What are the best things to eat in Central Europe? And where do you eat said Central European classic dishes? Those are some of the top questions I’ve received since returning from my culinary summer road trip of Central Europe, and after a, uh, fashionable delay, I’m finally here with my long-awaited Top Ten Thing to Eat in Central Europe round-up.
What to eat in Central Europe, you ask? Short answer: Everything! Slightly longer answer: Read on and find out!
Regular readers will know that in July of 2016, I was lucky to go on a road trip across large parts of Central Europe in the company of my beautiful friends Malene and Emelie. A few weeks ago, I offered some general, hopefully humorous, culinary observations in my post entitled Eating Central Europe: Ten Culinary Facts from a Gastronomical Road Trip. This week, as promised, I offer you a top ten of things to eat in Central Europe according to the Johan.
This post covers the ten best, most memorable and unique local dishes we encountered on our trip through Germany, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Poland. Entirely according to myself and my taste buds, of course, and in no particular order. Focus is not merely on taste but also on uniqueness and cultural importance. All dishes on the list are to some extend considered local specialties with many dipping into the magical realm of national dishes of their respective countries. Most were sampled in several varieties to form a general opinion – in which case the place of origin listed next to the name of the dish refers to a particularly memorable version of the dish.
Enjoy the ride and make sure to also check out the dishonorable mentions at the bottom for a few tips on what absolutely, positively not to eat in Central Europe.
Roast Pork Knee – Hotel U Medvídku – Prague, Czech Republic
Let’s get one thing out of the way from the beginning: Central European countries are meat loving countries, indeed – and nowhere is this more apparent than in one of the signature dishes of the region: Roast Pork Knee, known in some places as Roast Pork Knuckle.
What? Just a kilo of pork on the bone is all!
Pork Knuckle, I’m sure, is a mistranslation of sorts (either that or I do NOT want to meet up with Central European hogs!), as the classic serving generally consists of a slow cooked full (knee) joint of porky goodness, weighing in at over a kilogram. That’s two pounds and then some to you British Imperial System speakers out there. Roast pork knee is traditionally served on the bone with a side of mustard, horseradish and hot peppers.
Not the sort of people to shy away from a challenge, we faced the music on our first night in Central Europe and ordered this specialty of the house at our lodging for the night, the U Medvídku Brewery Hotel (more on that experience here). Amidst much snickering amongst the wait staff, I might add – apparently, this is usually a one man to conquer sort of dish, and the Danes ordered one to share.
Sharing or no sharing, and delicious as it was, gently braised in house-brewed beer before being slow-grilled – a technique unique to the hotel restaurant, we were told – it did even this meat-loving Dane backed by his two beautiful assistants in pretty well. Roast pork knee, indeed, is a thing to try, but bring a fair appetite – it’s a pretty substantial meal! To anyone who ever finished this alone: my hat’s off to you. I’d hate to bump into you in a dark alley. Certainly not if you were riding the pig whose knuckle weighs a full kilogram in its cooked state!
Even with a little help from my friends this is a pretty daunting task!
Bonus info: Roast pork knee, like many Central European meat dishes, is usually served without a starchy side unless specifically indicated in the menu. If you want, say, a pound of roast potatoes or a plate of dumplings to go with your subtle meat arrangement, be sure to order them separately!
Prague Ham – Old Town Square – Prague Czech Republic
“Prosciutto di Praha?” I wondered, reading a sign as we strolled through Prague’s Old Town Center. Upon further inspection, Italian-sounding term seemed to cover a dish also known as Prague Ham. Subtly spiced ham on the bone, cooked slowly over birch wood to a point where a soft and juicy inside meets perfectly crusty exterior with just a subtle hint of smoke and spice… Then carved to order by the gram and served smoking hot with a side of potatoes, halušky (potato-based dumplings) and/or beer.
Carving Prague Ham… Like a Boss!
