‘Every dish has paprika in it’, my boyfriend commented amusedly on the third day of our trip to Hungary. Well, that’s only half true, we also use a lot of caraway seeds…
Besides, he was the one who wanted to try traditional Hungarian cooking, which features ground paprika quite a lot. To be fair, by that time we’ve already been through several local food markets, and had a taste of all the signature dishes, like halászlé (freshwater fish soup), harcsapaprikás (catfish stew), töltött káposzta (stuffed cabbage rolls), lángos (fry-bread, usually topped with sour cream and grated cheese), kőrözött (spice curd cheese spread), several types of kolbász (spicy pork sausage) among others. When he finally managed to catch his breath between two meals, he said that if you like it spicy, aromatic and heavy, it’s a win on all fronts. Then he kept on eating.
I believe that cuisine is only half as interesting without the culture behind it. Therefore, Hungarian food has a lot to offer; it benefits from a lot of outside influences: the Ottoman occupation, the Austro-Hungarian Empire etc. all left their mark and added something essential to the palette. That makes the cuisine both colourful and flavourful, and quite varied. Pork is popular, which Hungarians only started to process during the Ottoman occupation; it was the only meat source that the Turks (being muslim) left alone. Methods of food preparation, like desserts (strudels etc.) testify to a German-Austrian influence. Forget the fancy restaurants on the high street. The best way to enjoy good quality traditional Hungarian food is by going to a seasonal market or a food festival.
I also firmly believe that cuisine gets boring if it remains unchallenged. With the change in lifestyle, the growing health consciousness and modern trends, Hungarian food culture is constantly evolving. It now has an interesting and growing coffee and tea culture. For a great selection of tea and accessories I recommend popping into the Teahouse to the Red Lion (their website is unfortunately only in Hungarian). No account about Hungarian food is complete without a mention of the vast range of alcoholic beverages: wine, pálinka, and an up and coming beer culture. Ruin pubs are a relatively new addition to the palette; once decrepit tenement houses and abandoned factory buildings now house pubs that serve an impressive selection of regional artisan craft beer. The interior often comprises a collection of mismatched, rejected furniture, ranging from old movie theatre seats to gutted Trabant cars that ooze atmosphere and a unique style. Often decorated with mementos from the socialist era and old iconic household items, they always put a nostalgic smile on my face. Most of the pubs also serve good pálinka, but alternatively visit one of the pubs in Gozsdu-udvar (Gozsdu Court, see more here).
In short, if you want to experience Hungarian food at its best: visit a street market (like the Great Market Hall), try some of the signature dishes at a food festival; choose your favourite of the 61 different types of coffee at one of the Cafe Frei locations (my favourite is the Nicaraguan tobacco coffee, website is finally available in English); look up a wine or pálinka-festival for the time of your travel; and visit a ruin pub for a good craft beer. Know that gulyás (goulash) is not a stew but a soup, and try any dessert with quark (curd cheese) or poppy seeds, like túrógombóc (sweet curd cheese dumplings) or mákos guba (similar to bread and butter pudding, baked with custard and a lot of poppy seeds), and I guarantee you won’t be disappointed.
Next time I give you a few tips for a Hungarian holiday,
and share some interesting trivia.
In the meantime, check out my photo gallery of the trip here.