A word from the wise: When visiting Prague, plan your arrival for the summer or spring. Between the months of April and August—September, even—the city glitters. Prague Castle haloed in light? Otherworldly. The setting sun ricochets off the surface of the Vltava River. The youth sip Pilsners in T-shirts and shorts, wriggling their toes in fresh grass.
Prague unfurls itself onto you like a book, one you keep tucked under your arm or roll up like a straw and slip into your coat pocket. It has chapters, a segmented history that can be felt streetside where an Art Deco hotel butts up against the staid exterior of a Soviet-era apartment block. The hum of fiction’s greatest pulses though the sidewalks. When I first arrived here for a semester abroad, I read Kundera like my life depended on it, followed with Kafka as a necessary dessert.
“A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us,” Kafka says. I took his advice to heart, a bit too much to heart, and threw myself into reading. Sometimes a bit too fanatically, a bit too frequently. But it buffeted me from some of the city’s less pleasant weather.
When it rains, the dark cobblestones get slicked black; spires and buttresses loom against a tumultuous sky. Gothic architecture in gothic weather creates a strange intensification of Pragueness. I came to know this music box of a city under a thick blanket of clouds that would wring themselves out once or twice a day onto the heads of city dwellers, who would simply duck their heads and walk faster into their private lives.
It was in the midst of this weather that I first tasted smažený sýr, or fried cheese. Prague, and Czechia (as the country is now known) in general, might not have the best international culinary reputation, but they have the best fried cheese sandwich in the world. In a sea of cabbage and boiled meat, and dumplings that are actually just slices of pillowy bread, smažený sýr came to me when I needed it most, like a blessing.
Throughout the city, you can find stalls that sell slabs of it the size of CDs, nestled between two hamburger buns and eased along with a slick swipe of tartar sauce. It’s cream on beige on white and it tastes awesome. The crispy, breaded exterior of the small brick of sýr gives easily, and then you’re greeted by a mouthful of warm, gooey melted cheese. It’ll probably dribble down your chin. It’ll probably feed your soul.
Fried cheese is a good idea for lunch, too. Enter any of the city’s lunchtime cafeterias, grab a tray and wait in line. Once you get to the front, politely ask the person behind the counter for smažený sýr in the best makeshift Czech accent you can muster. For dinner, go ahead and pile your plate high with not one, but two (!) golden fried cheese patties and dig in. You could even eat it like a steak, with a fork and knife, alongside fries.
Later, as you
stumble meander home after the type of beer-bellied night only Prague could offer, make a detour into Wenceslas Square, the city center’s main shopping thoroughfare. Jostle your way through throngs of British stag parties and head straight for the brightly lit food stalls. Don’t be distracted by the sausages slathered in mustard, or even by trdelník, a stunner of a doughnut baked on a spit and dunked in cinnamon sugar. No, your heart wants a smažený sýr, and if that Roxette ballad has taught us anything, it’s that you should listen to your heart. Order a smažený sýr, delicately, comfortably wedged between buns. Make sure there’s tartar sauce. And be careful not to burn your tongue.
In a desperate attempt to recreate smažený sýr at home, I found this YouTube video. It’s rather simple, really. You dredge a square of cheese (Edam or Gouda or hermelín) in flour, then egg, then breadcrumbs. Dredge it again (this ensures that none of that cheesy goodness slips out during the frying process). Plunk the patties into a shallow pan of hot, hot oil. They get two to three minutes per side until crisp and golden brown. Then, pull ‘em out! Like a true Czech, serve with a friendly helping of tartar sauce. Whether you eat it between buns is up to you.
Have you ever been to Prague and tried this street food classic? Tell us if you have in the comments below.