Little did we know, as we walked closer, drawn in by the siren song of large, rotating pieces of meat, sizzling splatters of fat and smokey aromas, that Prague Ham, according to some, is also the name of a scam. A scam in which unsuspecting tourists – possibly unfamiliar with the metric weight system – feel like they’ve been conned into paying large sums for huge blubbery servings of fatty meat and potatoes.
Maybe things have straightened up a lot since the article linked above was written, maybe we were just lucky. Either way, we were completely oblivious to the existence of the scam at our time of visiting and felt far from cheated in our efforts to enjoy this Prague Classic.
Street food in Prague! Life on Earth is good!
We received exactly what we ordered: 500 grams of perfectly succulent ham – carved to order in the blink of an eye – and an equal amount of halušky, measured out on a scale in front of us and served with big smiles and cold beers as a part of our EUR 25 farewell meal to the Beer Capital of the world. It was, actually, one of our cheapest, simplest and most memorable meals of the trip – and a perfect street food moment.
Bonus info: Still fear being tricked by the Prague Ham Scam? Either order this meal in a restaurant rather than off a street vendor, or rest assured that 200 grams of protein and 300 ditto of sides should be enough for most eaters and that you can always order more.
Goulash – Regional Varieties
Goulash is a Central European staple. Classical to Hungarian cuisine if you ask the Hungarians and most of the world. An essential classic to Czech, Slovak and even Polish cuisine if you ask the Czechs, Slovaks and Poles. Regardless of origin, Goulash is a classic across the region and la piece de la resistance of many traditional cuisine restaurants: be they Polish Czech, Slovakian… Or Hungarian, of course!
Consequently, we sampled a lot of Goulash and Goulash-based dishes in a variety of towns and countries. Which was better? It’s impossible to say, so here were a few team favorites:
Czech Beer-based Goulash
The Czech Republic is one of the world’s top beer-producing countries and they take their beer seriously – in their cuisine, too. Consequently, Czech goulash is often laced with beer and referred to as either beer goulash, brewer’s goulash or brewery goulash.
One of the best expressions of said dish we countered was at the Strahov Monastic Brewery that we visited egged on by this article published by fellow Danish blogger Martin “Rigeligt Smør” Villumsen. The goulash here was spicy, rich and filling as should be with the beer providing an interesting backbone and light malty sweetness to the dish not present in other versions of the dish sampled throughout the region. Phenomenal. Oh, and the beer was good, too!
Segedinský Guláš (Slovak Farmer’s Goulash)
This is, at one time, one of the ugliest and most flavorful dishes I’ve ever encountered on my travels around the world. Seriously. Made with pork rather than beef and a lighter, tangier sauce packed with incredible amounts of pickled cabbage and spices in the way of juniper, cloves and bay leaves, it provides an interesting, slightly lighter and porky sour/acidic funky twist on an old classic.
In the mood for goulash, but not sure you can stomach the sides which often consist of large amounts of starchy dumplings? Fear not, there’s always goulash soup! A lighter take on goulash that, just to make things interesting, comes in two different versions. A brothy version that (as the name suggest) is more like a soup than a dish, containing mainly broth and maybe a few vegestables. And, at other times, a much thicker, beefier version containing both beef chunks, vegetables and sometimes dumplings.
This take on the latter version, served only slightly gimmicky (ahem), in its own little cauldron at a Main Square café in Kraków, Poland provided a meal in itself at a greatly reduced price. Perfect for lunch, especially of you’re on the lookout for a late afternoon snack before dinner.
Bonus info: Don’t know which soup you’re getting? The menu will usually state the consistency and contents of the type of goulash soup served. If served as a starter, the soup will usually be thinner and brothier, if served as a main course, it will have more body and fillings.
Now here’s something decidedly non-Central European, that somehow turned strangely Central European after all.
Originally a traditional French dish, steak tartare is heaven to some and a perfect image of hell to others: ground, lean beef served perfectly fresh and raw – seasoned, usually, with a mix of spices, raw egg yolk and chopped capers, pickles, onions and the likes.
