Magyars appreciate good food and lots of it. They believe that food elevates the spirit, promotes confidence, and is a comforting symbol of success and status. There is a saying: “Hungarians may live in a howl but eat like kings, and the English live like kings but eat like beggars”. Considering what Martin Amis, the famous modern Irish writer said (“The French live to eat, the English eat to die”) Hungarians seem to be correct.
To the Hungarian mind, food, love and music are inseparable. Given that approximately 10 percent of the population of Hungary is Roma (gypsy) well known for their music and dance, this sounds right. Even during Soviet times fun- and food-loving Hungarian enjoyed many of the tropical fruits like bananas, lemons, oranges and many others that their neighbours (Czechs, Slovaks, Poles, Romanians ands Bulgarians) could only dream about. Coffee houses and pastry shops abound in Budapest and Hungarian pastry chefs created tortes that are standard fare in many European restaurants. Dobos torte and cream tortes come to mind.
Many tribes occupied this fertile country, and up to 740 A D, it was called the Khazar Kingdom . Khazar leaders knew about the strategic location of the country, and their precarious situation being on the crossroads between the eastward pushing Christian Kingdom (Holy Roman Empire), and westward pushing Ottomans. Khazar rulers decided to declare themselves neutral and adopted Judaism as state religion. Hence, no pig was raised, and this remained so until the Kingdom fell to seven Magyar tribes in 896 A D. Khazars were pushed to the outskirts of Bosphorus, and finally annihilated by Russians shortly after. King Stefan decided to make Christianity the state religion of the Hungarian Kingdom in 1001, and ever since the population have been devout Catholics.
The fertile Hungarian Plain and moderate climate allow the cultivation of many tree fruits, berries, and vegetables, and rearing of pigs, poultry, lamb and cattle. Today, there are also many turkey farms to supply a growing appetite for this bland and coarse meat. Many goose farms close to the Romanian border produce significant amounts of fattened goose liver for French processors, and goose fat figures prominently in many Hungarian recipes. In general, goose is more popular in Europe than it is in North America.
The country produced excellent red wines before the WW II, but soviet occupation and huge wine factories emphasized quantity over quality. Tokaj wines have always been fine, but now they are excellent. Red wine quality has improved too, and many Hungarian wineries are awarded medals in international competitions. Fruit brandies, particularly apricot brandy called barack palinka is world-famous. Those from apricots grown in Kecskemet, 100 kilometres, and southeast of Budapest yield the best of them all.
The Hungarian cuisine is based on pork, lard, goose fat, paprika, sour cream, and vegetables. Pork stewed with onions, lard, paprika, salt and pepper (porkolt), as is beef, but seldom. Chicken, turkey, and geese are often roasted and eaten with sautéed mixed vegetables. Goulash, originally a thick soup, has been bastardized by some Austrian cooks and served as a stew. Goulash was never meant to be a stew! Hungarians were deprived of the pleasures of enjoying pork during the 150 year long Ottoman occupation of their country, but now enjoy it with a vengeance!
Hungarian cuisine is ingenious, flexible, imaginative, and full of flavour. They may not use olive oil, refined salads, lobsters, salmon, scallops and any other rare food stuffs, but Hungarian cooks make excellent use of whatever nature provides in their fertile country.
Popular Hungarian specialties include: Kaposztak, galuska, paprikas, porkolt, retes, tortas, meat and rice stuffed cabbage leaves, lecso sauce and palacsintak.
Article contributed by Hrayr Berberoglu, a Professor Emeritus of Hospitality and Tourism Management specializing in Food and Beverage. Books by H. Berberoglu