Hungarian gastronomy through the ages

I see that the discussion on food is continuing unabated. A few years back when I was involved in a small political discussion group, every time the conversation lagged it was enough for someone to offer an opinion on a certain dish or to give his/her own recipe and the discussion picked up in no time.

I decided to read a bit on the history of Hungarian cuisine, and I came to the conclusion that before the seventeenth or eighteenth centuries people, at least certain kinds of people, ate more healthful food than afterward. But, I must add, we don't have a lot to go on. The first Hungarian cookbook appeared only in 1695.

Beef was the meat of choice, something that isn't surprising because we know that one of the main Hungarian exports at the time was cattle, driven on foot to the German provinces. The earlier Hungarians also ate a lot of lamb as well as fish and game. Of course, they also ate pork but not in such great quantities as later. Chicken and turkey were also menu items, and a real delicacy was peacock. (I wonder what it must have tasted like!)

Another interesting feature of earlier Hungarian cuisine was that they used butter and oil for cooking instead of lard. As we know, lard came to be very widely used until recently and in certain families it still is. Especially among those who have relatives who raise pigs in villages. Half a pig, especially if it is nice and fat, will yield a lot of lard. As pork became the mainstay of Hungarian cooking naturally one had to do something with the lard as well.

As for spices, before the arrival of paprika, which was fairly late, a wide array of spices was used–thyme, tarragon, saffron, rosemary, anise, and ginger. Of course, black pepper was known but rarely used. While in the West people put salt and pepper on the table, in Hungary it eventually came to be salt and paprika.

Roux in those days was unknown and thickening was done with stale bread. In fact, there is an Italian soup today that is still made that way. Sauces therefore were prepared with bread thickening, and perhaps the Hungarian recipe for creamed spinach goes back to this old method. For those of you who don't know how it is done: a roll or two are soaked in milk or water and mixed with the cooked spinach before sauteeing the concoction and adding milk or stock to it to reach the right consistency.

As for bread, in the earliest time they made simple flat breads, that is without any yeast. Where Hungarians learned to make raised bread is not at all clear. I had a high school friend who eventually became a professor of folklore, specializing in the history of food. She told me that there was French or Italian influence on Hungarian bread baking. I don't know, but we can document that the Italian culinary influence became especially strong during the reign of Matthias Corvinus (1458-1490) whose second wife was Beatrix of Aragon, daughter of the king of Naples. I was surprised to read that onions and garlic arrived in Hungary at that time. So did chestnuts and pasta.

They apparently liked fruits, especially apples, peaches, melons, grapes, and pears, which they prepared in all sorts of ways, including baking them in hot coals. Making honey was naturally a very important industry because that was the only way to sweeten food.

Interestingly, soup was rare in the Hungarian diet before the eighteenth century. Soup recipes came from France and spread through French-trained chefs in aristocratic households. They even made ice cream and crème brûlée by the late seventeenth century. The Turks brought in corn, coffee, and paprika. Roux was being used extensively by then, especially in soups. Sauces were still made with bread.

And now we come to paprika. According to the latest research Bulgars escaping from the Turkish invaders brought it into the country. At first it was used as an ornamental plant, but eventually it was discovered that it was edible and could be used in cooking. Spices that the aristocracy used extensively were expensive, and peasants found that dried red pepper could be ground and used as a spice. However, this peasant spice spread only very slowly. Its original name was "Turkish pepper." Tomatoes arrived fairly late. The first time we have written mention of them was in a gardening catalogue published in Pozsony (today Bratislava) in 1651. Tomatoes were also initially viewed as ornamentals, but with the help of the Turkish occupiers their adoption as an edible fruit spread all over central Hungary. Potatoes also came via the Turks.

While the center of the country was occupied by the Turks, the northern and western parts, so-called Royal Hungary, was under Austrian influence culturally as well as in culinary matters. Interestingly enough, Austrian cuisine in those days was heavily influenced by the French. Breading meat and chicken came from Austria. By the nineteenth century western travellers mention "gulyás" and "chicken paprika" found in restaurants in Pest. By that time paprika is used on everything, including fish.

And yes, "lecsó" came from the Balkans and stuffed cabbage from Greece. All in all, the origin of modern Hungarian cuisine can be found in the Balkans under Turkish influence and in Austria with a heavy French influence.