Steak tartare! Yes, those are whole cloves of Garlic and Thai Bird’s Eye Chilies. No, I don’t know…
How a quintessential French dish became a Central European staple, I’ve no clue but I suspect the quasi-romantic and largely made up culinary tall tale involving Asia-European horsemen supposedly and accidentally inventing the raw, chopped meat dish may have played a role here. There is, after all, a large population of Mongol descendants in Central Europe, particularly in the Czech Republic. This is just me guessing, of course. Whichever the reason, the dish is a popular and very reasonably priced starter in particularly the Czech and Slovak Republics and thank whomever for that!
Disgusting as the whole ordeal may be to some, it’s one of my absolutely favorite special occasion meals and what better time for a special occasion meal than your first trip to Central Europe?
Bryndzové Halušky – Slovak Pub – Bratislava, Slovakia
When our friend and guide for the trip Malene first came to Bratislava to start an internship at the Danish embassy, she had no choice. For her first meal in town, she was dragged by her new colleagues to Slovak Pub for one of Slovakia’s many national dishes: Bryndzové Halušky – a hearty mix of potato dumplings tossed in smoked sheep’s cheese and cream, then served with fried onions, bacon, drippings and… More cheese!
When we came to Bratislava nearly a decade later, we had no choice: We were dragged down the same streets, through the same openings, up the same set of stairs to what was essentially a beautifully restored old pub for the very same introduction to Slovak cuisine: Bryndzové Halušky, Zlaty Bazant beer and Kofola – a Communist era Coca Cola knock-off (reviewed here).
So, what is such a pile of goo like? Well, the first thoughts that come to mind were heavy and hard-hitting. Laying there in front of you, 400 grams of dumplings, cheese, cream and bacon isn’t much to look at, but five bites in, you start to realize why this was traditionally considered fuel for peasants. It’s heavy. But it’s also surprisingly good and comforting – in a funky, tangy and ultra rich mac and cheese sort of way – with a distinct but not unpleasant butyric acid. Simple, cheap fare, but comforting as such things should be – and the perfect introduction to a new country’s cuisine when offered up in the historic setting of Slovak Pub.
Bonus info: Other Slovak national dishes include several varieties of fried fish, fried cheese with French fries and tartar sauce (no, seriously!) aaaaand… The next in line: Kapustnica!
Kapustnica (Slovak Sauerkraut Soup) – Bratislavský Meštiansky Pivovar, Bratislava, Slovakia
There are few people in this world I trust as blindly as my friend Malene. Which partially goes to explain why I put up little to no objection to her demands that “you try the sauerkraut soup, it’s the best thing ever!”
What Malene was referring to was Kapustnica, a hearty soup-like concoction made primarily from smoked meats and sauerkraut, served in a spicy hearty broth swimming with fat and usually also laced with crème fraiche for good measure. Originally a holiday dish served around Christmas and New Year’s, it is today a staple in more rural parts of Slovakia and a favorite amongst hikers for it’s warming and filling properties.
Kapustnica, like so many traditional dishes, can be cooked in a myriad of ways and differ from town to town, region to region and house wife to house wife. The one we had came from, of all places, an upscale brew pub recommended by one of the blog’s Facebook followers and it was… Quite simply one of the best things I’ve ever eaten. Period.
I mean, fudge me sideways! If anyone had told me you could grab sauerkraut, sausage, scrap meats and broth, mix it up with various indistinguishable parts and float a gallon of beef fat and a jug of soured milk product on top to produce something good and memorable, I’d have told them to have their heads examined. Wait, someone did tell me, and I did tell her to have her head examined, but I digress… The point is, abominable as this concoction may seem, it warped into one of the most comforting, intensely flavored, meaty, spicy, rich and lip-smackingly good dishes I’ve ever had. Indistinguishable, scary parts and all…
I mean, we’re talking super rich, perfectly balanced, sweet and sour, hot and heavy, umami-dripping beefiness on steroids here. Don’t believe me? Try for yourself. The Bratislavský Meštiansky Pivovar version of this dish alone is pretty much reason enough to book a trip to Bratislava – oh and their beer is not half bad either!
