Frugal and filling, with an intense flavour that belies its simplicity, houbový kuba is one of the easiest dishes – Czech or otherwise – you’ll ever make. Made from mushrooms, barley, caramelized onions, and garlic, and spiced with marjoram and caraway, “mushrooms kuba” is one of the most popular examples of tradiční české jídlo – traditional Czech food.
Similar to risotto, houbový kuba (houby = mushrooms, kuba = diminutive of Jakub) is a traditional staple of Czech households, and is often cooked during the Christmas period (particularly in Southern Bohemia – Jihočeský kraj), when religious custom dictates that people fast in the lead-up to Christmas, and abstain from meat.
Although the edible or brown bolete (boletus edulis, aka porcino/porcini, cep, penny bun, king bolete) is generally used for houbový kuba, it’s acceptable to use other full-flavored, firm fungi. I’ve used shiitake mushrooms before, and they work very well.
Ideally, dried mushrooms are best, as the flavour is more concentrated; however, if you can only get fresh ones, they’ll work too. Indeed, some folk will only use fresh (or frozen) mushrooms, but I personally prefer dried as I find them to be more robust and meaty.
In fact, dried mushrooms have been used by Czech families for centuries for this very reason; if they’re unable to have meat, mushrooms make an acceptable substitute, not least because they are essentially food for free! And it makes sense to go into the woods, harvest a load of mushrooms, slice them up, then lay them out in the sun to dry to see you through the lean months during winter and early spring.
Mycophagy in the Czech Republic
As Vera mentioned in her article on kulajda, mushrooms are big in the Czech Republic; they grow in abundance in the forests, and there are several varieties to be found. For example:
Plus, of course, several poisonous varieties, and ones which simply don’t taste good. The Czech Republic is a mycophile’s paradise. Having eaten most of the mushrooms on the above list on a regular basis, I can testify to this!
It’s said that the average Czech forages for mushrooms at least 20 times a year. How true this is, I know not, but according to statistics, around 22,000 tons of wild mushrooms are picked each year from the Czech woodlands. Unsurprisingly, then, Czech cuisine uses a lot of mushrooms.
With mycophagy so popular, it’s not just rural Czechs who go out foraging in the forests, urban dwellers do as well – in fact, it’s something of a national pastime. Every year, between May and November, entire families take to the countryside to go gathering food from nature’s larder, especially on warm days which follow rainfall the day before. So popular is foraging, you’ll often see Czechs carrying basketfuls of mushrooms back home to the city on the train!
In Czechia, there’s actually a standing joke that all mushrooms are edible… although some are only edible once!
According to the Czech Agriculture Ministry, along with mushrooms, people forage in the forests for berries too, with the annual Czech wild blueberry haul being around 10,000 tons. As in many Central and Eastern European nations, everyone has the right to go into the forests to gather food for their own personal use, or to sell.
To put the annual Czech wild mushroom haul into perspective, in the US, all of this foraged bounty would be worth around 150 million dollars. According to the Ministry, 1995 was a particularly abundant year, with the ‘harvest’ being practically double the average!
Tips for making houbový Kuba
Although I’ve been told by friends that they use hulled barley, their cooking times do not correlate with this assertion, so I think there may be a lost-in-translation thing going on. When I make houbový kuba, I always use pearl barley, which is bang on the money, timings-wise. If you do use hulled, however, I recommend increasing the overall cooking time by about 20 minutes, and adding more stock or broth to prevent the barley from drying out.
Speaking of stock, some folk use a mixture of vegetable stock and the soaking water from the mushrooms (I do), which not only gives the dish even more delicious mushroom flavour – not to mention nutritional goodness – it also takes it from being a deep golden colour to a dark brown, almost charcoal color. If you’d prefer your houbový kuba to be lighter though, just use stock or broth on its own. And yes, a couple of stock cubes dissolved in boiling water is absolutely fine!
(Bonus tip: two Czech chums swear by adding a little Maggi seasoning too!)
Unlike risotto, or other simmered rice dishes – for example, arroz con bacalao – houbový kuba, once cooked on the stove, is then finished for 15 minutes or so in the oven in order to really bring out its flavor. If you own a cast iron skillet, shallow pan, or dish which can be used both on the stovetop and in the oven, you’ll save yourself some washing up. My friends tell me they use two pans to cook the barley and onions separately, then pile it all into a greased baking dish. However, I use a 10″ cast iron skillet to cook the barley and mushrooms, and once the onions and garlic are done, everything gets mixed into said skillet, which then goes into the oven. If you want to use a separate baking dish though, that’s fine.
If you have an Eastern European store in your neighborhood, you should be able to find packs of dried mushrooms at a very reasonable price. Failing that, most Asian supermarkets will have dried shiitake – again, at a decent cost. If you can’t buy dried mushrooms locally, you’ll be able to get them online.
Once cooked, serve your houbový kuba with some pickled vegetables, and enjoy the flavors of rural Czechia!
This recipe is validated by our culinary expert in Czech cuisine, Kristyna Montano. You can find Kristyna on her food blog CzechCookbook.com.
- 1 cup dried mushrooms
- 1½ cup cold water
- 1 cup pearl barley
- 2 tablespoons butter , divided
- 1 cup vegetable stock or broth
- 2 large onions , finely chopped
- 6 cloves garlic , minced
- 1 teaspoon caraway seeds
- 1 teaspoon dried marjoram
- Salt and pepper , to taste
Place the dried mushrooms into a bowl or large jug, pour over 1½ cups water, and leave to soak overnight.
Place the pearl barley into a suitable-sized bowl or jug, and add enough water to cover by 2-3”. Leave to soak overnight.
The next day, drain and gently squeeze out the mushrooms but keep the soaking water, and set it aside.
Drain the barley (discard the water), rinse it well.
In a medium-large skillet, heat 1 tbsp butter over a medium heat, and gently toast the barley for a few minutes, until it starts to turn golden. Keep it moving around the pan to prevent it burning.
Stir the mushrooms into the barley, and add 1 cup of the mushroom soaking water.
Once that has been absorbed, add the rest of the mushroom water, and half of the vegetable stock. Give the barley and mushrooms a stir, reduce the heat to low, and simmer for 40 minutes or so, until the barley is soft. Stir occasionally, and add more stock as necessary.
While the barley is cooking, over a low heat, gently fry the onions and garlic in the rest of the butter, until they start to caramelize.
When the barley and mushrooms have around 10-15 minutes to go, pre-heat your oven to 350 F.
Once the barley is cooked, remove the skillet from the heat, and mix in the onions and garlic, plus the caraway seeds and marjoram. Season with salt and pepper.
If you’re not using an oven-proof skillet, transfer the houbový kuba to a greased oven dish, then bake in the centre of the oven for 15 minutes.
Serve with pickled vegetables.
Store leftovers for up to a week in an airtight container in the fridge.