Modern Hungarian Food, where are you?

Globally, restaurants in many big cities are reviving native dishes in part fueled by tourism. In Budapest, why are Hungarian classics relegated to second-class status?

Roasted pork liver, a traditional Hungarian blue-collar classic, at Buja Disznók restaurant. Photo: Tas Tóbiás

Keeping up with global gastronomic trends can feel like a Sisyphean task for restaurants and diners alike. While the effects of the New Nordic cuisine are still rippling across the dining world one pickling jar at a time, plant-based and vegetable-forward dining, regional Asian fare, and natural wines are just a few of the more recent buzzwords reverberating in dining capitals from New York to Melbourne.

Budapest generally keeps up with the action, even if it usually arrives with a bit of delay. Today, there are sleek specialty coffee shops, craft pizza vendors, edgy cocktail dens, and artisanal bakeries that can stand up to most international comparison. (Not to mention, the city even spawned a movement of its own: ruin bars have sprouted up in places like Berlin and Prague). As Hungarians move back from abroad and open places — recent examples include Portobello, a café and natural wine bar, and Arán Bakery — this catch-up is likely to accelerate.

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A Hungarian couple recently returned from Dublin and opened Portobello, a chic cafe and natural wine bar mirroring global trends. Photo: Tas Tóbiás

In spite of this, there's a global trend that flies under the radar in Budapest: the celebration of local dishes. “Can you recommend a good Hungarian restaurant?” was the most common question I got from people when I worked as a Budapest tour guide for two years. Unfortunately, there’s a serious shortage of places that show off the bright side of Hungarian fare.

Unlike in places like Rome and Paris, where chefs are racing to bring back the forgotten classics with passion and imagination, you won’t find such cheerful attitude toward Hungarian food today. Budapest seems deeply uncomfortable with embracing its culinary past: Few of the city’s hottest restaurants serve local fare, and even those that do often limit their selections to a few basic dishes that tourists look for: goulash soup, chicken paprikash, and beef stew (pörkölt).

Tamás Molnár B., president of the Hungarian Culinary Society (Magyar Gasztronómia Egyesület), is not alone in pointing to Communism as the reason why Hungarian food is so maligned in the present day. He points to the dreary state-owned cafeterias, “menza” in Hungarian, whose notoriously unpalatable dishes define the era’s culinary legacy.

“These places were great stumbling blocks to progress and turned many locals off Hungarian food for decades to come,” he said. When international foods appeared after the 1989 fall of communism — think pizza, burgers, Chinese takeouts, and, more recently, Vietnamese soups — people were all too happy to abandon their menzas and their étkezdes (old-school restaurants serving homemade Hungarian fare; they're now vanishing).

“The current generation is out of touch with traditional Hungarian food. They don’t even know what some of our dishes are,” said Sándor Orbán, the longtime owner of Kádár étkezde, a neighborhood stalwart that opened in 1957 and still serves a broad selection of Hungarian classics.

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Sweet-tart cottage cheese dumplings (túrógombóc) are among the few Hungarian dishes making a comeback. Photo: Tas Tóbiás

For decades now, Molnár B. has been actively trying to revive the reputation of Hungarian food. The Hungarian Culinary Society launched the Aranyszalag accreditation system in 2013 that, similar to the French Label Rouge, presents awards of excellence to Hungarian farmers who meet high standards. The 2019 recipients included a pigeon breeder, a Mangalica farmer, and a paprika producer.

“Few restaurants in Budapest specialize in Hungarian food today because the essential ingredients aren’t available. Things like good freshwater fish, high quality fruits, and even paprika is difficult to source. We want to change that,” said Molnár B. “This is a massive market opportunity,” he added, referring to the city’s skyrocketing tourism.

Budapest is currently enjoying an outsize benefit from tourism thanks to a combination of factors: it’s a beautiful and relatively affordable city with unique attractions that include thermal baths, ruin bars, and the Sziget Festival, one of Europe’s largest annual music events. The number of tourists has grown by seventy percent since 2010. Naturally, visitors are eager to try local dishes. For example, on many days there’s a line to get into Gettó Gulyás, a casually elegant restaurant serving reliable Hungarian classics.

