Food and Drink in the Czech Republic

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Food and Drink in the Czech Republic

Tipping is a standard 10%, and is not normally added to the bill. Don't be confused by the percentage figures listed at the bottom of the bill - by Czech law, a receipt must show the VAT paid (20% in most cases) - the VAT is already included in the final amount, and you should add 10% to this. It is normal practice to give the waiter the tip before you leave the table. Tip is not obligatory - if you weren't satisfied with services offered, don't bother tipping.

In a vast majority of better restaurants located in major cities you can pay by credit card (EC/MC, VISA), but don't be surprised if a few will not accept them. Make sure to check the door for respective card logos when entering the restaurant or ask the waiter before ordering. Czechs sometimes use special meal tickets (stravenky) to pay in some restaurants - these are tax-preferred and subsidised by employers. You won't get these tickets unless you get a job in the Czech Republic, just don't be surprised when you see them.

Traditional Local Food

Traditional Czech food is hearty and suitable after a hard day in the fields. It is heavy and quite fatty, and is excellent in the winter. In the recent time there was a tendency towards more light food with more vegetables, now the traditional heavy and fatty Czech food is usually not eaten everyday and some people avoid it entirely. However nothing goes as well with the excellent Czech beer as some of the best examples of the traditional Czech cuisine, like pork, duck, or goose with knedlíky (dumplings) and sauerkraut.

A traditional main meal of a day (usually lunch) consists of two or three dishes. The first dish is hot soup (polévka). The second dish is the most important part, very often based on some meat and side-dish (both served on the same plate). The third, optional part is either something sweet (and coffee) or small vegetable salad or something similar.

Czech cuisine knows many different kinds of soup (polévka). The most common are bramboračka - potato soup (sometimes with forest mushrooms), hovězí vývar - clear beef soup (sometimes s játrovými knedlíčky - with liver dumplings), gulášovka - thick goulash soup, zelňačka - thick and sour cabbage soup, česnečka (strong garlic soup, very healthy and tasty, but do not eat this before kissing), kulajda - thick soup with forest mushrooms and milk, hrášková polévka made of young green peas, čočková polévka made of lentils, fazolačka made of beans, rajská polévka - tomato soup, and many others. A special case not to everyone's tastes is dršťková polévka (tripe soup). Rybí polévka - thick fish soup made of carps (including its head, some innards, roe and sperm) is the traditional soup of the Christmas Dinner.

Some soups are eaten with bread, sometimes small croutons are put inside the soup just before eating. Soup can be also eaten as the only dish, especially for a smaller dinner.

The second dish (main course, hlavní jídlo) of a meal is (in the traditional cuisine) often the famous heavy and fatty part, very often based on pork, but also beef, chicken, duck, or other meat. Important part of most main courses is side-dish (the whole dish including the side-dish is served on one plate) - usually boiled or baked potatoes, fries, rice, pasta or the most typical side-dish of the Czech cuisine - knedlíky.

Knedlíky (usually translated as dumplings) come in many different kinds. Most kinds are used as side-dish, however some kinds with filling are used as dish by itself. The most common type, always used as side-dish, are houskové knedlíky (bread dumplings). These are boiled in a shape of a cylinder, which is then cut into round slices about 8 cm in diameter remotely resembling white bread. Houskové knedlíky are served with Czech classics such as guláš, similar to Hungarian goulash but with a thinner sauce and less spicy; Svíčková na smetaně, beef sirloin with a creamy root vegetable (carrot, celeriac, parsnip) sauce, served with a tablespoon of cranberry sauce, a slice of orange and whipped cream; Vepřová pečeně se zelím a knedlíkem locally named as Vepřo-knedlo-zelo, the combination of roast pork, knedlíky and sauerkraut. The latter combines very well with the world-famous Czech beer, the major brands being Pilsner Urquell, Gambrinus, Budvar, Staropramen, Velkopopovický Kozel and Krušovice. If you are lucky enough to enter a pub serving Svijany, you should definitely order it, as it is believed to be one of the most delicious brands worldwide.

