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Pass the dumplings

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Learning to appreciate traditional Czech food.

When I arrived in Prague after living in San Francisco, I was dismayed to find vegetarian options limited. The exotic fruits and vegetables that I’d taken for granted at California’s markets were non-existent or else exorbitantly priced, particularly over the winter. Instead, the typical Czech hospoda (pub) offered hearty meat and potato dishes. For the most part, I found the vegetarian Czech cuisine tasty and novel, if a bit greasy. I particularly liked sides like bramboračky (fried potato pancakes) and croquetty (fried potato balls), as well as less-greasy salads and soups. After a few filling meals of řízek (fried breaded pork filet) and svičkova (roast beef with gravy), though, my body was yearning for something lighter and greener. Eating every meal in a restaurant grew old fast, and I soon realized that if I planned on staying here for any length of time, I needed to wrap my head around food shopping and food preparation abroad.

Going to the grocery store in Prague was at once stimulating, yet daunting. My favorite part of a Czech supermarket was its bakery section. Even though I knew I should only buy enough bread for that particular day, I could never resist leaving without a sampling of fresh bread, savory and sweet pastries. Second to the fresh baked goods was the dairy section. After my initial amazement over how much space a typical Czech store devoted to its milk, cream, yogurt (both white and flavored), cheese and dairy-based spreads, I began a determined search to find the tastiest varieties of each. It was in the Czech Republic that I learned to appreciate the difference between cottage cheese as I knew it in America and the less-salty, minimally processed Czech tvaroh, which came in hard, soft, spreadable and flavored versions. After some experimentation, I found a type of pomazánka (spreadable cheese) that even worked in my American cheesecake recipe.

While I enjoyed browsing in the supermarket, I absolutely dreaded shopping at the corner store where I had to ask for each item, often repeating my request multiple times before the sales clerk understood. My shyness to speak Czech made matters worse since even when I did pronounce my request sufficiently, the sales clerk still couldn’t hear me. It felt like all the sales clerks in Prague had a personal vendetta against poor-Czech speakers, however, in time, I realized those same sales clerks often treated locals in a similiarly abrupt manner. I grew comfortable going to shops where I had to ask for each item, although I still had trouble pronouncing weight in kilograms.

As a teacher on the go at the time, a typical lunchtime meal in between classes would be kefírové mléko (kefir milk) with two or three kornšpitzy (multi-grain bread roll). I would often see construction workers in Prague carrying bags of bread rolls, although most of the workers also stopped by a řeznictví – uzenářství (butcher’s shop) to purchase smoked or cured meat to round out their meal. My Czech students were always surprised when I told them that Americans tended to eat cold sandwiches or salads for lunch, since most of them regarded a hot midday meal, complete with a soup starter and a half liter of beer as an essential part of their day.

When one of my students described how she prepared a warm meal for her dog every day, I knew this country really prided itself on its cuisine. Growing up in a land without a strong national cuisine, but very strong regional traditions, I found it difficult to answer the repeated question: What do Americans eat? Impossible to generalization, I reverted to telling the dishes that my American family would eat for holidays, and whenever appropriate preparing a sampling for my Czech friends. Initially, I ran into trouble finding items like sweet potatoes, cream of chicken soup, water chestnuts or canned artichokes that many of my holiday recipes called for; however, in time Prague’s supermarkets and specialty shops began to carry nearly everything I could desire. One time I even sprung to buy Crisco for greasing my baking dishes, although I paid far more than I later deemed reasonable.

Once in awhile my roommate and I tried to prepare a Czech dish at home. The first time we cooked a package of frozen fruit dumplings we decided we’d fry them, since we couldn’t read the instructions on the package. They looked similar to the croquets we often ordered in restaurants, but the dumplings came out very strange and rubbery. When I confessed our experiment to my boyfriend Radek, he just laughed.

A few years later when we gave left-over svičkova that my mother-in-law had prepared during her US visit to my aunt and uncle, it was my turn to laugh. The day after we’d dropped off our leftovers, I asked my uncle how he liked the traditional Czech dish. “It was great,” he replied, “but I wasn’t sure how to eat it.” He explained ruefully how he’d first fried the bread dumplings in a pan, then heated the roast beef and then made it into a sandwich. Being accustomed to hearty dishes from his half-Polish heritage, my uncle must have known that the heavy meat dish wasn’t intended to be a sandwich, but I know he wasn’t the first foreigner to treat Czech cuisine as a curiosity.

I appreciate the heartiness of my in-laws Czech cooking particularly during the winter months. After a long day of skiing or walking in the woods, it’s refreshing to come into babička’s kitchen with its smells of steaming soup, roasted chicken and boiled potatoes. My children eat with gusto, putting me to shame, with their love for soup with jatrový knedlíky (liver dumplings) and most other Czech dishes.

Last weekend we had some Czech friends over for a Sunday lunch of grilled salmon, corn on the cob, salad, and a spinach-artichoke hors d’oeuvre. When I started preparing the spinach dip, my friend turned to her husband and said, “Look Americans do cook.” She then asked me what they should prepare for their Czech-American friends who would be soon visiting them from NYC. Her friend claimed not to cook at all, so my friend was worried that a traditional Czech dish might seem too strange. Remembering how I felt at the beginning of my time in the Czech Republic, I suggested that they prepare something simple but traditional, like roasted chicken with potatoes or perhaps the traditional svičkova dish. While their guests might need some time to adjust to Czech cuisine, I told them that in all likelihood they’d be saying, “Pass the dumplings, please” before the end of their trip.

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