But Hungarian diners are a minority. “Our mission is to make Hungarian food cool again. It takes time to change people’s minds, but we are starting to have some regulars, too,” said Balázs Török, Gettó Gulyás’s manager. Some of this is about putting Hungarian food in a different context and reframing it so that locals disassociate it from the unappealing dishes that dominated the decor-deprived menzas and étkezdes. It’s also about rediscovering Hungarian food, which runs a lot deeper than the goulash soup.

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A step in the right direction at Kiosk restaurant: an updated mákos guba, a traditional Hungarian dessert that's been going out of fashion. Photo: Tas Tóbiás

Hungary’s stormy history is partly responsible for its distinct cuisine: dishes like stuffed peppers, strudels, and even the beloved lángos hark back to the period when Ottoman Turkey occupied Hungary (1526-1686).

Austrian Habsburg influences go far beyond the schnitzel and appear in Hungarian pastries and cakes. Transylvania's kürtőskalács (chimney cake) and cabbage-forward foods are still prevalent across the country. Hungary’s sizable Jewish community also had an impact, introducing cholent (sólet) and the flódni cake to the mainstream. Slovakian, Serbian, and Romanian dishes have also trickled in. This should give you an idea why R. W. Apple, the legendary New York Times journalist, called Hungarian food “one of Europe's most individual cuisines.”

It’s true that some Budapest restaurants have started to bring back classics that have been relegated to frowned-upon status. Chef and restaurateur Lajos Bíró serves a deliciously updated cholent on Fridays at Buja Disznók. Aranygaluska, sweet yeast buns blanketed in vanilla custard, quickly became a hit at Felix, a swanky new restaurant on the Buda side.

Perhaps more than anyone, Stand25 is responsible for drawing Budapest locals back to Hungarian food with expertly prepared goulash, layered potatoes, and somlói galuska. The poppy seeds-based mákos guba and the sweet-tart cottage cheese dumpling (túrógombóc) alone are worth a visit to Kiosk. For old-school vibes, there’s Rosenstein and Café Kör, both with a reliable collection of local standouts.

Still, Hungarian food has more to offer than what’s available in restaurants today and countless dishes are in danger of being lost to history. A quick glance at the index of Ágnes Zilahy’s seminal cookbook from the year 1892, “Valódi magyar szakácskönyv,” shows many dishes that have since disappeared.

Even items that were prominently featured on restaurant menus in the 1950s and 1960s are rarely available at restaurants these days, including vegetable stews (főzelék); pork stew layered with sauerkraut (székely gulyás); paprika-laced beef tripe stew (pacal pörkölt); cooked veal lungs with bread dumplings (szalontüdő); stuffed peppers showered in a tomato sauce (töltött paprika); goose giblets cooked with risotto rice (ludaskása); plum dumplings (szilvásgombóc); cottage cheese strudel cake (vargabéles); noodles topped with poppy seeds (mákos tészta).

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Aranygaluska, a traditional Hungarian dessert, has started to reappear on restaurant menus. Photo: Tas Tóbiás

On a recent trip to Rome, I’ve had wonderful trippa alla romana, slivers of beef tripe cooked with sweet-tart tomatoes and topped with pecorino cheese, one of the pillars of Rome’s famed quinto quarto dishes. This was in the jam-packed Santo Palato, a modern trattoria helmed by chef Sarah Cicolini, who cut her teeth in Rome’s fine dining world. Or take another prominent chef, Arcangelo Dandini, who in 2014 launched Supplizio, a chic takeout shop in the city center specializing in supplì, which are simple Roman rice balls.

Rather than looking down their noses at these historically peasant foods, Italian chefs find in them new inspiration. “Dining habits at large seem to be trending away from formality and toward the celebration of unpretentious traditions” declared Hannah Goldfield, The New Yorker’s food critic, in a recent review.

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Some Budapest restaurants are giving new life to palacsinta, Hungary's version of the crepe. Photo: Tas Tóbiás

Building on the city's booming tourism, it’s time that leading Budapest chefs and restaurants bring back the native dishes. Doing so makes business sense, and it will preserve a slice of Hungarian cultural history. This isn’t to say that chefs must follow old recipes to the letter with an unquestioning dedication to nostalgia. No.

Instead, they should build on already laid foundations and express what Hungarian food means in the 21st century. Let the Scandinavians have New Nordic, and show us what’s New Hungarian cuisine. Many are waiting for it, including some of us locals.

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