Another common kind is bramborové knedlíky (potato dumplings), the slices are smaller, more yellow in color, and are also always served as a side-dish. A typical combination is roasted meet (pork or lamb for example) with spinach and bramborové knedlíky or duck with sauerkraut and bramborové knedlíky (or combination of bramborové and houskové knedlíky). Less common are chlupaté knedlíky (hairy dumplings, but there are no hairs, don't panic), which are not sliced but boiled in shape of balls. They are also usually served with roasted meat and either sauerkraut or spinach.

Other Czech dishes include pečená kachna, roast duck again served with bread or potato dumplings, and red and white sauerkraut; moravský vrabec, known as 'Moravian Sparrow', but which is in fact pork cooked in garlic and onions; smažený kapr, fried carp breaded and served with a very rich potato salad and eaten on Christmas Eve; pečené vepřové koleno, roast pork knee, served with mustard and fresh horseradish; bramborák, garlicky potato pancakes; smažený sýr, breaded deep-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 rolls and mustard or ketchup. If you must, you can always get hranolky - french fries. And of course, the ubiquitous zelí (raw cabbage), which is served with absolutely everything. Game is also very good, and includes dishes such as kančí, wild boar, bažant, pheasant and jelení or daňčí, both types of venison. These are almost always served either with dumplings and red and white cabbage, or as guláš.

Don't expect a wide selection of zelenina, vegetables, unless in the countryside - peppers, tomatoes and cabbage are the most commonly-seen side dishes, often served as a small garnish.

Visitors may be surprised when they find "American potatoes" in the menu. These are actually potato wedges, usually spiced.

Meals you usually don't get in a restaurant

Generally, probably the best place to really try the Czech cuisine is to be invited for such a meal to somebody's home. However, it is not so easy, because people today tend to prepare simpler and more international foods. Traditional Czech cuisine is often reserved to Sundays or some holidays or prepared by old grandma when her children visit her. This is not a rule, but it is a common situation. In common restaurants, even the better ones, the traditional Czech food usually does not match what the old grandma serves. This does not mean that the food is bad or not tasty, but it is missing something that the home preparation can provide. In luxurious restaurants specialized in Czech cuisine, the food can be excellent, but the luxurious style and creative improvements by the chef often do not match the style of the traditional folk cuisine. Again, this is not a hard rule. Sometimes you can compliment the food in a restaurant "As if my grandma prepared it."

There are some dishes that are usually not served in any restaurants or pubs, are usually made at home and are worth trying if you have the opportunity. Brambory na loupačku ("potatoes to be peeled") is a cheap and simple meal usually made in the countryside. Whole unpeeled potatoes are boiled in a big pot and put in the pot itself or a bowl on the table. You just take a hot potato from the pot, peel it yourself, put some salt, butter, and/or curd (tvaroh) on it and eat it. Drink it down with lot of cold milk. For such a simply meal it can be incredibly tasty, especially when eaten in the countryside after a day spent outside and chatting over it.

Picking mushrooms in forests is a very popular activity in the Czech Republic. Probably not surprisingly, collected mushrooms are eaten then. In restaurants, usually only cultivated mushrooms are used. If forest mushrooms are served in a restaurant, then usually only as a minor addition to a meal. Homemade mushroom meals are a completely different story. A classic example is Smaženice (the name is based on the verb 'smažit' - to fry), also known as míchanice (to mix) - forest mushrooms, the more kinds the better, are sliced to small pieces, mixed and stewed (with some fat, onion, and caraway). Later, eggs are added to the mixture. Smaženice is served with bread. Smažené bedly are whole caps of parasol mushrooms coated in breadcrumbs and fried. Černý kuba (literally black jimmy) is a traditional Christmas fasting meal made from dried mushrooms and peeled barley. Houbová omáčka (mushroom sauce), served with meat and bread dumplings is also popular. Fresh or dried mushrooms make also a nice addition to bramboračka s houbami (potato soup with mushrooms). Kulajda is a soup from mushrooms and cream. Soups and sauces are the most likely forest mushroom meals to find in a restaurant, because they contain relatively small amount of mushrooms.

