A short Hungarian food history
Traditional Hungarian food is a reflection of the country’s nomadic medieval past and the culinary influences of its neighbors and immigrants. While Hungarians have been eating a form of goulash for over a 1,000 years, other dishes, such as stuffed cabbage, schnitzel, and cholent, seeped into the mainstream later thanks to Ottoman, Austrian, and Jewish influences.
Hungarian food improved considerably in the 15th century when the country's Renaissance king, Matthias, hired Italian chefs from Naples, who introduced new ingredients and cooking techniques like pasta-making. While the Turkish occupation that soon followed ended Hungary's independence for centuries, it also brought forth important culinary innovations.
The Ottomans brought not only flatbreads and stuffed vegetables, but this was also when New World ingredients arrived in Hungary, including tomato, corn, potato, and paprika. Paprika went on to revolutionize Hungarian cooking. Hungarian farmers bred a range of subspecies from sweet to very hot paprika, which are still essential cooking ingredients.
In the meantime, the more subtle French cooking methods began to spread into aristocratic households and later the whole country. These had a moderating effect on the often overspiced Hungarian peasant fare and yielded a more refined, yet still distinctly Hungarian cooking style that's regarded as the basis of modern Hungarian fare.
Given the small size of Hungary, differences in regional cuisines aren't significant. The food of Transylvania, part of Romania today but with a sizeable Hungarian community, was always different than in the rest of the country. Paprika couldn't really take root in Transylvania's colder climate, so spices like tarragon and marjoram remained more prevalent. Polenta, and sheep's- and buffalo milk are also popular there.
There are seasonal variations, but most lunches in Hungary begin with a soup. A hearty bean soup with smoked meat and sausage would be appropriate in the cold months, whereas lighter, often could fruit soups like a cherry soup dominate summer menus.
Meat is fundamental to Hungarian cuisine. The options span from poultry (chicken, duck, geese, and turkey) to veal, beef, and to a lesser extent game and game birds. But pork is dearest to the hearts of Hungarians, and it appears in a myriad of permutations. Sausages are popular, preferably paired with mustard and a slice of crusty bread. Higher-end restaurants often serve mangalica, the curly-haired breed with a tender meat and rich flavors.
Hungary's continental climate is suitable to an array of vegetable crops. Rather than simply reducing them to boiled or steamed side dishes, many households make inventive main courses from seasonal vegetables. Unique to Hungary is főzelék, a vegetables stew often topped with meat or hard boiled eggs.
As you scan restaurant menus for seafood, bear in mind that Hungary is a landlocked country. It doesn't mean that you can't find a decent grilled shrimp cocktail these days, but dishes with freshwater fish, like carp (ponty), catfish (harcsa), pike-perch (fogas), and kecsege (small sturgeon), are more common and likely fresher. And while fish isn't the strongest suit of Hungarian cuisine, the fisherman's broth (halászlé) is a classic paprika-laced fish soup that's worth trying.
Hungarian cakes are sophisticated, impressive-looking, and often a bit cloying. Many of them came to Hungary through France and Austria, only to be further embellished. Dobos, Esterházy, and krémes are considered to be the most traditional. Cakes aren't generally available in restaurants, but the confectioneries/pastry shops scattered throughout Budapest will have them.
The 15 Essential Hungarian Dishes
Dear reader, before you start questioning the origins of the below dishes, bear in mind that regional foods influence one another in all parts of the world. For example, the goulash soup has become as much part of Austrian cuisine as the Wiener schnitzel spread into Hungarian households. If anything, it’s a beautiful exchange of cultural influences that enriches both countries’ cuisine.
The 15 traditional dishes below have been, and are still, widely popular across Hungary. Being everyday foods, you will find most of them in traditional Hungarian restaurants, and étkezdes, which are cheap, unfussy, lunch-only restaurants across Budapest. Note that some of the dishes are seasonal, such as the wintry cabbage rolls, so they may not be served year-round.
#1 - Goulash soup The most famous ambassador of Hungarian cuisine, this hearty, paprika-laced soup with cubes of soft beef needs little introduction. Once the nourishment of Hungarian shepherds, the goulash is still an everyday staple in Hungarian households. Use the hot paprika seasoning placed on restaurant tables to adjust the spice-level to your liking. My favorite in Budapest: Fricska
#2 - Fisherman's soup (halászlé) Hungary's take on the bouillabaisse has a myriad of regional permutations. The thick broth is generally made with different varities of fish and bolstered with spicy paprika, which lends the dish its deep red hue. The classic version is served with tender, oily carp fillets. Traditionally, halászlé is part of the Christmas Eve dinner in Hungarian families. My favorite in Budapest: Szegedi Halászcsárda
#3 - Green pea stew (zöldborsó főzelék) Be it potato, spinach, cabbage, squash, lentil, or peas, Hungary’s love affair with vegetable stews (főzelék) has produced some excellent dishes. Főzelék stands on its own as a main course paired simply with a thick slice of bread, although popular toppings can include fried eggs, meatballs, pörkölt, and sausage. My favorite in Budapest: Öcsi Étkezde
#4 - Pörkölt & Paprikash At the heart of magyar cuisine stand these two, very similar paprika- tomato- and onion-kissed stewed dishes. They’re best when paired with a side of egg dumplings (galuska). The main difference is that paprikash is finished with sour cream and usually made with chicken or veal, whereas pörkölt uses beef, pork, or venison. My favorite in Budapest: Menza
#5 - Cabbage rolls (töltött káposzta) As in most Central and Eastern European households, cabbage rolls are a much-treasured winter staple in Hungary too. What sets apart the local version are the sour cabbage heads and a generous dollop of sour cream topping.
