My most vivid travel memories always involve food.
I first visited the Czech Republic in 2014. I went around the old town and the castle complex, took a hundred photos along Charles Bridge, and waited for the astronomical clock’s hourly Apostles’ march. But of all these wonderful and historic things in Prague, there’s one thing I remember the most: the smell of cinnamon.
I remember watching the rows of trdelnik grilling in a little stall to the side of the old town square, the crystals of sugar caramelizing further with each turn of the rolled dough, letting out that irresistible smell of burnt sugar. I remember getting my hands on one that was indulgently topped with vanilla ice cream despite the cool weather. I remember biting into the doughy exterior, the cinnamon flavor and caramel mixing perfectly with the soft ice cream.
And then there was my trip to Sedlec, a small village in South Moravia, the Czech Republic’s wine region. I’ve forgotten the three-hour bus ride from Prague to Brno, the series of trains that passed through the forests of Lednice and the vineyards of Valtice. But I remember being welcomed into my boyfriend’s home for the first time by his grandmother, who was quick to lead me and my sister to the kitchen where huge slabs of řízek (Czech schnitzel) and platters of potato salad were waiting for us. I remember my boyfriend’s grandmother keeping an eagle eye on our plates, pushing plates of food to us and refilling our glasses with grape juice, chatting with us at 100 words-per-minute – words that we can’t translate, but somehow understand.
I don’t remember every sight I saw on my 23-kilometer hike around Blansky forest, just outside Cesky Krumlov. All I remember was how my legs were killing me towards the end – and that the most delicious plate of beef goulash I’ve ever had in my life was at the restaurant at the top of Mount Klet’, its savory flavor in perfect harmony with my cool glass of Budvar beer.
Somehow, the memories that bring me right back to the Czech Republic are those of the food I ate. I wasn’t surprised at all to learn from friends and readers who visited the Czech Republic that they felt exactly the same.
So if you’ve ever found yourself awake late into the night, craving for beef goulash and Czech beer, read on. Today, we’re going to bring the Czech Republic to our home, right through our kitchens.
Meet Kristýna of the Czech Cookbook
In my search for ways to recreate my fondest memories of the Czech Republic, I came across the Czech Cookbook, a website lovingly created by Kristýna Montano, who is dedicated to preserving the rich traditional Czech cuisine.
Through the wonders of the Internet, I got to meet and chat with Kristýna, as well as her husband Steve. Together, they gave me valuable insights into the heart of Czech cuisine and practical tips to recreate Czech meals so you can taste your favorite dish sans the plane ticket.
(Photo courtesy of Kristýna.)
Kristýna grew up in Brno, the capital of South Moravia in the then-communist Czechoslovakia. As a child, she remembers living a simple life in the city, punctuated by trips to the countryside. Back then, Brno wasn’t the gorgeous and vibrant city it is now – there were very few restaurants and the coffee culture was nonexistent. Even the buildings were in a state of disrepair, and Kristýna remembers everything in the city to be gloomy and not full of life.
However, there was one place where creativity and love could flourish: the kitchen. As in most Czech households, she learned to cook by helping her mom and grandmother in the kitchen. While cookbooks came handy from time to time, they served more as guides. You learned to cook by doing, by eating, and by remembering.
Even then, Kristýna has learned the value of making the most of what you have. During the communist regime, meat was so expensive that they had it only on weekends. The variety of food available wasn’t like it is now. But what they did have a lot of was fruit – so they made lots of fruit dishes and desserts. Apple strudels, fruit pastries, and jams of all sort (strawberry, blueberry, raspberry, plum butter…). She learned to work with the ingredients at hand and turn them into delicious meals.
In her late 20s, she met Steve, an American, and started to go back and forth the United States and the Czech Republic. She admits the first few years in the United States were a bit of a challenge for her, especially when it comes to food. It was very different from what she was used to. For one, food in the United States was a lot sweeter than food in the Czech Republic. Sugar was in everything, even in food that wasn’t supposed to be sweet. Groceries in the United States also favored carrying processed or pre-cooked meals over raw ingredients, and of course, she couldn’t just find dumplings or Czech pastries anywhere.
