aboutWe are Akila and Patrick. Ourminds (and waistlines) expand as we travel, cook, and eat our way around the world with our two dogs.
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eat budapest
goulash, paprika, and more

Budapest dried fruit cart

Budapest fruit and candy stand

Come over here and sit by me for a spell.  I'm going to tell you something that you might not know . . . something that's drowned out in the buzz about Italian, French, and Spanish cuisine.  Though I'm a bit obsessed with pintxos, brie, and gnocchi, I've carved out a special spot in my stomach for Hungarian cuisine.  And, I suggest that you do the same.

Red peppers

Peppers at the Great Market Hall

About Paprika

I only knew two things about Hungarian cuisine before we reached Budapest: that it is famous for its paprika and sweet Tokaji dessert wine, and I only knew those things because Tolstoy's gluttonous Oblonsky indulged in both in Anna Karenina

Peppers and paprika are indeed essential to Hungarian cuisine though it's important to remember that they are a relatively modern ingredient.  Chile peppers are indigenous to the Americas and were therefore only introduced to Europe after Columbus's voyage to the Americas.  It's believed that Hungarians first began using peppers during the 16th to 17th century while the Turks ruled in Hungary.

Paprika Paprika
Hungarian paprika paste Hungarian dried peppers and ceramics

Paprika and paprika paste for sale at the Great Market Hall

To make paprika at home, a (usually) woman dries a large bunch of chile peppers or bell peppers and grinds the peppers using a specialized grinding tool or a modern food processor.  In Hungary, there are at least fifteen varieties of paprika, ranging from very hot to mild and sweet and the color of the paprika powder depends on the variety of pepper used in the grinding.  A dull orange paprika is the hottest variety while bright red is usually mild and sweet.  Paprika, as with most spices, should be used quickly because it loses its flavor and color within a year and especially if exposed to light.

In addition to paprika powder, Hungarians also use a paprika paste which is basically crushed and mashed whole peppers, which again ranges in flavor from sweet to spicy.  The paprika paste is a condiment typically found on every Hungarian table.

Goulash

Beef goulash and csipetke

About Goulash (and soup/stews in general)

After a few days in Budapest, Patrick astutely observed that Americans have no idea what goulash means.  I see this word "goulash" being thrown around all the time, even by major magazines, but most American goulashes have no relation to Hungarian goulash.  (Sorry, Paula Deen, but goulash definitely does not contain soy sauce and elbow macaroni).

Okay, so to begin with, let's talk about that word goulash.  The dictionary believes that goulash means hodgepodge or a mix of different items and, yes, that's how we in the United States tend to think of it.  We toss together a bunch of different meats and veggies into a thick stew and we've got goulash.

But, the word goulash originated from the Hungarian word gulyas, meaning sheepherder.  Magyar sheepherders often used to spend nights on the Carpathian mountains moving herds from place to place and needed something quick and easy to eat.  The simple solution was a soup or stew which they could make in one pot over an open fire with their favorite seasoning --- paprika --- and, thus, gulyasleves (literally herder's soups) were born.

Beef goulash

Beef goulash and cspiteke (notice the difference in consistency and color with the one above; actually the top one tasted better because it used spicier paprika hence the darker color)

The basic recipe is as follows: chunks of meat are browned in a pot with sliced onion and oil or lard (goose fat is also often used), paprika is added, then water or broth, and any additional seasonings or potatoes to thicken the stew.  This very basic recipe has evolved into hundreds of variations, from the popular bean gulyas made from beef short ribs and beans to versions with lamb, sour cream, and so on.  Some versions include tomato paste to thicken the flavor while some home chefs claim that the acidity of tomatoes counteracts the sweet-spiciness of the paprika (we preferred the goulash recipes without tomatoes in them).

Either way, the goulash is served usually with csipetke, a homemade flour and water based pasta pinched and folded over each other, or rice.  Often, a poached egg or sour cream will be served with the goulash.

The key to goulash, therefore, is not the type of meat or vegetable used or the mixture of meats and vegetables.  Rather, the two consistent items to a goulash are paprika and that it be prepared in one pot.  Good goulash consistently has a strong sweet-spicy flavor resulting from a lot of paprika used.  So, if you search for a recipe for goulash and it doesn't have paprika in it (and a lot of paprika at that), then you can be fairly assured that the recipe is not for Hungarian goulash.

