I got back from my favorite city in the world just a few days ago. I always take the same sightseeing circuit through Prague my first day back. This three-hour route begins up at the Prague Castle and goes down through Lesser Town where the crazy swans try to kill you. It then loops around the Lennon Wall and across the Charles Bridge, ending in Old Town Square. This short walk alone will bring you face-to-face with fake Czech tourist things.
1. Trdelník: As Seen on Instagram
Trdelník is a delicious work of art that will make your tastebuds sing. It is basically just yeast dough wrapped around a cylinder, rolled in cinnamon sugar and then baked over an open flame.* Don’t you dare avoid the trdlo (Czechs hate vowels), but enjoy it while knowing that it is not actually Czech.
“Trdelník ties very directly to the open fire. Prior to bread ovens, and prior to kitchen stoves or hot plates, there was no other way to cook dough other than to twist it on a stick of wood and rotate it over an open fire. […] As far as it is known in Europe, it starts with ancient Greece and practically every nation from Sweden down to the south, east and west, people knew Trdelník. The only difference is that it had so many local names. The word ‘Trdelník’ is the only thing about this food, which is purely Czech. It is a very ancient word, and it essentially denotes the use of a wooden stick, mallet or spindle – when twisting yarn this word was used”Radio.cz
Talking about trdelník could even get you in trouble. It’s just like talking about borscht or pierogi in mixed company. As a Ukrainian I will tell you that borscht is most definitely not Russian and that pierogi is Polish because our version of ‘vareniki’ is completely different. We Europeans are very particular about the origins of our food.
So where else can I eat this?
- Hungary – “Kürtőskalács”
- Austria, “Prügelkrapfen”
- Germany, “Baumkuchen”
- Slovakia, “Skalický trdelník”
I’d like to point out that I love the traditional trdelník that I have been enjoying since I was child. It wasn’t until a few years ago that a company decided to re-invent it by turning it into an ice cream. This almost broke the internet in 2016!
Today you can find both the traditional fake Czech and Instagramable (even less Czech) versions all over Prague and other major cities. Call me a metathesiophobe all you want, but please try the plain version first. Then pose with the prettier one that sacrificed its integrity for Instafame.
2. Nesting Dolls or Matryoshka Dolls
Call me a hypocrite, but I was buying an “I love Prague” rubber duck as I silently judged an American couple that was spending over a hundred dollars on nesting dolls. What was worse, they were paying for it in crisp colorful Euro bills. I am still cringing because there is just so much wrong with that picture.
Czech Russian nesting dolls are cute, I admit it. Despite my aggressively patriotic Ukrainian upbringing, I own a few nesting dolls myself. I even sell nesting doll earrings in my Etsy store, Everyfelt. My problem isn’t with the dolls themselves, but with passing them off as Czech.
“But wasn’t the Czech Republic part of the USSR at one point?” you may ask while I cringe some more. I was literally just there during the 30th anniversary of the Velvet Revolution, the bloodless revolution that won Czechs and Slovaks back their freedom after 50 years of Nazi and Communist oppression. So the answer is ‘no.’ The country belonged to the Eastern Bloc and was a member of the Warsaw Pact. But I’m not here to teach you history!
But what are Matryoshka Dolls?
This is the first time I ever actually researched what matryoshka dolls actually are and their history is pretty fascinating and conflicting. The first doll set was made in 1890 in Moscow. In 1870, the toy shop had been purchased by Savva Mamontov, an industrialist and patron of the arts.
“One story regarding the origin is that Matryoshka dolls were inspired by a doll brought back from Japan by Mamontov’s wife. It is said that one of the artists was intrigued by the doll and decided to make something similar in a Russian style.”Owlcation
Fun fact: In 2003, a World Record was set for the largest set of Matryoshka dolls ever made. The set was painted by Youlia Bereznitskaia and consists of 51 pieces. The largest is 53.97cm tall, and the smallest is 0.31cm. When lined up, the pieces measure more than three metres in length!
So don’t necessarily avoid buying these in Prague. But lecture the store sellers if you do. Or just hop on a flight to Russia (or go on Etsy) and just buy the real thing and then you can call it a traditional souvenir.
Langoš is a delicious piece of deep-fried dough covered in garlic, cheese, and sometimes ketchup if you’re feeling controversial. The story here is the same as trdelník, except this fake Czech dough is savory.
This “traditional Czech” recipe is actually Hungarian and they spell it ‘lángos’. Unlike the Czechs, it is my understanding that Hungarians do not put ketchup on it. But to be honest, it’s not so bad with ketchup. Although the dough itself is likely not vegan, I still got myself some cheese-less, ketchup langos last December. I couldn’t find it on my more recent trip.
The best time to get lángos, or langoš, or whatever you want to call this fried dough, is during the Christmas markets in Prague. Outside of Prague, particularly in towns that are closer to Hungary, you can get these at most festivals that have street vendors. I have also bought it in Vienna and I ate something eerily similar in Taipei.
4. Kafka: Metamorpho-NO
I’m going to get in a lot of trouble for this one. But I’d like to address the fact that Czechs love to collect celebrities. When you visit Prague you’ll see the Mozart Cafe, you’ll hear about Einstein eating at my favorite restaurant, the Louvre, and of course you’ll be told to visit the Kafka museums.
Franz Kafka was a German-speaking Bohemian novelist and short-story writer. He was born into a middle-class Ashkenazi Jewish family in Prague, the capital of the Kingdom of Bohemia, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, today the capital of the Czech Republic. – Wikipedia
Was he technically Czech? Who knows. It’s 2019 and globalization is turning the world into a much more international place. Most people I know are ‘mutts’ in the best way possible. So it doesn’t actually matter whether or not Kafka was ‘Czech,’ he’s awesome either way.
If you’re into reading, check out his story The Metamorphosis. It’s short, sweet and powerful. Go to his museum in Prague and go take a look at his crazy spinning head. I’m talking about the Head of Franz Kafka statue, made by David Černý, outside of the Quadrio shopping center.
Kagui Kahujová Roosa – Identity Crisis Alert
Have you heard people say that when we are angry about someone else’s flaws, it is because they remind us of our own? I believe this 100%. So I admit that, just like the other things on my list, I, Olena, am also fake Czech. Let’s do this in third person.
Olena was born in Ukraine and grew up in Prague. She speaks five languages including Czech, but can only write in English. Her time in Prague was spent predominately amongst expats. She went to the International School of Prague for 11 years, then graduated from Anglo American University just to hop back into the expat scene as an adult.
This fake Czech considers Prague her home, but now lives in the United States. She has Ukrainian citizenship and hopes to get American too, but she will always be a third-culture child that belongs everywhere and nowhere. She did swear her allegiance to the Czech Republic under oath by a man wearing fancy medals who granted her Czech citizenship. Olena also refuses to shut up about how Prague is the best city in the world.
Will you take her word for what is and isn’t fake Czech based on her 20 years of living in an expat bubble in Prague? That is entirely up to you. Unlike the other four on this list, she may cry if you chose to avoid her. I mean me!