Traditional Czech food, with its emphasis on pork, sauerkraut and bread dumplings topped with gravy, can be delicious when done well, but it can also be quite heavy. A new wave of restaurants is transforming the Czech dining scene with its focus on fresh, locally grown produce and a lighter, more-innovative cooking approach. Whether you choose traditional or modern, you’ll find Czech cuisine does not disappoint.

Traditional Czech Cuisine

On the surface of it, Czech food seems very similar to German or Polish food: lots of meat served with dumplings and cabbage. The little differences are what make the food here special – eat a forkful of svíčková (roast beef served with a sour cream sauce and spices) sopped up with fluffy bread dumpling and you’ll be wondering why you haven’t heard more about this cuisine.

Czechs who eat snídaně (breakfast) at home generally have bread with butter, cheese, eggs, ham or sausage, jam or yoghurt. Commuters gobble down soup and frankfurters at a bufet (self-service, cafeteria-style place).

Traditionally, a big feed of meat and dumplings is taken at lunch time, although the meal is eaten quickly and there’s no time for a nap afterwards. The Western way of life is catching on, however, particularly in Prague, and most people are too busy to even take an hour out for lunch. The evening meal is usually no more than a plate of cold meats and condiments eaten with bread and washed down with a glass of beer.

Roast Pork

The solid heart of Czech cooking is roast pork with dumplings and sauerkraut (vepřové s knedlíky a kyselé zelí), but the meal really isn’t complete unless it’s washed down with pivo (beer). The pork is roasted with salt and caraway seeds, and good roast pork should fall apart at the touch of a fork. While it’s usually served with zelí (sauerkraut; cabbage pickled in vinegar) it can be accompanied by cabbage steamed with onions, apple, salt and caraway – it should be crunchy, not like English boiled cabbage.

Dumplings

The dumplings are what Czech food is really all about. Fluffy, light and soft, houskové knedlíky (bread dumplings) are made from flour, yeast, egg yolks and milk, with cubes of baguette added to the mix. They are raised like bread dough, then boiled in hot water and sliced.

Some dishes are served with bramborové knedlíky (potato dumplings). Much heavier than the bread version, they are made from shredded, boiled potato mixed with flour and egg yolk.

Svíčková

It’s hard to mess up roasted and marinated beef (svíčková na smetaně): however tough the beef is, when you marinade it for hours in vinegar, herbs and vegetables, then stew it for another few hours, it’s always deliciously tender. The beef is served in a sour cream sauce, garnished with lemon and tart cranberries.

Goulash

Guláš (goulash) is a staple of every menu and usually the cheapest meal available; most pubs have their own special recipe. Cubes of beef or pork are mixed with an equal quantity of sliced onions and fried with paprika, then stewed with stock and tomatoes. The best goulash is three days old (though EU regulations now prohibit serving warm, cooked food that’s been standing more than three hours, so you’ll have to visit a Czech home to try it) and each fresh batch should be seasoned with a spoonful of the last batch.

Beer Snacks

Most pubs have a ‘K vašemu pivu’ (‘with your beer’) section of the menu, devoted to snacky treats. These include spicy pork or beef sausages (klobásy), fried or boiled, served with mustard on rye bread or a roll; frankfurters (párky); a Hungarian snack of fried pastry coated with garlic, cheese, butter or jam (langoše); a patty made from strips of raw potato and garlic (bramborák); and chips or French fries (hranolky) or fried sliced potatoes (brambůrky). Beer cheese – cheese marinated in garlic, spices and oil – is a great accompaniment for a couple of cold lagers. Look for the word syr (cheese) in the ‘with your beer’ section of the menu.

Desserts

The traditional local dessert is ovocné knedlíky (fruit dumpings). Bad fruit dumplings are almost inedibly heavy, so this is one dish it’s worth ordering at a decent restaurant. Yeast or potato dumplings are filled with plums (švestkové knedlíky) or strawberries (jahodové knedlíky). They are served with sugar and cottage cheese, or with yoghurt, poppy seeds or melted butter.

Essential Food & Drink

Becherovka A shot of this sweetish herbal liqueur from Karlovy Vary is a popular way to start (or end) a big meal.

Beer Modern pils (light, amber-coloured lager) was invented in the city of Plzeň in the 19th century, giving Czechs bragging rights to having the best beer (pivo) in the world.

Braised Beef Look out for svíčková na smetaně on menus. This is a satisfying slice of roast beef, served in a cream sauce, with a side of bread dumplings and a dollop of cranberry sauce.

Carp This lowly fish (kapr in Czech) is given pride of place every Christmas at the centre of the family meal. Kapr na kmíní is fried or baked carp with caraway seed.

Dumplings Every culture has its favourite starchy side dish; for Czechs it’s knedliky – big bread dumplings that are perfect for mopping up gravy.

Roast Pork Move over beef, pork (vepřové maso) is king here. The classic Bohemian dish, seen on menus around the country, is vepřo-knedlo-zelo, local slang for roast pork, bread dumplings and sauerkraut.