At 1:30 in the afternoon we are as hungry as we are tired. Our feet are blistered, our bellies are rumbling, and we seem to have no energy to explore the city we had been looking forward to most.
Travelling on a budget comes with its share of challenge and compromising on good food sometimes is a part of it. The compromise, for us, has resulted in having very little real food for the past 10 days. And now, on the penultimate day of our trip, we seem to be questioning our idea of travelling this way. Thankfully, we are now in Prague, not only the land of beer, but also the home of good – and cheap – food.
Food is everywhere Prague. Little cafés dot narrow streets; hip restaurants line wide avenues. Shacks, beer bars, hole-in-the-wall shops, even candy stores are found in abundance, and the city boasts of no less than 34 Michelin Star restaurants. That said Prague still remains one of the most affordable places to have a fancy meal or indulge in local cuisine.
The feast begins
The three-course meal at Besada, an alfresco restaurant set in centuries old building, marks the beginning of our culinary journey in the city. It is also the only second proper meal we have after trying our hand at a dry, almost leathery, veal in Vienna that had cost us a fortune.
The server, a tall, energetic young man is surprised that we do not drink beer and offers citrus water instead. In summer, he tells us, citrus water, or water infused with lime and mint, replaces normal water in Prague. Cool, fragrant and refreshing, it soothes our tired bones and sets the stage for things to come.
A hearty soup, a fresh salad and a breadbasket later, we sample Goulash. Served with sides like mashed potatoes or salad in some places and dumplings or rice in others, Goulash is often considered the most popular dish of the city. Ours comes with dumplings and bread.
According to experts, the dish traces its origins to the Hungarian countryside where Shepherds would cook it while spending long periods of time outdoors grazing the cattle. The dish, a stew of cheap ingredients, however turned so popular that it not only became a staple across Hungary, but also travelled across Central Europe. Today, Goulash is considered the mainstay of Hungarian, Slovakian, and Czech cuisines. To a starving Indian though, it is as close to home food as you can get in another continent. Robust flavours, velvety texture and full-bodied sauce, is soon mopped with dumplings. Warm and gratifying, the meal, our first proper lunch in over a week, fills our tired bodies with renewed vigour. We are all set to explore Prague.
Beer at its heart.
“You would have seen many breweries, but have you ever seen one in a Monastery?” Our guide Nick, an American settled in Prague, introduces the Strahov Monastery Brewery atop the castle hill with much drama. Dating back to the 13th century, located next to St. Georges Basilica, Strahov serves over 10 variants of beer, all brewed in-house. Priced less than a bottle of water, the beer, we are told, is unfiltered and unfermented and cherished by locals and tourists alike.
“The first evidence of beer in Prague goes back to the year 993. Today the city is home to some of the best beer in the world,” Nick goes on. “Pilsner Urquell, Staropramen, and Budweiser Budvar, the list of fine Czech beer is long. It should not be surprising that Prague is also world’s largest consumer of per capita beer,” Nick continues even as he takes us through the brewery. Huge copper vats peep from inside the dark corridors; long wooden benches and tables greet the tourists in the courtyard and strong scent of fresh beer hangs heavy in the air. While all our fellow travellers buy a bottle or two, we listen to Rick’s stories.
Spit Fire Pigs, Trdelnik Stalls, Candy Shops.
The Town Square in Prague is also its nerve center. Bustling with travellers, and locals alike, the place is also a treasure trove of flavours. Spit fire pigs crackle in open, cafés burst with seasonal flowers, colourful candy shops appear at every turn, and Trdelnik stalls dot every street.
We try the bready roll, Trdelnik, first. Found everywhere – being grilled on open fire, sold with and without fillings, eaten on the go and in cafés – it seems to be the most popular thing here. We find ours right outside the Town Hall and decide to try it without any topping. The soft bready roll is mild and fragrant and coated in cinnamon sugar, but it is a tad dry—perhaps why most people around seem to be having it with a filling or two.
Chlebicky, an open-faced sandwich comes next. Arranged neatly in trays, it is found in umpteen variants and serves as a perfect accompaniment to Czech coffee. We have ours in an open-air café by the cathedral while listening to a boy band playing accordions and violins.
Dinner is served.
“The classics to sample in Prague are Kulajda, a creamy potato soup with mushrooms, dill, vinegar and poached egg, Beef Steak Tartare, a preparation of raw beef, minced, missed with herbs and served with toasted bread, and of course Goulash.” Michael, our host texts us when we seek dinner options. Having Tartare seems like a difficult proposition, but trying another portion of soup and Goulash doesn’t seem like a bad idea. As we walk back to Besada for a repeat of our lunch, we are already salivating.
A version of this story first appeared in Provoke Magazine.