A big part of travelling for me is eating like a local. Food is connected to a region’s culture, history, geography, economy… and what better way to experience a new destination than by eating your way through it?
While travelling in Prague, we decided to sign up for a Cheeky Food Tour. Our guide, Ivana, promised to show us the true way to eat and drink like a Czech.
Ivana greeted us with an energetic and friendly smile in a white dress and bright red lipstick in the city centre. “Are you hungry?” She asked us enthusiastically. “Yes!” Was my wholehearted response. I had been looking forward to the tour all day, and made sure to save room to sample a variety of dishes. I couldn’t wait to see what Prague had to offer.
We started the tour with a quick walk through a downtown shopping centre. Ivana pointed out to us a butcher shop that specialized in selling free-range meat and home-made sausages. Similar to Vancouver, there’s a movement towards local, organic food in Prague.
One popular local restaurant chain that’s embraced this trend is Lokat, meaning local in Czech. When we walked in, I noticed the open and airy dining room lined with long wooden banquets. A big part of Czech cuisine is meats and cheeses. Ivana told us that during the communist era, shops often ran out of everyday goods, including meat. To cope with the shortage, many families raised their own animals, and shared it among themselves.
We started with a few cold appetizers. The first was pickled sausage with pickled cabbage and carrot. The sausage is soaked in vinegar and seasoned with bay leaf. The vinegar was used to help flavour, as well as preserve the meat. Another popular way of enjoying sausages is to roast them over an open fire, which often happened during summer parties. The second one was pork terrine, which consisted of tender pieces of meat shaped into a round mould, then sliced and served with raw white onions. This was one of my favourite dishes—I loved the soft texture, and the rich, salty taste of the pork. The onions tasted sweet and crunchy, not pungent at all. The final dish we tried at Lokat was pickled Camembert cheese. Camembert cheese is stuffed with minced garlic and chili, then pickled with more chili and onion. This is a real treat for anyone who loves stinky, fermented food. The pungent smell reminded me of stinky tofu and gave a hint of its taste. I personally enjoyed it, particularly with the caraway & rye bread, but it’s probably not for everyone.
Czech is famous for its beer, and the restaurant we went to offered pilsner served 3 ways: Hladinka, Snyt, and Mliko, with the difference being the amount of head in each glass. Hladinka is the most common way to drink beer, with about an inch of head. I ordered the Snyt, which had about 50% head when it’s first poured. Ivana explained that the foam settles as you drink, so you can see the beer “rising” in the glass. The most unusual is the Mliko, which is about 80% foam. To enjoy the creaminess of this pour, it’s meant to be drunk all at once.
When the beer I ordered arrived, so did a card with pictures of beer glasses, and the server crossed off a beer. Apparently, it’s common to have drinking competitions between tables, and the cards are to keep track of the numbers of drinks each table has to determine a winner at the end of the night. While I love a good game, I think that’s one competition I’d opt out of!
After our sampling of appetizers, we moved on to Lahůdky, a sandwich shop in the heart of the city.
Ivana told us this is one of the most popular places to grab lunch on a workday. As soon as we walked in, I could see its appeal with the lunch crowd. The space is very simple, with not even sit down tables. Instead, tall counters offer a place to put down your plate and eat while standing. There were at least a dozen types of open-faced sandwiches to choose from, from the classic pairings of cheese, ham & egg to more recent flavours influenced by Scandinavian countries such as smoked salmon.
My favourite was the salami with fish spread and gherkins. Although this is a “classic” Czech sandwich, like much of Czech cuisine, it’s been influenced by the surrounding nations. The salami (Uhersky), for example, is made in the Hungarian style. And some popular sausages are also Hungarian style as well. Ivana pointed out to us the large salad bar that was adjacent to the sandwich fridge. Contrary to what you might expect, many of these salads contain meat, and most are made with mayonnaise. Ivana assured us that despite the emphasis on meat, cheese, and beer, Czech cuisine includes vegetables as well—salads made from cucumber, tomato & peppers, for instance, are a common item on family dinner tables.
Here’s a fun trivia question for you: which of these foods symbolize wealth in Czech?
If you chose D lentils, you’re right! Lentils are a part of traditional Christmas & New Year’s celebrations for this reason.
I was feeling pretty full at this point, so I was grateful for the leisurely stroll around the neighbourhood to our final food destination. During our walk, our guide pointed out to us a few places we might like to try during the rest of our time in Prague, including a couple of Vietnamese restaurants. The reason Vietnamese food is popular in Prague, she explained, is because during the Communist regime, the government set up an exchange program with Vietnam, so many Vietnamese people moved here and opened restaurants. Later that week, we tried a trendy looking Vietnamese restaurant, and their banh mi did not disappoint.
What better way to end off a food tour than with coffee and dessert? Ignoring the ubiquitous chimney cakes sold in the touristy part of town (which, according to Ivana, is not a traditional Czech food), we went off to enjoy some authentic sweets. The bakery we visited is called Ovocny Svetozor, meaning “Fruit Delicatessen”. It’s a popular chain with several locations in Prague.
After a brief wait, we walked into the shop selling cakes, pastries, drinks, and ice cream. Ivana ordered us to some of the traditional sweets: větrník – a profiterole filled with vanilla custard, caramel cream, and coated with more caramel on top, kremrole – phyllo pastry filled with meringue, and pařížské rohlíčky—a chocolate shortbread with a generous layer of chocolate gnache on top. We also ordered a Turkish coffee, made with coarsely ground beans, it was smooth and strong. Although these old favourites aren’t going away anytime soon, there’s definitely a movement towards new styles of desserts, including a few North American favourites, like cheesecakes and cupcakes!
With our hearts content and our bellies filled, it was time to say goodbye to our guide. After 3 hours tasting and enjoying the best of traditional Czech food, I learned a bit more about the Czech Republic too– from days of meat scarcity under the Communist regime, to todays push towards local & organic. I’m still hungry to experience more of what this delicious country has to offer, and I look forward to the day I’m back.