Globally, restaurants in many big cities are reviving native dishes. In Budapest, why are Hungarian classics relegated to second-class status? Here’s how to salvage them.
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 like New York and Los Angeles. In general, Budapest is good at keeping 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 any international comparison. (Not to mention, the city has even spawned a movement of its own: ruin bars have sprouted up in places like Berlin and Prague). As Hungarians who’ve spent time abroad move back and open establishments — recent examples include Portobello, a café and natural wine bar, and Arán Bakery — the catch-up is likely to accelerate.
But despite 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 to embrace 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.
Tamás Molnár B., president of the Hungarian Culinary Society (Magyar Gasztronómia Egyesület), is not alone in blaming communism for the downfall of Hungarian food. 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 which are rapidly 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 serving a broad selection of Hungarian classics.
For decades, Molnár B. has been actively trying to repair the damage done to 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 Mangalitsa 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 local people don’t see the same 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.
Hungary’s stormy history is partly responsible for its distinct cuisine: Ottoman Turkey and the Austrian Habsburgs brought plenty of culinary influences. For example, stuffed peppers, strudels evolving from baklava, and even the beloved lángos that harkens back to Turkish flatbread come from the Ottomans. The Austrian influences go far beyond the schnitzel, having also profoundly shaped Hungarian pastries and cakes. The cabbage-forward plates of Transylvania, which was part of Hungary until the end of WWI, are still prevalent across the country. Hungary’s sizeable Jewish community introduced the matzo ball soup and the flódni cake. Slovakian, Serbian, and Romanian dishes have also trickled in. Unique to Hungary are sweet pasta plates smothered in poppy seeds and ground walnuts. 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 a few classics that have been relegated to frowned-upon étkezde status. Chef and restaurateur Lajos Bíró serves a deliciously updated cholent, a Jewish-Hungarian favorite, available on Fridays at A Séf utcája. 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 Pest. 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. Items that were prominently featured on restaurant menus in the 1950s and ’60s are now only available in unpretentious étkezdés: it’s nearly impossible to find things like goulash sprinkled with green beans and thickened with sour cream (palóc leves); 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).
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 traditional peasant foods, Italian chefs find new inspiration in them. “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.
Building on the city's booming tourism, it’s time that leading Budapest chefs and restaurants also bring back the native dishes. Doing so makes business sense, and it will also 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 people are waiting for it, including some of us locals.