drink it “through”, it’s fun and disappears slowly anyway, nevertheless don’t drink it too slowly because the fresh and cold taste (especially in hot summers) fades quickly – “real” Czech connoisseurs don’t even finish this “warm goat” as they call it.
Good beer that you buy in the shop only comes in brown half-litre glass bottles with tin caps. Experienced earthy beer drinkers drink it straight from the bottle. Some breweries also sell large plastic bottles (two-litre or 1.5-litre bottles), but these are considered somewhat barbaric and degrading by Czechs, and the best brewers make fun of this form. Brick beer is also perceived as foreign.
Wine (víno in Czech) is another popular drink, especially wine from Moravia in the south-east of the country, where the climate is more suitable for growing grapes. White wines are usually the best because the growing conditions are more favourable for them. For white wines, try Veltlínské zelené (Grüner Veltliner), Muškát moravský (Moravian Muscat), Ryzlink rýnský (Rhine Riesling) or Tramín (Traminer) or for red wines Frankovka (Blue Franconian), Modrý Portugal (Blue Portugal, named after the grape variety and not the country) or Svatovavřinecké(Saint Lawrence). Also try ice wine (ledové víno), which is made when the grapes are harvested after freezing on the vines, or straw wine (slámové víno), which is made by letting the grapes ripen on the straw) – these wines are more expensive and resemble dessert wines. Bohemia sparkling wine is also popular with Czechs. It is an inexpensive sweet, sparkling wine, similar to Lambrusco, drunk at celebrations. The best places to find wine are either a wine bar (vinárna) or a wine shop (vinotéka), which sometimes also have a small bar area.
For spirits, try Becherovka (herbal liqueur, similar to Jägermeister, with the taste of a mixture of cloves and cinnamon, and drunk as a digestive), Slivovice (plum brandy, very popular as a pick-me-up), Hruškovice (pear brandy, less spirited than Slivovice), etc. Spirits are made from almost all types of fruit (plums, peaches, cherries, sloes, etc.). Tuzemský Rum, unique to the Czech Republic (made from sugar beet, not sugar cane like Cuban rum, sold under brands like Tuzemák to comply with EU market rules). Please note that all these rums have an alcohol content of about 40%.
Generally, carbonated fruit waters (as well as cola water) are called limonáda in Bohemia or sodovka in Moravia. Tapped “sodas” of various kinds used to be a very cheap drink and available in common pubs in rural and hiking areas. Nowadays, you can usually get “Cola-Fanta-Sprite” or Kofola on tap or in bottles, which are more expensive. Kofola, a coca-like drink that some Czechs say is the best thing the communists gave them, is also very popular.
Mineral waters are popular, but usually have a distinct mineral taste. Try Mattoni or Magnesia, both of which taste like regular water and claim to be good for your health. If you want bubbles, ask for Perlivá. If you want non-carbonated water, ask for Neperlivá. Sometimes you can see jemně perlivá – it is “slightly bubbly” water. Many restaurants do not know the difference between “sparkling water” and “carbonated mineral water”. Sparkling water (without flavour) is traditionally called sodovka (sodová voda, sparkling water) in Bohemia and sifon in Moravia.
As a rule, some fruit juices are also offered.
Restaurants and most pubs also offer tea and coffee. The bacis form of coffee is turecká káva (Turkish coffee) with marc, but it is also available as drip or instant coffee or latte, especially with whipped cream (vídeňská káva, Viennese coffee). A wider range is available in cafés (kavárna) or tea rooms (čajovna). The cafés are mainly frequented by older people, ladies or intellectuals, the tea rooms have an eastward atmosphere and have been popular with young non-alcoholics for several decades.
In many train stations, metro stations and other places, hot and cold soft drinks are available from vending machines 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
Restaurants and pubs do not offer free water. As beer is the national drink, it is not surprising that it is the cheapest drink you can buy, with prices ranging from 15 to 60 Kč (0.50-2 €) per half litre, depending on how attractive the pub is to tourists. The drinks are brought to your table, and often each drink is marked on a small slip of paper that is placed on the table in front of you so that you can count what you have drunk. When you are ready to leave, ask the waiter for the bill – he or she will calculate it based on the number of marks on the paper. It’s common to share tables in crowded pubs and for Czechs to ask “Je tu volno? (Is this seat free?) before you sit down.
Also try svařák, mulled wine served in all pubs and outdoors at Christmas markets; grog, hot rum and water served with a slice of lemon – add sugar to taste; and medovina, mead, which is also usually served hot and is especially good for warming up at a cold winter market. If you travel to Moravia, be sure to try Burčák, a speciality that is only available in late summer or early autumn. It is an extremely young wine, mostly white, and it is the cloudy, still fermenting stage of wine production when the wine is very sweet and pleasant to drink. It continues to ferment in the stomach, so the alcohol content is not known at the time of consumption, but it is usually high and creeps into the body and is very high. The Czechs say that it should only be drunk when it leaves the vineyard. Many small private producers are passionate about it and wait overnight until the wine reaches the “burčák” stage. It can be seen at wine festivals all over the country, sometimes also at markets or in wine bars.