Czech Cuisine - Lost in Translation

'Beef is Noodles' -- a beginner's guide to making the most (and avoiding the worst) of Prague restaurant menus

This article first appeared in The Prague Wanderer, a web magazine produced by students at New York University in Prague.

A little while ago, my friends and I went to a Czech restaurant we had never been to before and played the same guessing game that we do at almost every Czech meal. As the dishes came out, we realized what we thought we had ordered was actually something else. Someone exclaimed, "It's not a Czech meal unless someone leaves unhappy!"

While there are some very delicious Czech foods, there are also many unsavory ones. What makes it even harder to find something appetizing is that at every meal we are lost in translation. Unless you want to eat fast food everyday, which might be the most reliable food in Prague, it is good to learn some of the basic, tasty Czech dishes.

Since being in Prague for nearly two months, I have eaten at a fair amount of Czech restaurants and am beginning to learn many of the things to order and not to order. Let's start off with some of the basics of ordering in a Czech restaurant.

The first and most important rule of ordering in Prague is that an adventurous spirit might not always lead to a satisfying choice. Most menus in Prague, especially in the tourist district around Old Town Square, have menus that are translated into English. However, be very wary of the translations on these menus.

It was one of our first Czech meals out in Prague and my friend came across an item on the menu called "beef Stroganoff noodles." When her meal came it hardly looked like what the description said. Instead it was slivers of beef floating around in some sort of creamy white sauce. We asked the waiter, "Where are the noodles?" and he pointed at her plate and said, "Those are the noodles!" We had no idea what he was talking about; there were clearly no noodles on the plate. We asked back and forth for a while trying to solve the mystery of this noodle-less plate. Our waiter finally realized what we were asking, and he said with conviction, "Beef is the noodles!"

After a while, it becomes easier to order. You can recognize the bad dishes, and the funny-sounding translations start to conjure up images of scrambled egg pizza and gravy-covered pork fat. But what you are left with are some very tasty dishes.

The best meal that I have tasted, and most people I know will agree, is Czech goulash. It is very good and extremely reliable, especially with a side of knedlíky (bread dumplings). On their own, they're nearly tasteless, but with goulash you have something to soak up the great sauce that accompanies the beef. Beware: not all side dishes match perfectly with all entrees. Don't make the mistake of ordering a fried entrée with bread dumplings. It will be the driest meal you have ever had.

When it comes to fish in the landlocked Czech Republic, options are scarce. One of my favorite dishes I have had in Prague was trout, which is a freshwater fish. If you do not mind having a whole fish in front of you and can fillet and bone it yourself, which always seems harder than it really is, then go ahead and order trout. It is very flavorful and goes well with a side of either roasted or boiled potatoes. If you happen to see saltwater fish on a menu, and you are not in a pricey restaurant, than it was probably frozen.

It is usually safe to order dried meats as a starter in Prague, and they taste great when washed down with some beer and bread. Potato croquettes make another excellent starter. Share these small fried balls of potato with your friends, but make sure to order a side of tartar sauce! You can talk and have a good time and just munch on some finger food while waiting for your entrees.

This could take forever because Czech servers are rarely in a rush to bring you your food. This is Europe after all. You are supposed to linger. Another way to kill the time is to kill your breath with a steaming bowl of garlic soup. It's a staple in a lot of restaurants and a must for all garlic fiends.

When it comes to dessert, stay away from having it at the same restaurant where you had your dinner. In a dessert-only place, where there is usually a glass case of sweets, you can point and choose instead of guessing from a poorly-translated menu.

In another adventurous outing, my friends and I finished our meal and ordered something called "assortment of daily cakes." We thought a variety of cakes would be ideal for sharing. Unfortunately, the waiter returned with five plates of identical cake. And to make matters worse, it was so dry it was nearly inedible.

But do not worry, good Czech sweets exist! I particularly like hot fruit with ice cream, which is somewhat common in Czech restaurants. Another good dessert is crepes with ice cream, but unless you know the exact translation of all ingredients on the menu, don't order it. I ordered crepes once, and they were filled with sour milk and peas, deliciously disguised with chocolate sauce and whipped cream.

Overall, Czech food gets a really bad wrap that is not totally deserving. Although pork knee or pig knuckle do not sound like the most appetizing meals, always be open to trial and error. If you order rice and bread at every meal, you will surely miss out on the subtle deliciousness that is Czech cuisine.

Samuel Mortimer is in his third year studying communications at New York University. He is from Briarcliff Manor, New York.

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