Hungarian cuisine stagnated during the socialist period because of the relative isolation of the country. But in the last twenty years incredible changes have been taking place. Most people cook with oil, eat less "főzelék" (Austrian influence, by the way), and one can find all sorts of exotic and less exotic restaurants. And of course, these foreign dishes get adopted and changed. Great was my surprise when ordering pizza in a restaurant I got one with toppings that included green peas. But I truly realized that a new era had arrived when my cousin suggested a recipe to me that used curry.

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Paul
Guest
Thanks Éva, it’s good to see you writing again. The shock of Mark’s death still resonates, but life has to go on. Incidentally, I suspect the fact that the only thread that carried on after the awful news was the medical/food one was a sort of displacement activity. We needed to keep in touch, and that thread was the easiest to think about while we adjusted to life without Mark. It’s interesting to see that Hungarian cuisine was as much affected by neighbours, trading and invasions as anyone’s (I wonder what latefor will make of that?). It’s always fascinating to discover that foods one regards as staples and native were actually imported, and often fairly recently. The same is obviously true for the UK, with things as ‘normal’ and everyday as tomatoes and potatoes having been originally exotic imports from South America (along with tobacco – another key Hungarian crop). It’s odd to think that the stable diet in Ireland before the Great Famine was an exotic vegetable only introduced relatively recently. Yet so successful was the cultivation of this plant that Ireland’s population at the time was quite a bit higher than England’s. Another exotic import from South America… Read more »
Stephen
Guest

Great article! Will be pleased to share it with readers of XpatLoop.com – might you list ‘Hungary’s leading portal in English’ in your News about Hungary in English section please? Best wishes, Stephen

Odin's Lost eye
Guest

Paul may I make a little correction to your contribution. The European rabbit was known in England and was brought in from France by the Normans. Large warrens were established looked after by ‘Warreners’. Warren is quite a common English surname. The rabbit was also known as a ‘colney’ as in ‘London Colney’ which specialised in supplying rabbits for the city of London. Later an asylum was established there to replace Old Bedlam. Hence the slang expression ‘Colney Hatch’ meaning a lunatic.
I have often wondered how a Mexican vegetable (the chilli) got so far away from the sea especially as it would have had to come via Spain.

Paul
Guest

I clicked on Stephen’s link with anticipation, it’s so rare to find another English Hungarian site. But I was very disappointed – yet another Budapest oriented külföldi site. It reminded me of why I haven’t bought the Budapest Sun for years – and why I was so pleased to find Hugarian Spectrum.
Still, perhaps a link might be an idea. If only so that some Xpatloop users might find their way here and discover that there is a Hungary beyond Budapest and the ‘international community’.
Having said all that, one article on Xpatloop did interest me – http://www.xpatloop.com/news/65614. Perhaps this is another topic for the future, Éva, especially with your Hungarian-Canadian perspective?

Paul
Guest

Odins – I am humbled by your correction. It seems that the truth is the exact opposite of what I thought, with rabbits having only recently been introduced into South Amrica!
It just goes to show how even things you ‘know’ to be correct can turn out to be complete garbage. And all I had to do was check Wikipedia before I posted!
Mark would have been horrified.

Rigó Jancsi
Guest

I guess the rich pastry also was Austrian influence? When I had relatives visiting, they were astonished about the variety of cakes at the local cukrászda and asked me whether is was a special holiday. No, you get that stuff on a normal week day in abundance. Of course, Rigó Jancsi, too…
Regarding Mark: I have started reading this blog just a few weeks ago, so I can only say that I came too late to benefit from his posts and his knowledge that everybody talks about, and I didn’t know him yet like most of the regular readers and posters do. My condolences to everybody who knew him.

Odin's lost eye
Guest

Paul Not to worry I goof all the time –I am too old for this caper-. The real worry is the potato. The European/non Peruvian ‘spuds’ are derived from very few of the 120-something- Peruvian varieties. Some of these 120 varieties I ate when I and a few hundred others were up in Callao long ago. Some were weird with purple spots, others were about the size of a peanut. All that potential going to waste

Odin's lost eye
Guest

Rigó Jancsi, – As an amateur hash slingers mate (third class) I would disagree with you as to cakes. The Austro-Hungarian varieties all derive from the sponge/sponge meringue variety of mix. Get (if you can) either Mrs Beeton’s cook book or better the Good House Keeping cookery book, which I think is American.
Each has many different types of cakes in it ranging from the ‘lardy cake’ through the good old economic fruit cake (one lump and a good mug of tea will keep you going all morning) to the full Dundee, with side excursions into the éclair (Chou paste), meringues, scones, flapjacks, Oat cakes, Walnut whips and that monster the Australian Chocolate cake.
The real problem is in the U.K. that these are all ‘Home Bake’ there are no more real cake shops in the U.K. Rationing in the war and various restrictions did for them.

