With a population of approximately 30,000, Budapest has the largest Chinese community in Central Europe. Most Chinese people came to Hungary between 1989 and 1992, when economic opportunities were widespread in post-communist Hungary and they were allowed to enter the country visa-free. They were predominantly uneducated but hard-working people from villages and small towns in Eastern China (mainly Zhejiang and Fujian provinces) looking for a better life in Europe.
Once in Hungary, the Chinese set up markets on the outskirts of Budapest selling cheap, imported Chinese goods, mostly clothing. Some of them have since become spectacularly wealthy, but the majority is still toiling away from dawn to dusk. At the peak in the 1990s, the Hungarian Chinese community amounted to almost 50,000 people, but many have moved on to Western Europe since then, or returned to their drastically-transformed hometowns in China.
Recently, however, a new wave of Chinese immigration took place to Budapest: between 2013 and 2017, thousands of Chinese citizens purchased Hungarian residency bonds through an immigration-by-investment program ran by the Hungarian government. Unlike the first-wave of Chinese immigrants, these newcomers are well-off (the cost of a residency bond ranged between €250,000 and €300,000) and cosmopolitan. Many bought homes in the Buda hills and other elite parts of the city instead of settling in the working class Budapest neighborhoods in District 10 where Chinese people normally live. New Chinese restaurants in Budapest, particularly the pricier ones, cater to these well-heeled newcomers.
Monori Center, aka Budapest Chinatown
Budapest currently has two Chinatowns. They're situated near one another in Kőbánya, a bit outside the city center. The main one is Monori Center, where hundreds of businesses spread across an area of 80,000 sqm. Most stores are clothing wholesalers exporting to Central Europe, but many places cater to local Chinese residents with everything from Chinese grocery stores, medical centers, churches, massage and hair salons, and pastry shops. There are two Chinese-language newspapers that feature both Chinese and local Hungarian news stories. And restaurants of course.
In fact, Monori Center is where Budapest's best and most authentic Chinese restaurants congregate. Be it fancy Sichuan-food, a dumpling shop, seafood, a neighborhood restaurant, or a classic Chinese breakfast spot, you will find them all here. Since 99% of customers at these restaurants are Chinese people, the food served here is effectively real Chinese food without any Hungarian influences - there is even a local Chinese farmer outside of Budapest who grows Chinese vegetables in a greenhouse.
Monori Center, however, isn't your typical Chinatown. It's not teeming with boisterous street food vendors nor packed with pagoda-shaped buildings. Instead, it's a peaceful and quiet area; if it weren't for the Chinese signs above the storefronts, you could mistaken it for a sleepy outlet mall. But while it offers less of a spectacle, Monori Center's diversity and depth of food options could rival most Chinatowns around the world.
A popular event at Monori Center every summer is the outdoor street food market. From May to August, a dozen or so makeshift food stalls serve excellent Chinese food ranging from dim sums to freshly grilled meats, seafood, and jiaozi. For the best experience, try going with a large group and order (and share) as many plates as you can. The summer market is open from 5 p.m. every day of the week during the summer.
To get to Monori Center from downtown Budapest, you can take a tram from Blaha Lujza Square (#28 to Mázsa utca) or a bus from Kálvin Square (#9 to Kőbánya alsó vasútállomás). Brace yourself for a ride that offers a glimpse into the less glamorous side of Budapest that few tourists see. Alternatively, you can take a taxi, which will take about 15 minutes and cost HUF3,000 (€10) or so.
There is another Chinatown in Budapest: Józsefvárosi Piac/Euro Square. It's somewhat closer to the city center and along the same tram line as Monori Center (get off at Kőbányai út 31). Here, a seemingly endless row of abandoned, pre-war industrial buildings are now operated by Chinese and Vietnamese vendors. This chaotic space feels like a bustling Asian marketplace, with plenty of excellent hole-in-the-wall eateries buried deep inside (the sit-down restaurants are mainly in Monori Center). Few people speak English or Hungarian here, so follow your nose and good things will come your way.
I highly recommend visiting Budapest’s Chinatowns. In addition to the bounty of authentic Chinese food options, one is bound to take note of Budapest’s cultural and ethnic diversity that even most locals are unaware of let alone appreciate.
Where To Eat, What To Eat?
You shouldn’t waste your time at the Chinese eateries swarming around Budapest’s downtown, offering food with toned-down flavorings adjusted to meet local preferences. Most of Budapest’s best Chinese restaurants are in Monori Center (I find these to be the best ones).
China has a refined, complex, and diverse cuisine, with major regional differences. The leading Chinese restaurants in Budapest, however, don’t specialize in a particular region, instead serving a pan-Chinese fare, with a selection of signature dishes from the main provinces, like mapo tofu, spicy chicken, and Dandan noodles (Sichuan), Dongpo pork (Zhejiang), black pepper beef (Guangdong), and Peking duck.
Nonetheless, the seemingly boundless international popularity of Sichuanese cooking has rippled out to Budapest too, and the recently-opened restaurants are particularly fond of chili heat and Sichuan peppercorns (Spicy Fish, Daohuaxiang, and Hange). Food from Zhejiang and Fujian are also prevalent, as most of the local Chinese community hails from those southeastern coastal provinces of China.
Although a landlocked country isn’t exactly a seafood chef’s dream, Budapest currently has two outstanding Chinese restaurants specializing in steamed lobsters, crabs, and other treasures of the ocean (Milky Way and Yanjiang South Restaurant). Both of them are owned by families from Wenzhou, the coastal Chinese city in Zheijiang province. The only downside is the prices, which render these native flavors out of reach for much of the Chinese community (Hungarian patrons are few and far in between).
Hot potting is a huge trend in China and it’s becoming popular in Budapest too. Like fondue, it’s a communal activity, where a group of people sit around an oversized table and cook together. Here, they dunk a variety of raw ingredients into the boiling broth, just so to fish’em out a few minutes later cooked to perfection. Budapest boasts three hot pot joints already: a northern Chinese with milder (Wang Fu), a Chongqing-style (Daohuaxiang) with fiery flavors, and Dong Lai Shun, which uses traditional brass bowl equipment heated by charcoal beneath it.
For Chinese breakfast, Monori Center Hong Kong Büfé and HeHe serve classic Chinese morning staples like deep-fried dough sticks (youtiao), a type of rice porridge (congee), steamed buns (baozi), and the highly popular sweetened soybean milk. Also, amid endless rows of clothing stores, one can stumble into an outstanding jianbing vendor at the Józsefvárosi Piac/Euro Square. Jianbings, these delicious fried “Chinese crepes” for breakfast are cooked fresh on a cast-iron grill and inside a charcoal burning barrel.