Meet the Grand Old Lady of Hungarian Food

Professor Eszter Kisbán has spent a lifetime documenting the history of Hungarian food and I got a chance to ask her my burning questions.

Eszter Kisbán is an expert of the cultural and historical aspects of Hungarian food — what did Hungarian people eat in the late Middle Ages? Did the Ottoman and Habsburg rules influence food in Hungary? What’s the true story behind the goulash? She has all the answers. After a long career at the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, she became the department head of ethnography at the University of Pécs. Currently at 84, she still writes and helps out with research papers. Her intellectual curiosity seems boundless; when I reached out to her for an interview, she later told me, she took to The Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology to learn about the origin of the word “offbeat.”

I often rely on her work so chatting with Eszter was like a dream come true. Her passion for all things food shined through our conversation — in her telling, there’s a fascinating story or an unexpected punchline behind every ingredient, every dish. Below is our conversation, which was edited for length and clarity.

eszter-kisban-hungarian-ethnographer

Let’s start with the basics. What’s ethnography?

At the end of the 19th century people realized that life in the countryside was rapidly changing and it was the last minute to see and understand and document what was left of folk culture. This was when ethnography became an independent field. Folk culture has indeed disappeared since then but during that short window ethnographers chronicled valuable information that became the basis for students like me in the 1950s. There were similar developments across Europe, from Sweden through France and Germany all the way to Hungary. In the U.K. and the countries of the Lower Rhine, the Industrial Revolution triggered this shift earlier.

How much was left for you to see of life in the countryside when you started out in the 1950s?

In the aftershock of the second World War, there was a slowdown in the pace of change. During our field trips we were still able to find a connection and continuity to the earlier epoch. For example people still used horse-drawn equipment for harvest. Then in the ‘60 and ‘70s came a wave of innovations both in agricultural production and in terms of what and how people ate. There was a similar process in Western Europe.

How did you come to specialize in food?

When I was a second-year student in Budapest, in 1956, my professor sent me on a research trip to Kisalföld. Being close to Vienna, it was an unexciting and understudied area because people wanted to go to more exotic (archaic) places. But the only choice I was given was whether I wanted to research folk clothing or food. I chose food and it was a wonderful experience. At the end I wrote a paper with my findings. For my PhD, I wanted to continue with this topic but my advisor told me I had to write a monograph about bread. So that’s what I did.

Do we have any idea what ancient Hungarian tribes ate when they arrived at the Carpathian Basin in the 9th century?

We know from leftovers found on excavated ceramic bowls that they ate millet porridge with beef and mutton, and preserves made from wild fruits. Unfortunately, museums in the past would carefully scrub and sanitize ancient crockery, getting rid of precious food remains along the way. So we can only guess the rest. Their diet was likely heavy on meat and milk. They did make breads, especially from millet and barley as these crops have short growing seasons, which synched better with their partly nomadic lifestyle. Interestingly, millet porridge was around until the 19th century, but ultimately rice replaced millet as an ingredient in Hungary. 

How did their foods change by the reign of Renaissance king Matthias in the 15th century?

The major change came in the 16th century with two Italian influences: salads and pasta. Salads remained the privileges of the rich, but pastas quickly conquered the whole country. They became the go-to dish during the days of abstinence, which meant that people ate pasta as often as three times a week (the Roman Catholic church had different fasting requirements across the country). These fasting days came to be referred to as “pasta-eating days” (tésztaevőnap), which shows the pasta’s importance.

But don’t think there were a million types of pasta shapes as in Italy today! There was the long and flat metélt and the square-shaped kocka. In the 16th and 17th centuries, people would eat them with meat and broth, or top the drained pasta with túró (cottage cheese), poppy seeds, or plum jam.

Sounds like Hungary was a nation of pasta-eaters.

It was. Pasta didn’t just spread to Hungary of course, but in the in-between territories — southern Germany and Austria — knödels (dumplings) were more prominent.

A document from the 17th century refers to cabbage with meat as “the coat of arms of Hungary.” Why cabbage?

Because cabbage was the most common vegetable at the time and both the aristocracy and the peasants ate it. We’re talking about fermented cabbage, which was available for most of the year. Countries to the north of us were in a similar situation. In Hungary, it was usually served with beef.

Why beef? Isn’t Hungary a nation of pork eaters?

Not until relatively recently. Beef was the cheapest and most available meat in Hungary until the 19th century. Pork was expensive and few people raised pigs at home then. Szalonna (pork fat) was regarded as a precious ingredient among countryside folks.

What was the greatest food-related change during the Ottoman occupation (1541-1686) of Hungary?

Hungary was less integrated into the Ottoman Empire than territories that were closer to Constantinople and much longer under its reign. For example, a sizable civilian population moved from Ottoman Anatolia to places like Bulgaria and Bosnia over the centuries. Hungary, on the other hand, was at the westernmost edge of the Empire and treated as a military frontier. There were craftsmen in the bigger cities to service the soldiers but no civilian population from Ottoman Turkey. In other words, Hungarians had less exposure to Ottoman culture and food than people in the Balkans.

