Kulajda Is the Hearty Czech Soup You Need This Winter
It’s a Bohemian classic made with mushrooms and lots of fresh dill.
If there were any justice in the world, Czech food would be better known internationally. Sure, a few restaurants in neighboring Germany and Austria might boast that they offer traditional Böhmische Küche, or “Bohemian cuisine,” and many Texans are well aware that their beloved kolaches have Czech origins. But, as we all know, justice is in short supply on this planet, and in large part, the cuisine of Bohemia—the western region of the modern Czech Republic—has been unfairly overlooked for decades.
One of its best-kept secrets? Kulajda (pronounced “coo-lie-duh”), a rich, fragrant, sour-sweet soup that makes for a perfect cold-weather warmer. Imagine a creamy broth with wild mushrooms and thick chunks of potatoes. Add enough fresh dill to make it bright and aromatic, a dose of vinegar for acidity, and a soft-boiled egg for heartiness. It might look like a simple soup, but with a thick slice of Czech rye bread, a bowl of kulajda is a rewarding winter meal.
For chefs like Roman Paulus, kulajda is home-cooking that dresses up quite nicely, thank you very much. The first Czech chef to win a Michelin star, Paulus gave the dish a starring role at the Alcron, the now-shuttered landmark hotel and restaurant in central Prague.
“It was always on the menu when we had fresh forest mushrooms,” he says. “I think we did pretty well, because it was always very popular.”
Originally from the region of South Bohemia, near the German and Austrian borders, kulajda is filled with the wild mushrooms that locals have gathered in the Czech Republic’s dense forests for generations. Fresh fungi are ideal, but dried versions also work. Paulus likes to use lišky, or chanterelles, but many Czechs will make the entire dish with hřiby, or king boletes, which are also known as porcini, penny buns, or ceps.
While some argue that chanterelles are the traditional choice, Paulus thinks the type is not a dealbreaker. “I’m sure that people in the past didn’t care about the kind of mushrooms—they just used what they had,” he says. “The nice thing about forest mushrooms is that you cannot really count on the season. You just take what’s there.”
Though kulajda is a classic, it still offers room for variation. Paulus’s version uses sour cream, while many recipes include heavy cream and a touch more vinegar. Some cooks eschew sugar, while Paulus thinks that touch of sweetness is essential. Many local chefs, he notes, have tried to put their own spin on kulajda in recent years, often lightening the broth to make it feel like a more contemporary dish.
“The modern version is usually very good,” he says. “But, as is usually the case, the traditional one is even better.”
At high-end restaurants in Prague kulajda might get dressed with a few drops of pumpkin seed oil just before serving, and it will most likely arrive with a poached egg that was cooked separately—and possibly even poached quail eggs. Home cooks, however, often just drop half a dozen eggs into the soup pot as it simmers.
At least that’s how it’s usually made in my house. When we’re not in Prague, my Czech-American family spends a lot of time in South Bohemia. When my mother-in-law makes kulajda with mushrooms foraged from the nearby forest and an abundance of fresh dill from the garden, it seems like everybody in the neighborhood can smell it.
The tender herb is relatively easy to find in kulajda’s homeland, but not always in season elsewhere. Fresh dill should be added at the end of cooking, Paulus says, to preserve its beautiful color and aroma. In a pinch, dried dill is fine, but only use a third of the recommended amount.
The best part of making a big batch of kulajda? The leftovers almost invariably taste better than the just-made version. Cook up a big pot, keep extra portions in the fridge, and you can have a warming soup for supper several nights in a row.
The following kulajda recipe from Roman Paulus is decidedly upscale, using two kinds of broth, as well as both dried and fresh forest mushrooms. You can even watch him prepare it on the Lidl grocery chain’s Czech-language YouTube channel. That might sound daunting, but the comments show that at least one English speaker thought it was worth the trouble.
Czech cuisine may not have the most international renown, but it’s worth the effort. “I think that the fame of a cuisine is also due to the size of the nation, and we are just too small to be known for our cuisine,” Paulus says. “Maybe we have to work on it.”
• 2 cups (475 ml) water
• 5 bay leaves
• 8 whole black peppercorns
• 4 whole allspice berries
• 1 tablespoon whole caraway seeds
• 3 tablespoons dried wild mushrooms
• 3 tablespoons butter, plus more for frying
• 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
• 1¼ cup (300 ml) chicken broth or bouillon
• Granulated sugar, to taste (approximately 2 teaspoons)
• Salt, to taste
• Distilled white vinegar, to taste (approximately 2 teaspoons)
• 7 ounces (200 grams) sour cream
• 3½ ounces (100 grams) fresh chanterelles, sliced
• Ground black pepper, to taste
• 3½ ounces (100 grams) potatoes, chopped and boiled, cooked through but still firm
• ¼ cup fresh chopped dill, plus additional as garnish
• 4 poached eggs
1. First, prepare the mushroom broth. In a saucepan, combine 2 cups water, bay leaves, peppercorns, allspice, caraway and dried mushrooms. Bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer for 15 minutes, then strain to make 1¼ cups (300 ml) of mushroom broth.
2. Heat the chicken broth or bouillon in a small saucepan.
3. In a soup pot, prepare a light roux by melting butter over low heat, adding flour and mixing until combined. Allow the roux to cool. When cool, add hot chicken broth and whisk over medium heat until smooth.
4. Add 1¼ cups (300 ml) mushroom broth. Season with sugar, salt and vinegar, bring to a boil and simmer for 15 to 20 minutes.
5. Add sour cream and briefly bring to a boil. Remove soup from heat. Adjust seasonings to taste.
6. Fry sliced chanterelles in butter in a skillet over medium heat until golden brown, about 10 minutes. Add salt and pepper to taste. Add boiled potatoes, sprinkle with fresh chopped dill and sauté mixture briefly.
7. Divide the sautéed sliced mushrooms, potatoes and dill among four soup bowls. Add a poached egg, ladle the soup into the bowl, garnish with additional dill and serve.