Eastern European seems to have a reputation for food that is somewhere higher than the British but lower than most of the traditional “foodie” countries such as France and Italy, which is really a shame. While my experience (through both travels and Hungarian ancestry) have found that yes, the food is a bit heavier and stodgier, it’s still delicious!! And what’s more, for the budget traveller, you can find cheap and filling dishes just about everywhere.
Much of what you will find on the average plate in Hungary will be based on starch. Potatoes are common but noodles and dumplings are more traditional. And don’t confuse these noodles with their pasta cousins! These are egg noodles, golden in colour and rich in taste yet there are probably as many different shapes as there are of Italian pasta. As with the hearty dumplings they are quick to fill you up and keep you that way! They are frequently served on the side of meat dishes but make a delicious main course on their own mixed with cheese and cabbage or even sweetened and served as a dessert.
Hungarian dumplings are more similar to German spaetzle than the big floury American ones. They are made by passing the dough through a colander over simmering water so end up being long and thin. They are, of course, the perfect accompaniment to the most commonly known Hungarian dish, goulash. Simply put goulash is a traditionally slow cooked beef stew seasoned with paprika (of course!) and caraway seeds, but as with most “national dishes” there are as many varieties as there are grandmothers.
Another home style favourite is stuffed peppers, Toltott Paprika. Filled with meat (commonly half beef, half pork) and rice, hollowed out green peppers are filled and simmered in a tomato based broth so they stay moist. Great with a hunk of dense bread to mop up all that sauce with!
If you aren’t a big red meat eater, and I’ll admit that traditional Hungarian cuisine isn’t particularly kind to fish, you might want to give Chicken Paprikash a go. Again, traditionally served with dumplings, this one-pot dish is made with chicken, green peppers, paprika and sour cream.
Borrowing from the Neighbours
Hungarian cooking also freely borrows and/or is influenced by its neighbours so it is not unusual to see what you might think of as German, Austrian or Polish dishes on a menu as well. Schnitzels are common, and much to the dismay of the animal rights crowd, mainly still made from veal which is still incredibly popular, as well as sausage and sauerkraut style dishes.
A dish commonly shared amongst the Eastern European cousins is Pierogi. These half moon shaped parcels are Hungary and Poland’s answer to Italy’s ravioli. The noodle packets are stuffed with either cheese (a cottage cheese-style cheese, not the stringy mozzarella style stuff) and/or cabbage then boiled and served with sour cream. If you are lucky, you might catch someone frying them with onions in butter after they have been boiled to crisp them up a bit on the outside. Truly scrumptious!
Now if you are in Budapest on a particularly cold day, my probably surprising advice is actually to skip the goulash (shock!) and to tuck in to one of the again commonly shared Easter European dishes, Golabki or cabbage rolls!! It’s a very similar dish to stuffed peppers but as I’m not a fan of cooked bell pepper it’s my preference. And let me say, you don’t have to be a huge cabbage fan to like these. I hated cabbage for years as a child and would still happily discard the leaf from around the outside and dig into the meaty filling. There is something about the way the meat and rice combine and simmer in the broth that can keep you warm on any day winter can throw at you.
Basically, the upshot of all of this is that you won’t go hungry here! Cheap and filling dishes based on noodles and dumplings are found in abundance with warming, nutritious stews to back them up. No matter what your budget, I can’t see how you won’t leave Hungary a couple of pound heavier. (And see? A full journal entry about food in Hungary without any bad puns about being “hungry”….ba dum tum.)
Hungary Travel Guide
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