What’s your country’s cuisine like in a nutshell?
Hungarian cuisine is rather heavy and meat-orientated, however, over the last few years, we have seen a lot of successful efforts to lighten up and modernize the traditional dishes. The four main important ingredients creating the typical Hungarian flavours are lard (nowadays substituted with oil), paprika, onion and sour cream.
A lot of culinary influences helped the development of our national cuisine – most important being Turkish and classical French, but also Jewish. We have a lot to offer beyond the famous goulash. Wonderful soups, rich sweets that are often eaten as a main dish – both play a very important role in everyday eating. The climate allows us to grow fantastic, tasty fruits and vegetables.
What's the current food trend?
Budapest will be the best foodie destination in a couple of years. Just come and see! A new restaurant scene and culinary culture is developing, a new generation of chefs and restaurateurs (and food lovers) is in the making. In comparison to other European places (and due to our special language) we are not at all a multicultural city, there are not so many immigrants who could have established a wide range of ethnic restaurants.
The current trend is mostly international, cosmopolitan, French-Mediterranean and oriental food. The number of Asian-style places, sushi-bars, etc is growing, there are a lot of resto-bars and lounges opening. It’s good to see more and more wine restaurants and wine bars where you have the chance to taste great Hungarian wines with perfect food pairings.
What local food is not to be missed?
Hungarian goose foie gras, prepared Hungarian style, poached in goose fat, served cold. Pastries, cakes, desserts (e.g. palacsinta/crépes, rétes/strudel, mákos guba/bread soaked in sweet milk, sprinkled with poppy seed), any sweets with cottage cheese, poppy seed, walnuts or sour cherries.
Goulash or chicken paprikas with galuska (dumplings), lecsó in the summer (the Hungarian ratatouille served with eggs or sausages). Anything containing creamy sheep cheese (juhtúró).
Hungarian fruits and vegetables are of fantastic quality – don’t miss tasting some locally grown peaches, apricots, yellow peppers and tomatoes in the summer. We have great soups, if you are in a restaurant, be sure to order one of them (e.g. chicken soup or bouillon, pea soup, green bean soup, cold fruit soups during summertime).
Which local food might I want to steer clear of no matter how much locals insist?
There are no such foods Just taste everything! There are a few things that are so typical, an important part of everyday eating, wonderful, I love them, but I know, a lot of foreigners find them “odd”.
Don’t be surprised if you get to taste any of the following: Főzelék – these are vegetable “stews” eaten mainly for lunch – with meatballs, fried eggs, schnitzel or just plain. The vegetables are cooked in water, then thickened with a roux or/and sour cream. These dishes don’t particularly look nice but they taste very good. You don’t find them on the menu of fancy restaurants.
Sweet pasta – any type of pasta (e.g. tagliatelle) is cooked and topped with icing sugar, poppy seed, ground walnuts or cottage cheese and sour cream. A lot of nations find this inedible, we love it.
Cold fruit soups – in the summer you will find them on every restaurant menu. Sour cherries, apples or peaches are cooked in water, then thickened with sour cream. This is sweet and very refreshing – you eat it as a starter and not as a dessert!
Túró Rudi – the most popular snack: just go to a supermarket and you will find this cold sweet cottage cheese bar covered with chocolate in the milk products section. Don’t worry, you will recognize which product to buy –it has cute red dots on the packaging and at least every second person will have it in his shopping cart. This is so popular, you can even buy it in cinemas next to popcorn.
What food to bring home from my trip?
Bright red Hungarian paprika, fresh walnuts, good quality honey (from the market), smoked sausages, blocks of goose foie gras, smoked bacon made of “mangalica” pork – a special, tasty, Hungarian pig, good quality Hungarian wine, Tokaji.
Where to shop for food?
The best place to buy Hungarian specialties is the Central Market, located in a beautiful building dating back to 1897. As for wines, I like to go to special wine stores because the trained staff always kindly helps. Two good ones in the main touristy areas are Bortársaság here and here. Be sure to bring home a good bottle or two of the famous Tokaji dessert wine.
Which are your favourite addresses?
A few of my favorite places are:
Costes (closed until mid March), Café Kör (cash only), Menza, Maligán (wine restaurant) and Két Szerecsen.
The best strudel in town: Szalai cukraszda (Balassi B. utca, next to the Parliament, a small, old fashioned place, no website)
Best cakes: Daubner (totally outside of the touristy area, only for take away, but you can take a taxi or a bus and it’s really worth the trip).
Most famous upscale restaurant in Budapest: Gundel
What’s the biggest flop in terms of food, restaurants and best avoided?
Like in all cities, in Budapest there are also a lot of mediocre/really bad touristy places – with set menu, no locals, bad food and full of clichés. Of course, I don’t recommend these. Furthermore, don’t eat at any of the Chinese fast food places and please avoid eating in the shopping malls (the city is full of them, they have huge food courts and the food is very bad). If you come from a multicultural city, you might be disappointed by the quality of the few ethnic restaurants.
What are the most reliable restaurant guides for your area?
I like the printed version of Funzine – a free city guide containing a lot of practical information. I think their restaurant section is pretty good. However, the most reliable and most independent restaurant reviews in English are written on Chew, a great foodie site mainly for expats living in Budapest. They cover restaurants news, food media, wine and much more.
What to be aware of when dining out?
It’s always a good idea to make a reservation but not essential. In many restaurants, only cash is accepted.
Tipping: very important, highly expected – about 15% of the total. You don’t leave the change on the table like in some countries, but you have to do some quick math and tell the waiter the final sum including the tip. Let’s say the total bill is 6.800 HUF, you tell him/her that you want back from 7.500 HUF.
Best cookbook on Hungarian cuisine?
Culinaria Hungary, Könemann publishing
The information and photography were kindly provided by and published with permission of Zsofi of Chili & Vanilia.