The main food-related Ottoman influence was stuffed cabbage. The Ottomans used grape leaves to wrap stuffings, but other kinds of vegetable leaves also worked as long as they didn’t break. As mentioned, fermented cabbage leaves were available year-round in Hungary, so those became the norm here (in the Mediterranean, cabbage leaves are rarely seen). The stuffing was usually seasoned porridge or minced meat. Over time, Hungarian stuffed cabbages grew in size, became less compact, and were cooked on a bed of shredded sauerkraut.

Some of our Ottoman loanwords are food-related, for example bogrács (cauldron) and tepsi (baking pan). Turkish craftsmen made beautiful copper pots and bowls. There was even a Coppersmiths’ Street in the city of Buda during the Ottoman occupation.

Do we know anything about dining etiquette?

In the 16-17th centuries, even the aristocracy ate with their hands. There were no forks, no spoons. The more refined eaters knew that it was prudent to toss the bones gently beside themselves on the floor, rather than hurling them across the room and possibly injuring a fellow diner.

Did the centuries-long Habsburg rule (1686-1918) have an impact on our diet?

There weren’t as many obvious Habsburg influences as their long reign would imply. Part of the reason is the shared geography: similar climate, similar domesticated animals, and similar vegetables meant there was a lot of overlap. Also, as early as the 16th and 17th centuries, the territories not occupied by the Ottomans, western Hungary and even Transylvania, had a close connection with the Habsburgs, so the specific influences are hard to track.

Head cheese was clearly a German-Austrian adoption as previously Hungarians would serve the pig’s head in whole during harvest festivals and wedding receptions. And there is the Wiener schnitzel of course.

Please tell me more.

The Austrians took the schnitzel from Italy. A cutlet of meat with a coating of breadcrumbs was a novelty in Viennese cuisine when it first appeared around 1800. In Hungary, the first surviving written menu from 1834 already featured a schnitzel. It became a trendy dish. A 1955 survey showed that the schnitzel was the most popular dish in Hungary for Sunday family meals among peasants and laborers. People made it with pork or chicken instead of veal.

Goulash. There are many origin stories. What’s the truth?

Cattle raising was the leading industry in Hungary since the 16th century. There was a huge market in western Europe for cows, which were led by foot as far as Venice, Munich, and Nuremberg. The herdsmen, whose name was gulyás, lived far out in the pasture in the Hungarian Plain (Alföld), where their cattle grazed throughout the whole year. They were too far from the villages to have someone bring them cooked food every day (occasionally they received szalonna and bread) so they made beef stew for themselves in large cauldrons over fire. The leftovers they’d dry in the sun and keep for later. Initially, this dish had no name, but the villagers from nearby started referring to it as “goulash-style meat” or simply “goulash” or “pörkölt.” When paprika appeared in the 18th century and that too was added to it, it became “paprikash meat” and later simply “paprikash.” All these dishes were fundamentally the same. By 1900, the goulash was more popular than stuffed cabbage.

How did the goulash/paprikash become the symbol of Hungarian food?

Emperor Joseph II tried to centralize the Habsburg territories in the 18th century much to the dismay of the Hungarian aristocracy. They responded in part by highlighting Hungary’s own national culture, for example by parading national clothing and the goulash, which was a quintessential countryside food. Ironically, we know of upper-class Hungarian ladies who apologized to their guests for serving them goulash (pheasant meat was more fitting to the aristocracy).

An 18th century Austrian book already referred to the goulash as the national dish of Hungarians and soon Viennese restaurants were serving it. The goulash’s novelty was the paprika, not the meat (people ate stewed bits of meat everywhere from Lapland to the Uygur region). The striking red spice made the goulash interesting to the Austrians, who didn’t use much paprika.

Were there meaningful regional culinary variations across Hungary?

Transylvania was a more archaic region than the rest of Hungary, but the main difference was geography: the Carpathian mountains cradle Transylvania whereas much of Hungary is flatland. This meant that different food ingredients were available there. Wheat and rye cultivation isn’t possible on mountainous areas so Transylvania was left with barley (barley bread doesn’t rise as well as wheat). Sheep and their milk was much more important in Transylvania as was corn.

Is főzelék (vegetable stew) unique to Hungary as it’s sometimes claimed?

I’m actually not sure. Of course people ate vegetables, mainly cabbage, peas, and, from the 18th century, beans, but these weren’t thought of as independent dishes or important ingredients — the historical cookbooks were split into meat and meatless dishes, there was no such thing as a főzelék. All I can tell you is that the first written document for főzelék-like foods, so a main dish of vegetables topped usually with meat, wasn’t until our first modern cookbook came out in 1816. Around the same time they also appear on Hungarian restaurant menus.

What’s your favorite food?

Kapros túrós lepény (TT note: a savory pastry topped with túró and dill). For two reasons. One, because it’s tasty. Two, because it’s savory, not sweet, which means it’s historic (TT note: until the 19th century, people in the Hungarian countryside used almost no sugar because it was too expensive). Túrós lepény already appeared as an Easter pastry in the 16th century. And dill is such a pleasant herb. Unfortunately few places make it these days.