Ten years ago, one of my editors asked me to write about Hungarian food and the food scene. Hungary? Top class food? At the time, the only thing that sprung to mind was, well, goulash. I stand rebuked, sackcloth and ashes – I can only apologise to them.
Little did I know that at that time, the specific magazine I was freelancing for was just about to launch there, as food magazine sales had increased more than any other genre – an unbelievable 30%. I am glad I didn’t know that at the time, the pressure would have been too great for me to remain unbiased in my work. I need not have worried – I think I enjoyed every morsel of this experience, including the city itself.
Travel to Budapest
I am not sure what Budapest is like now, but I hear it has emerged even more and now has an amazing food scene, far more so than when I travelled there before, and even then, it was pretty darn good! It wasn’t so much the actual food; it was the all-encompassing ambiance of this beautiful place. You know what I mean – you can eat some fried chicken surrounded by an amazing scenic view, and it will be the best chicken you ever chomped on!
Budapest city itself is glorious with amazing architecture, some quirky small streets where you can find tucked away restaurants that belie their location as they are always enjoying a roaring trade at lunch and dinner. But the one experience that stayed in my mind ever since was gazing down at the city and the way the river, the mighty Danube, splits it in two – Buda and Pest. Quite different terrain, Buda is quite hilly, whilst Pest is rather flat. If you enjoy sightseeing, you are certainly spoilt for choice, with many ruins to visit and as mentioned, glorious architecture. I also had an ‘out of body’ thermal spa experience, one of the most ornate spas I have even been to. It was so relaxing; I can’t begin to tell you after footslogging around Budapest with an over-enthusiastic masochist of a guide!
Budapest Food Scene
The food scene was relatively untouched by other parts of our cosmos, and very few ‘fast food’ outlets at that time. Fast food was where you could go and pick up some great dishes that had been cooked for hours and relatively traditional, and boy, they were delicious. Goulash, or a form of this deep stew was available in most, and I have to say meat was prevalent then. Now in the city, vegetarians and vegans are much more widely catered for. Even with my background of working with many nationalities, I did not know anyone in this city, so had to rely on a guide – and did he like walking! But it did give me a better idea of the city and revealed some gastronomic treasures.
It wouldn’t be right not to experience goulash when in Budapest, would it? I found that in many places, goulash was served as a soup called ‘gulyas’ with thick slices of bread, and it’s a meal in one. Most dishes are served with a ‘side of paprika paste’ or paprika itself, making it a classic winter dish. The other dish served with copious amounts of bread was ‘lecso’ served as a stew with crispy and spicy sausages, oodles of paprika and some tender vegetables. I preferred this to the goulash if I am honest.
In some of the places that my guide took me there were quite a few students, so I asked him why – he said, ‘price and taste’, which actually was pretty obvious, but I must have been having a Homer Simpson moment. The dish I heard most of the youngsters ordering was ‘kolbasz’, another casual sausage dish served generally with bread to put the sausage in, along with spices, sauerkraut and a huge dollop of mustard! Reminded me of an extended version of a hot dog! These were consumed by the hundreds and thousands at breakfast, lunch and dinner and I guess were the staple diet of impoverished youth! Shame there weren’t any crispy onions though!
Most meat dishes were pork or beef, but I did find lamb on a couple of occasions, but this is normally reserved for families at special celebrations, so I was reliably informed. I am sure that situation will have been remedied by now though, as the food scene has expanded considerably to include Italian, Indian, Chinese, Vietnamese and of course, French restaurants. In fact, there is now a thriving section, a type of Chinatown in Budapest, which is apparently a ‘must’.
We did take a river cruise on my second evening and the view of Budapest by night took my breath away, with glittering lights shimmering on the water. It’s a must do, for sure. The boat we took was fairly cheap and cheerful, and I experienced a couple of local drinks (why, oh why did I do that?). It was a particularly chilly night, so wrapped up warm my guide suggested a Pálinka, apparently Hungary’s national fruit brandy, which is served in a variety of flavours — apricot, plum, pear — but what unifies them all is their uncanny ability to knock you off your feet before you know it. Heed my advice: Sip slowly and hold on to the boat rail as once the warmth of the drink has crept up on you, the only place to go after that is the floor! The only saving grace is as a token gesture we were able to have some pretzels, called ‘ropi’, which were covered in salt, very crispy but tasty, but only served to make me incredibly thirsty! Never trust a guide is all I can say! What was I thinking – I don’t drink alcohol normally!
I hope this doesn’t all sound a ‘little shady’, but I am trying to show you the side of Budapest that I experienced, but it does have far more than I have space to write about. I did have a delicious Chicken Paprikash, very popular in Budapest and made in a sour cream sauce with oodles of…paprika, of course!
However, as usual I must sneak chocolate into the equation! Now you have got me – some amazingly mouth-watering sweet snacks and cakes are sold by the million I would think as the nation do have a communal joint sweet tooth. I sampled some elegant pastries, and some not so elegant, but equally as tasty ones. I had Palacsinta, Hungary’s take on the crêpe, soft, thin pancakes with a variety of sweet fillings ranging anywhere from raspberry jam and sweet cottage cheese to chocolate and hazelnut goodness, like Nutella.
I brought back a huge bag full of Hungary’s favourite chocolate candy bar –Túró Rudi’. This beloved túró-filled bar, coated in a brittle chocolate glaze, is Hungary’s national snack food. It contains a little less sugar than your average candy bar and locals would argue, tastes better, too. The office team descended on them like a pack of vultures. For those of you who don’t know, turo is a sweet curd cheese and almost a trademark in Hungary.
I did feel that I didn’t quite achieve what I wanted to on this trip, so have decided to go back under my own steam – some 10 years later, along with ‘the hubster’ (husband) and whoever else wants to join in. I want to try some of the trendy ruins bars, and much more of the expanded and multi-cultural food scene to really get an up to date flavour of Budapest.
There is one thing I would say though. The experience of eating somewhat heavy food is unlikely to change – it is still widely served in Budapest and still remains rib-sticking and highly calorific, even though exceptionally tasty. Avoid ‘langos’ if you don’t want to double your waistline (fried dough, with copious amounts of cheese and sour cream), which is served commonly as street food.
But the food scene is now vast, encompassing just about every cuisine you can think of, so I am told by many eager gastro friends and colleagues. Everything from Michelin star to coffee and pastries, French to Far Eastern, you can get it all here. I am off to check it out early in the New Year, with my winter woollies and definitely no Palinka!