Chicken paprikash at Menza Etterem

Chicken paprikash (notice the creamy consistency versus the lack of cream with the goulashes)

Before we stop talking about goulash, you have to understand that there are many goulash-like dishes, including paprikash (of When Harry Met Sally fame) which is made by simmering paprika, sour cream, water/broth and flour together to create a creamy sauce in which the chicken or veal is cooked.  Or, there is porkolts which is a less soupy version of goulash, made by combining paprika, meat, and water together to create a thick curry-like consistency.

And, then, there are the soups.  Soups are integral to Hungarian cuisine---probably because the ancient Magyars found soups to be a convenient and healthy food that they could make while riding horses and herding farm animals.  We couldn't pass up the medley of soup dishes offered (especially as we were both nursing sore throats and low fevers).  My favorite was a super spicy mushroom soup in hot paprika broth, though we also tried Jokai bean soup (made with beans and pig trotters), creamy garlic soup, and a duck consomme. 

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Some favorite Budapest restaurant picks

  • Kiskakukk Etterem, 1137 Budapest Pozsonyi Way 12, near St Istvan Park: This cozy restaurant is decked out in woods and bookshelves and has been a Hungarian staple since 1913.  The food is excellent and solid traditional Hungarian fare.  Their mushroom soup was one of the best soups I've ever had, with large field mushrooms floating in a eye-tearing spicy paprika broth, and Patrick loved their spicy and creamy chicken paprikash.  Their version of the apple strudel blew us away with paper thin apple slices sprinkled liberally with cinnamon and sugar and packed between a light phyllo-like crust.  We liked this place so much that we tried to return two different times but were turned away because they didn't have availability.  Call ahead to book or arrive early or on the weekdays.  We paid $42 USD for our meal here including two appetizers, two entrees, two drinks, and one dessert.  More mentions of Kiskakukk here and here. [Unfortunately, we forgot the camera this night so no pictures here but, trust me, this place is worth a trip.] 

Jokai Bean Soup Garlic soup at Menza Etterem

Menza EtteremGoat cheese salad at Menza EtteremMenza etterem

Winter lemonade at Menza Etterem

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Lunch at Menza Etterem

  • Menza Etterem, Liszt Ferenc ter 2, Budapest 1061, Hungary, near the Oktogon and close the Opera House: This chic restaurant is in a green leafy park off the main American fast food-oriented drag at the Oktogon.  Menza literally means "cafeteria" and the Menza Etterem is a tongue in cheek modern take on an old Communist canteen, replete with 1970s orange furniture and puke green vinyl.  Like the decor, the food is modernized Hungarian with a few surprises.  Before even venturing into the food, I must tell you about their excellent juice spritzers.  Neither of us drink alcohol in the afternoon and so we usually end up ordering lunch with a boring old soda or water; but, at Menza, we were pleasantly surprised to find a huge array of juices including an absolutely delicious winter lemonade consisting of grapefruit and orange juices, sparkling water, ginger, cloves, and honey.  I had a luscious creamy garlic soup and Patrick had their spicy Jokai bean soup.  For my main, I had a pecan encrusted goat cheese salad and Patrick had their beef goulash with noodles.  We paid $40 for two appetizers, two lunch entrees, and three of their delicious juice spritzers.  More mentions of Menza Etterem here and here.  (This is a great lunch stop while sightseeing near Heroes' Square and the Opera House).

Fried and stuffed mushrooms at Pozyonsi Kisvendeglo

Garic soup at Pozyonsi Kisvendego
Fried mushrooms and garlic soup at Pozyoni Kisvendeglo

  • Pozsonyi Kisvendeglo, 1137 Budapest, Radnti Mikls Street 38, near St Istvan Park:  This local tavern produces traditional Hungarian fare at cheap prices and in huge portions.  Their fried mushrooms stuffed with local cheese is practically a meal in itself and absolutely delectable.  Their garlic soup is creamy but not as subtle as the one I had at Menza Etterem and Patrick loved the spicy beef goulash he ordered here.  They don't take credit cards here but, frankly, it's so cheap that you can get away with paying with the loose change sitting in your pocket.  The portions are immense --- plan not to eat for at least 24 hours after going here --- and everything comes out quickly.  We paid $22 USD here for two appetizers, a soup, and oneentrees but that was WAY too much food; when we came back the second time, we ordered two appetizers and one entree for about $15 USD.  More mentions of Pozsonyi Kisvendeglo here and here.