But Kristýna grew up and thrived in a Communist state and if there’s anything she wouldn’t do, it was to give up. She had the grit to make do with what she had and the determination to continue preparing food from scratch that, for her, were a lot healthier and a lot tastier. So she learned to prepare traditional Czech meals using ingredients that were available in North America, learned to tweak the measurements so she could describe them in terms of ounces and cups and tablespoons, and worked on recreating recipes that would sometimes take her days, or even years, to perfect.
It was Steve who finally pushed her to start the Czech Cookbook. Recognizing Kristýna’s potential role not only in preserving the legacy of Czech cuisine but in also trying to keep the Czech culture and traditions alive – especially to the newer generations of English-speaking Czechs who have moved abroad or have forgotten the recipes handed down to them by their grandmothers – Steve encouraged Kristýna to record everything in simple recipes and instructional videos that anyone can use. The outcome was the Czech Cookbook.
Now with more than 25,000 followers who can’t quite get enough of her amazing recipes, a book, and many more recipes on the way, Kristýna is doing just that: preserving the legacy of Czech cuisine. Whether you grew up in the Czech Republic and moved away, have a Czech heritage but didn’t have a chance to learn how to cook from your mother, or – like me – visited the Czech Republic and fell in love with the food, Kristýna will guide you through the surprisingly doable process of creating Czech meals right in your home.
Kristýna generously shared a simple menu that anyone could make in their homes with ingredients available in any grocery. But before we dive in, let’s take a brief look at Czech cuisine.
Czech food – the heartbeat of Czech culture
The Czech Republic sits at the very center of Europe and shares borders with four countries: Germany to the west, Poland to the north, Slovakia to the east, and Austria to the south. Add this geographic feature to a multitude of historical and political events that have changed the face of the Czech Republic time and again and you have a cuisine that derives heavily from its neighbors, and at the same time, refines itself to be distinct to its region.
You can travel across the Czech Republic, for example, and taste different versions of the famous bramboraky or potato latkes – with the usual seasoning of salt, pepper, and marjoram, or blended with sauerkraut or smoked meat. The beef goulash you can’t forget in Prague is actually originally a Hungarian dish, but the Czechs have made it their own and better with its thick onion and beef base. The Czechs also adapted the originally Austrian schnitzel made from veal, and breaded pork and chicken instead. Now the řízek (Czech schnitzel) is one of the most famous Czech dishes, a meal both locals and travelers won’t mind eating almost every day.
I have personally witnessed my Czech boyfriend order řízek whenever possible: in a little restaurant in the Czech Switzerland, in a hole-in-the-wall pub in Amsterdam, and even in a café at the top of Sagada in the Philippines.
This unique regional and historical context has given Czech cuisine one of its distinctive qualities: variety. Even if you order the same thing on the menu every day, you’ll never eat the same dish twice (unless, of course, you’re like me who wants to go to the same pub every night to get the same plate of beef goulash cooked by the same person for the rest of my life – but who can blame me?). Walk into any grocery store in the Czech Republic and you’ll be met with so much variety – different kinds of bread and pastries, a whole row of smoked meats. They even have three kinds of all-purpose flour – and we’re not yet counting the specialty flours.
Traditionally, the Czechs eat a big lunch and a small dinner. Lunch would be composed of a soup, a main meal, and dessert, ideally with a tall mug of beer. Salads are eaten with the main meal, instead of as a starter – a cultural distinction that has caused Kristýna’s family lots of confusion when eating in the United States. Why do the waiters keep on clearing away their salads while they eat the main meal?
Dinner comprises mostly of bread, and this contrast to the sumptuous lunch may be the key to eating all the savory food in sight while on vacation in the Czech Republic and still managing to keep your holiday weight down.
