As you might have expected, we eat out a lot when we do research for our Prague food tours, the Prague Foodie Map and this very blog. (Hey, we have an Instagram account and we try to post a picture a day, which means a meal out a day. Yeah, it’s hard to be us.) But in doing so, we often see foreign visitors do things that clearly identify them as foreign visitors and set them apart from the locals.
So we have investigated the phenomenon, asked around some of our favorite restaurants and came up with a list of “Czech food fails”: things done to Czech food by foreign visitors that make the locals either shake their head in disbelief, or straight out cringe. Here’s how you don't eat Czech food in Prague restaurants.
How not to eat Czech food
Folding a chlebicek
Mistake: folding a chebicek
Degree of offense: 2/5
Correction: just don’t fold it
Chlebicek, the classic Czech open-faced sandwich, is not open-faced for nothing: it is styled in a specific way and should lure the customer to buy and eat it. Sure, the sandwich does seem to miss the top bread and the handling is a bit more difficult, but that’s the whole point: the bread-to-topping ratio is higher in favor of the topping, and that’s not a bad thing. But this ain’t a pizza. Folding the chlebicek for better handling clearly reveals you as a foreign national. You could as well slap a big “tourist” sticker on your forehead. Of course, some of the topping may end up on you, but hey, you wanted a souvenir, anyway, right? (And remember, the best one is the classic ham-and-potato-salad combo, and the best place for it is the Sisters bistro.)
Eating a chlebicek with knife and fork
Mistake: eating a chebicek
Degree of offense: 3/5
Correction: drop the knife: this is a fingers-only affair
Talking about the chlebicek, the Czech open-faced sandwich, there’s another thing where Czechs and foreigners differ: according to the staff at the Sisters bistro, while a negligible fraction of the Czechs eat the chlebicek other than with their fingers, nearly every foreign visitor eats the sandwich with a fork and knife. No. You wouldn’t eat Oreo cookies with cutlery, would you? A part of the pleasure of eating a chlebicek is derived from the fact that you hold it in your hand and deliberate on the best course of action: do you start with the ham? Or potato salad first? How do you eat the pickle and the egg on the top? These are all decisions that simply make eating a chlebicek the special event that it is. So drop the knife, apply some Purell, and go at it!
Pouring beer from glass to glass
Mistake: pouring beer from a glass to another
Degree of offense: 5/5, deportation imminent
Correction: just share the glass, okay?
Czech bartenders in Prague’s beer halls are not the kind of folk prone to fainting very often, but if there’s one thing that can make make them weaker in the knees, it must be when they see their patrons pouring beer from one glass to another. The classic scenario: a couple orders two beers and one does not want to finish the whole thing, so they pour some of their beer to the partner’s glass. This is not only wrong, it also feels and looks wrong: most Czechs cringe just at the idea of someone pouring beer from one glass to another. Why? Because you are mixing beers of different temperatures, the whole thing just foams up, and you are loosing the sparkle and the kick Czechs prize so much about their beer. And it’s just wrong. If there’s one food-related thing that might get you deported, it’s this one. The right way to share? Just offer your partner to have a drink from your glass. Easy.
Making sandwiches out of things
Mistake: making sandwiches out of beer snacks
degree of offense: 1/5
Correction: alternate between bites of bread and meat
Czech cuisine has a specific type of dish: “things that go well with beer”, or “beer snacks”. These are usually smaller plates of meat and condiments that go well with - you guessed it - beer. They are usually served with slices of bread in a basket. What Czechs never - but foreign visitors often - do, is putting the meat, cheese or condiments on the bread, making a sandwich out of the whole thing. Sure, the marinated cheese is soft to the point of being spreadable, but Czechs usually eat these separately: you have a bite of ham with horseradish cream, for instance, followed by a bite of bread. That’s the Czech way.
Incorrect handling of dumplings
Mistake: eating dumplings without sauce, with hands
degree of offense: 4/5
Correction: soak the dumplings in sauce!
We could honestly write a separate post on what foreign nationals do wrong with dumplings. Dumplings, a staple of traditional Czech cuisine, come in different shapes and sizes, and are probably the most confusing element when foreign visitors try to order Czech food in Prague. First of all, dim sum dumplings are not part of Czech cuisine. With a horrible degree of simplification, Czech dumplings come in two varieties: potato dumplings, which can be - very roughly - compared to bigger gnocchi, and bread roll dumplings, which are basically cooked bread and come in thick slices. A bread roll dumpling is basically 100% gluten - Gwyneth Paltrow would pass out at the mere sight of it - but the key to understanding it is the fact that it has no particular flavor of it’s own, and is used exclusively as a vehicle for a sauce or gravy that comes with a dish. There are two basic offenses involving the dumpling.
1. Pairing dumplings with dishes that have no sauce.
2. Eating dumplings with your hands.
These are both variations of the same misunderstanding: dumplings, and especially bread roll dumplings, serve as the vehicle for sauce. Therefore, ordering dumplings with the likes of schnitzel or fried cheese or - the horror - steak tartare makes absolutely no sense. (BTW, schnitzels pair best with the potato salad, while fried cheese is the best with cooked potatoes or fries.) The second offense only shows you have not really flipped the dumpling around in the sauce and haven’t soaked enough of it in the dumpling: if you did, you couldn’t really take it in your hand. When properly soaked in sauce, dumplings can only be eaten with cutleries.
Trim the fat off
Mistake: trim the fat off ham and meat in general
degree of offense: 2/5
Correction: fat is flavor! Leave it in.
Czechs do love their fat in all of it’s forms: be it fried cheese, pork belly or crackling spread, Czechs subscribe to the notion that fat is juice and flavor. Trimming the fat off is not a serious offense, and a few Czechs have been convicted of it, too, but we just think it’s a cry-out shame. So the next time you order Prague ham or pork belly, try the fat layer, too. Maybe you’ll realize that this is the thing you’ve been missing from your diet all along. (Just don’t forget to jog after it, okay?)
Okay, all that being said, Czechs don’t judge. We all got our dirty secrets, don't we? The founder of the restaurant group that owns Lokal, Mr Tomas Karpisek, drinks his beer with soda water. Ms Hana Michopulu, the owner of the Sisters bistro, eats mayonnaise with and potato chips in bed. Hey, we’re all people and the Czechs, one of the most atheist societies in the world, understand that we all make mistakes. But if you’ve read through the post up to here, there’s a few mistakes you will not be repeating in Prague anymore. Enjoy your stay!