From paprika-spiced goulash to pork-minced cabbage leaves, Hungary’s favorite traditional foods reflect a love of meat and paprika. There’s room for fish, but the true soul of Hungarian food is meat.
Vegetarians might find it challenging to order food in Hungary’s restaurants, because this is a meat-lover’s paradise. Steeped in a peasant history, modern Hungarians continue to preserve the cooking of dishes developed centuries ago, when nomadic tribes wandered Hungary’s great plains. In the 15th-16th centuries, the Italians and Turks arrived with new ingredients. and the Bulgarians and Turks introduced paprika in the 16th-17th centuries. The favorite dishes that emerged and are still prepared today are recipes hearty for cold winters, filled with paprika and other spices, and rich in meat. Topping it all off are some of the most savory breads and sweetest sweets known to mankind.
WELCOME TO THE LAND OF PAPRIKA AND MEAT
Walk up to a hot deli counter in Budapest, order gulyás (means herdsmen), and get ready to enjoy the national dish – Hungarian goulash. Its roots are in the 9th century, eaten by Magyar shepherds who made delicious recipes consisting of the few ingredients on hand. True Hungarian goulash is an art form of sorts because it must be cooked the right way, and not belittled with items as mundane as macaroni, noodles or ground beef. This is a shepherd’s soup that was originally made with spiced, cooked and dried beef, carried in sheep stomach bags and rehydrated when ready to use. The true gulyás has lots of high quality paprika – lots meaning a quarter cup or more.
The authentic gulyás/goulash is a hearty soup and not a stew thickened with flour. The meat can be beef, pork or both browned in a heavy skillet or pot with onions. Add the paprika (lots of it, remember), caraway, marjoram, and garlic, and then water. The broth is made by simmering the ingredients. Serve this dish with bread on the side, and you have a perfect Hungarian meal.
Hungarian töltött káposzta is stuffed cabbage leaves. It too contains a generous amount of paprika, along with minced pork, rice, and tejföl (sour cream). Pork, and not beef, is the main meat eaten in Hungary. It explains why there are so many popular stews and soups. Pörkölt is a cousin to gulyás, because it is a slow-simmered beef stew, but its other ingredients are simply onions sauteed in fat with paprika. Marhapörkölt is a true stew with a thicker sauce, made with beef. Its authentic version has diced stewing meat, green pepper, tomato, onion, and of course red paprika. It is served over potatoes or spaetzle (dumpling or noodle).
HUNGARIAN PAPRIKA IS DISTINCTLY HUNGARIAN
Hungarian paprika is different from the sweet, smoked paprika commonly sold in other countries’ stores. It is an essential ingredient in so many Hungarian traditional recipes, and comes in a range of heat and sweetness levels. It is such an important spice that its various versions have names. Különleges (special) is the finest ground red paprika and can be mild or sweet. Csemege (gourmet) is colored a light red and is coarser, and can be hot or mild. The édesnemes (noble) paprika is also a light red paprika, but coarser ground. The rózsa (rose) is a dark red paprika which is usually very hot. Hungarian recipes often start with sauteeing heaped tablespoons of sweet paprika and diced onions in lard.
George Lang, in his book The Cuisine of Hungary, wrote, “Somewhere along the line the Hungarians hit on the holy trinity of lard, onion and pure ground paprika,” with paprika added to hot fat and heated only for a short time. If there is a secret that makes Hungarian dishes taste so good, this is it. Paprika is found in most hot and cold foods, from appetizers to the hearty soups and stews.
There is more to authentic Hungarian food than rich soups and stews, however. Hungarians love homemade breads and cheese, and they have found many ways to combine the two into melt-in-your-mouth foods. For example, lángos is a classic deep fried bread that is also a street food, sold from vendor carts. The delicious bread can be topped with a variety of ingredients, but one of the favorite items is cheese. Top the fried bread with cheese and sour cream, and you have a delightful food item that could accompany a stew or simply be eaten alone. Korozott is cheese mixed with (what else) paprika, garlic, and salt, served on bread. You can also get pasta with cottage cheese and topped with crumbled bacon in a dish called turos csusza.
Bread is even a dessert in some cases. Kalács is a traditional, sweet bread made with six ingredients – flour, eggs, butter, yeast, sugar, and milk. Families sometime personalize their recipes with additions such as cinnamon or raisins. This bread is so good that it is a dessert throughout the year, and graces many Easter season meals. How about a sweet dough that is cylinder-shaped and baked over charcoal? After grilling, it is coated with cocoa, powdered sugar, cinnamon, nuts, or coconut.
SPEAKING OF SWEETS…
While on the subject of sweets, just looking at some of the Hungarian desserts makes any sweet tooth jump for joy. The pastry rétes is a Hungarian strudel made of filo pastry filled with a fruit paste, with apple and cherry being popular choices. Ever heard of a sweet cherry soup? Hungary offers meggyleves, made with morello cherries grown in Hungary, sour cream, and sugar. Or how about a dobostorta, which is a chocolate sponge cake with buttercream layers and topped with caramel and slice of chocolate.
OH SO DELICIOUS
There are chicken dishes too, such as chicken paprikash - chicken, onions, paprika, garlic, broth, and maybe tomatoes but always cream. There is even a traditional fish dish called halászlé made with freshwater fish. It is traditionally made with carp (so watch for bones), paprika, fish broth (made with fish parts), onions, carrot, bell pepper, and celery.
Hungarian food is a mixture of practical peasant-created foods and delectable breads and desserts. It is an amazing blend of foods that are economical and uncomplicated, but oh, so delicious. One thing is for certain – you will quickly become an authentic paprika fan.