Meat and Potatoes
Czech food can be summed up in two words: meat and potatoes. Almost every dish is centered around beef or pork topped in some sort of heavy sauce and served with potato dumpling. Definitely not what I am used to! I was determined to really experience the culture and cuisine of Prague, though, so I tried garlic soup, beef goulash, and svíčková, three hallmark dishes of Czech cuisine.
Many Czech meals start with a hearty soup, the most notable being their garlic soup. I made a big bowl of this soup dinner one evening, and it was a good thing I did! The garlic flavor was really intense, but not unpleasant or overwhelming. The croutons added a nice crunch and helped soften the garlic flavor as did the cheese, which also unfortunately added extra oil. Even so, I enjoyed trying this soup. My friend explained to me that garlic’s prevalence in Czech cuisine is a remnant of communist rule, a period in which import laws were really strict and vegetables and herbs were incredibly difficult to find. Garlic was one of the few ingredients available, so many traditional foods tend to be centered around this flavor.
Beef goulash is actually Hungarian, although it is well-known in most central European countries. To me, it is like a thicker beef stew that is served with dumplings, great for soaking up the sauce. When my meal first came out, I was so surprised by the dumplings and actually thought they had mistakenly given me bread instead. Later I found out that they were in fact dumplings, but they are made by boiling a large loaf made of potato flour that is later sliced into dumplings. They were the highlight of the meal for me, especially soaked in the sauce from the goulash!
Svíčková was the highlight of what I ate in Prague. It was made even better by great company – my friend from college, who is back in Prague for work, got in touch with me after seeing my post about where my travels had brought me and invited me out for lunch. Small world with crazy ways of making connections, huh? She took us to Cafe Louvre, a popular hang out spot for the likes of Einstein and Kafka. Located near the National Theater, the ambience in the restaurant was incredible. The sunlight was pouring in, the wallpaper was bright but classic, and the atmosphere was relaxed. They even left notepaper and little pencils on the table, in case lunch conversation was stimulating enough to necessitate more than a mental note! My friend recommended ordering svíčková, her favorite dish that she craved in college when away from home for a long time. It is a small portion of tender roast beef topped with cranberry sauce and served with the classic sliced dumplings, all topped with the most wonderful, creamy sauce. The sauce is actually blended vegetables (carrots, parsley root, celeriac and onion), which are roasted with the beef and then blended with heavy cream and spices to make the sauce. Everything was incredible - the beef was tender, the sauce was rich and flavorful, and the cranberries were a unique counterpoint. Finally, a traditional Czech food that I loved!
An interesting lunch time conversation was centered around the meat and potatoes cuisine of the Czech Republic. My friend recounted that the previous communist regime led to the formation of a limited ingredient list in traditional Czech dishes, since you could only cook with what was available. The terrain surrounding Prague is not great for agriculture, and so vegetables fell out of favor and were substituted with more easily accessible meat and root vegetables. While this doesn’t immediately seem problematic, my friend pointed out that the rates of colon cancer in the Czech Republic are amongst the highest in the world. She said that younger generations are open to a more balanced diet, but tradition has strong roots and change is slow. Her remarks reminded me of claims made in the documentary Forks Over Knives that I saw a few months ago, which claims that a plant-based diet is the best preventative measure against heart disease, diabetes, colon cancer, and a myriad of other diseases. However, culture and tradition are important and it is difficult to convince people that lifestyle changes are worth it. Definitely interesting lunch conversation inspired by the intellectual atmosphere of Cafe Louvre!
Question: What are your thoughts on diet and culture? Do you think the way you eat is more influenced by your family or the region you grew up in? Do you think making changes towards a more balanced diet is important, regardless of cultural traditions? I’d love to hear your thoughts!