As for drinks, the Czechs like to keep it simple: beer. Beer goes with everything and everything goes with beer. If you prefer non-alcoholic, though, you can ask for a limonada. But be warned: it may sound like “lemonade” but it doesn’t actually contain lemon. Limonada is the Czech word for “fruit juice” which, of course, there is a wide variety of.
And now, having fed your mind with a brief introduction to Czech cuisine, it’s time for the main dish…
Cooking Czech cuisine at home: a meal anyone can make
Put on your apron and some Bohemian music: it’s time to be creative in the kitchen. Kristýna shared this simple menu that will surely bring you right back to the Czech Republic.
(Photos courtesy of Kristýna.)
Preparations and shopping list
Here are the ingredients for this menu. Click to Kristýna’s original blog posts linked below for her shopping notes.
- 1 Tbsp butter
- 3 medium size potatoes
- 1 carrot
- 3 stalks of celery
- 1 cup chopped white mushrooms
- 1 cup chopped frozen or fresh vegetables
- 1/4 cup flour
- 7 cups water
- 2 tsp salt
- 1 tsp seasoning salt
- 1 tsp chicken base
- 1 Tbsp marjoram
- 6 medium size potatoes
- 4 cups water
- 1 tsp salt
- 1 Tbsp butter
- 1/2 cup milk
- 1/3 cup cream cheese (2.6 oz)
- 4 pork chops salt
- 1 cup flour
- 1 egg + 1 Tbsp milk
- 1 cup breadcrumbs oil for frying
- puff pastry dough box – 2 sheets
- 8 small apples
- little bit of flour for dusting the board
- preserve of your choice
- peanut butter (optional)
- 1 egg
- powdered sugar for topping
Starter: Potato soup / Bramborová Polévka
Side: Creamy Mashed Potatoes / Bramborová kaše
Main dish: Breaded pork cutlet / Řízek
Dessert: Apples in a blanket / Jablka v županu
If you’re in the mood for another weekend of Czech cuisine, the Czech Cookbook is a treasure trove of recipes that anyone can make so make sure to bookmark it. Here are some more notable mentions you should try:
Traveling to Brno: Kristýna’s top tips
Cooking Czech cuisine, no matter how truthful to its traditional taste, won’t quell your thirst to visit the Czech Republic for long. If you’re thirsting to learn more about Brno, the South Moravian region’s capital and Kristýna’s hometown, here are some tips for your visit from the local herself.
If you only have a day to visit Brno, Kristýna recommends staying in the downtown area. Go around the Zelný trh (Farmer’s market), explore the underground corridors and cellars below, then walk up the Petrov Hill to the Cathedral of St. Peter and Paul. Afterwards, walk to the Špilberk Castle where you can tour one of Europe’s most horrific dungeons – or if you prefer something less morbid, enjoy a beautiful view of the city. If you have more time, Kristýna recommends visiting the Brno dam, where you can take a scenic boat trip to the castle.
Lastly, here are some Czech phrases you can use when dining out in the Czech Republic:
Further reading: Continuing your Czech cuisine education
Hungry for more? Here’s where to learn more about Czech cuisine and how to incorporate it into your culinary acumen.
Don’t forget to bookmark Kristýna’s website for more Czech recipes any English-speaking enthusiast can make!
For more of her stories and recipes, get this cookbook from the Amazon store.
If all this talk about food inspired you to travel to the Czech Republic, here are some guides on the Little Holidays website:
Five days is definitely not enough to get to know the Czech Republic, but this itinerary and guide for first-time travelers will give you a pretty good start.
Read more about the Czech Republic’s gorgeous wine region.
For all other destinations around the Czech Republic, check out these other guides on the Little Holidays. I’ll never be done writing about this country, so bookmark and check back often!
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I hope this homage to Czech cuisine inspires you to create your own little Czech holiday in your kitchen! Much thanks to Kristýna and Steve for generously sharing their time and expertise to give all of us a deeper understanding and appreciation of the Czech culture. Velmi vám děkuji!