#6 - Schnitzel (rántott hús) This originally Italian-Austrian breaded veal cutlet has made its way deep into Hungarian dining tables, especially on Sunday family lunches. When done right, a soft and juicy meat hides behind a crispy exterior. While the original recipe calls for veal escalopes, Budapest restaurants serve an array of variations made with pork loin, chicken breast and a ham-and-cheese filling. My favorite in Budapest: Buja Disznó(k)
#7 - Vadas Vadas is a catch-all phrase for dishes prepared with a signature, orange-hued vegetable sauce based on carrot, parsnip, and celery-root. Thanks to mustard seeds, lemon, and a little sugar, it imparts both sweetness and acidity. Restaurants usually pair it with slow-cooked beef (vadas marha) and bread dumplings.
#8 - Cholent (sólet) Hungarian Jews introduced this traditional overnight Sabbath dish, which has gradually spread into the mainstream. Many cholent variations exist, but most of them are based on slow-cooked beans and pearl barley topped with sliced brisket or goose leg. Jewish-style Budapest restaurants usually serve it on Fridays and Saturdays. My favorite in Budapest: Rosenstein Vendéglő
#9 - Layered potato casserole (rakott krumpli) Hungarians eat this gratin of sliced potatoes, sour cream, eggs, and crisped-up sausages as a main course. The sum of the parts is a light and creamy taste of paradise. Rakott krumpli is best when served hot out of the oven and paired with a side of pickled vegetables. My favorite in Budapest: Stand25 Bisztró
#10 - Lecsó A Hungarian ratatouille of sorts, the best time for this national dish of peppers, tomatoes, and onions is the late summer when vegetables are ripest and most flavorful. They’re even better when jazzed up with a fried egg and crisped-up sausages. My favorite in Budapest: Bock Bistro
#11 - Lángos Many Hungarians associate these deep-fried, circular doughs with summer vacations spent at Lake Balaton, but thankfully lángos is a year-round indulgence. At their best, a crispy, golden crust encloses a steaming, doughy inside. For the best experience, head to a Budapest market food stall and get the classic version, topped with sour cream and cheese. My favorite in Budapest: Jókrisz Lángos Sütöde
#12 - Túrós csusza One of my all-time favorites is this savory dish of fried noodles smothered in cottage cheese, sour cream, and sprinkled with flavorful, crispy pork cracklings. Hungarians often eat it as a second course following a fisherman's soup. Don’t ask me why, but some locals swap the bacon for powdered sugar and turn this into a dessert.
#13 - Cottage cheese dumplings (túrógombóc) You’re unlikely to find this peculiar and widely popular dessert dish outside of Hungary: sweetened cottage cheese-based dumplings are boiled, then coated in fried breadcrumbs, and finished with sour cream and powdered sugar. Go figure. They’re light and tasty. My favorite in Budapest: Gettó Gulyás
#14 - Palacsinta Hungary’s most popular dessert has a much-debated origin - the French have crêpes, the Russian blini. These delicious thin pancakes are rolled with sweet fillings that can include everything from apricot jam to sweet cottage cheese and, more recently, Nutella. Its most elaborate and famed version is the rum-soaked Gundel palacsinta. For the local experience, try it as a food stall. My favorite in Budapest: Marika Lángos Sütője
#15 - Poppy seed bread pudding (mákos guba) It’s hard to think of a more rewarding depository for leftover, stale bread rolls than in this poppy seed bread pudding. Bolstered with milk, egg yolks, and plenty of vanilla sugar, they transform into a moist, deeply satisfying dessert dish. Mákos guba is best when coated in a creamy vanilla sauce. My favorite in Budapest: Kiosk
+1 - Fried fatback (töpörtyű) This traditional peasant snack may not be for the faint of heart. Bits of fatback are fried to a golden, crispy brown. Buy a handful, then pair them with red onions and a slice of bread as locals do. You'll find töpörtyű at most butchers shops in Budapest's market halls. Some make them from schmaltz (goose fat) too. My favorite in Budapest: Butcher shops in the Great Market Hall