Czech food requires a reprogramming of the culinary mindset: Fat is flavor, grease is good and cholesterol is your friend. If this sounds liberating, then roll up your sleeves and pull up a chair.
Bohemian dining reflects the gustable influences of neighboring countries on this crossroads of Europe. Germanic imports include roast goose, sauerkraut and dumplings. Czech cuisine has also adapted schnitzels (breaded and fried chicken or pork patties) from Vienna, goulash from Hungary and other Slav basics -- sour cream, vinegar, sour vegetables, pickles -- from the East. And while Czech food is many things, it is not spicy, herb-laden -- or light.
Meats and starches dominate the national dinner table. The most popular typical Czech dish is Veprova s knedlikem a se zelim -- roast pork served with sauerkraut and dumplings. This hearty tabletop trinity will have fans of plain home cooking pleased from the first mouthful down to the last carraway seed.
Svickova na smetane (sliced beef sirloin, braised in the oven and served in a cream sauce with a garnish of cranberries and a dollop of whipped cream) is another haute classic from the traditional Czech kitchen.
Some notches lower on the cuisine scale, gulas (goulash) holds a firm place in the quick-but-filling-lunch-or-dinner category. Good goulash cries out for -- and is almost always accompanied by -- a side dish of spongy, fluffy Czech dumplings, which are distinguished by being served in slices, much like bread. Often garnished with onion slices, they nicely balance the gulas blend of rich gravy and beef, as well as being an aid in mopping up the rich sauces.
Hearty food requires hearty drink, and Czech beer is touted as the worlds best. Two of the most famous labels are Pilsner Urquell, a light and hoppy brew, and Budwieser Budvar, considered a national treasure -- one taste and you will know why. But visitors need not be too fussy about which brand they drink, since there are so many good ones to choose from: Radegast, Velkopopovicky kozel, Staropramen and Gambrinus, to name a few more. In general, tmave pivo (dark beer) is usually sweet while svetle pivo (a light, golden-color beer) is aromatic and bitter.
Among wines, Moravian varieties are the best. Frankovka (a bitter red) and Rulandske (a dry white) are widely available. In Bohemia, the only noteworthy wine comes form the Melnik vineyards.
Among grab-and-go foods, bramborak (a garlic-seasoned fried potato pancake) is a quick, if greasy, local favorite. Ditto for smazeny syr (fried cheese). The parek v rohliku (hotdog encased in a roll) is sold from kiosk windows around the city and is a reliable bridge between an early lunch and late dinner.
Regular hors d oeuvres include Prague ham (normally served with a splotch of horseradish) herring and sardines. What one doesnt find are colorful medleys of fresh vegetables. With the exception of tomatoes, cabbage, bell peppers and cucumbers, canned vegetables are more likely to be the norm.
Mushrooms, of course, are the exception to everything. They flourish in local forests and are hunted by the population with a passion normally reserved for the soccer stadium.
Although landlocked, the Czech Republic does not lock out seafood lovers. For those feeling claustrophobic among the plentiful pork, beef and chicken offerings, there are escape routes leading to lakes, streams and ponds. Pond-bred trout and carp from south Bohemia are popular and available in any Czech restaurant worth its sul.
Vegetarian dining is practically nonexistant, but there enough Czech sidedishes -- fried cheese, potato pancakes, various vegetable soups -- for those who wish to avoid meat.
Desserts are a dumpling deja vu -- except that these end-of-the-meal treats are sweet, filled with plums or other fruit. Other dessert staples are apple strudel, palacinky (rolled crepes filled with jam, fruit or laced with chocolate sauce) and kolacky -- pastries topped with almonds, poppy seed jam, or a sweet curd cheese.