A country’s national dish is a source of pride. Italians with their pasta, Japanese with their sushi … and the Czechs with their knedlíky, or dumplings. This sometimes soggy, occasionally unappetizing looking side dish accompanies many traditional Czech dishes like svíčková (beef with dumplings and a cream sauce) or vepřo knedlo zelo; roasted pork, dumplings and sauerkraut.
But is the lowly Czech bread dumpling really the best the country can offer? Yes, says Zdeněk Reimann, journalist, wine and gastro writer, editor at website Brandsandstories.cz and co-founder of the Pearl of Czech National Cuisine competition.
“It started five years ago, when at a social meeting with the Dienstbiers [family of the first post-1989 Czech foreign minister] and Karel Schwarzenberg [the man now in the post] we agreed that the quality of the industrial — and even the homemade dumpling — is preposterous and that something should be done about it,” he told Czech Position. “Hence the competition for the best one, called The Pearl of Czech National Cuisine.”
This year’s competition, held in early November at the kitchens of the InterContinental hotel, was won by the executive chef at the Hotel President, Milan Pešek. “When I first heard about this competition five years ago I was laughing and didn’t believe it, but time has proven that it is a worthy competition and I have to agree,” he told Czech Position. “When Czech chefs cook Czech cuisine it must be cooked in a modern way and then it will dominate the market; it is time for this.”
Don’t forget the sauce
Reimann says the competition is open to professional chefs only, “since we would not be able to accommodate all the housewives wanting to excel.” This year 20 chefs from across the Czech and Slovak Republics entered their dumplings, along with 19 sauces to accompany them.
“Since the dumpling on its own is rather dry, it needs a sauce to go with it,” Reimann said. “So as a side competition, since the second year, chefs could also compete for the best sauce – first it was a cream sauce (svíčková), then a tomato sauce, then a dill sauce, and this year it was the mushroom sauce.” The best mushroom sauce was awarded to Jana Podaná from the Restaurant Lesní Zátiší near Plzeň.
One of the judges, Miroslav Kubec, executive chef at the InterContinental Prague Hotel and President of the Czech Chefs and Pastry Chefs Association, says he can still taste that special sauce. “This sauce was just delicious, balanced taste, slightly sour, even now when I’m talking about it I would like to try it again,” he told Czech Position. “Just an unforgettable taste.” ‘If you pour a sauce on it, it must not melt like all the dumplings from the shops.’
But back to the dumplings. Kubec says a good dumpling should be plump, not too soft and well-flavored: “If you pour a sauce on it, it must not melt like all the dumplings from the shops.” Both Reimann and Pešek emphasize the ingredients. “Good dumplings are made with good ingredients: fresh full-fat milk, eggs, flour, older white-bread rolls cut into small cubes and preferably butter-coated in a frying pan,” Reimann said.
Pešek has a variety of tricks up his sleeve he believes make the perfect dumplings. “Slightly warm the flour and eggs, and instead of milk, I use water so calories are reduced, I also use less eggs and no chemical colors; all of this means the dumpling is just perfect,” he told Czech Position. “Also, if you have too many pieces of bread it makes an irregular shape; and when boiling the water, make sure it is a soft boil and salt the water, the dumplings must be able to move in the pot.”
The diet dumpling?
Yes, Pešek does mention that his dumplings are healthier than most, a trend he sees across the gastronomic sector. “People want to stay slim, so when preparing a recipe you have to get rid of the fat and the unhealthy ingredients and replace them with healthy ones,” he said. “I’ve done this with my dumplings.”
And while Czech cooking often gets a bad rap for being heavy, fat-laden and lacking vegetables, Kubec adds: “Some people say it (the dumpling) is unhealthy and heavy, but do you think pasta is healthier?”
All three men believe in the magnificence of Czech cuisine. “We live in modern times but we use old recipes that have withstood the test of time and we try to work with them in a contemporary way,” said Pešek. “I think each chef has a different attitude towards cooking and cooking dumplings, everyone prepares them in a different way and we saw that in the competition, some were boiled, some steamed. But every chef must cook with love.”
Kubec as well, is loyal to Czech cuisine. “I try to be involved in everything that supports our traditional gastronomy and shows how beautiful and tasty Czech cuisine is.”
Milan Pešek’s knedlíky recipe
Ingredients: 1.7 kg flour, 1.3 l milk, a pinch of salt, 40g yeast, 2 egg yolks, 360 g white bread roll
Prepare the yeast and let it rise. Heat the sifted flour, then add salt, the yeast leavened with lukewarm milk and egg yolks. With these ingredients prepare a smooth soft dough, and then mix in the diced roll. Let the dough rise for about 40 to 50 minutes.
Slice the leavened dough into uniform parts to create buns. Then transform into long cones/uniform dumplings, put on a floured baking sheet, cover and let rise for 10–20 minutes.
Cook the dumplings for about 18–20 minutes in salted water, turning them over a few times while cooking. When removing the dumplings, pierce them with a fork to release the steam so they don’t become overcooked. Makes about 20 servings of cooked dumplings.
Jacy Meyer is a Prague-based freelance journalist