At 1:30 in the afternoon, we are as hungry as we are tired. Our feet are blistered, our bellies are rumbling, and we seem to have no energy to explore the beautiful city around us.

We are on the penultimate day of our budget trip around Europe, and in a city that’s known for its baroque buildings, gothic churches and beer breweries. Travelling on a budget comes with its share of challenges, and one of them is the comprise on good food. But we were in for a surprise in Prague — the food not just appeals to the palate, but also to
the pocket.

Food is everywhere in Prague. Little cafés dot narrow streets and hip restaurants line wide avenues. Shacks, beer bars, hole-in-the-wall shops, and even candy stores are found in abundance, and the city boasts of no less than 34 Michelin Star restaurants. Yet, Prague still remains one of the most affordable places to have a fancy meal or indulge in local cuisine.

The first and fitting feast
A three-course meal at Besada, an alfresco restaurant set in a centuries-old building, marks the beginning of our culinary journey in the city. It is also the only second proper meal we have after trying our hand at dry, almost leathery, veal in Vienna that had cost us a fortune.

The waiter is surprised that we do not drink beer and offers citrus water instead. In summer, he tells us, citrus water, or water infused with lime and mint, replaces normal water in Prague. Cool, fragrant and refreshing, it soothes our tired bones and sets the stage for things to come.

We are already aware that the classics to sample in Prague are Kulajda (a creamy potato soup with mushrooms, dill, vinegar and poached egg), Beef Steak Tartare (raw beef, minced and mixed with herbs, and served with toasted bread) and Goulash (a stew of meat and vegetables seasoned with spices).

We decide to try the goulash, which is largely considered the most popular dish in the city. It is usually served with sides like mashed potatoes, salad, dumplings or rice. Ours comes with dumplings and bread.
A little research reveals that the dish traces its origins to the Hungarian countryside where shepherds would cook it while spending long periods of time outdoors grazing the cattle. The dish, a stew of cheap ingredients, however turned so popular that it not only became a staple in Hungary, but also travelled across Central Europe. Today, Goulash is considered the mainstay of Hungarian, Slovakian, and Czech cuisines. To a starving Indian though, it is as close to home food as you can get in another continent. This full-bodied sauce has a velvety texture and offers robust flavours, which we mop up with dumplings. Warm and gratifying, the meal gets us ready to explore Prague.

Beer at its heart
“You would have seen many breweries, but have you ever seen one in a monastery?” Our guide Nick asks, as he introduces the Strahov Monastery Brewery atop the hill of Prague Castle, the official residence of the President of the Czech Republic. Dating back to the 13th century, located next to St. Georges Basilica, Strahov serves over 10 variants of beer, all brewed in-house. Priced less than a bottle of water, the beer, we are told, is unfiltered and unfermented and cherished by locals and tourists alike.

In the brewery, huge copper vats peep from inside the dark corridors; long wooden benches and tables greet the tourists in the courtyard and the scent of fresh beer hangs heavy in the air. While all our fellow travellers buy a bottle or two, we listen to Nick’s stories.

He says: the first evidence of beer in Prague goes back to the year 993. Today the city is home to some of the best beer in the world. Pilsner Urquell, Staropramen, Budweiser Budvar… the list of fine Czech beer is long. It should not be surprising that Prague is also the world’s largest consumer of per
capita beer.”

Spit Fire Pigs, Trdelnik Stalls
and Candy Shops
The Town Square in Prague is also its nerve center. Bustling with travellers and locals alike, the place is also a treasure trove of flavours. Spit fire pigs crackle in open, cafés are decked with seasonal flowers, colourful candy shops appear at every turn, and Trdelnik stalls dot every street.

Trdelnik is a bread roll found everywhere in Prague. It is grilled on open fire, sold with and without fillings, eaten on the go and in cafés — it seems to be the most popular thing here. We find ours right outside the Town Hall and decide to try it without any topping. The soft bread roll is mildly flavoured and fragrant. It comes coated in cinnamon sugar, but it is a tad dry. This is possibly why most people prefer theirs with a filling or two — think whipped cream, flavoured syrup and ice cream.

Next we try the Chlebicky, an open-faced sandwich, while sitting in a street cafe by the famous St. Vitus Cathedral, listening to a band playing accordions and violins. Slathered with mayonnaise and butter, the chlebicky comes with various interesting toppings like salami rosettes, sliced pickled cucumbers, smooth herring paste, sliced tomatoes and onions, fresh greens, tuna, ham, boiled eggs and other such expensive ingredients paired in different ways. This sandwich, which fed the country through the Communist years when access to western raw materials was limited and expensive, is in a way representative of the hardships the country went through. Today, it is a celebration of Czech pride and vitality, and pairs perfectly with freshly brewed coffee.

Everything needs to be wrapped up on a sweet note and sweet shops can be found at every corner in Prague. Confectioners who make colourful hard candy shaped like castles and golums; stores that sell stretchy, chewy, gummy animals, reptiles and even eggs; and stalls that stocks gelatos in flavours like citron and chilli — the choices are diverse and aplenty. The sweet treats in Prague are just like their savoury counterparts — they pique the interest and please
the palate.

Prague is a city meant for the joyful at heart and when living and eating in the city is so affordable — it’s no wonder it attracts millions of tourists every single year, most of them not first-time visitors. If you were in this city, you’d come back for more too.

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