“It’s not easy to describe Czech food because to be honest there’s nothing like Czech cuisine,” Oldrich Sahajdak, head chef at La Degustation Boheme Bourgeoise in Prague said.
“There’s mid-European cuisine, these countries surrounding us influence us very much. Many people think our national dish is roasted pork, sauerkraut and dumplings, but the Germans have the same. What I think of as a ‘Czech meal’ is something I remember from my childhood.”
And he’s not alone. Marek Sada from Mlynec also in Prague says his favourite dish is one he doesn’t even cook himself – roasted pork, potato dumplings and spinach, made by his mother-in-law. What is it about these old-time foods that Captures the imaginations of today’s young Czech chefs?
“People are asking about the origins of food and looking again to traditional recipes – what is traditional shouldn’t be boring but simply good and basic,” said Miroslav Hanzal, head chef at CzechHouse Grill in Prague. “It is nonsense to claim Czech cuisine is boring or vague. Traditional honest Czech cuisine tastes damn good. You need to use and enrich old recipes lightly to achieve amazing gastronomic adventures.”
Gastronomic adventures from these guys happen locally – all three are avid supporters of finding the majority of food they serve as close to home as possible. They change their menu frequently to fit the ‘food calendar,’ pushing fresh asparagus, mushrooms, pumpkin, beetroot and chestnuts when they are in season. Rabbit and fresh water fish are two other items you’ll find regularly on good Czech menus. Chef Sada says a popular dish for Mlynec is smoked trout with a sour cream dill sauce and radish.
Trout and carp, both popular Czech fish, are easy to find from local ponds, but what do you do when your 19th century cookbook calls for river oysters?
“There are so many ingredients we can’t get anymore, river oysters or mussels for example,” Chef Sahajdak said. “We have recipes for beaver, people used to eat beaver, I don’t know how it tastes, they are protected” But except for the eating of protected species, Czech chefs aren’t afraid to mix and match, testing out their creations on their kitchen staff.
You have to be interested in new types of cooking trends,” Chef Hanzal said. “You have to keep the Czech base of traditional preparation, ingredients – it’s the same in Italian, French cuisine – the base is the same but you can add or take something from the recipe.”
Comparing Czech cuisine to French or Italian isn’t something most people would do, but Chef Sada takes a similar view: “I think Czech cuisine is similar to French: the sauces; the braised meat. But we probably make it a bit heavier.”
Yes, Czech cooking does have the reputation for being hearty food that can take you through a cold winter and needs a good beer to help digest. But many chefs are taking little steps to lighten it up; replacing flour in the sauces with strained vegetable stock is a common and simple switch.
“We use a lot of sauces: dill sauce, thick sauces with a slice of meat and a side dish of dumplings,” Chef Sahajdak said. “Also soups. I can’t imagine eating lunch without soup. We aren’t very familiar with salads and such.”
The Czech dumpling is one of the most atypical side dishes – typically made from bread, but sometimes potatoes, they are thick and filling and made to soak up the tasty sauces liberally applied to the plate. But these too are getting a reduction, with chefs lightening up their methods to make them less filling. If visiting the country you see fruit dumplings (ovocne knedliky) on the menu then be sure to order them. This is nostalgia food for many Czechs – having seen their mothers and grandmas make them using berries they’d picked from the forest.
But with all this focus on the past what does the future hold for Czech cuisine? Creating and combining what’s growing in the fields around, but also keeping it uncomplicated – as Chef Hanzal said, “The complexity of simplicity is how it should be described.”
But it might not always look this way; Chef Sahajdak believes something is happening to Czech cuisine that can’t be seen in other countries’ cooking styles.
“I don’t think other cuisines are doing this – many chefs travel, work abroad and are always picking up new ideas and incorporating them. In 20 years it will be very different.”