Guest
Regarding the use of pork and lard it should be mentioned that this might be one of the reasons why Hungarians (especially males it seems) don’t get very old – and have a lot o weight-related illnesses. I can see and hear that every day from my neighbours, most of which (not all!) are really overweight … The women still cook as if their husbands were hard-working peasants, toiling a dozen hours every day. I used to get invited regularly in sundays for lunch (the time when I was living alone here near Héviz), but after the first time I respectfully declined, telling them I had problems with some foodstuffs and showing the medicine I had to take regularly … It’s a bit different with the younger generation, but of course many don’t have the time to cook (and eat) a real meal every day – so it’s hamburgers, pizza or chinese take-out for them – so many are overweight too … On the other hand there’s a willingness to try all lots of things with many women – for example my wonderful wife who as a pensioner now has time enough to indulge in all kinds of international recipes.… Read more »
Eva S. Balogh
Guest

Wolfi: “On the other hand there’s a willingness to try all lots of things with many women”
I think that it depends on the individual. I met people who wouldn’t try anything new. If in the old days there was only very strong distilled vinegar, they use only that. When I tried to convince people to use use wine vinegar (I even bought a bottle), my hostess refused to use it. She wasn’t even willing to try it out.

Odin's lost eye
Guest

Wolfi if you really want a low fat diet try Chinese Wok cookery. You use about soup spoon of fat or oil to cook several Kgs of vegetables (finely cut –julienned). The fat is there to flash up the water into ‘flash steam’ which does the cooking about 75% of the fat remains in the wok.
There is a type of French Cookery called ‘a la Hongois’ which may be more to your wife’s taste.
If you can drop your ‘hooks’ on a copy of Escoffier, she and you will be delighted with the results.
I am getting hungry and could murder a ‘snake and pigmy’ pie with a dollop of ‘HP’ sauce on the side as a relish.
Ps the Avacado contains a lot of vegetable fat. Try a little bit of ‘Crab stick’ as well next time. You can sometines get them in Auchen

mouse
Guest

We had the best meal I’ve had in Hungary this weekend at the Kistucsok Etterem. Beautiful fresh pumpkin seed soup, rabbit loin with lentil and apple cake, I honestly can’t remember a better meal, certainly not one at the same price but I guess I’m used to Siofok / Budapest prices.
Hungary has fantastic ingredients but sadly a lot of restaurants don’t seem to make the best of these.

Guest

If I hadn’t had dinner right now, I’d get hungry again …
Thank you for your comments!
@Eva: Regarding vinegar, some time ago I made several salads for my wife’s relatives /that’s about the only part of “cooking” my wife allows me to do …) and they really liked my “sauce” made with Greek olive oil and a wine vinegar from Germany – so we gave them a bottle of this …
@Odin’s…:
Of course I had to buy a wok after my sister invited us to a wok dinner at her house – and my wife uses it regularly, mainly witch chicken – the frozen wok vegetable mixture she gets from Bonduelle is not too bad.
@mouse:
You’re right regarding the quality of vegetables etc, we get good stuff at the market in Keszthely …

John T
Guest
A few observations. I definately think that replacing lard with oil does give an inferior flavour to a lot of dishes. And lard has perhaps got a bad press in recent years, undeservedly so. The trick of course is to have a good varied diet, so using lard every now and again won’t be an issue. What really disappoints me is that despite all of the great produce to hand, eating out is often a disappointing affair, with most dishes tasting pretty average. I would rather have a bit less in terms of quantity on my plate and instead have a delicious meal, cooked by someone who cares about what they serve. And what disappoints me most is that you frequently here the microwave ringing in the kitchen. Why can someone make fresh liver dumplings for the soup rather than cook from frozen? Or prep the veg fresh every day? The best meal I’ve had recently was in the Marriott (weekend brunch), but even there, the quality of some dishes was disappointing. And I tried the Gundel for a full meal in June. Never again. A lovely setting, but the food wasn’t a patch on what I could eat when… Read more »
Julie
Guest

Has the cupcake fad made it over to Hungary yet? You can get “gourmet” cupcakes just about anywhere in the US these days. A future business idea perhaps?