Duck consomme at Borkonyha Wine Kitchen Duck consomme
Mushroom cake with beet relish Pumpkin ravioli at Borkonyha
Seared pork tenderloins Chocolate souffle cake at Borkonyha

Dinner at Borkonyha Wine Kitchen

  • Borkonyha Wine Kitchen, Sas Utca 3, Budapest 1051, near St Stephen's Basilica:  This posh restaurant produces Hungarian fusion cuisine and is well known for its excellent selection of Hungarian wines.  (If you're not a drinker, they also have excellent locally sourced grape juices there.)  Though quite upscale and more expensive than the other restaurants mentioned here, we enjoyed our meals.  I had a mushroom cake over beet relish and Patrick had the duck consomme for our starters; for our mains, I had the almost-too-creamy pumpkin ravioli and Patrick had perfectly cooked pork over potatoes and greens.  We shared a chocolate souffle cake for dessert.  We paid $79 USD for two appetizers, two entrees, and one dessert, plus three glasses of wine and three glasses of juice.  More mentions of Borkonyha Wine Kitchen here, here, here, and here.

Langos in Budapest

Langos in Budapest street stall

Random Thoughts on Eating in Budapest

  • As with most Central European countries, Hungarian food is not known for its vegetarian-friendliness.  However, I found it very easy to order a number of side dishes to make a good and varied vegetarian meal.  In particular, I found it very easy to find vegetarian soups because many soups are made with a paprika base rather than using chicken or beef stock.  There is a heavy focus on cheese, as well, and stuffed vegetables with cheeses are very common in many of the taverns and local Hungarian restaurants.  All in all, I found it easier to eat as a vegetarian in Budapest than in Cannes, France.
  • For a quick and easy lunch, there are a few street food stalls spread out that sell langos, a thick flatbread with toppings, and stalls that sell dried fruit and other easy to grab foods.
  • Tipping is expected in Hungary.  Our guidebook mentioned that tips are even required for medical staff when going to the hospital.  We tipped between 10-15% for every meal.
  • Hungary is not yet on the Euro, but rather you pay using Hungarian florints, making Budapest the cheapest major city we've visited in Europe so far.  It is in negotiations to convert over to the Euro within the next five years, so I expect prices to increase at that point.
  • English is very commonly used in Budapest and many menus (even in local taverns with primarily Hungarian clientele) have English translations.

04/05/2012 05:46
We loved the food when we were in Budapest. Interesting about the paprika made into a paste as we have the same in Turkey (biber salçası). Wonder if it entered Hungarian cuisine from Ottoman times, or indeed, the other way round?
Julia
Turkey's For Life's recent blog post: Exploring The Xanthos Valley - Letoon In Photos
04/13/2012 09:32
Julia, That is interesting. I would guess that the ingredient came from the Ottoman Empire because much of the spiciness in Hungarian cuisine was influenced by the Turkish palate. I wish somebody would write a book about the red pepper because it's such a fascinating spice and condiment!
Akila's recent blog post: understanding hungarian wine
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04/05/2012 05:53
That looks amazing, especially the Beef goulash - Now I am hungry

Tristan
04/13/2012 09:29
Tristan, thanks! :)
Akila's recent blog post: understanding hungarian wine
04/13/2012 09:24
Aw, thanks Matt!
Akila's recent blog post: understanding hungarian wine
04/05/2012 09:20
Wow the food looks absolutely amazing. Loved the info on goulash -- I had lots of it when I was in Prague a few years ago and absolutely loved it. I've made it a few times myself using Whole Foods bought hungarian paprika, beef and potatoes. It took me a while to find a goulash recipe that didn't add all sorts of random ingredients which I knew had no relation to traditional goulash. So glad you mention Paula Deen's added ingredients - you wouldn't believe how difficult it was to find a simple close to traditional goulash recipe online. This is one of the reasons I want to travel and take cooking classes/learn to cook from the locals - to learn the authentic ways of cooking ethnic cuisine.
Vicky's recent blog post: Quinoa with Corn and Black Beans
04/13/2012 09:24
Vicky, I totally agree with you! I think the basic recipe for goulash is SO simple but American chefs seem to put in tons of other stuff. I don't know why there's this weird-let's-add-everything-and-the-kitchen-sink approach to goulash. Very very sad. And, how awesome that we found Hungarian paprika at Whole Foods! We bought some in Hungary but when we run out, I'll have to look for it there.
Akila's recent blog post: understanding hungarian wine
04/13/2012 09:55
Though they do carry it at Whole Foods I'm sure the real Hungarian paprika is so much better! Am definitely hoping to collect spices from various countries during our travels!
Vicky's recent blog post: Raw Vegan Collard Wraps
04/06/2012 00:34
What you said about paprika reminds me of Korean cuisine a lot. They use powder and paste from chili peppers in just about everything including kimchi. But just like Hungarian food, it was only introduced as an ingredient several hundred years ago after contact with the new world.
04/13/2012 08:11
Jeff, that's exactly right. I forgot about the pepper paste in Korea. I remember seeing it in HUGE vats at the Korean markets and we would frequently see the pepper paste as condiments on the table. The only difference is that the pepper paste in Korea was MUCH spicier than the one they use in Hungary. Koreans love that spicy food.
Akila's recent blog post: understanding hungarian wine
04/08/2012 07:41
That does indeed look amazing. I'm Hungary. ;)
04/13/2012 07:58
:)
Akila's recent blog post: understanding hungarian wine
04/11/2012 20:21
My one and only (and bad) goulash was eaten in a touristy section of Budapest. So sad to have missed out! One thing I found unique about Hungary was that if you hand the money to the server, that means you don't want any change back. If you leave it on the table for him/her to collect, s/he'll bring back change. Strange, huh?
James @ Fly, Icarus, Fly's recent blog post: Home, Sweet, Home Chi Minh City
04/13/2012 06:51
Hmmm, James, I didn't know that! I wish we had. Great tip!
Akila's recent blog post: understanding hungarian wine
04/25/2012 07:10
Absolutely love your detail and information. I am Hungarian aussie born and have a love / close affinity to Hungarian cooking because of my grandparents.

