It may not be the most politically correct
probably the most memorable
description of Hungarian food
is "a bright spot in a culinary black hole".
With neighbors like Austria
, the Ukraine
most of ex-Yugoslavia
, all firmly entrenched in either the
line of German
cooking or the
horrors of Communist
-era Eastern European food, Hungary
definitely stands out. But be forewarned, Hungarians like their
fat and salt, so health food
The defining ingredient for Hungarian cuisine (Magyar konyha)
is of course paprika,
a mild spice made from sweet peppers.
Alas, quality paprika is difficult to obtain outside Hungary, it
doesn't keep well and by the time it turns brown it is only a pale
shadow of the original, ruining many a goulash. Fresh paprika is
fiery red and has a strong, pleasant smell; store it in the fridge and it
will last longer. Paprika is
commonly used either with sour cream or with rántás, a
heavy roux of flour and lard.
If paprika is the Hungarian spice, the quintessential Hungarian dish
is naturally goulash. The thick paprika-laden beef stew typically
called goulash in the West is known as pörkölt in Hungary,
where gulyás refers to a (marginally) lighter paprika-flavored
beef soup. Less well known in the rest of the world are
csirke paprikás, chicken in paprika sauce, and my personal
favorite halászlé, paprika fish soup often made from carp.
Goose is also quite popular in Hungary. While tourists gorge on
goose liver (libamáj), still cheap by Western standards,
probably the most common dish is sült libacomb, roast goose leg.
Stuffed (töltött) vegetables of all kinds are also popular,
and Hungarian pancakes (palacsinta), both savoury and sweet,
are a treat. Common snacks include kolbasz, a Hungarianized
version of the Polish kielbasa sausage, and langós,
A Hungarian meal is almost always accompanied by
Hungarian pickles called savanyúság, literally
"sourness". (I still remember my surprise the first time I was served
sauerkraut for breakfast.) These are often dubbed saláta on
menus, so order a vitamin saláta if you want fresh veggies.
Starch is most often served as
potatoes, rice or dumplings (galuska),
the primary Hungarian contribution in this field being
an unusual type of pasta called tarhonya.
The national drink for washing all this down is Hungarian wine
which is cheap and excellent. Best known in the West are the
very sweet white Tokaj dessert wines and the strong red
Egri Bikavér (Eger Bull's Blood), but most Hungarian
wines fall between
these two extremes and even at scruffy borozó wine bars
doling out jugs for 200 Ft/L (less than $1)
you really do have to go out of your way
to find undrinkable wine. (Alas, finding a dependable source of
truly excellent wine is also rather challenging...) Many Hungarians
will also take an aperitif of Unicum or pálinka on
Now just get someone to teach you how to pronounce egészségedré,
meaning both "Cheers!" and "Bon appetit!", and you're all set!
(A bottle of two of wine will help considerably...)