Hungarian food 101
Hungarian food is a reflection of Hungary's continental climate (cold winters, hot summers), its nomadic medieval past, and the influences of the country's neighbors and ethnic minorities. While Hungarians have been eating a form of goulash for over a thousand years, other dishes like stuffed peppers, schnitzel, and cholent have gradually seeped into the mainstream thanks to Ottoman, Austrian, and Jewish influences, respectively.
Hungarian food improved considerably in the 15th century when the country's renaissance king, Matthias, hired Italian chefs from Naples. They introduced new ingredients and cooking techniques like pasta-making. While the ensuing occupation by Ottoman Turkey ended Hungary's independence for centuries, it also brought forth important culinary innovations — flatbreads, stuffed vegetables, and a range of sweets appeared, and this was also when New World produces 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 scorching hot.
In the meantime, French cooking techniques began to spread into aristocratic households and later the whole country, taming the crude and often overspiced Hungarian peasant fare (for example roux replaced bread as a thickening agent). This yielded a more refined yet still distinct cooking style that's considered the basis of modern Hungarian food. Onions sautéed in lard and strewn with paprika is traditionally the foundation of many Hungarian dishes, including the goulash, paprikash, and pörkölt.
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. There, instead of paprika, herbs like tarragon, marjoram, thyme, and juniper have remained essential flavorings. Also, excellent sheep's milk cheese and buffalo cheese are made there.
Hungarian cheeses don't exactly set the world on fire. Unlike in places like France and Switzerland, there's little available mountain pasture in the country for cows to graze on (Hungary's milk consumption is also below the EU average). But sour cream appears in many foods, lending them a creamy consistency and a pleasant hint of tartness. Also deeply popular is túró, a fresh curd cheese similar to cottage cheese. Túró is highly versatile, appearing in both sweet and savory classics, and even in Hungary's national candy bar, the Túró Rudi.
Lunch in Hungary usually begins with a soup. There might be a hearty Jókai bean soup studded with smoked pork knuckles and sausage in the cold months, and a light fruit soup made from cherries or apricots in the summer.
Meat is fundamental to Hungarian food. 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 mangalitsa, the curly-haired breed of heritage pork known for its flavor-rich marbled meat.
Hungary's cured meats pale in comparison to Italian cold cuts, but smoked and aged salami laced with herbs and paprika is a popular national treat (you can buy sticks of salami at most butcher shops, including those at the Great Market Hall).
Hungary's 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 main courses — unique to Hungary is főzelék, a vegetable stew often topped with a sunny side up egg or a meatball. 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 you can't find a decent grilled shrimp cocktail these days, but freshwater fish like carp (ponty), catfish (harcsa), and, less commonly, pike-perch (fogas), and trout (pisztráng), are more common and likely fresher. And while fish isn't the strongest suit of Hungarian food, the local fish soup — fisherman's broth or halászlé — is worth trying.
An unusual dessert category in Hungary are the sweet pasta dishes: regular noodles topped with ingredients like toasted semolina and apricot jam (grízes tészta) or poppy seeds and powdered sugar (mákos tészta). People often round out a meal with palacsinta, the local crêpe stuffed with jam or cinnamon sugar.
Hungary's traditional cakes, of which there are plenty, are best known for using ground poppy seeds and ground walnuts as pastry fillings. Note that restaurants in Hungary don't serve cakes, and instead you'll have to visit a specialized pastry shop (cukrászda in Hungarian) to try a classic Dobos torte or a custardy krémes.
The 60 Essential Hungarian Dishes
Dear reader, before you start to question 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 seeped into Hungarian households. If anything, this is a beautiful cultural exchange through food, enriching both countries.
You'll find many of the below dishes in traditional Hungarian restaurants, and also in étkezdes, which are cheap, unfussy, lunch-only restaurants across Budapest. Note that some of the items are seasonal, such as the wintry cabbage rolls, so they may not be served year-round.