Guest

@John: I also have to agree with you regarding lard, it gives a better taste to some dishes, but my wife still uses it sparingly, only when she thinks it necessary …
Right now she made some duck lard from pieces of duck we bought abd put it into a big glass for winter use …
Something completely OT:
I was taken to “The Corner Bistro” in Manhattan some years ago by a science fiction author I met at the Forbidden Planet bookstore (those were the good days) and have returned there regularly – last year for the first time accompnied by my wife …
They have burgers and chips fried in lard which gives them a special taste – you either love them or hate them …

John T
Guest

“Has the cupcake fad made it over to Hungary yet? You can get “gourmet” cupcakes just about anywhere in the US these days. A future business idea perhaps?”
Not hat I’ve noticed. It’s in full swing in London though – as lethal as lard methinks :-).
But in terms of Hungarian “exports”, you can get Eszterhazy torta in the ice cream parlour in Fortnum & Masons, though it’s a bit heavier than you get in Hungary.
Now, if only I could get a regular supply of Túró Rudi in the UK!!

John T
Guest
Paul
Guest

Pasta puzzles me. I never expected pasta in Hungarian cooking when I first visited.
In England, despite our long familiarity with macaroni, pasta is still seen as slightly foreign (even though we eat tonnes of it), yet in Hungary it appears to be completely integrated into the cuisine.
Is this because pasta has always been a central European foodstuff, or is it a more recent Mediterranean import that Hungarians have just taken to?
And, if it is a recent import, how come Hungarians took so well to pasta, but still can’t produce a decent pizza?!

Paul
Guest

“I definately think that replacing lard with oil does give an inferior flavour to a lot of dishes.”
‘Different’, not ‘inferior’, it entirely depends what you’re used to. My wife, for instance puts butter in/on just about everything, so that (to me) everything tastes of butter, rather than what it should taste of. (But to her, potatoes (for instance) just don’t taste right without butter.)
No wonder you don’t see many old men in Hungary. I am about 8 kilos heavier than when I met my wife just 10 years ago!

John T
Guest

Paul – There’s Lángos instead :-). My cousin makes fantastic Krumplislángos, where potato is added to the mixture. I like them plain or Tejföl (sour cream). Wish I could get Tejföl and good curd cheese in the UK. The nearest I can find is Polish, and it’s not nearly as good.

John T
Guest
pgyzs
Guest

“I definately think that replacing lard with oil does give an inferior flavour to a lot of dishes. And lard has perhaps got a bad press in recent years, undeservedly so. The trick of course is to have a good varied diet, so using lard every now and again won’t be an issue.”
I totally agree, I think the reason for so many overweight people being there is rather the lack of excercising and sports culture. Maybe this problem deserves its own post, but it’s not up to me to decide. The number of even young people excercising regularly is disasterously low and no surprise that these habits rarely changes as they grow older. You can eat as much salad as you want if you grow up in a chair watching your screen, you’re going to have health problems very early. An if on the top you’re eating unhealthy food ALL THE TIME, that is a deadly combination indeed.

Paul
Guest

Lángos is the food of the DEVIL!
Every time we go down to the strand I can feel my ‘waistline’ expanding just at the sight (and smell) of the lángos stall.
There can be few greater pleasures than lying in the sun, fresh from a dip, with a tejfölös langos and a beer (I even like Hungarian beer at those moments!).
But there is room for both lángos AND decent pizza in this world (if not, unfortunately, in my stomach).

