I wish I had visited the Gastronomy Museum when I first arrived in Prague, so that I would have understood where Czech culinary traditions originated from before embarking on my eating tour of the city.
The museum provides an anthropological look into the history of Czech cuisine – and the history of man’s relationship with food in general. I met with the museum’s curator, Ladislav Provaan, to discuss the origin of a few Czech dishes. What I thought would be a simple interview turned into a long discussion about the gastronomy of the Czech Republic.
He and his wife Nina are the curators of the museum, and their warm welcome and willingness to assist me in my research made me feel like I was entering my own family’s home. Ladislav Provaan told me he was raised in the Czech Republic. An architect by trade, he originally built hotels, and through his experiences within the hospitality industry, his knowledge of foodstuffs has become extensive.
From the invention of fire to present day, the museum took me through a timeline of food culture. I walked down the multiple floors of exhibits and life-size models detailing traditional kitchens from the Dark Ages to the early 20th century, including traditional cooking tools and products. A modern test kitchen is used to teach Czech cooking and etiquette classes. As I walked past, assistants set out a table covered in a variety of different silver utensils. I picked up a funny looking spoon with a bent handle and looked perplexed. I was told it is used for an “amuse-bouche”.
A room detailing the most famous Czech chefs includes a handprint from Jaroslav Sapík. I blush with embarrassment because I haven’t actually heard of any of these chefs either.
One section that stood out in particular was a flat screen showing slides of traditional Czech dishes. As the dishes were displayed, I realized that I had not actually eaten, or even heard of some of them. All these months in the Czech Republic, and yet somehow, traditional home-cooked Czech food still seems as elusive as ever! The first dish that stood out for me was called “kuba” – a grain dish that is made from barley, lard, and dried mushrooms. This vegetarian dish was sometimes served on Christmas Day, I learned, because some families followed the tradition to abstain from eating meat during the holidays. The next dish on the screen was a mushroom chowder called “kulajda”. After seeing both of these traditional dishes that included mushrooms, I wondered why I hadn’t actually eaten any mushrooms in Czech food since being in Prague.
Many times, people have told me that home-cooked meals are really where it is at with regards to Czech cuisine. But, I have to wonder, does that make dining out – once you’ve tried the available classics like guláš and roast duck – a pointless dead-end? How is a foreigner like me supposed to sample all these magical soups and cakes and all the rest of it made by these mythical babičky – or grannies – in villages across the country?
After the tour, Provaan and I sat down to talk Czech food. Over a sip of homemade mead, he told me about his upbringing in the Czech Republic. I was astonished to hear that mushroom picking is almost an obsession around most of the country. Provaan told me that like other Czechs, he learned from a young age how to distinguish between edible and inedible mushrooms. It’s a rite of passage. He also told me of the time he was in New York City and started gathering mushrooms in the park and sceptical passers-by approached him saying he was crazy and should just go buy them at the store.
For the next hour Provaan and I discussed how communism affected food culture in this country, and how it preserved some traditions, while depleting others.
I’ve eaten a lot of Czech food but I did not realize that caraway seed – known as “kmín” in Czech, but not to be confused with the similar looking and sounding spice called “cumin” – is a very common spice used in Czech cuisine. And when it comes to herbs, here too we find rarer, lesser-known names like marjoram for goulash and potato pancakes, and even lovage for use in soups.
My time spent with Provaan at the Gastronomy Museum made me realize just how much more time, research, and eating I still have to do during my time in the Czech Republic. I originally thought that since I had eaten a lot of Czech food, I had been adequately exposed to Czech culinary culture. But as I left the museum I realized that I have only scratched the surface. In fact, I confess to being a little jealous. I wish I had a Czech grandmother who could cook me all these traditional dishes I keep hearing about: sweet dishes like “buchty” and “lívanečky” and “bublanina”; soups like “česnečka”, and “zelňačka” and “bramboračka”; savory dishes like “telecí na paprice” (veal with paprika sauce) and “vepřové ledvinky s rýží” (beef kidney with rice). Where else can I end but with a quote from Albert Einstein: “The more I learn, the more I realize how much I don't know.” – or have yet to taste...
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