#1 - Chocolate bun (kakaós csiga): As in Italy, Scandinavia, and France, many people in Hungary start their days with a morning pastry instead of a full breakfast dish. If you have a sweet tooth, you'll find this rich chocolate bun shaped in a spiral to be a real treat, especially if you eat it while still warm. My favorite in Budapest: Pékműhely 2.
#2 - Túrós batyu: Apart from the kakaós csiga, above, this is Hungary's other beloved morning pastry. The stuffing of túró, a snow-white fresh curd cheese, lends a strangely beguiling tart flavor to this palm-sized breakfast snack. My favorite in Budapest: nor/ma.
#3 - Goulash soup: The most famous ambassador of Hungarian food — 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. My favorite in Budapest: At these restaurants.
#4 - Beef broth (marhahúsleves): Húsleves is a signature of Sunday family meals across Hungary, usually served from a large soup tureen for the whole table, similar to a pot-au-feu. The steaming and fragrant broth packs bits of tender beef, root vegetables, and angel hair pasta. It's often paired with bone marrow and toast on the side.
#5 - Fisherman's soup (halászlé): Hungary's take on the bouillabaisse has myriad regional permutations, most notably those in the riverfront cities of Baja and Szeged. The crimson-hued broth is bolstered with paprika and comes laced with a variety of fish. The classic version features tender, oily carp fillets. Traditionally, halászlé is part of the Christmas-Eve dinner in Hungarian families.
#6 - Jókai bean soup (Jókai bableves): Like palóc soup, below, this classic was also created in honor of a celebrated Hungarian writer, Mór Jókai in this case (it's the brainchild of legendary restaurateur Károly Gundel). The main components of this thick, winter soup are, take a deep breath, smoked pork knuckles, crispy sausage, pinto beans, root vegetables, and sour cream. Don’t plan on being too productive after eating this one.
#7 - Palóc soup: This sturdy soup is similar to a goulash, but green beans and sour cream add a layer of savory depth to it. János Gundel, father of Károly Gundel, created this soup in 1892 as a hat-tip to Kálmán Mikszáth, a prominent Hungarian writer who wrote about the Palóc people. The original recipe calls for lamb, but most places make it with beef or pork these days.
#8 - Sour cabbage soup (korhelyleves): Hungarians traditionally eat this soup as a hangover cure after a nocturnal debauch in the small hours of a cold winter morning. Bright tasting sauerkraut, slices of smoked or boiled sausage, and a thick broth laden with fat and sour cream are meant to soothe the stomach and mitigate the headache.
#9 - Cold sour-cherry soup (hideg meggyleves): You’re unlikely to find this beloved summer treat outside of Hungary. The key is fresh, pitted cherries here that are transformed — using water, sour cream, and sugar — into a deliciously creamy, sweet-sour chilled soup.
#10 - Foie gras (libamáj): Usually associated with French food, few people know that Hungary is the world's second largest producer of foie gras. Most fine dining restaurants serve this delicacy as an appetizer with a side of fruit jam to match the rich flavor and buttery texture of the fattened duck liver (traditionally, foie gras pairs with a glass of golden Tokaji aszú wine). Though not cheap, foie gras in Budapest is more affordable than in most places around the world.
#11 - Green pea stew (zöldborsó főzelék): Be it potato, spinach, cabbage, squash, lentil, or green peas, Hungary’s love affair with vegetable stews (főzelék) has produced some lip-smacking fare. Főzelék can stand on its own as a main course paired simply with a thick slice of crusty bread, although toppings often include a sunny-side up egg, meatball, pörkölt, or sausage. My favorite in Budapest: Öcsi Étkezde.
#12 - Summer squash stew with dill (tökfőzelék): Hungary’s signature vegetable stew draws both avid admirers and detractors. Whatever side you take, let's agree that a chilled and light version during the warmer months, thickened only with sour cream, is tough to beat.
