Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Thoughts on Cooking in Prague

Since, with my temporary crown, I don’t feel it is safe to eat very adventurously, I am mostly living on yogurt. This begins to get dull, so thoughts of cooking float to my mind.
I have referred to the adventure of baking the first pie, the subsequent autumn feast, and the holiday meals and how these were done mostly by guesswork. Despite my lovely kitchen and numerous utensils, cooking here does remain a bit of a mystery. I’m not much of one to follow a recipe closely, but I like to have a sense of what my materials are and how they function. Most raw materials in the Czech Republic are the same as in the US, but there are just enough differences to baffle the prospective cook. One can neither easily prepare American foods (which Czechs might like to sample), nor figure out how to make standard Czech dishes.
For the first, I really did not expect that I would want to make a lot of American food, but then I also didn’t expect that brown sugar and molasses would be unavailable. I mean, I can cook without white sugar, but without brown sugar? Hard to imagine. (I have now located a Czech variant of brown sugar—dry, with a very different texture—and my mother has sent me two pounds of the real stuff. Splendid!)
On the other front, what I wish, cooking-wise, is that I could find a decent English-language Czech cookbook. I want one with English instructions and bilingual ingredients, and preferably with both metric and English measurements. I bought one of the souvenir-type cookbooks, but soon concluded that I will not learn how to cook Czech food from it. It is full of difficult ingredients like castor sugar (yes, once upon a time I knew what that was, but I no longer do, or whether it was a 19th-century form of sugar no longer produced), lovage (have heard of this but never seen it), goose fat (pretty hard to get unless you have a dead goose), juniper berries (not sure which type of juniper one picks these from, or how to tell if they are ripe), a pig's head (have not recently or indeed ever attended a Czech pig-slaughtering, although admittedly these are big events), pheasant (at least I know the Czech word for it, but is it in the store or must one shoot it?), venison (same issue), damson-cheese (huh?), grated cream cheese (they must be joking, cream cheese doesn't grate), bilberries and rowanberries (what are they in Czech? Have I ever eaten them?), and so on. Cornflour? (Presumably not the same as cornmeal.) Semolina? I won't go into the vegetarian issue other than that while I don't eat vegetarian here, I would still prefer not to deal with raw meat (sausage and broth are ok with me).
It seemed to me that a good many of the ingredients listed in the cookbook must be in British English, as they certainly weren’t things one normally eats in the US unless, perhaps, living on a farm or with someone who hunts regularly. For instance, my family did have lots of goose fat once upon a time, but that was because we had slaughtered some geese (not a pastime that I recommend).
If the recipes would at least include the Czech name for the dish, it would be helpful. The recipe for buchty, being one of the only things using the Czech name and thus one I can verify I've eaten, indicates that damson-cheese might be the code-word for tvaroh (an essential Czech baking ingredient), but another recipe calls for cream cheese where I would expect tvaroh, so who knows what they are talking about. (Tvaroh, I have learned from Kristen, must be akin to the Russian tvorog.)
I remarked upon the problem to Věra, who said that these cookbooks are hopeless and probably not in British English any more than in American. We commiserated about the difficulty of cooking in a foreign land since it is just as hard for her to cook in Pittsburgh, where there is no tvaroh, poppyseed filling, etc. (And her partner is a vegetarian.)
Well, someday I may learn how to make various kinds of cabbage and knedliky and baked goods, but I feel a little dubious.
For an explanation of how to locate the Czech equivalents of baking soda and baking powder, see Jesse’s account of baking peanut butter cookies. The cookies turned out fine, if rather pale from lack of brown sugar. Actually, we thought they tasted like sugar cookies with a hint of peanut-butter flavor. Which was all very well, but not much like the genuine article.

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Blogger Julia said...

I have one of those little cookbooks too and you are right - the recipes don't correspond to reality. If you want to try to cook Czech food, I've had some success looking up Czech-American recipes online ( is one example) and then translating them back to Czech ingredients. Cream cheese is tvaroh for sure, by the way, and if you still need molasses (and brown sugar too), check out as they carry black treacle (molasses) and brown sugar. For vanilla, you can substitute vanilla sugar, buy the real stuff at Culinaria (overpriced but available) or we usually just substitute a dash of bourbon (southerners you know ;-). Good luck and hope your tooth feels better soon!

January 11, 2006 10:33 PM  
Blogger Karla said...