Paul
Guest

pgyzs – I fear this is Hungarian issue avoidance again. Exercise is good for you, and will help you to lose weight, but the only way to actually lose weight is to consume less calories.
You need a hell of a lot of exercise to burn off even moderate amounts of food. Next time you’re down the gym on the exrecise bike, check how many calories you burn up in (say) half an hour of hard pedalling.
A small beer in the bar afterwards undoes all the hard work of the previous hour.
Hungarians eat (and drink) too much, and too much of the wrong things. It really is that simple.

pgyzs
Guest
Paul: No it’s not it’s not just the calories you burn when your exercising. Regular exercising also keep your body in shape, helps your digesting process, etc. Btw I didn’t say that you can eat Pacal three times a day just exercise and it’s OK. I just said that the unhealthy lifestyle issue doesn’t consist of only one component. Just to state I don’t have to defend myself, I’m not overweight. I try to eat healthy although I’m not obsessed by it and every now and then I can eat the Hungarian cuisine I love so much without getting as fat as a pig. Also it has a lot to do with genetics, I have a very skinny friend who eats a lot because he’s not comfortable with being so skinny but his body just simply refuses to gain weight. On the other hand another friend of mine technically lives on salad, she’s still just chubby (but everybody likes her that way) And what is this “Hungarian issue avoidance” and “Hungarians eat a lot” pretending as if it was a Hungarian problem. This is not the tone I’m used from you. Btw, here is the Forbes list about the fattest… Read more »
Paul
Guest
pgyzs – sorry (again) I didn’t mean to upset you, or anyone else. I only write what I see. England may be following the USA (as always), but the problem in Hungary is different. The Hungarian diet must be one of the most unhealthiest in the world, not just the saturated fat, but the salt and sugar in everything. But it’s not something that’s only recently developed because of increasing wealth, etc, it’s been like this for centuries. It’s possible (although I admit unlikely) that we can reverse the trend towards obesity in the UK, because our underlying diet wasn’t like it is becoming, we have something better to go back to. But in Hungary you have nothing better to ‘go back’ to, your diet is firmly established as part of your culture. To change your diet is to deny your culture and history. It’s virtualy impossible to change, especially quickly. And, worse still, the American dietary influence is now having a serious impact on Hungarian health. Ten years ago I was impressed that you hardly ever saw a fat kid in Hungary, but nowadays they are all too common. Nowhere near as bad as over here, but getting more… Read more »
pgyzs
Guest
Paul: “But ask the average Hungarian, especially the older ones, about all this and they will cite lack of exercise or stress as the main causes.” But I still think you underestimate the role of these factors. There is a reason why heart diseases, etc. are called managerial sicknesses? Even you yourself cite the fact that men on average die much earlier, even though they on average eat the same as their wives. “But the fact remains that the only way to lose weight is to eat less, and especially to eat less of the foods (and drink) that make you fat.” You can’t imagine how many people have I seen trying to loose weight just by starving. They get crippled, they look awful, and they make an incredibly slow progress. And when they actually start eating (not just especially lardy food) the kilos just jump back on them. There was one time in my life when I felt I was gaining more than I wanted. I tried eating less, I suffered like hell, didn’t help at all. And then I tried something very simple. Eating the same amount as before, but regularly. Breakfast, lunch dinner and no heavy food… Read more »
An
Guest

@Paul: “The Hungarian diet must be one of the most unhealthiest in the world, not just the saturated fat, but the salt and sugar in everything. ”
I realize the UK and the US must be very different in this respect, but the “too much sugar” in Hungarian dishes claim sounds quite funny for someone living in the American Midwest.
Here (US), there is sugar in everything, and loads of it. When I get a recipe for a cake from my mother-in-law (American), I have to halve the sugar in it just to make it edible… And the few attempts when I was trying to make some Hungarian cakes for my step children (Americans), they did not like it because it wasn’t sweet enough…
I agree on the whole though, traditional Hungarian diet is unhealthy, too much fat and very little vitamins (fresh greens, fresh fruits).

Paul
Guest

I don’t know why men die so much earlier in Hungary, it might be the drink, or maybe men are more liable to heart problems, but I’m sure one of the main reasons is that they DON’T eat the same as their wives!
An – my wife puts sugar in just about everything, even supposedly savoury dishes, but she’s English compared to her mother! Before I married I had a kilo bag of sugar in the cupboard that had hardly got any less in 5 years, now my wife does the cooking we buy sugar every two or three months.
But I know what you mean abot the USA. My daughter found some American cake making demos on youtube and I couldn’t believe the amount of sugar, syrup and sweets involved. No wonder Americans have such good teeth – they must all be false!
And I’ve just realised I haven’t mentioned smoking yet! For a Brit these days, it’s a real shock to see people smoke in restaurants, etc. Although it has to be said I’ve noticed quite a decline in the last ten years from the ‘French’ standards of smoking that I encountered when I first went to Hungary.

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