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.