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What to Eat When You’re (in) Hungary

Apparently unwelcoming to the notion of belonging to the Eastern side of Europe, favouring the idea of belonging to the more central regions, Hungary undoubtedly emanates Eastern European magic. Growing up with Bulgarian culture in a Bulgarian family, I can say this with (some) certainty. This time of year, however, is seeing these regions suffer bitter winters, ones unheard of since the 1960’s. Heavy snow blankets the city, and icy rain soon follows to turn the magic into a slushy, and drearily cold, mess. Faux-ice-skating is the preferred mode of transport for those on foot by this point, travel times taking double or even triple the usual, and sanctuary is found in small cafes, restaurants and bars dotted up and down streets illuminated by the amber orbs of traditional-style street lamps.

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My travels are invariably punctuated by local food-culture; no trip is complete without eating like a local. Skidding down the Parisian-style streets during my first days in Budapest this Winter, seeking shelter from the snow and my hungry belly, I entered a warmly lit cafe -Kisharang Etkedze. Embedded amongst tall blocks of apartments lining the roads of Budapest, not far from St. Stephen’s Basilica and the famous Széchenyi Chain Bridge, inside, a menu full of traditional Hungarian dishes awaited; light soups are a traditional start to a meal for locals, followed by hearty main courses; the classic Hungarian Gulyás (Goulash), a thick beef soup with onions, potatoes and paprika is the popular choice amongst locals and tourists alike. A meat stew can substitute for a traditional alternative; marinated chunks of either pork or beef served with Galuska – tiny irregular shaped dumplings made from flour and water.

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And no meal is complete without a plate of Savanyúság – sweet-vinegar-pickled vegetables, composed of cabbage, peppers and small cucumbers. Hungarians often saying they “eat with bread”, so bread is also always at hand at a dinner table. Perfect for dipping in soups, stews, or wiping the remnants off your plate, it’s better than using your tongue, for sure.

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For those that have a sweet-tooth out there, Hungary has a great dessert scene; pastries, pancakes and chilled fruit soups are a must to sample. Rétes, a strudel pastry is a classic, and sweet flambeed pancakes can be found almost anywhere, served with lashings of chocolate syrup. My personal favourite came to be Burek; rolled and filled strudel pastry with a subtly sweet buttery apple filling. Although apparently a Turkish style of pastry, I couldn’t help but dream of this divine treat day in and out.

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Unfortunately, Hungary’s harsh Winters don’t bring a bounty of fresh fruits and vegetables to both the city and countryside, rearing animals and relying on jams, pickles and preserves (commonly, sauerkraut and pickled vegetables) being an age-old custom. Although some dishes, containing preserved soured foods potentially being an acquired taste, I can assure the flavour is one you can grow to love, and even long.

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