From a fellow foodie to another - yummy!
Aviva's recent blog post: Week 16 of 365 Days of Photography
04/27/2012 11:21
Thank you Aviva! It's an amazing country with incredible food and it seems like every Hungarian grandmother is a great cook, as well.
11/17/2012 11:20
Andi
Wow, I just found this post and I couldn't resist leave you a comment:) I'm Hungarian and it's so amazing how you introduced "gulyás". There are so many others dishes that you should've try, for example:
"lecsó" - it's made of tomato, pepper, some sausage. it's a very simple dish but so many people like it (but not me :D)
"halászlé" - it's a fish soup with loads of paprika powder in it. It has a very special flavor, I can't compare it to anything.
stuffed cabbage ("töltött káposzta") - it's not really Hungarian but we say it is:) Basically these are smaller or bigger meat balls (with rice mixed to the meat) stuffed into cabbage leaves.
"pacal" stew - it's a half Slovak dish, it's a stew that made of sliced neat stomach. Well, you have to be a gourmet to have the fear to try it. I don't like at all but people from the countryside like it a lot.

I hope you enjoyed your stay in Hungary. If you have any questions or want to get to know Hungary and Budapest drop me an e-mail.
Have a nice day!
08/08/2014 14:20
Hi, thanks for the aticle about Hungarian food, I am glad you liked it here! Next time please contact me, so I can help you with some arrangements and advices, I am a food writer living in Budapest.
Also I can arrange a culinary walk if you like (http://eat-budapest.com)!
Best,
Andras
08/19/2014 04:22
Adrienn
Dear Akila,
Thank you for writing about our traditional foods. Some correction:
- csipetke is a really-really small, pinched pasta. We usually put it into soups. We eat nokedli for stew. Nokedli is kind of a dumpling that we make from flour, egg, water and salt. And we use a special equipment to make it.
- the picture above is not langos. It is bread langos, which is completely different. Bread langos is cooked in furnace/owen. It is almost like pizza. Real langosh is a fried dough and traditional we eat it with garlic and a pinch of salt.
Altough I am not a chef, I am more than happy how to make these things if you - or someone from this page - come to Hungary. I live in Budapest, my kitchen is quite small, but you are welcome here. But if you would like to try street foods my advice is: go to small markets, not the popular big once! They serve real langos, freshly fried sausages. And if you want to taste traditional foods visit a hungarian family who cooks it for you, don't go to a restaurat. You can find friends through Facebook, or you can drop me a mail. ;)
09/04/2014 12:27
Thanks very much for your insights Adrienn! I completely agree that home cooking is the best way to experience a country's cuisine. We'll have to try that next time.
09/04/2014 12:51
Adrienn
Just let me know, and I can cook for you something! ;)
08/19/2014 04:38
Adrienn
By the way I am cooking today pork trotters, which is also a traditional food. It's made of trotters, little bit of fat, onion, a lot of paprika also, spices and cooked for 4-5 hours... You can not imagine how delicious is that! Tasty, sticky, yummie!
09/04/2014 12:19
That sounds fantastic --- and, of course, if it's Hungarian, it has to have lots of paprika!
09/04/2014 12:53
Adrienn
Belive me, it is packed with paprika. :D
07/27/2015 05:08
This is my first visit to your blog, your post made productive reading, thank you.
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