#13 - Lecsó: Made from bell peppers, tomatoes, onions, and a sprinkle of paprika, the best time for this Hungarian ratatouille is the late summer, when vegetables are ripest and most flavorful. Lecsó is even better when boosted with a fried egg and thin slices of crispy sausage.
#14 - Layered potato casserole (rakott krumpli): Hungarians layer this potato gratin, which is similar to a gratin dauphinois, with sour cream, eggs, and crisped-up paprika sausages. The sum of the parts is light and creamy, with a gooey topping 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.
#15 - Beef stew (marha pörkölt): At the heart of Hungarian food stand pörkölt and paprikash (see next entry), the two paprika-kissed stews. Pörkölt is dry-stewed and usually made with beef, pork, or venison. Egg dumplings (galuska) are the traditional side dish to both of them. My favorite in Budapest: Menza.
#16 - Chicken paprikash: Paprikash is very similar to a pörkölt, above, but here the meat is gently steam-cooked, using more liquid than with a pörkölt. Also, paprikash is finished with sour cream and usually made with chicken or veal, rather than beef.
#17 - Stuffed cabbage (töltött káposzta): As in most Central and Eastern European households, cabbage rolls are a much-treasured winter staple in Hungary, too. A bed of sauerkraut and a generous dollop of sour cream topping set apart the local version from the others. My favorite in Budapest: Rosenstein Vendéglő.
#18 - Stuffed peppers (töltött paprika): Adopted during the country’s occupation by Ottoman Turkey in the 16-17th centuries, Hungary’s take on the stuffed peppers features yellow-hued ripe peppers filled with a mixture of ground pork, rice, and spices. It comes on a bed of subtly sweet tomato sauce with a side of boiled potatoes.
#19 - Székelykáposzta / Székelygulyás: A Budapest restaurant invented this hefty dish in 1846 using leftover pork stew (pörkölt) layered with sauerkraut. It quickly became a hit and spread across Hungary. Despite what many people think, székelykáposzta has nothing to do with Transylvania; székely people do live in Transylvania, but the dish’s moniker actually refers to József Székely, the person who first ordered it.
#20 - Schnitzel (rántott hús): This Italian-Austrian breaded veal cutlet has made its way deep into Hungarian kitchens, being a staple dish of Sunday family meals. When done right, a tender and juicy meat hides behind the thin, crispy exterior. 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) and Café Kör.
#21 - Mangalitsa pork: Similar to the black-hoofed Iberico, the Hungarian Mangalitsa is a treasured breed of pig, known for its richly marbled meat and curly "fleece." Michelin-starred restaurants around the world regularly serve Mangalitsa, but on their home turf in Hungary you'll be able to feast on this porcine delicay at relatively wallet-friendly prices. My favorite in Budapest: HILDA.
#22 - Vadas: Vadas is a catch-all phrase for dishes prepared with an orange-hued, sweet-tart vegetable sauce made from root vegetables and spiked with mustard, lemon, and a little sugar. Restaurants usually pair it with slow-cooked beef (vadas marha) and bread dumplings. My favorite in Budapest: Földes Józsi Vendéglője.
#23 - Cholent (sólet): First introduced by Hungary's Jewish population, this traditional Sabbath dish has 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: A Séf utcája (on Fridays).
#24 - Pork rice pilaf (bácskai rizses hús): Evolved from the Serbian casserole called djuvec, this is a rice pilaf studded with bits of stewed pork. Tossing leftover pörkölt with bell peppers, tomatoes, and a creamy rice cooked in a rich broth is another way to think of it. The dish, which is eaten as a main course, isn’t complete without a side of pickles.
#25 - Hungarian paprika potatoes (paprikás krumpli): Yes, it's considered a low-brow food, but don’t look down your nose at this paprika-potato combo that has nourished generations of Hungarians across school cafeterias and eateries. The simple ingredients belie the dish’s nicely layered flavor, which is usually boosted with sliced frankfurters and a side of pickles.
