Prague’s embankments have become the heart of community life in recent years. Away from the beaten tourist tracks, the paved promenades along the Vltava River host various cultural events as well as weekly farmers’ markets. For the fourth year in a row, the Smíchov riverside now hosted the largest street food festival in the country.
Bringing together dozens of vendors, both enthusiasts and professionals from different walks of life and countries, the Náplavka Street Food festival attracted massive crowds of Czechs and expats alike who came to appreciate the simple gastronomy along with the unique experience of eating outside. The air was fragrant with spices and dishes from Argentina to Georgia, to Mexico, to Peru, as I pushed my way through the crowds to meet the festival’s organizer Monika Kaňáková.
“There are sixty-five participants from different countries: from America, Asia and Europe. Some of them live in this country or divide their time between their home country, such as Peru or Venezuela, and the Czech Republic. They spend the summer street-food season here and return home for the winter. Around 70 percent of the vendors have their brick-and-mortar shops or restaurants in Prague. The rest drive around festivals in the summer with their food trucks which are part and parcel of the street food culture.”
Indeed, I could see a number of food trucks, mainly offering Mexican and American street cuisine. Outside one of them, with a large sign reading Firefoodtruck I spoke to Luis from Costa Rica.
“It’s a combination of Costa Rican and Czech food. My friend’s Czech, I’m Costa Rican. We use turkey meat and we mix it in burgers and tacos with coriander and sour cream and guacamole and black beans. So a on a burger or a taco you have a coat of black beans, cheese, then after the meat, if you want meat. If you’re vegetarian, it’s totally fine with us. If you eat meat, you can have the turkey and bacon, and after that you have guacamole, coriander and sour cream. It’s super good and totally new for the Czech people.
Walking among stalls offering American hot dogs, Brazilian caipirinha, Georgian khachapuri, Italian gelato, Vietnamese Bún chả and plenty more, I also came across one selling local Czech specialties, namely dishes typical in the Šumava Mountains in the south of the country. I spoke to Anička from the Lyer brewery in the village of Modrava.
“We can offer deer in plum sauce, wild boar goulash, and then kulajda. That’s a type of soup with potatoes and mushrooms. They are all Czech specialties, straight from the heart of the Šumava National Park. Our brewery also offers accommodation and includes a restaurant. We make our own beer, it’s very good. Come and visit us!”
For those who find Central European cuisine too boring and conservative, there was a stall selling fried insects. I watched two couples happily munching on the creepy-crawlies and asked them about their impressions.
“It’s good, we’ve had that before. It’s caterpillars, locusts and grasshoppers. They look off-putting but otherwise it’s good. The taste is hard to compare to anything. Perhaps some kind of mushroom. You can tell there’s a lot of protein in it, it’s smooth. We’ll check out if they have a restaurant in Prague so we could pay them a visit.”
“It’s very good. These are crickets and these are grasshoppers on butter and crickets on coloured pepper. It’s quite salty and very well seasoned. I was afraid but it’s crispy and crunchy, maybe like potato crisps.”
“Probably the biggest curiosity this year are the Hong Kong bubble waffles. This is the first time they are sold here. They are a popular street food treat in Hong Kong. They are made with a special honeycomb mould. Another rare type of dish are grilled beef hearts from Peru, the Peruvians make them here, those are interesting, too.”
Intrigued, I went to check out the Peruvian stall.
“We have anticuchos – those are grilled beef hearts and we also have chicken on skewers and Chicha morada which is an excellent Peruvian beverage made from purple corn. We brought it straight from Peru because it doesn’t grow here in the Czech Republic.”
The African continent was also represented, amongst other cuisines, by Ugandan delicacies.
“Well, we chose this vegetable sumbusa which is a traditional pastry from Uganda. It is a fried meat pie stuffed with lentils and onions and seasoned with curry. We chose it because it looked exotic. This is our first encounter with Uganda. And it’s tasty.”
Walking among the visitors savouring their lunches and speaking a variety of languages I was listening out for English.
Vietnamese, Israeli, Korean, Mexican, Portuguese, French – the sheer number of foreign cuisines was breath-taking. I wondered how the organizers managed to bring them all together in one place. Monika Kaňáková again:
“First of all, we travel. We keep track of the latest developments, of what’s new and hot, and we try to find them here in the Czech Republic. We travel, read, follow the trends, and then we contact people, we make phone calls, send e-mails, arrange meetings and taste the food.”
Even though in recent years the Czech street food scene has embraced influences from all over the world, Monika Kaňáková says Czechs still have a preference for one type of street food.
“I would say it’s still burgers. In the last four years it has been the best-selling type of street food. I really can’t see why because there are so many other attractive street food specialties.”
And if you wonder whether Czechs have their own home grown street food specialty – it would probably be the humble chlebíček – or open-faced sandwich, a snack which comes in many varieties, and has recently been adopted by chefs who are trying to elevate it to the realm of sophisticated gastronomy.