Hungry Planet | Jan Horky & Marek Svoboda
Jan Horký, chef de cuisine at Zlatá Praha (Golden Prague), at the InterContinental Hotel in the Czech capital, could have stepped out from the sets of some food show. Ruggedly good-looking and oozing passion for his native cuisine, this captain of the Czech national team of chefs is as mercurial as any TV chef worth his name, as we found out when we asked him to pose for a few photos. Chef Marek Svoboda, a chef-manager at Gastro Studio, run by Czech food company Nowaco, appeared to be the more easygoing one as he painstakingly educated us about the delicious Czech spread.
The two chefs were at The Lalit hotel in New Delhi last month as part of an initiative by Czech Tourism. Edited excerpts from an interview:
Czech please: Jan Horký (left) and Marek Svoboda at The Lalit hotel. (Priyanka Parashar/Mint)
What defines Czech cuisine? How has it evolved?
Svoboda: We have an ancient history. At some point or other, Bohemia and Moravia, the two Czech regions, have been under the rule of German, Austrian, Hungarian royal dynasties and Communists. The country is in the heart of Europe, linking Poland, Latvia, Austria, Hungary, Germany, Russia. All these rulers and cultures have influenced our food. Red meats, games like rabbit, duck, and starch form the base of Czech cuisine. The only fish we eat are freshwater—carp, trout, pike-perch. Our techniques, however, are more like the French—a lot of braising, frying, etc, but more spicy and less buttery. We don’t use too much cream either. It’s more robust.
Horký: Nowadays, few eat traditional food except on Sundays and holidays. Restaurants too had taken to serving French, German, Italian or a mishmash of all these. Over the last few years, Czech cuisine has come back in vogue. People are beginning to appreciate it and reinterpret it to suit modern tastes.
What are the main components in a meal?
Svoboda: They are usually three-course—a soup, a main course of a fatty meat with a rich gravy mopped up with knediky (Czech dumplings) or a side of vegetables, and then desserts. We eat many different kinds of soups. Most popular ones are gulasovka (a thick goulash) or bramboracka, made with wild Czech mushrooms called hrib, potato, carrots and onions, kulajda (thick soup with forest mushrooms and milk), and many more. A thick fish soup made from carps (including its head, some innards, roe, etc.) is a part of Christmas dinners.
How difficult is it to get a vegetarian meal in your country?
Horký: Traditionally? Impossible. No one would know what to serve, except maybe a soup and the sides of vegetables. But things have changed somewhat. Now even non-vegetarians are switching to healthier alternatives. Chicken and fish are replacing pork and duck. We eat a lot of potatoes and vegetables like carrots, peas and cabbage.
Svoboda: Most restaurants in big cities have a limited vegetarian section on their menu.
What are the kitchen staples?
Svoboda: Spices like caraway (shah zeera), paprika, cinnamon, butter, herbs like thyme and marjoram (marwa in Hindi, maruga in Kannada or muruvu in Tamil), potatoes, plum jams and wild fresh mushrooms.
Horký: Czechs were big on foraging. They would go out to gather mushrooms and put whatever they could find in the soup. So, often it would be a mixed variety. We also use a lot of vinegar—a typically Czech variety made from potato.
There’s a very rich local beer tradition. What kind of food goes well with Czech beer?
Horký: Robust Czech food. Beers are a part of the Czech way of life and the food served at the beer halls is a cuisine in itself.
Svoboda: Our lagers are more hoppy and less fizzy than foreign ones and have a thick head. It goes well with the richer flavours. And we gave the world Pilsner. It’s named after Pilsen, the city where it was first brewed in a public brewery in the mid-1840s.
Goulash with Carlsbad Dumplings
For the goulash
200g beef loin
100g onions, finely chopped
10g garlic, crushed
2 tsp sweet paprika powder
1g dry marjoram
500ml beef stock
Pepper, salt, sunflower oil as required
For the dumplings
1/2 pound sliced bread
3 eggs (separated)
1/2 cup milk
Salt, parsley (chopped), nutmeg to taste
Fry onions in oil until golden brown. Add the meat and ground paprika, and fry for a short while, then add the beef stock. Add a pinch of salt, caraway, crushed garlic, marjoram. Cook till the meat is soft, but leave the juices to reduce. Add flour (dissolved in water first) to thicken and bring to boil, then simmer for 20 minutes.
To make the dumplings, cut bread into cubes and lightly roast in the oven. After roasting, moisten them with half the milk in a big bowl. Add salt, nutmeg, chopped parsley, butter and the egg yolks. Whisk well.
Whip the white of the eggs until stiff and add to the mix. Beat together to make a smooth dough. Roll the mixture in tin foil to make cylinders of about 6cm in diameter. Steam for 20 minutes. Take out of the foil and cut into discs half an inch thick.
Serve the goulash warm with plenty of gravy and the dumplings on the side.