#26 - Lungs with bread dumplings (szalontüdő): Also popular in the Czech Republic and Austria, this plate of cooked veal lungs — the traditional recipe calls for veal but in Budapest it’s often made with beef or pork — is best when served with a creamy and bright tasting sauce tinged with lemon juice and a couple of bread dumplings on the side.
#27 - Hungarian tripe stew (pacal pörkölt): As in Italy and France, tripe in Hungary has long been considered a poor man’s food but it can be wonderfully delicious when cooked to tender submission with a bit of bite left to it. In Hungary, naturally, the julienned strips of beef tripe arrive in a red-hued paprika and onion-laced sauce and a side of boiled potatoes.
#28 - Goose giblets risotto (ludaskása): Leftover goose giblets, bits of goose back, and wing meat are cooked into a bed of al dente risotto rice mixed with root vegetables in this highly economical dish. Ludaskása used to be popular among both the Christian and the Jewish residents of Budapest around the turn of the 20th century.
#29 - Roasted sausage: Be it breakfast, lunch, or dinner, this pretense-free comfort food is a locals' favorite among blue and white-collar people alike. A generous dollop of mustard, pickled vegetables, and a thick slice of crusty bread are all you need with these shimmering, paprika-laced sausages. My favorite in Budapest: These sausage shops.
#30 - Pickled vegetables (savanyúság): For a country with a relatively long winter like Hungary, pickled vegetables (savanyúság) are essential nutrients during the barren months of the year. The savanyúság options are endless: from pickles, to cabbage, to peppers, to beets, to onions, to garlic, to you-name-it. Most savanyúság is made in a vinegar brine that's often spiked with sugar to balance out the acidity (except for pickles and sauerkraut, which are lacto-fermented).
#31 - Cottage cheese noodles (túrós csusza): One of my all-time favorites is this savory dish of baked egg noodles smothered in cottage cheese, sour cream, and sprinkles of crispy pork cracklings. Hungarians often eat it as a second course after a fisherman's soup. Don’t ask me why, but some people swap the bacon for powdered sugar and turn this into a sweet dessert.
#32 - Cabbage noodles (káposztás cvekedli / kocka): This is one of those dishes that’s more than the sum of its parts: Shredded cabbage, which has been sautéed with lard and sugar, coats square-shaped bits of slippery pasta. A hint of ground peppercorns gives it a little kick, and some restaurants will also top it with roast pork.
#33 - Noodles with poppy-seeds (mákos tészta): Ground poppy seeds and powdered sugar smother strands of pasta in this easy-to-whip-up dish that Hungarians usually eat following a hearty soup. Thanks to the trace amounts of opiates, exasperated parents used to serve this to soothe their unruly children and help them fall asleep.
#34 - Semolina noodles (grízes tészta): This is another unfancy but inventive hot noodle dish in which toasted semolina flour is drizzled over egg pasta. What helps win over the hearts of many people about this one is the generous dollop of apricot jam on top. My favorite in Budapest? Kádár étkezde.
#35 - Cottage cheese dumplings (túrógombóc): You’re unlikely to find these sweet-tart cottage cheese dumplings outside of Hungary. They're 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: Kiosk Buda.
#36 - Crepes (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. For a local experience, try palacsinta at a food stall inside a market hall. My favorite in Budapest: Marika Lángos Sütője.
#37 - Gundel palacsinta: This is a gussied-up palacsinta, see the entry above, made with a filling of ground walnuts, rum, and raisins, and bathed in chocolate cream. There are various origin stories, but most likely it was Ilona Matzner, wife of the celebrated Hungarian writer Sándor Márai, who introduced this pancake to Károly Gundel, who later perfected it at his renowned Budapest restaurant.
#38 - Poppy seeds bread pudding (mákos guba): It’s hard to think of a more rewarding depository for leftover, stale bread rolls than this poppy seeds bread pudding. Bolstered with milk and smothered in a creamy vanilla sauce, they transform into a moist, deeply satisfying dessert dish. My favorite in Budapest: Kiosk Pest.
