Hungarian food 101
Traditional Hungarian food is a reflection of Hungary's continental climate, 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.
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 Turkish occupation ended Hungary's independence for centuries, it also brought forth important culinary innovations—flatbreads and stuffed vegetables 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 to the whole country, taming the crude and often overspiced Hungarian peasant fare and yielding 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. There, instead of paprika, herbs like tarragon and marjoram remained essential cooking ingredients. Polenta, and sheep's and buffalo milk are still popular there.
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 cherries 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 mangalica, the curly-haired breed of heritage pork known for flavor-rich marbled meat.
Hungary's cured meats pale in comparison to Italian cold cuts, but smoked salami interspersed with herbs—and often with paprika—is a beloved and deeply 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 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 with a sweet filling like jam or cinnamon sugar. An unusual dessert category in Hungary is the sweet pasta dishes: regular noodles topped with 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're 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 18 Essential Hungarian Dishes
Dear reader, before you start to question the local 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 cultural exchange that enriches both countries’ cuisines.
You will find many of the below dishes 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 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.
#2 - Foie gras: Usually associated with French cuisine, 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 and pair it with a side of fruit jam, to match the rich flavor and buttery texture of the fattened duck liver. Though not cheap, foie gras in Budapest is more affordable than in most places around the world. My favorite in Budapest: Borkonyha (Winekitchen)
#3 - 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
#4 - 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 lip-smacking fare. 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
#5 - 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 served with egg dumplings (galuska). My favorite in Budapest: Menza
#6 - Roasted sausage: Be it breakfast, lunch, or dinner, this pretense-free, delicious comfort food is beloved by locals of all kinds—blue collar, white collar, no collar. A generous dollop of mustard, coleslaw, and a thick slice of bread are the perfect companions of these shimmering, paprika-laced sausages. My favorite in Budapest: Belvárosi Disznótoros
#7 - 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.
#8 - 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 soft and juicy meat hides behind the thin, 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)
#9 - Mangalitsa pork: Similar to the black-hoofed Ibericos, Mangalitsas are a treasured breed of pork, known for their richly marbled meat (and curly "fleece"). Michelin-starred restaurants around the world serve Mangalitsa, but since they originate in Hungary, you'll be able to feast on this porcine delicay in Budapest at relatively wallet-friendly prices. My favorite in Budapest: HILDA
#10 - Vadas: Vadas is a catch-all phrase for dishes prepared with an orange-hued, sweet-tart vegetable sauce made from carrots, parsnips, celery-roots, mustard seeds, 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
#11 - 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
#12 - 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 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
#13 - 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 boosted with a fried egg and crisped-up sausages. My favorite in Budapest: Bock Bistro
#14 - 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 with sour cream and cheese toppings. My favorite in Budapest: Jókrisz Lángos Sütöde
#15 - Túrós csusza: One of my all-time favorites is this savory dish of fried noodles smothered in cottage cheese, sour cream, and sprinkles of 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 sweet dessert.
#16 - 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
#17 - Palacsinta: These wonderfully thin pancakes rolled with sweet fillings like apricot jam, sweet cottage cheese, and, more recently, Nutella are Hungary’s most popular desserts. The 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
#18 - 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 consisting of morsels of fatback fried to a golden, crispy brown may not be for the faint of heart. Buy a handful, and then serve it with thin rings of red onions and a slice of fresh bread, as locals do. You'll find töpörtyű at most butcher shops in Budapest's market halls. Some of them make töpörtyű from schmaltz (goose fat), too. My favorite in Budapest: Butcher shops inside the Great Market Hall
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