Wiener Schnitzel – Zum Figlmüller, Vienna, Austria
There are probably two things that any visitor to Vienna will consume during his or her stay, however short, present company included. One is the horribly overprized and not particularly interesting Sacher Torte at Hotel Sacher.
If ever you wondered what a €15 piece of cake looks like… This is about it! Coffee’s good at the Hotel Sacher, though!
The other? A meat dish so quintessentially to Vienna that it bears the town’s (Austrian) name: Wiener Schnitzel.
Wiener Schnitzel, much like Sacher Torte, can be had all over town, but few, if any, make it better and more famously than the Church of Schnitzel, Zum Figlmüller, a Vienna Schnitzel institution for some 110 years.
Figlmüller has two locations in Vienna, one just off high street and the original location at Wollzeile, a small but beautifully restored hole-in-the-wall eatery found halfway down a quaint alley in the center of town. It’s crowded, squeezed, delightfully old-fashioned and beautifully restored to past splendor with an air of history around it. In more ways than one. The toilets are a (thoroughly clean) shed in the alley, for example, and you’ll have to borrow a key from a waiter.
The menu is limited. They do Schnitzel here. But they do it well. Flavorful, juicy, crispy crusted and just perfect. In jaw-dropping measurements!
Behold, the iconic, larger than life (well, larger than plate, anyway) Figlmüller Schnitzel!
Figlmüller has many of the hallmarks of a tourist trap: great, central location, relatively high prices, great buzz and marketing, a gimmick, assembly line cooking and fast paced turnaround… But it is the absolute antithesis: It’s classic and stylish but not posh. It’s good food served with a smile on a cushion of politeness and good wines to match. It’s a classic menu and atmosphere in which calls for change (such as the addition of beers or other dishes to the menu) are politely but very categorically refused. And it’s an experienced and ultra-polite wait staff capable of match that of The River Café in terms of friendliness service-mindedness and character.
Bonus info: For the sake of the review, we will disregard completely the fact that Figlmüller serve not really a Wiener Schnitzel (made from veal) but rather a Schnitzel Wiener art (made from pork) and just state that Figlmüller is undoubtedly an institution not to be missed on any gastronomic tour of Vienna. However short!
Pierogi Chopin, Kraków, Poland / Erb Brewery Restaurant, Banska Stiavnica, Slovakia
Pierogi is the Polish take on dumplings. Or ravioli if you feel like getting a bit controversial. It’s basically a flour-based dough stuffed with various fillings and then boiled. Polish pieorgies come with a variety of fillings from vegetables over sauerkraut to and (perhaps most famous of all) Ruskie Pierogis filled with a combination of cheese and potato and often erroneously referred to as Russian pierogis.
Pierogis, unlike their more famous cousins, the ravioli, are often served quite simply, boiled then plated with a bit of browned butter, onion or sauerkraut on top. Evil voices have described them as plain, but I found that if only the filling is done right, pierogis can be a real treat.
Simple meat Pierog at Chopin at the Main Square in Old Town Kraków
One example of such behavior was Café Chopin, located in Kraków’s most touristy spot, which dished out very plain-looking albeit terribly addictive meaty pierogis filled with lightly smoked chopped pork that had been thoroughly coated in a gelatin-rich chicken stock before being wrapped in a lightly under-salted dough. The result? A package that seemed bland at first, only to explode with flavors once your teeth sank into it. Absolutely stunning flavors from quite a humble package.
Smoked meat dumplings (pierogi) at the Erb Brewery Restaurant in Banska Stiavnica, Bratislava
But, uhh, I can’t believe I’m nearly awarding best pierogi of the trip to a tourist hot spot…. Which is why I’m gonna further up the controversy by awarding the title of best pierogi of the trip not to a Polish Restaurant but to the Erb Brewery Restaurant in the quaint mining town of Banska Stiavnica, Slovakia, whose pierogis, ahem, dumplings were all of the above and more with fried onions, sauerkraut and heaps of butter joining the party for a decadent, filling and artery-clogging meal.
