Food blogs seem to be everywhere in today’s internet-media age, and the thought of doing one while abroad seemed almost played out. Yet, as I contemplated what subject I wanted to write about for my OCS blog, my mind instantly leapt to writing about eating. Food is something that links each and every culture on the planet, but the culture around food is drastically different depending on where you live or visit. In the US, I am an avid eater, and enjoy it as a form of cultural exploration; it offers a window into the core values of different ethnicities and societies, and allows you to, albeit briefly in most cases, take part in an integral part of that experience. This is why, even after acknowledging that food blogs have been overdone, I made the decision to do one as well.
Upon arriving in Prague, most tourists and visitors take time out of their first day to wander through and admire the Old Town. While I did not make it to the old town on my very first day in the Czech Republic (I spent the day napping in my uncomfortable Hotel Prokopka bed), I did adventure into the district known as Prague 1 on my second day in the city. After an amazingly efficient tram ride from our hostel, we were escorted into the center of the Old Town by some of our program leads, who explained to us that the name Old Town was quite fitting. Our guide casually let us know that there had been a town here since around 800 AD, and showed us buildings dating back to the 14th century. I am alway one for a history lesson, but my attention was soon diverted by the smell of fried dough wafting across the street. I hurriedly tried to place the scent, assuming that the source of the delicious odor was a donut shop or something equally mundane, however I was surprised as my eyes fell not on a funnel cake, but on a slowly spinning cylinder of sugared dough. I had no time to investigate as I was pulled away by a fellow student so as not to get left behind, but my curiosity had been piqued.
After the short tour around the historical Old Town, the students were set loose on the city to explore our new temporary home. I had made some fledging friends over the course of the first day, and we decided to visit out the most famous landmark in Prague, Karlův most (The Charles Bridge). The bridge spans the Vltava river, which cuts through Prague, and was, for much of the town’s history, the only way to cross the water. The construction of the bridge began in 1357, and was not finished until the early 15th century, but its construction is attributed to the Czech Republic’s much beloved monarch, Charles IV. We navigated to the historic bridge with the help of our trusty phones, and walked across the almost-too-crowded-to-move span.
Once on the opposite side of the river, we hoped to rest our legs and maybe enjoy a pint of Prague’s world famous ehm… amber water. On our search for a suitable watering hole however, I once again caught the scent of cooking dough, and dragged my group in its direction. We ended up in front of a small unnamed shop, with its walls bare except for pictures and prices of the same cylindrical pastries I had seen earlier, and its counter consisting simply of a register, and three long pastries spinning over a fire.
Trdelnik are a very simple pastry to make, which is probably part of the reason they are so easy to find in the touristy parts of the city. They are just a long strip of dough carefully wrapped around a spinning metal rod, which is in turn balanced over an open flame. However, while the pastry itself is simple, it is by no means boring. The roasted dough can be ordered plain, with chocolate, and even piled with ice cream, berries, and sprinkles. Any way they are consumed, they are absolutely delicious. Soft and flakey dough, with an almost caramelized coating of sugar on the outside, and in the case of the one I ordered at the no-name shop on the opposite side of the Charles Bridge, coated with Nutella.
After my salivating first bites, the rest of the pastry disappeared quickly, and we soon moved on to explore more of the west side of the river. However, the pastry would not leave my mind.
A couple of days later, we were led on another tour of the old town, this time by a hired tour guide named Mark. As I began talking with him at the front of the group, I thought to gently interrogate him about Czech cuisine, and the topic soon turned to the Trdelnik, which seemed to be all around us in the touristy center of town. Mark told me that while the word Trdelnik was Czech in origin, the pastry was actually Hungarian, and that many Czechs didn’t even know they existed. At first I was shocked in learning this, but then I thought about the neighborhood in which I was living, and realized I had never seen one of the pastries outside of Prague 1. I soon understood that one of my first food experiences in Prague was not actually Czech food, but simply a touristy imported pastry.
This upset me at first, but the more I think about it, the more I understand that it doesn’t really matter anyways. The Trdelnik has become part of Prague culture, if not Czech culture, and that is enough for me. The fantastically delicious pastry might not be an authentic cultural experience, but any experience had abroad can be meaningful, even if it’s not in direct service of immersion or cultural understanding. I resolved to use this experience as motivation to find real authentic Czech pastries, which I soon did.
While the Trdelnik is not a traditional Czech food, and while it might well just be a tourist trap, I went back for another a few days later, and I don’t plan on stopping.