As I stared at the Czech dumplings on my plate, my Chinese heritage refused to associate these with the dumplings I am most familiar with. The dumplings that remind me of home are to be eaten with chopsticks, dipped into soy sauce or vinegar, and enjoyed in one big bite. But what’s in front of me does not resemble a typical Chinese dumpling in anyway - they certainly aren’t little thin doughy pockets stuffed up with ground pork and vegetable fillings. Instead, these Czech dumplings look like nothing but just think and fluffy pieces of “white bread.” Did I misread the menu? Did they mess up my order? Or have I ordered the wrong dish?
I had been very hesitant to step into a Czech restaurant since my arrival in Prague in fear of a greasy, fatty and carb-heavy meal. To my understanding, a typical Czech meal, similar to German and Austrian cuisine, only consists of two parts: a generous portion of meat and a side dish made up of either potatoes or bread pieces or both. (By potatoes I mean mashed potatoes, baked potatoes, potato wedges - basically potatoes in all shapes and sizes.) As for the meat: beef, chicken, and pork seem to be the most popular options. In traditional Czech cooking, the dishes are usually prepared in ways that don’t fall into my definition of “healthy.”
“I know what you’re thinking,” Ondřej chuckled, “but since you want to try some ‘authentic Czech food’, I had to take you here.”
There I was, just starting a new chapter of my life in Central Europe knowing merely anyone. Feeling a little lost and confused, I decided it’s time to find a new friend. And the next thing I know, I’m sitting in a Czech restaurant with Ondřej – a Czech guy of my age who has been living and working as a creative designer in Prague for a little over two years.
The restaurant is called Havelská Koruna. It’s located right in the heart of Prague, between the old and new towns, yet you wouldn’t find many tourists in there like the most of the other restaurants nearby.
“Only the real locals come here,” Ondřej signaled me to turn around and see for myself. I looked over my shoulder and saw two Policemen in uniform sitting two tables away from us, both enjoying a plate of Svíčková, and a glass of beer.
Svíčková, a quintessential dish in traditional Czech cuisine, is a local’s favourite and a must-try for anyone visiting the Czech Republic. A fine piece of braised beef tenderloin smothered in creamy vegetable sauce, topped with a touch of cranberry jam and served with bread dumplings. “Honestly, this is a rather heavy dish. I don’t actually have this very often.” Ondřej said as he cut a piece of dumpling into quarters, I copied exactly what he did and had my first bite.
As a child, Ondřej used to have Svíčková in school canteens all the time. “It was really cheap… and that’s all I could ask for as a student.” Ondřej comes from Halámky, a small village in the South Bohemian Region near the border between the Czech Republic and Austria. On some weekends, Ondřej and his family would drive down and cross the border just to buy fresh produce from Austrian farmer’s markets, and cook up Svíčková together. He told me that the bread dumplings in Svíčková aren’t the only dumplings in the Czech cuisine – there are potato dumplings and fruit dumplings too. “My grandma always makes them from scratch, and they taste very delicious.” Ondřej wiped off the last bit of creamy sauce on his plate while I struggled to pick up a piece of dumpling with my fork.