Bonus info: Ruskie Pierogis literally mean Rutheran pierogi, not Russian Pierogi.
Kielbasa – Kielbasa Food Truck at Kraków Jewish Quarter Food Truck Stop
Kielbasa, even more so than pieori, is probably synonymous with Polish cuisine. Ask anyone to mention something, anything, about Polish cuisine and more likely than not they’ll come up with Kielbasa, and probably not much more. To those not in the know, Kielbasa is, basically, sausage. More specifically, an umbrella term covering a variety of more or less spicy sausages…
It goes without saying that for my first visit to Poland, I wanted to try Kielbasa, and I made the mistake of opening up about it on social media. Right off the bat, my buddy Lasse, aka The Hotdog Judge, worked his social media voodoo and hooked me up with locals in the know who pointed me in the direction of a Krakowian Kielbasa food truck.
Naturally, I followed the suggestion thinking what’s the WORST that could possibly happen? And before long, I found myself at a food truck stop in the Jewish Quarter of Kraków wondering just which protein would be best for my first Kielbasa experience: Pork, horse, sheep, boar?
In the end, I opted for the classic choice: Traditional Kielbasa, made from good, old-fashioned, uncontroversial pork in a style typical to the region – when in Kraków, y’know? My choice proved excellent as I received a crispy, flame grilled and charred yet juicy and succulent, quality sausage, smoked and rather heavily spiced with garlic and black pepper amongst other good stuff. Served rather simply in a bun with a choice of BBQ sauce, ketchup or mustard. Simple, classic, dirt cheap, no frills, messy street grub and oh so good.
If ever you find yourself in the Jewish Quarter of Kraków, be on the lookout for the emerging food truck stop at Dajwór 21. If not for your choice of chopped up farm animal in the shape of Kielbasa, then for one of several other interesting food and drink options.
Currywurst – Hackesher Markt, Berlin
Currywurst is a true Berlin tradition cum world sensation. The simple mix of quality sausage shallow fried in plenty of oil and drenched in a sticky spicy sauce made from ketchup and curry powder is a Berlin institution – so much so that there’s even a Currywurst Museum!
According to culinary lore, currywurst was invented in the Berlin suburb of Charlottenburg, and having our base there during the visit, we naturally had to sample this hometown classic. We did not have it in Charlottenburg, though, but in the far trendier mid town area.
There are literally probably tens of thousands of ways and places to enjoy currywurst in Berlin ranging from the dirt cheap and simplistic to the expensive and elaborate. Our choice fell somewhere in between when we visited the notable tourist hot spot Hackescher Markt for a decent and relatively unadulterated version of Currywurst served by a friendly albeit abysmally incompetent wait staff at Restauration 1840.
Our sausages came plumb, juicy and tasty as should be – with a light crispy bite to the casing and a falling apart fatty interior – classically served in a sweet and luke-warm (tradition demands) curried ketchup sauce with your choice of potato salad or curvy fries as a side. It wasn’t pretty, but it was good.
There are far better versions of this Berlin classic out there, I’m sure, but currywurst is no fancy pancy dish, it’s supposed to be good and comforting – neither haute cuisine nor overly complicated. And this dish was just that: comforting, filling, relatively decently prepared and decently priced – for Berlin, that is. Disregarding the incredibly slow and at times legally blind wait staff, there are far worse places to enjoy a Berlin tradition than a sunny summer afternoon at a buzzling side street of Central Berlin with a cold Hefe Weizen from Weihenstephaner, the World’s oldest brewery, in hand. Just make sure you allot some time for the experience. Hackesher Markt in summer is a whole new definition of the word busy.
