To understand Hungarian cuisine, we have to take a peek into the past. Today's Hungarian cuisine is a synthesis of ancient Asiatic components mixed with Germanic, Italian, and Slavic elements. The food of Hungary can be considered a melting pot of the continent, with its own original cuisine from the Magyar people.
The nomadic past of the Hungarians is apparent in the prominence of meat (mainly poultry, pork and beef) in Hungarian cuisine as well as the amount of dishes cooked over open fire – just think of goulash, pörkölt (stew) or the fisherman's soup. In the 15th century King Matthias and his Neapolitan wife introduced new ingredients and spices like garlic and onions – things we couldn't imagine a proper Hungarian dish without today. Later, great numbers of Saxons, Armenians, Italians, Jews and Serbs settled in the Hungarian basin and in Transylvania and brought with them their own recipes. Elements of ancient Turkish cuisine were adopted during the Ottoman era, in the form of sweets, the cake called bejgli, the eggplant, stuffed peppers and stuffed cabbage called töltött káposzta. Hungarian cuisine was influenced by Austrian cuisine under the Austro-Hungarian Empire as well; dishes and methods of food preparation have often been borrowed from Austrian cuisine, and vice versa.
Hungarian cuisine today shows great regional variety – and this promises a lot of excitement for gastro-curious travellers. Just take a look at the Northern parts of the Great Plain. This is where our most famous dish, the Goulash soups comes from, developed by the local herdsmen. Don't compare the Hungarian goulash to other kinds of goulash you might have eaten elsewhere, by the way – the original one is a rich and spicy soup, best made out of the meat of the Hungarian Grey cattle. The area has given birth to the Hortobágyi pancake as well, a savoury crêpe filled with veal, today usually served as a starter. Or the slambuc, a hearty dish cooked on open fire out of potatoes and noodles, flavoured with some nice bacon. The region is proud to give home to Hungary's finest plums (in Szatmár) and apples (Szabolcs) – no lack of great pálinkas for the folks of the Eastern Plain.
The area around Lake Tisza is particularly known for the lamb stew of Karcag, part of the UNESCO cultural heritage. What it's like? Well, it's nothing for the faint hearted, this one includes basically every part of the animal including the head, the feet and the giblets, cooked over a large open fire. Head to Karcag for the annual lamb stew cooking competition to give it a try. It's not an easy meal admittedly, so help your digestion with a shot of the 77 pálinka of Nagykörű, made of 77 types of cherries.
The southern part of the Great Plain produces some of the finest veggies in the countryincluding the hot paprika (red chilli peppers) from Szeged, the onions from Makó, the green peppers from Szentes and the garlic from Bátyai. Two of the most popular Hungarian sausages are made in the area as well, the sausage from Gyula and from Csaba, as well as the Pick salami are usually part of any souvenir pack. And the peach pálinka from Kecskemét is one of the best in the country.
The area around Balaton has countless delicacies to offer as well, we'd advise you to try the fish dishes (the Maria fish soup, the catfish with galuska, a kind of gnocchi or the bream in sour cream). The Tihany-peninsula is well-known for its lavender – have you ever tried lavender liquor? There is so much new waiting for you to experience.
Hungarians are real soup-lovers, no doubt about that. A fine chicken soup is part of any proper Sunday lunch and comes in lots ofvarieties. The Újházi chicken soup for example is a rich soup packed with all kinds of vegetables, small slices of chicken and (preferably self-made) noodles. Vegetarians will be happy about the great offer of vegetable soups, on the other hand.
The lecsó is a dish originating from the Balkans, but it has become an integral part of Hungarian cuisine – we couldn't imagine life without it. It's a real summer dish made of sweet-succulent tomatoes, fresh paprika and some onions. Of course there are countless local varieties – some enjoy it with slices of sausages, some with eggs – it is as multi-faced as Hungary itself.
Hungarians are quite sweet-toothed, so there is no lack in sugary delicacies either. The sweet scent of the traditional kürtőskalács (chimney cake) fills the air of every Christmas fair – it's a favourite among the locals. The somlói galuska (sponge cake spilled with rich chocolate sauce and topped with light whipped cream) is a dessert offered at every proper Hungarian restaurant. The Dobos cake is a truly special Hungarian invention,a sponge cake layered with soft chocolate butter cream topped with a thin slice of caramel cracking in your mouth. Hmmmm... It's not all about great inventions, thoughas the most loved dessert for everyday has to be the pancake but is nothing like its American counterpart. It's as thin as a veil, filled with marmalade, cocoa powder, chocolate or vanilla sauce and wrapped up. Yummy!