Christmas Carp

History & recipes for this Czech Christmas tradition

Jan Purkrábek

Written by Jan Purkrábek Published on 16.12.2011 15:08:27 (updated on 16.12.2011) Reading time: 4 minutes

History And The Necessary Background

Christmas and Carp go together like a hand and glove, at least when considering what Czechs and Slovaks refer to as a traditional Christmas. Surprising to some, Austria and the French Alsace region have also been consuming carp as a part of their Christmas tradition. In what is now Czech Republic, first mentions of carp for Christmas stretch as far back as the 17th century. Widespread consumption, however, is traced to the 19th century. The original fried carp recipe, still used to this day, has been attributed to Magdalena Dobromila Rettigová (1785-1845), who is considered by many to be the mother of Czech cuisine after having compiled recipes which now characterize the food Czechs call their own.

What about the Carp and its history? The Carp is perhaps one of the oldest domesticated fish species and forms an indispensable part in the inland fishing industry in Europe. In 2002, the Czech Republic alone exported some 16.6 thousand tons of Carp throughout the continent. Carp cultivation in the Czech lands dates back to more than seven centuries ago while elaborate aquatic conditions were since created and adjusted to accomodate for the popularity of the fish. It has gained a reputation for quality meat, fast growth, and relatively low maintenance needs.

Despite the Carp being here for so long, eating meat in general was considered a luxury, and the custom of eating carp at Christmas Eve was not popular until the 19th century. Most common folk would consume simple dishes likehoubová kuba, zelná polévka (cabbage soup) and other, predominantly non-meat dishes. The earliest methods of baking the carp were generally done on white wine or vinegar (na modro – on the blue) or alternatively on a sweet prune sauce with ginger bread (na černo – on the black). The custom of frying carp on a large scale is usually attributed to the period immediately after the Second World War. Czechs and Slovaks eat the fried carp with bramborový salát (potato salad) and do so on the 24th of December, i.e. the Czech Christmas Eve.

Purchasing your Christmas Carp, the Scales, and the Bathtub

Purchasing your Christmas carp is a very simple task. All it takes is waiting 1-2 weeks before Christmas, where those who have not witnessed it yet will notice fishermen selling carp on many street corners all around Prague. Regardless of whether you wish to feed your entire house or just yourself, the fishermen will offer you just what you need. Some Czechs prefer to gut the fish at home while others leave the dirty job to the fishermen selling the Carp. What you are left with, in that case, is the fish, usually without its head and ready to portion as necessary. Make sure that you do not forget to grab a Carp scale to dry and then keep in your wallet. A scale from the Christmas carp is believed to bring good fortune for the upcoming year. 

For those who wish to skip the hastle of Christmas frenzy, large shopping supermarkets like Albert (Chodov) sell carp all year-round. They will do a fine job of preparing it for you to freeze and use on Christmas. In contrast, some Czechs prefer to buy Carp earlier and keep it alive before preparing it. In such a case, the purchase of the Carp takes place a day or two before Christmas day. While still alive, the Carp is placed into a bathtub to cleanse it. You will find many Czech movies (such as Pelíšky) depict this very scene. To many expats, seeing this for the very first time will leave a lasting memory very few will forget. After all, where else would one come across such a custom?

An acquired taste

Many people who have never tasted carp, or other freshwater fish, will find the taste different to that of saltwater fish. Some dislike it, some love it. It is a matter of opinion as many consider it a very tasteful fish to eat and prefer it to saltwater fish. Compared to a freshwater pike for example, it is a more fatty fish that, if prepared correctly, will not offend anyone who likes fish. It‘s known for being bony, which puts some people off as it can be a tedious task to get rid of the bones while eating. As one may suspect, the preparation methods are diverse. You will find that one Czech family will prepare the Carp with skin, the other family without skin, one will use a breading, while other families use just  flower or pepper. Simply said, there is no one way of preparing and flavoring carp. However, there are methods which have gained most popularity. Perhaps trying several methods will produce one you will grow to like.

Below are some of the most popular Carp recipes for you to consider along with the inseperable potato salad to go along with it.

Fried Carp Recipes

Breaded Fried Carp (one serving)

300g carp (uncleaned)
10g salt
20g flour
¼ egg
0.05 liter milk
40g breadcrumbs
100g vegetable oil
Debone, remove skin and clean fish, pat dry. Dip cleaned fish filets in salt/flour mixture, then egg/milk mixture, and finally breadcrumbs. Fry slowly in hot oil until golden brown.
Naturally Fried Carp (one serving)

300g carp (uncleaned)
10g salt
1g white pepper
20g butter
5g garlic
100g vegetable oil
Debone, remove skin and clean fish, pat dry. Salt and pepper the filets, then brush with melted butter/mashed garlic. Fry slowly in hot oil until done.
Potato Salad (one serving)

200g potatoes (peeled and diced)
20g carrots (peeled and diced)
20g celery (cleaned and diced)
20g parsley root (peeled and diced)
20g gherkins (diced)
10g onion (peeled, blanched, and diced)
1g salt
2g vinegar
2g sugar
1g pepper
20g mayonnaise
20g natural yogurt
10g lemon juice
Boil potatoes, carrot, celery and parsley root until tender. Drain liquid, add gherkins and onions. Add the rest of the ingredients and mix well. When complete, refrigerate before serving.

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