Dishonorable Mentions – Three things NOT to eat in Central Europe
I bet by now you’re thinking: Boy, Johan, that sounds awesome! Were there really no bad food experiences on the trip? Well, of course there were, but shockingly few. You see, the upside to eating out is that establishments do not generally make a living dishing out consistently bad food, especially not in relatively low income countries (Germany and Austria obviously excluded, here!). As such, the general level of restaurant and street food fair in Central Europe was above average. Still, though, there are culinary experiences I could have done without on the trip. Here are a few dishonorable mentions.
Pizza Flambée – The Auschwitz Museum Restaurant
What? Too soon? Seriously, I’ve said, done and eaten some pretty stupid and controversial things throughout the years, but still… After touring through the camp museum and crematoriums of Auschwitz, even I couldn’t help but feel equal parts comical and uneasy seeing Pizza Flambée on the pizza selection at the museum restaurant. I mean… Guys? Really? Flambée?
I opted instead for the bacon, smoked cheese, onions and cranberry sauce variety which was, uh, different but not as bad as you might think.
Pork tartare – Berlin, Germany
Regular readers will know about my obsession with raw beef. It’s no lie I love the stuff, I mean, just look at the list above which has steak tartare prominently featured. But apparently even I have my limits, and the line is apparently drawn at consuming raw pork.
Bearing in mind that raw and undercooked pork is no longer considered a hazard to eat as it was to our grandparents, I’ve still not seen very many places actually encourage the consumption of raw pork – except Germany where it is apparently considered a delicacy in certain areas.
Be that as it may, there’s little actual joy to eating raw pork – at least not to this palate. It is mushy, bland, soft and slightly wet/creamy in texture. Like an uncooked, under-seasoned meatball. Coming from a nation that champions raw, pickled herring and chopped up pork liver and lard spread for lunch, I’m possibly not one to talk about strange tastes and textures, but raw pork is a taste and texture sensation that I have now tried and can easily do without.
Dessert Pierogi – Kraków, Poland
What are dessert pierogi, we asked ourselves on our first night out in Kraków. In our quest for new interesting eats, we had stumbled upon a traditional restaurant that seemingly offered the dish as a “secret menu” item and our curiosity quickly got the best of us. Best as we could decipher upon ordering, the dish consisted of berry stuffed pierogis laced with a thickened, soured milk product and chocolate. Interesting to say the least…
And not bad as such. It just wasn’t very good either. The main problem, it turned out, was that the dish suffered from much the same curse as many regular pierogi dishes: the blandness of the dough. The flavor of the dough never really came through, leaving it mainly an odd, glutenous element struggling to tie together somewhat compatible flavors of warm berries and cold chocolate with a drizzling of sour milk.
A light sweetening of the dough, or maybe even just a sprinkling of salt to make it somehow stand out or tie things together would have worked wonders. But that doesn’t seem to be the way to do things in Poland. As a result, the dish was never quite revolting (as could be feared) yet never really terribly interesting in a must try kind of way. If three people can’t finish one serving (and not out of lack of trying – I desperately wanted the dish to make sense!), I can’t see myself recommending it any time soon.
Central European Cuisine: Not so bad after all!
Well, friends, that concludes – at least for now – our coverage of Central European cuisine and culinary traditions. We hope you’ve enjoyed the ride even a fraction of what we have. Central European cuisine, up until recently was completely new to me, but I dare say I was pleasantly surprised but what I encountered. A few clear misses aside, most everything we had proved exciting, wonderful and interesting. I definitely can’t wait to try some of these things out on my own. Once I’ve finished the thousands or so odd ideas currently roaming around my head.
For now, this is Johan signing off from Central Europe with a few heartfelt thank you to the wonderful women who helped make these past posts possible.
Acknowledgements: First and foremost, I owe a whopping thank you to my friend Malene! Had it not been for her local and cultural knowledge (and her willingness to drive while others slept) this list would probably have been many a great dish and few great experiences shorter. Heartfelt thanks and gratitude to Emelie, too, for putting her foot down and insisting we stay at the U Medvidku Brewery Hotel which ended up contributing to both this entry and this original list.