#39 - Vargabéles: Originating in Transylvania, this strudel-cake packs fresh cottage cheese layered with noodles, raisins, and a sprinkle of vanilla sugar. Restaurants serve a generously portioned cube-shaped slice as a second course after soup.
#40 - Aranygaluska: Sweet yeast rolls are common across Central Europe, but these feather-light baked buns coated in melted butter, ground walnuts, and sugar are distinctly Hungarian and impossible to stop eating. Each bit comes showered in vanilla custard.
#41 - Kaiserschmarrn (császármorzsa): Named after “the Kaiser,” Habsburg emperor Franz Joseph, this shredded crepe sprinkled with powdered sugar and raisins is another adored dessert across the former Austria-Hungary. In Hungary, people make it with semolina instead of regular wheat flour and bathe the plate in fruit preserves.
#42 - Plum dumplings (szilvásgombóc): When George Lang, the legendary Hungarian-American restaurateur was asked what his last meal would be, one of the dishes he mentioned was plum dumplings. These boiled, potato-dough dumplings, which originate in Austria-Hungary, are an especially rewarding dessert plate in the early fall when plums are at the height of the season.
#43 - Jam-filled dumplings (derelye or barátfüle): A plum jam or sweet cottage cheese filling cranks up this ravioli-looking sweet pasta dish. The noodles are rolled in breadcrumbs and sprinkled with powdered sugar. Derelyes are often made with potato dough as a byproduct of plum dumplings, above.
#44 - Poppy-seeds dumplings (mákos nudli): Yes, potato dumplings are endlessly versatile. Instead of a filling, these diamond-shaped noodles are made memorable with a drizzle of sugared poppy seeds (or ground walnuts). As with its sister dishes, above, people usually eat mákos nudli as a main course after a hefy soup.
#45 - Rice pudding (rizsfelfújt or rízskoch): A popular dessert dish today often served in canteens and cafeterias across Hungary, this rice pudding is brightened up with eggs and lemon zest before baked to a golden brown. People usually finish it with powdered sugar and apricot preserves.
#46 - Semolina milk pudding (tejbegríz): For many Hungarian people, a hot plate of semolina cooked with milk and sugar is the quintessential comfort food, evoking fond childhood memories. Growing up, I used to eat it at least once a week, sprinkled with cocoa powder or cinnamon.
#47 - Somlói galuska: Despite being a relatively recent invention, dating back to the 1950s, the somlói galuska is a deeply beloved dessert across Hungary. It consists of a rum-soaked sponge cake packing vanilla custard, chocolate and whipped cream, and a sprinkling of walnuts and raisins. Apart from pastry shops, many restaurants also serve it. My favorite in Budapest: At these pastry shops.
#48 - Dobos torte: Hungary's signature cake was created by local confectioner József C. Dobos in 1884. After pathetic attempts by competitors to replicate his concoction, Dobos decided to make the recipe public and, still today, you'll find Dobos torte in most Budapest pastry shops. The cake's trademark features are the brittle caramel topping and the layers of chocolate butter cream. Curious about more classic Hungarian cakes and pastries? Here's our top 10. My favorite in Budapest: Auguszt Downtown.
#49 - Esterházy torte: Named after a Hungarian royal family, the Esterházy torte is one of the most well-known in and outside the country. It consists of alternating layers of ground walnuts (or almonds) and rum-inflected buttercream with a white fondant coating. Interestingly, the cake contains no flour. At its best, the Esterházy torte is rich, but not cloying.
#50 - Krémes: Similar to a Napolean pastry, krémes is a cherished custard slice across Central Europe with each country flaunting a slightly different version. In Hungary, apart from regular krémes—vanilla custard enclosed by puff pastry—there's also "francia" krémes, which comes with an extra layer of whipped cream and a caramel glaze on top. My favorite in Budapest: Ruszwurm.