If you want to pick mushrooms by yourself, be careful. There are hundreds of species, some of them very tasty, some merely edible, but some poisonous or even deadly. There is also a species used as a hallucinogenic drug. A tasty and edible species may look very similar to a deadly species. If you do not know mushrooms very well, you should be accompanied by an experienced mushroom-picker.

Beer Snacks

Also try traditional beer snacks, often the only food served in some pubs (hospoda, pivnice), and designed to be washed down by a good beer:

  • Utopenec - (means 'drowned man' in Czech) a pickled sausage with onion, garlic and other vegetables and spices.
  • Zavináč - (rollmop) a slice of pickled fish, most often herring or mackerel, rolled-up and filled with various pickled vegetables (sauerkraut, onion, sometimes carrot or pepper).
  • Tlačenka s cibulí - (brawn with onion) a slice of haggis-like meat pudding, sprinkled with vinegar and garnished with fresh onion slices. Beware, can be rather acidic due to vinegar.
  • Nakládaný Hermelín - pickled Brie-like cheese, often marinated with garlic and chilli.
  • Pivní sýr - beer cheese - a soft cheese, with a strong, Cheddar-like flavour. You should add a splash of beer to the cheese, and then mash it all together, and serve it on traditional Czech bread - Šumava (the name of a region in South Bohemia) is the most common bread, a very tasty dense loaf made from rye and carroway seeds.
  • Tvarůžky or Syrečky - traditional cheese with a very strong aroma, and very much an aquired taste. Often served deep-fried, but can be eaten alone, just with some chopped onion, mustard and bread. Sometimes also marinated in beer ('syrečky v pivu'). This cheese naturaly contains almost no fat (less than 1%). Also can be served as Pivní Pes (Beer dog) - a plate of cheese on butter bread, with slice of onion, hot pepper and mustard.
  • Romadur - traditional cheese with strong aroma. Aroma is similar to Tvarůžky, but Romadur is different type of cheese.
  • Matesy s cibulí - (soused herring) cold fish served with onions.

If you want a warm, bigger, and more complicated meal which goes excellently with beer, get some of the typical Czech meals 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).

Sweets

Czechs like sweets but consumer patterns are different compared to France, USA or the UK. As everywhere some traditional treats have become a mass-market production for tourists, others are pretty difficult to find.

On the street:

  • Lázeňské oplatky - spa wafers from Mariánské Lázně and Karlovy Vary (major spa towns in Western Bohemia, better known by their German names of Marienbad and Karlsbad) are meant to be eaten while "taking the waters" at a spa, but they're good on their own, too. Other major spas are Karlova Studánka (favourite destination of Václav Havel - former Czechoslovakian president), Františkovy Lázně, Jánské Lázně, Karviná, and Luhačovice. You will find them most easily not only in spa resorts but also in Prague. Have them either out of the box on your own or heated and iced with sugar, cinnamon, etc..
  • Trdlo or trdelník - is available in dedicated sell-points in the streets of Prague. It is a mediaeval style sweet roll made from eggs and flour.

In restaurants:

  • Jablkový závin or štrůdl, apple strudel, often served warm with whipped cream.
  • Medovník - a newcomer having quickly spread in most restaurants. A brown high cake made of gingerbread, honey and walnuts.
  • Ovocné knedlíky - fruit stuffed dumplings served either as main course or a filling dessert. The smaller ones ('tvarohové') come with plum, apple or apricot filling, the bigger ones ('kynuté') come with strawberries, blueberries, povidla (plum jam) or toher fruits. Knedlíky are served with melted butter, iced with tvaroh (curd cheese) and sugar, and topped with whipped cream.
  • Palačinka - not much in common with French crepes, these pancakes are usually thicker and served with a wide choice of fillings including chocolate, ice-cream, fruit and whipped cream.

