While I’ve been stressing over yogurt vs. sour cream and carrying home freshly baked bread for sandwiches, thousands of other visitors to Prague are getting their nourishment from food stands. Just how healthy and tasty is that?
Anyone familiar with my eating habits knows one food group visible everywhere in eastern European isn’t going to be something I’d line up to buy: meat. “Nejím maso.” No thanks. I just don’t eat anything with feet. That eliminates lots of street food here: sausages, ham, potatoes WITH sausages or ham, and this list continues.
But that doesn’t mean it’s not interesting to watch these cooking. After rounding the corner into Old Town Square, first in a line of meant-to-look-rustic stands was one with with three Prague hams — pražská šunka — on a spit over an open fire. OK, I’ll admit it — the smoky smell was actually almost appealing. When the burly “chef” in red-checked apron and heavy gloves sliced off a chunk for a waiting customer, the juices left a trail from rotisserie to counter. Served with rye bread and mustard, this was a meal by itself for those who stood nearby, balancing their paper plates and tearing off pieces of the moist meat.
Next stand down the row had sausages and some sort of potato dish. One cook took frequent jabs at the black cast-iron skillet heaped with potato gnocchi, sauerkraut and ham, moving it around the pan. Next to him were the constantly turning rows of sausages or klobásy. Complaints on some tourist websites point to the length of time these are slowly cooking — which can lead them to be dry and tasteless, but the crowds around the stands seemed satisfied.
Trdelník (as one website explains — pronounced a little like Turtleneck “with an eastern European flair”) is hands down the local sweet treat available everywhere. Although there’s some disagreement about the origin — some say it came from Hungary, others from Slovkia or Transylvania — it’s basically dough wrapped around a “trdl” and browned, then rolled in cinnamon and sugar. (See the process in photos below)
When Prague radio did a story on these in 2014, first the reporter asked people on the street where these came from. Not surprisingly, they had no clue. The next part of his story, which he later admits he made up, claims it all started with a Bohemian king in 1387 and his future bride Princess Brambora — which means “potato,” the first clue this isn’t real…
But he does talk to Ladislav Provaan, head of the Gastronomy Museum, and his take: “Trdelník is primarily an incredible marketing success. It has appeared overnight. I really cannot remember seeing Trdelník at all when I was young – it didn’t exist. In the last few years, it has really skyrocketed. It is everywhere and tourists love it, but I feel bad about that because people aren’t really getting the full information on what this food is all about.”
So I smiled today when I walked by a stand with a large sign, proudly proclaiming, “OId Bohemian Tradition.”
Ice cream and gelato don’t have to pretend to be some historic, authentic treat. Although the flavors are as varied as the many stands — every kind of fruit, pistachio, tiramisu, salted caramel, coffee, “Snickers” and more — at 30 Kč a scoop, it’s a pretty cheap treat, too.
But my favorite of all by far is the macaron. Not even claiming to be Czech, this tiny, light French “cake” is delicately crusty on the outside and filled with a fluffy frosting inside. Is it still street food when I have to take two steps off the cobblestones into the open front of the shop to purchase mine? I think so. For 50 Kč — about $2 — I can choose two from a variety of colors and flavors (I almost always choose a mango and a “forest berry”) and walk back into the crowd with my treats wrapped in red and white waxed paper.
Now to answer my first question — healthy? Hmmm. Probably not. Except for a very few stands that sell fresh fruit — most options either have a whopping big fat gram count or are loaded with sugar. But from the expressions on the faces of those nibbling the trdelníky and biting off a mouthful of klobásy, they have found plenty that tastes good when it comes to Prague street food.