#51 - Gerbeaud slice: This bite-sized cake, which was created by the iconic Café Gerbeaud, is a staple of all Hungarian pastry shops. Under a chocolate glaze lie layers of a sweet dough alternating with a filling made from ground walnuts and apricot jam.
#52 - Strudel (rétes): Strudels evolved from the phyllo pastries that came to Hungary when Ottoman Turkey ruled the country in the 16-17th centuries. The sheer variety of fillings, both sweet and savory, makes strudels in Hungary unique. You've had more than enough apple strudels in Vienna? No problem, try one with cottage cheese, poppy seeds, or cabbage in Budapest. My favorite in Budapest: Strudel House and Strudel Hugó.
#53 - Flódni: This rich layered cake packing plum jam, apple, walnuts, and poppy seeds originates from Hungary's Jewish population. Traditionally, it was eaten for the Jewish holiday of Purim, but today flódni is a cherished treat and available across Budapest pastry shops.
#54 - Bejgli: During Christmas, no Hungarian dining table is complete without these sweet rolls filled with ground poppy seeds and walnuts. People usually place them on a plate side by side because there's a folk belief that the poppy seeds bring prosperity and the walnuts keep trouble away. Bejgli is a staple across countries in Central Europe.
#55 - Chimney cake (kürtőskalács): Feel free to just tear into this aromatic Transylvanian chimney cake boasting a caramelized crust and a chewy, soft interior. Traditionally, as seen above, it's made by wrapping the dough around a baking spit and then cooked over charcoal. My favorite in Budapest: plenty of kürtőskalács vendors exist in Budapest's downtown, for example Molnár's, but only Vitéz Kürtős by the Budapest Zoo makes them over charcoal.
#56 - Lángos: Many Hungarians associate these deep-fried, circular doughs with summer vacations spent at Lake Balaton, but thankfully lángos is available year-round. At its best, a crispy, golden crust encloses a steaming, doughy inside. For the most memorable experience, head to a Budapest market hall and get the classic version topped with sour cream and grated cheese. My favorites in Budapest: JóKrisz Lángos Sütöde.
#56 - Pogácsa: These tender, savory pastries, which are also popular across the Balkans and Turkey, fall somewhere between a scone and a biscuit. They come in different sizes and varieties. In Budapest, you’ll see many topped with melted cheese or filled with pork cracklings. Both bakeries and pastry shops make pogácsa, but those often can’t hold a candle to a fresh homemade version.
#58 - Liptauer (körözött): Named after the cottage cheese of Liptov, in today's Slovakia, Liptauer is a popular spread throughout the countries of the Austro Hungarian Empire. It's made from sheep's milk curd cheese, butter, paprika, onion, and caraway seeds. Hungarian people usually slather it on an open-faced sandwich and eat it as a midday snack. My favorite in Budapest: You can buy ready-made körözött sold in small ramekins at Boci Tejbolt inside the Klauzál Market Hall.
#59 - Bread with lard (zsíroskenyér): A delicious Hungarian bar snack, zsíroskenyér is an open-faced sandwich smeared with lard, and sprinkled with rings of sliced onion and a hint of paprika. Conveniently, it pairs well with draft beer and it's also wallet friendly (around €1 for a slice). A few places also serve a VIP version made with Mangalitsa lard. My favorite in Budapest: When the hunger for zsíroskenyér arises, I usually go to Grinzingi, an old-school, unfussy neighborhood joint in downtown Budapest.
#60 - Fried fatback (töpörtyű): This traditional countryside snack consisting of morsels of fatback fried to a golden, crispy brown may not be for the faint of heart. As locals do, buy a handful, and enjoy it with bits of red onions and a fresh slice of bread. You'll find töpörtyű at most butcher shops in Budapest's market halls. Some of them also make töpörtyű from schmaltz (goose fat). My favorite in Budapest: Butcher shops inside the Great Market Hall
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