Cukrárna:

Try also the wide variety of rich cream cakes usually found in a Kavárna (a cafe), or a Cukrárna (a shop which sells all things sweet together with ice cream and drinks, found throughout the Czech Republic and often the only place open in small towns and villages on Sundays). Czech cakes are similar to their Viennese cousins due to the shared history of both countries under the Austro-Hungarian empire. Sample also Vídeňská káva (Viennese coffee), coffee served with a mountain of whipped cream.

  • Rakvička (literally a little coffin) is a light crispy biscuit with cream,
  • Větrník is a round French éclair style cream cake,
  • Punčák is a rum soaked yellow/pink biscuit sugar-glazed cake,
  • Laskonka is a coconut and cream based sandwich cake, and many more!

Home made:

  • Bábovka - a traditional cake, similar to marble cake, fairly dry, and usually served dusted with icing sugar.
  • Buchty - traditional buns filled with tvaroh (curd cheese), mák (poppy seeds), or povidla (plum jam)
  • Koláče - rather popular flat tarts topped with various sweet fillings like tvaroh, povidla, mák, fruit jams, chopped apples and nuts. Their size ranges from bite-sized ('svatební koláčky') to pizza-sized, which often contain several fillings combined into an elaborate pattern ('Chodský koláč' or 'frgál').

Vegetarian Food

Finding a vegetarian meal in the Czech Republic is not as difficult now as it once was. In tourist areas at least, such as Prague and the Bohemian Paradise, most restaurant menus contain a vegetarian meals category (bezmasá jídla or vegetariánská jídla) with 2-3 options. People may have their own interpretation of 'vegetarian' though, and it is not uncommon to find dishes such as "broccoli bacon" or prawns listed under "vegetarian meals". In traditional restaurants the choice in vegetarian food is usually limited to fried cheese, dumplings (knedlíky), omelette, potatoes (boiled, baked, fried or as 'potato pancakes') and sometimes a Greek salad or cooked vegetables. Be advised that vegetables practically always have to be ordered separately, even if they appear to be part of the dish: e.g. the vegetables listed in a menu option called "potato pancakes with vegetables" are most likely a garniture consisting of a few leaves of lettuce and a slice of tomato.

Bigger towns have foreign cuisine restaurants, mostly Italian and Chinese, which can serve you meat-free dishes such as vegetarian pasta.

Drink in the Czech Republic

Beer

The Czech Republic is the country where modern beer (pivo in Czech) was invented (in Plzeň). Czechs are the heaviest beer drinkers in the world, drinking about 160 litres of it per capita per year. Going 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 translateable as "Oldspring"). Other major brands which are popular domestically include Gambrinus, Kozel (goat), Bernard (a small traditional brewery, with very high quality beer), Radegast, and Starobrno (made in Brno, the capital of Moravia). Other fantastic beers worth tasting are Svijany and Dobřanská Hvězda. Although many Czechs tend to be very selective about beer brands, tourists usually don't find a significant difference. And remember, real Czech beer is only served on tap – bottled beer is a completely different experience. High-quality beer can almost certainly be found in a hospoda or hostinec, very basic pubs which serve only beer and light snacks. Take a seat 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 handling of the beer is even more important than its brand. A bad bartender can completely ruin even excellent beer. Best bet is to ask local beer connoiseurs about a good pub or just join them.

Beers are sometimes listed by their original sugar content, which is measured in degrees Plato (P/°). The difference is generally apparent in the final alcohol content. Normal beer is about 10° (such as Gambrinus and Staropramen, which results in 4% ABV), lager 12° (such as Pilsner Urquell, which results in about 4.75% ABV). The latter is stronger and more expensive, so you should specify which one you want when you order.

