In my first few weeks in Oxford as a fresher, I offered to make a Hungarian meal for some of my friends one evening. I struggled for some time to cater to the numerous vegetarians (often dismissed as ridiculous weirdos by way too many Hungarians) since the first dozen foods that came to my mind were all based on rather fatty meat. I eventually came up with lángos, a flat dough deep-fried and served with extra-thick sour cream and cheese on top, which is a classic street food in Hungary. From the glee on the faces and the praise my lángos received, it was obvious that the adoration was not just exaggerated politeness from my friends. Yet no one asked for seconds. The food was so stodgy that people could only concentrate on peaceful digestion. And that’s the essence of Hungarian cuisine: delicious and distinctive flavours, and excess that is more suitable for feasts than everyday meals. No wonder that according to an OECD report, Hungary has the highest obesity rate in adults among its European members.
Put bluntly, Hungarian foods are made up of grease, paprika, gravy, meat, paprika, a bit more grease, and bread to help absorb it all – at least, that is the stereotype. At first sight, this doesn’t seem quite enticing. But while it’s certainly true that almost every Hungarian food is rather heavy, a more nuanced view emerges on closer inspection with a wide variety of soups, pottages, stews, dumplings and different forms of confectionery. Alongside paprikás and goulash (gulyás, named after cattle herders), which tick many of the boxes above with beef, paprika and grease galore, there is a chilled, sweet fruit soup with redcurrants, blackberries and sour cherries. Some of the recipes are just different variants of the ones used in other countries, such as lecsó, which is somewhat similar to ratatouille; crêpes in Hungary are filled with jam or sweet quark and raisins but more special recipes include chocolate and walnuts, or – you’d never guess – meat stew. In reality, paprika is not that dominant but gives room to other spices as well, like garlic, black pepper and horseradish, to name just a few. The cuisine then is more characterized by diversity and experimentation with different forms than simply eating paprika.
What accounts for this diversity is in great part that Hungarians are a motley group of people who have been exposed to all sorts of other peoples over the centuries. The Hungarians (also called Magyars) were nomads that came to the Carpathian Basin and mixed with the locals as they founded their state a millennium ago. In the tempestuous centuries afterwards, amidst wars, migration and changing state boundaries, Hungarians were influenced by German, Slavic, Turkish and Jewish cultures, making the country a crucible of different peoples. This phenomenon is actually not uncommon in the region, whose name and boundary have always been subject to debate: it’s usually called East-Central Europe, but some describe it as “In-between Europe”, a territory hedged between Germans in the west, Russians in the east and (formerly) the Ottoman Turks in the south. In this world, the co-existence and interaction of various cultures have been the norm for centuries, and Hungarian cuisine ought to be seen in this light. It is particularly apparent in alcohol consumption: a strong beer culture came from the west (although not as strong as in Czech lands), a wine culture from the Mediterranean (from which the internationally renowned Tokaji brand emerged), and spirits from the east, with the fruity pálinka as an example. At the same time, some foods are not distinctively Hungarian but are characteristic of the region as a whole and each national cuisine has its own little tweak and name on them. Smetana (and its variants in Slavic tongues) and tejföl (in Hungarian) are the same forms of sour cream, while ćevapi (in Croatian) and mici (in Romanian) are similar minced meat rolls.
What makes the Hungarian cuisine so distinct to others is that it is ultimately a subsistence cuisine: it developed in a time of food scarcity and for a body that sometimes had to endure prolonged periods of time without access to nutrition. So, the exaggerated importance of meat in the diet makes sense not just because of the nomadic past but also because Hungary was constantly ravaged by wars; keeping your calories in mobile livestock was more rational than keeping them in crops that could be easily scorched by pillaging armies. Much of what we see today as Hungarian cuisine developed from a poor man’s diet and became a national icon only later on.
As a disclaimer, Hungarians don’t always eat all this heavy stuff – most of the food consumed day to day is international (or anational for that matter). But there is a persistent view in Hungarian that having a good meal involves eating until you feel your stomach explode, for which a greasy main course and creamy dessert form the fastest route. Personally, I could never in my life resist the temptation to put an unreasonably large heap of paprikás with dumplings on my plate, even when I knew that it wouldn’t end well. Pushy grannies with snide remarks about how thin you are get offended if you ask for mercy with watery eyes and your belt loosened after only the third course. True, just as everywhere else in Europe, health consciousness is rising: students are encouraged to do more exercise, while taxes on sugar, fat and salt are high in an effort to trim waistlines; new cycling lanes are being introduced in Budapest, companies offering weight-reducing diets and food flourish. But whatever changes are taking place, they are incremental. The Hungarian obsession with getting a massive feast and feeling well-fed is borne with a sense of pride. Just recently, out of curiosity, a few friends and I embarked on a disastrous quest to consume an entire Dobos cake, a five-layer chocolate buttercream concoction topped with glazed caramel, in one sitting, leaving us, as one would expect, in a state of delirious regret.
And yet there’s a reason I’m absolutely in favour of Hungarian cuisine: it is indeed ideal for feasting. Of course, this food is not meant to be eaten every day. But as every formal-loving fellow Oxonian would surely agree, we humans live to eat, not exclusively eat to live. The key to it is avoiding excess: it only becomes a sinful indulgence if you try to substitute your daily panini from Taylors for Hungarian food on a regular basis – it’s merely an earthly pleasure if you try it out once in a while to reward yourself. And pleasure it is. You just allow your palate to venture into an exciting new territory of unusual and rich tastes that drive you far from the dull and conventional impulses of your routine day. That sense of guilt coming with it only intensifies the experience.
Image via Flickr / Dennis Jarvis