Hungarian food 101
Traditional Hungarian food is a reflection of the country’s climate, its nomadic medieval past, and the influences of Hungary's neighbors and ethnic minorities. While Hungarians have been eating a form of goulash soup for over a 1,000 years, other dishes like stuffed peppers, schnitzel, and cholent have seeped into the mainstream 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 such as pasta-making. While the ensuing Turkish occupation ended Hungary's independence for centuries, it also brought forth important culinary innovations—not only flatbreads and stuffed vegetables appeared, but this was also when New World produce like tomato, corn, potato, and paprika arrived in Hungary. Paprika (capsicum) went on to revolutionize Hungarian cooking after local farmers cultivated a host of subspecies ranging from sweet to very hot.
In the meantime, French cooking techniques began to spread into aristocratic households, and later to the whole country. They subdued the crude and often overspiced Hungarian peasant fare, which yielded to a more refined, yet still distinct cooking style that's considered the basis of modern Hungarian cuisine.
Given the small size of Hungary, regional differences are scant. One notable exception is Transylvania, part of Romania today but with a sizeable Hungarian community, where paprika couldn't take root in the colder climate and spices like tarragon and marjoram remained prevalent. Polenta, and sheep's and buffalo milk are also popular there.
A lunch in Hungary usually begins with a soup. There might be a hearty bean soup studded with smoked meat and sausage in the cold months, and a light fruit soup made from cherry or apricots in the summer.
Meat is fundamental to Hungarian cuisine. Options span from poultry to veal, beef, and to a lesser extent game and game birds, but pork is most prevalent, appearing in myriad permutations. A paprika-laced sausage paired with mustard and a slice of crusty bread is a popular everyday meal, but higher-end restaurants will also serve lightly treated mangalica, the curly-haired breed of pork known for its tender meat and rich flavors. The local salami is smoked and air-cured and comes inflected with herbs and paprika (you can buy them at most butcher shops, including those at the Great Market Hall).
Hungary's continental climate is suitable to an array of vegetable crops. Rather than simply reducing them to boiled or steamed side dishes, seasonal vegetables often appear as a main course—unique to Hungary is főzelék, a vegetable stew topped with meatloaf or hard-boiled eggs. Usually a late-summer dish, equally good is lecsó, the local ratatouille made from ripe vegetables.
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 freshwater fish like carp (ponty), catfish (harcsa), pike-perch (fogas), and trout (pisztráng) are more common and likely fresher. And while fish isn't the strongest suit of Hungarian cuisine, the local fish soup—fisherman's broth or halászlé—is worth trying.
The typical way to round out a meal is with palacsinta, the local crêpe, but a more interesting dessert category is the sweet pasta dishes: regular noodles topped with sweet ingredients like apricot jam (lekváros tészta), ground walnuts and powdered sugar (diós tészta), or poppy seeds (mákos tészta). Many Hungarian cakes originated in France and Austria, and, accordingly, they are sophisticated and often a bit cloying. Dobos, Esterházy, and somlói galuska are among the most traditional. Cakes aren't generally available in restaurants, but you can find them in the confectioneries/pastry shops scattered throughout Budapest, with Café Gerbeaud being the most iconic (and expensive).
The 15 Essential Hungarian Dishes
Dear reader, before you start to question the local origin 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 cultural exchange that enriches both countries’ cuisine.
You will find many of them in traditional Hungarian restaurants, and also in étkezdes, cheap, unfussy, lunch-only restaurants across Budapest. Note that some of them 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—a paprika-laced soup with cubes of tender beef, potatoes, and vegetables—needs little introduction. Once the nourishment of Hungarian shepherds, the goulash is still an everyday staple in Hungarian households. Use the tableside hot paprika paste to adjust the spice level to your taste.
#2 - Fisherman's soup (halászlé): Hungary's take on the bouillabaisse has myriad regional permutations. The thick broth, which is made from a variety of fish, is bolstered with paprika, lending it a crimson 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 can stand on its own as a main course paired simply with a thick slice of bread, although toppings usually include hard-boiled eggs, meatballs, pörkölt, or sausage. My favorite in Budapest: Öcsi Étkezde
#4 - Pörkölt & Paprikash: At the heart of Magyar cuisine stand these two paprika- tomato- and onion-kissed stewed dishes. 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. They’re best when paired with egg dumplings (galuska). 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 a bed of sauerkraut and a generous dollop of sour cream topping.
#6 - Schnitzel (rántott hús): This Italian-Austrian breaded veal cutlet has made its way deep into Hungarian kitchens; it's an especially popular Sunday family dish. When done right, a soft and juicy meat hides behind the crispy crust. While the original recipe calls for veal escalopes, Budapest restaurants often serve it with pork loin, chicken breast, or a ham-and-cheese filling (cordon bleu). My favorite in Budapest: Buja Disznó(k)
#7 - Vadas: It's a catch-all phrase for dishes prepared with an orange-hued, sweet-sour vegetable sauce based on carrot, parsnip, celery-root, mustard seeds, lemon, and a little sugar. Restaurants usually pair it with slow-cooked beef (vadas marha) and bread dumplings.
#8 - Cholent (sólet): Hungarian Jews first introduced this Sabbath dish, which has since spread into the mainstream. Many cholent variations exist, but in Budapest it usually consists of slow-cooked beans and pearl barley topped with sliced brisket or goose leg. Jewish-style 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 light and creamy with a coating of melted cheese. Rakott krumpli is best when served hot out of the oven and paired with pickled vegetables. My favorite in Budapest: Stand25 Bisztró
#10 - Lecsó: Made from peppers, tomatoes, and onions, the best time for this Hungarian ratatouille is the late summer when vegetables are ripest and most flavorful. Lecsó is 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 hall 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 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 dessert dish outside of Hungary: sweet-tart 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: These wonderfully thin pancakes rolled with sweet fillings like apricot jam, sweet cottage cheese, and, more recently, Nutella are Hungary’s most popular dessert. Its most famous version is the rum-and-chocolate-soaked Gundel palacsinta. For a local experience, try palacsinta at a food stall inside a market hall. 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 this poppy seed bread pudding. Bolstered with milk, egg yolks, and smothered in a creamy vanilla sauce, they transform into a moist, deeply satisfying dessert dish. My favorite in Budapest: Kiosk
+1 - Fried fatback (töpörtyű): This traditional peasant snack of bits of fatback fried to a golden, crispy brown may not be for the faint of heart. Buy a handful, and pair them with red onions and a slice of bread as locals do. You'll find töpörtyű at most butcher 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