Czech lager is nothing like the fizzy lagers found in many other countries. Instead, it has a very strong, hoppy, almost bitter flavour, and goes very well with heavy dishes like duck or pork and dumplings or strong cheeses. It always has a thick head on the top when it is served, but do not be afraid to drink "through" it, it is fun and it slowly disappears anyway, nevertheless do not drink the beer too slowly as the fresh cold taste (especially in hot summers) quickly fades - the "true" Czech connoisseurs do not even finish this "tepid goat," as they call it.

Wine

Wine (víno in Czech) is another popular drink, particularly wine from Moravia in the south-eastern part of the country where the climate is more suited to vineyards. White wines tend to be the best as the growing conditions are more favourable for them. For white wines, try Veltlínské zelené (Green Veltliner), Muškát moravský (Moravian Muscatel), Ryzlink rýnský (Rhine Riesling) or Tramín (Traminer), or red wines such as Frankovka (Blaufrankisch), Modrý Portugal (Blue Portugal, named after the grape, not the country), or Svatovavřinecké (Saint Lawrence). Also try ice wine (ledové víno) made when the grapes are harvested after they have frozen on the vines, or straw wine (slámové víno) made by leaving the grapes to ripen on straw) – these wines are more expensive and are similar to dessert wines. Bohemia Sekt is also popular with Czechs, and is an inexpensive sweet, fizzy wine, similar to Lambrusco, and drunk at celebrations. The best places for wine are either a wine bar (vinárna), or a wine shop (vinotéka) which sometimes has a small bar area too.

Spirits

For spirits, try Becherovka (herb liqueur, similar to Jagermeister, tastes of a mixtures of cloves and cinnamon, and drunk as a digestive), slivovice (plum brandy, very popular as a pick-me-up), hruškovice (pear brandy, less fiery than Slivovice), and so on. Spirits are made out of almost every kind of fruit (Plums, Peaches, Cherries, Sloes, etc.). Czech unique tuzemský rum (made from sugar beet, not from sugar cane as the Cuban rum, sold under brands like Tuzemák to conform with EU market rules). Be careful as all are about 40% alcohol.

Non-alcoholic

For non-alcoholic drinks, mineral waters are popular, but tend to have a strong mineral taste. Try Mattoni, or Magnesia, both of which taste like normal water and still claim to be good for your health. If you want bubbles, ask for perlivá. If you want it non-carbonated, ask for neperlivá. Sometimes you can see jemně perlivá - it is "lightly bubbled" water. Kofola, a coke-like drink is also very popular, and some Czechs say it is the best thing the communists gave them. Many restaurants don't make any difference between "sparkling water" and "sparkling mineral water".

Others

Restaurants and pubs do not offer water for free. Not surprisingly, as beer is the national drink, it is usually the cheapest drink you can buy, with prices ranging from 15–60 Kč (0,50–2 EUR) per half litre, depending on the attractiveness of the pub to tourists. Drinks are brought to your table, and often each drink is marked on a small slip of paper which is kept on the table in front of you, so you can keep count of what you have had. When you are ready to leave, ask the waiter for the bill – he or she will calculate the bill according to the number of marks on the paper. It is common to share tables in busy pubs and Czech people will ask Je tu volno? (Is this seat free?), before they sit down.

Try also svařák, hot 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, again usually served hot, and particularly good for warming up at a cold winter market. Finally, if you are heading into Moravia, try burčák, a speciality found only around the end of the summer, or early autumn. It is extremely young wine, usually white, and is the cloudy, still fermenting stage in wine production when the wine is very sweet, and very smooth to drink. It continues to ferment in the stomach, so the alcohol content at the time of drinking it is unknown, but it is usually high, creeps up on you, and it is very moreish. Czechs say that it should only be drunk fresh from the vineyard, and many small private wine makers are passionate about it, waiting up into the night for the moment when the wine reaches the "burčák" stage. You can see it at wine festivals around the country, and sometimes in markets or wine bars too.

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