Thanks for the tips! At the moment my thoughts of cooking are more fantasy than anything else, but in a week or so, let's hope I can make and eat something with actual texture.

January 12, 2006 8:35 PM  
Blogger Hubert said...

You can probably eat broth though. Which brings me to my question that might help all who might run across this issue. Does "Vyvar" = "Broth" in Czech? In other words, does my concept of what Broth should be, that is, liquid simmered for hours from bones, liver, guts, etc., i.e., the base of the soup, the essential flavoring, hold true for "Vyvar"? If so, or if not, where can one find "broth" here in Prague?

January 14, 2006 6:13 PM  
Blogger Karla said...

I think of vyvar as meaning broth in the sense you mean, although in restaurants it certainly has other ingredients added.

I haven't noticed any sort of vyvar being sold in grocery stores. What I've found is bujon (bouillon cubes). Bujon works pretty well if, for instance, chicken broth is simply a flavoring ingredient. I used it in the last batch of leek-and-potato soup, and possibly in pre-New Year's borscht.

January 14, 2006 9:28 PM  
Blogger Kristen said...

I meant to post the first time these came up. From someone with a lot of experience with British cookbooks:

Castor sugar is superfine sugar.
Lovage is a herb often used as a salad green. It isn't too popular in the US, but is readily available in seeds to be grown in one's own garden. It kind of tastes like celery, so you can substitute that.
Goose fat is actually often available in European markets or at butchers (don't ask how a vegetarian knows this).
Juniper berries are usually sold dried in spice markets (in the US you usually have to mail order them). I've never picked any myself.
Pheasant is also often available seasonally in European markets.
You can grate cream cheese--if you freeze it first. (I've seen recipes calling for this.)
You might have eaten bilberries or rowanberries. They are of those group of berries that don't grow in the states. (Or rarely do.)
Cornflour is the British term for cornstarch.
Damson cheese is a thick jam made from damson plums.
Semolina is the flour (durum wheat) pasta is made from. It is also what Cream of Wheat is made from in the US. You can get it at co-ops and such in the US. You can substitute a high-gluten flour.

My main problem cooking over here is that the flour has a different gluten content, so baked goods turn out a bit "off" texture-wise. (Oh, and brown sugar doesn't exist here either. Nor does powdered sugar.)

January 15, 2006 11:35 PM  
Blogger Karla said...

So in other words castor sugar bears some relationship to powdered sugar. As for juniper berries, I have now seen them for sale.

Well, it's all very curious. I am finally coming up with a nice list of things that I can easily cook here, which I suppose are more American than Czech, but at least taste good.

January 16, 2006 9:43 AM  
Blogger Kristen said...

No--castor sugar is NOT powdered sugar! It is extremely finely granulated sugar. You can substitute regular granulated sugar in most recipes, unless you are doing something like crystalizing flowers, which requires finely granulated sugar.

January 16, 2006 9:41 PM  
Blogger Karla said...

I didn't say I thought castor sugar was the same as powdered sugar. But it is nice to know which sugar is best to substitute for it.

As my knowledge of cooking (and especially baking) is comparatively elementary, rest assured that I am not too likely to take up crystalizing flowers. Ordinary cakes, pies, and cookies are sufficient adventure for me. (Unless, of course, I am led into an orgy of flower-crystallizing by a co-conspirator. Maybe when we get back to Pittsburgh.)

January 16, 2006 10:52 PM  
Anonymous Prague Hotels said...

Ou, in Prague very good food. I like czech cuisine! it`s great

September 19, 2007 4:02 PM  
Blogger Lucy said...

You can try Ovocné knedlíky (fruit dumplings), it's very easy and tasty. This is a very typical national dish. Even though it is sweet, in Prague restaurants it is usually a main course rather than a dessert. Once you try them, you'll understand why -- they are quite filling.

Step 1: The Batter
3 1/2 tablespoons butter
a bit of salt (leave out if butter is salted)
1 egg
1/4 pound grated farmer's cheese (dry farmer's cheese can usually be found at health food stores)
1 cup milk
4 cups flour

Mix the ingredients together in the order given.
Find other Czech recipes if you are interested.

April 23, 2008 3:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Try my Babi's recipes in MY CZECH HERITAGE COOKBOOK by Vanorny-Barcus. Her recipes are old, traditional and absolutely delicious. Can be found on Amazon

January 07, 2010 4:21 AM  

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