Foodies of the western world think of Hungarian cuisine to consist of gulyas and stews, and little else.
This perception is totally erroneous.
Hungarians love food and it shows in their rich cooking repertoire.
It has been said that”… a Hungarian may live like a beggar but eats like a king, whereas the English live in luxurious homes but eat lie beggars”.
The veracity of this anonymous saying cannot be verified today as in both countries one can eat very well, or very poorly.
The romantic, volatile and soulful Hungarian uses food the way most other people use psychology, politics, literature, material acquisitions, and even medicine.
For a Hungarian, food elevates the spirit, promotes confidence, is a comforting symbol of success and statute.
Hungarian pastries are deservedly world famous, and coffee houses everywhere serve delicious coffee along with delectable tortes (Dobos torte is a much loved cake both in Hungary, and German-speaking central European countries. The origins of the Dobos torte goes back tot eh Austro-Hungarian Empire).
Hungary’s turbulent history is the result of its strategic geographical location in the heart of Europe and its fertile, vast Hungarian Plain. Here, a mellow climate and rich land is full of orchards, vineyards, grain fields and pastureland – a plentiful reservoir of abundance that probably more than anything else has made the native cooks appreciate, imaginative and inventive.
Ottoman Turks occupied the country for 150 years and left a few of their recipes with he natives. Of course, coffee was introduced by the Ottoman army, albeit not voluntarily. Some historians attribute the use of phylo-like pasty to the long occupation of the Ottomans. Today, the Hungarian strudel is called retes, and competes favourably with those in Austria, and some claim it to taste superior and texturally more “seductive” than strudel.
Many nations influenced the Hungarian cuisine due to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which encompassed Slovakia, Serbia, and parts of Romania, and in turn influenced by ingenious Hungarian cooks.
King Matthias wed the Italian queen Beatrice in 1475 that enriched the court cuisine with all the delights of ice cream, the use of forks and turkey. Up to that time, turkey did not figure in any recipe. The cuisine relies on lamb, pork, game, millet, lard, onion, paprika, geese, and sour cream.
Milk and dairy are used sparingly, but fruits and vegetable in abundance. Cabbage, potatoes, onion, green pepper, tomatoes and cucumbers are the basis of many stews, soups, and pickled vegetable.
Salads enjoy popularity with the middle and upper classes. Apples, plums, apricots, peaches and many varieties of melons are available seasonally, but also preserved for use in winter.
Fish figures less prominently, but carp, perch, pike, trout and cat fish from the Danube and Balaton Lake are often used in soups, and stews,
Fogos, a unique fish from Lake Balaton, is fried and served whole. White, crusty bread and noodles constitute the main starch sources.
Paprika, onions, tomatoes, green peppers, tarragon seeds are often used as flavouring agents.
Although the country is small, there are distinct regional differences between Budapest, Transdanubia, Northern Hungary, Translyvania, and the Hungarian Plain aka the Pusta.
Budapest, the capital, is famous for its gastronomic diversity with dishes adopted from many parts of the country, but is famous for its tortes, pastries and coffee. Dobos was invented here.
Transdanubia covers the western part of the country next to Austria. Here, around Lake Balaton, vineyards abound yielding delightfully fragrant and light wines.
Sausages are popular and preserved in their own fat.
Wild mushrooms find their way into a number of tasty stews.
This region produced millions of geese, the fattened liver of which is exported to France for pate de foie gras. The flesh and fat of geese find their way into many soups and stews.
Northern Hungary covers the territory north of the Danube River to the Russian border. It is well known for its dry red wine called Bull’s Blood (Egri Bikaver), and world famous sweet Tokaji wines which have been exported for centuries to many countries, and European courts and elsewhere in the world.
Transylvania stretches east to the Romanian border. Part of it is actually Romania. Here, pork specialties and desserts enjoy popularity.
The flat and fertile Great Hungarian Plain constitutes approximately one-third of the country stretching southeast. Apricots abound in Alfold and locals distil the world famous Barack palinka (apricot brandy), exuding aromas of this noble fruit.
In Szeged, salami and paprika are produced for the whole country and export markets.
The city of Szeged is the birthplace of Szegedin goulash, a rich, well-seasoned beef soup with paprika, and which Hungarians enjoy everywhere. In many recipe books, goulash is portrayed as a stew. In reality it is a thick, nourishing, flavoruful soup.
The Tisza River abounds with fish and locals use the filets to make rich soups.
Regardless of all regional cooking subtleties, the four cornerstones of the Hungarian cuisine are: gulyas, porkolt, paprikas and tokany.
Goulash is a thick soup, richly flavoured, beef soup that can be served for lunch or dinner with bread. Some cooks cook it down to prepare goulyas as meat (gulyasus).
Porkolt consists of paprika, lard, onion and large pieces of beef or pork.
Paprikas is essentially a porkolt finished with sour cream that will be added just before service.
Paprikas mat be made using veal, beef, mutton, game, gooseneck or pork.
Tokany requires meat cut in strips and stewed in its own juice with marjoram, black pepper, savoury, and onion. Paprika must not be added to tokany.
Rural and urban breakfasts are meagre affairs in Hungary, much like everywhere else in Europe, except in Germany and Scandinavia.
Lunch on the other hand is the main meal of the day consisting of soup, salad, main course, dessert and coffee.
Afternoon coffee is always served with pastry, be it s sliver of torte, or crepes filled with apricot jam (palacinta).
Suppers consist mainly of lunch leftovers and are light.
Hungarian cuisine’s richness and variety are best appreciated in Budapest’s fine restaurants.