by Alicia Lieu
You Have to Czech It Out!
This sentence was printed on the back of the Czech Airline seats. As it turns out, my friends and I are finding more and more uses for Czech puns. Let me Czech for you: Just Czech it in; We should ask for the Czech; You’d better Czech yourself before you wreck yourself…
I was warned by a Polish person that Czech food is not very good. I would have to respectfully disagree with her. I have had amazing plates of duck, steak, chicken and dumplings. Yes, it is a meat and potatoes kind of cuisine and yes, I have ingested more butter in one week than I have had in one month, but the sauces are decadently rich and the flavor combinations are perfect.
I was first introduced to Czech cuisine at the Bohemian Hall & Beer Garden in Astoria, New York, where I ordered beef and dumplings. I was really glad that my friend David had described the dumplings to me ahead of time because when they brought my plate out, I only saw beef and slices of bread, and if I hadn’t known I would have had to ask the waiter when the dumplings would be brought out to me. That would have been embarrassing, because being Chinese, my concept of dumplings have to include a wrapper and a filling. Czech dumplings are like a sliced bread pudding that can be plain or include fruit and nuts. I am thoroughly enjoying the process of expanding my dumpling vocabulary.
In terms of actual Czech vocabulary, that is coming along very slowly, since my brain is working on absorbing musical vocabulary during this trip. I have learned that ordering “fries” with a hamburger does not work, but ordering “chips” does, since I can’t pronounce the Czech word for fries. Something that saved me in St. Petersburg at the Chinese restaurant was my Mandarin. I went to a restaurant here in Kromeriz that had the word Dragon in it and had picture menus with rice and noodles and I tried asking for dishes in Mandarin when we were clearly not going to be able to communicate in English. When the owner said, “Czech” I said that I don’t speak Czech and he looked at me and said, “Vietnam.” And I don’t speak a word of Vietnamese, except for the word pho, which I was not seeing on the menu. I was just happy to see a dish or two that did not come covered in sauce.
Sauce and gravy is the bread and butter of Czech cuisine, it seems, but don’t get me wrong, I am loving the bread and butter here, and I am especially loving the dairy. The yogurt is rich and creamy. The ice cream is so rich it melts slowly, even in the summer heat. My friends were making fun of me because I said that I don’t trust soft serve that doesn’t melt really quickly. But I know that what we have in the US is not as good as what is in Europe. Even Haagen Dazs, which is a fake European name and is also the brand with the highest fat content, is not as creamy as ice cream in Europe.
I am also enjoying the hospitality of the Czech people. Many of the folks that I encounter don’t speak much English and my Czech ends at “Dobry Den.” They do try very hard to communicate with me though, through impromptu sign language. I have gathered that not too many Americans come through Kromeriz.
I was shopping at the nearest supermarket (luckily the sign actually said supermarket in English) and a lady started speaking to me in Czech. This was the first random Czech person to address me and I thought she was just making some kind of comment on the food prices or the selection, thinking that I could get away with just nodding in agreement. However, four or five seemingly long sentences later, she looks at me expectantly for a response. When I answered, “I’m sorry, I don’t speak Czech,” she was very surprised and then took the time to get to know what my business here was. Then she told me of her desire to set up exchanges between Czech and American students. As we finished up our conversation and I went back to trying to figure out food labels without actually being able to read them, I overheard a gentleman telling someone else that I am an American.
The situation reminded me of the time I walked into the Chinese take-out place around the corner from my apartment in Queens and the ladies behind the counter were talking about me in Mandarin, thinking that I didn’t understand them because I tend to order in English, since most of the dishes are Chinese-American. I suppose in this part of the Czech Republic, Americans are rare sightings. When I told the gentleman at the front desk of the Hilton in Prague that I needed to buy a bus ticket to Kromeriz, he looked at me and asked me why, and basically gave me a look that said he had no interest in going there.
I am truly glad to be here. The people are friendly, the town is interesting and beautiful, the food is inexpensive, it is tranquil and historic and the musicians are superb. As far as recipes are concerned, unfortunately I have none. I’ve only been eating out and asking for the Czech.