Czech Culture & Adaptation Czech Food

The language of food

November 11, 2011

Translating recipes across cultures

The other night my neighbor invited me to a Tupperware party. Sitting at her kitchen table, surrounded by Czech and Slovak neighborhood friends, I found it amusing, if slightly ironic that my first experience with the long-standing American firm and its party-sales technique was in the Czech Republic. As we sipped wine, the saleswoman, a Czech mother on maternity-leave, prepared plněné řízky (stuffed meat filets) and whipped up a batch of kynuté knedlíky (yeast dumplings) to demonstrate the superior cooking capabilities of the plastic ware products.

The atmosphere was pleasant enough, but after an hour of hearing about the microwaveable aspects of Tupperware, I was more than ready to flee the scene. Apart from knowing that I’ll not likely need the high-tech plastic ware to make my own yeast dumplings any time soon, babička is responsible for producing all Czech food staples for our family, I was also surprised by how expensive the products were. I remembered Tupperware as being practical and affordable. I’ve never been much of a fan of direct-sales demonstrations, and when the saleswoman chided me for dipping the dry chicken into the sauce she’d set out for the dumplings, I decided it was time to say my goodbyes.

Although I like the idea of women meeting and exchanging cooking advice, I prefer impromptu coffee afternoons or an informal girls’ night, when we each bring a dish to sample from our own diverse cooking repertoires and cultures. I’ve learned most of what I know about cooking since living in Prague and swapping recipes with friends or attempting to replicate favorite childhood dishes using ingredients I can find at a regular Czech supermarket.

My pantry sports an extensive shelf of cookbooks, running the gamut from traditional regional favorites like Celebrate Virginia or The NEW Better Homes and Gardens Cookbook; to others I’ve acquired since living abroad, such as the British celebrity chef Nigella’s Nigella Express or THAI Food; or the those I’ve bought since becoming a mother, like the organic children’s Petit Appétit Cookbook. There are also various Czech cookbooks, including The Best Czech Recipes and Pečememe s laskou (Baking with love) and an entire cookbook called Drůbež (poultry) that I confess, I’ve never opened. When it’s time to host or attend a party, I’m more likely to draw on my tried-and-true recipe stash: a small rectangular box stuffed with index cards of handwritten recipes or those torn from magazines.

Learning to cook while living abroad can often require as much perseverance and willingness to make mistakes as learning to speak a foreign language. Cookbooks can be a lifesaver for the inexperienced cook, but can also be a depressing reminder of possibilities that aren’t available in a particular region or country. When Radek bought me a “slow cooker” for Christmas one year, my well-meaning aunt in the US sent me a Crockpot cookbook with fast and easy recipes, which meant that they all contained a least one prepackaged item that I couldn’t find easily in Prague.

Although most nations offer survival language lessons, I’ve yet to run across a survival-cooking class or a survival food shopping guide geared specifically for non-natives. I certainly would have welcomed an experienced expat’s take on grocery shopping and recipe adaptation when I first arrived in Prague. Instead I scanned the shelves, dictionary in hand, trying to find equivalents to the products I knew from home. It took several trips to the market before I found true butter (máslo), and I’m still not sure which of the various tvaroh options or brands (Gervais, Lučina, Choceňské pomazánkové máslo or foil-wrapped traditional tvaroh) is the most similar to the Philadelphia brand cream cheese that many of my American recipes call for. A recent arrival to Prague told me that a long-time expat from IWAP (an international women’s organization in Prague) had offered to take her, shopping list in hand, to the supermarket and help her sort out the mystique of food shopping in the city. Once she had the correct ingredients in her shopping basket, she knew she’d feel more confident preparing her comfort foods abroad. I thought the IWAP woman could probably start a successful business as a personal expat-shopper. There is demand.

After hosting several years of birthday and seasonal celebrations, I’ve slowly learned which of my favorite recipes will be gobbled up and which will be left untouched at the night’s end. While my hummus dip, made with chick peas, garlic and olive oil, doesn’t go over very well with the Czech “meat and gravy” crowd, my spicy spinach artichoke dip tends to be a crowd-pleaser for Czechs and international guests alike. Thai butternut squash soup, sweet potatoes with crunchy nut topping, chocolate chip cookies and yellow cake with frosting are among some of my other personal favorites that tend to get a positive reception for being “different” in a tasty way. Over time, I’ve translated many of the recipes that our friends like into Czech, and it’s fun thinking that a little bit of my family’s cultural food heritage is making its way through the neighborhood.

A few weeks ago, my daughter’s school put on an evening program where each class presented a different aspect of the multi-cultural European continent. In keeping with her teacher’s Greek heritage, Anna Lee’s class performed a six-step Greek dance and then invited us to their classroom to guess the flags of the world and sample original Greek specialties. Although Czechs often get a reputation as not being adventurous eaters, I watched as the parents of Anna’s classmates enthusiastically sampled the various Greek delicacies her teacher had either prepared or purchased at a local Greek deli. One mother asked the teacher directly for her recipe for stuffed green peppers, and the teacher blushed with pride.

When living abroad, I think the process of preparing and consuming food becomes an important cultural habit. It’s a way to create a feeling of home, when living far away from one’s family and native cultures. I know that my own family relishes the tradition and the heritage behind the dishes we prepare. When I bring a plate of chocolate chip cookies to a neighborhood barbeque, it’s my way of offering a piece of my heritage to our friends. Of course, if I carried them in a Tupperware container, they might be even more popular, but that’s not likely to happen – unless my mother passes down some of hers.

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