Stuck right in the middle of central Europe, Hungary has recently come out of the shadow of communism after decades of rule. Because of its location in Europe, it received a lot of outside influence, especially to its food, from several different areas. Today, traditional Hungarian food clearly shows Germanic, Italian, Slavic, and even Asian twists to it.
Hungarian Foods: A Brief History
Hungarian culture is very interesting, not just for the amount of outside influences they have taken on, but how different they are from their neighbours.
Nothing shows this more clearly than their language. Surrounded by Slavic countries, Austria, and Romania, it would be easy to look at the language written down and assume it to be Slavic, with all of the accents and squiggly lines above letters.
The reality is, Hungarian is not even an Indo European language. It is just about as far removed as far as language families go from everything spoken all around it.
It belongs to the Finnic-Ugric group of languages, having more in common with Finnish or Estonian than Croatian.
Because of this, the history of its people, and then their culture/food is very different from other European countries.
Even today, there are dozens of YouTube videos trying to argue the genetic history and past of Hungarians.
As for its food, Hungary’s part of the Austro-Hungarian empire for a few decades sealed its fate as a country with big Germanic notes to it. No shortage of schnitzel and dumplings in Hungary.
Hungary has also had close ties with Poland throughout its history, as they shared many of the same rulers and a close bond through their strict Catholic faith. This can be seen today in one of Hungary’s sausages, the colbasz, no doubt a translation of the Polish kielbasa.
But, not every country was a friend of Hungary. The kifli pastry, which is supposed to be the first croissant or crescent roll, was created after liberation from Muslims and Turks during the Ottoman empire, who fought against Austro-Hungary.
Aside from food, Hungary has also an extremely old wine culture, dating back before the Roman occupation. The most famous of these, Tokaji Aszu, one of the few dessert wines that rivals Sauternes.
Full on Hungarian restaurants might be a bit hard to find, so chances are their dishes will pop up on menus in German, Austrian, Polish, or other Eastern European eateries.
But, don’t rely too much on that – a lot of Hungarian foods are very hearty and easy to make at home, and great matches for the solid value wines they produce.
Here’s a list of some of the most common and need to try Hungarian foods.
Hungarian Foods: Top Ten
Gulyás: The famous “goulash” stew, made of beef, potatoes, vegetables, and tons of paprika – I’ve had this a million times growing up, and still make it for myself whenever its cold outside.
Csirkepaprikás: A chicken version of the goulash, this time made with poultry in a thick cream base.
Hideg meggyleves: An interesting sounding cold sour cherry soup, thicken with cream and sweetened with sugar to take the edge of the acid off. Sounds weird, but it’s really refreshing, especially in the summer.
Palacsinta: You may remember this under other names such as “crepes”. These fluffy little things are Eastern Europe’s answer to pancakes, and will be made plain, savoury with meat and spices, or sweet with fruit and sugar.
Halászlé: Another riff on the goulash, this time it’s made a bit thinner and soupier. Fish stock is made from scratch, and fresh lake fish are added to the broth spiked with hot paprika.
Wiener schnitzel: And the standard Germanic favourite, the schnitzel. As this is the Vienna schnitzel, veal is the meat of choice. Flour, egg wash, bread crumbs, fry. Slice of lemon on the side. So simple, so good.
Nokedli: Another from the Austrian cookbook, you may know this one as a spaetzle. Basically a little flour dumpling, pasta kind of thing to soak up all the juices and sauce of a simmered meat dish.
Szalonna: A nice smoked bacon type of meat, that is fully cooked. You can either slice it off real thin and have it with a more standard cheese platter with crackers, or roast it over a flame and let the fat drop off onto pieces of bread.
Kifli: The famous croissant. Made famous in the 17th century when Hungarian towns were liberated from Ottoman occupiers, they made crescent moon shaped pastries to celebrate.
Madártej: This one takes a nod from old school French desserts, being a vanilla custard holding up a nice meringue. In French it’s called a “floating island” or some variation on that. Eggs, sugar, vanilla, cream… a real classic.
Hungarian Food and Wine
It is a shame that so many old winemaking countries in Europe are pushed to the side as modern wineries in the America’s without 1/10th of the history are popping up left right and center.
Places like Hungary and Romania have been at it for thousands of years, but had the disadvantage or coming under communist rule in the last century.
Take a step outside that comfort zone, and try some local stuff with the food, as they quality is definitely there, and the price is always low.
- Egri Bikaver: The famous red of Hungary, this blend uses native Kekfrankos and Kadarka, and modernizes things with a splash of some Bordeaux varietals like Merlot and the Cabernet brothers. Medium bodied with good acidity, this can handle the heavy braised and stewed meat dishes, whether they be beef or chicken based.
- Tokaji Aszu: Moldy grapes? Yes. This is Hungary’s answer to Sauternes, but more likely, Sauternes was France’s answer to Tokaji Aszu. Hungary is believed to be the first to use grapes infected with noble rot, concentrating sugars and flavours and making incredibly sweet dessert wines. For Hungarian desserts, especially the Madártej, there should be no other choice.
- Irsai Oliver: A Hungarian crossing of Pozsony and Pearl of Csaba, but in the glass you will be thinking of Muscat. This local specialty is famous for its spicy taste, and perfumed notes of white flowers and tropical fruits. Try this with local cheeses or as a pre dinner sipper.
In my experience, even bigger liquor stores will have limited Hungarian and Eastern European selections, (apart from Tokaji) but keep your eyes peeled, they are worth hunting for.