You’ve seen shop signs and restaurants touting Hungaricums all around Budapest … but what exactly is a Hungaricum (and can you eat one)? Hungary is proud of the many inventions which its citizens have given to the world (in case you haven’t heard, Hungarian are the brains behind inventions including the Rubik’s Cube, the ballpoint pen, vitamin C, and the hydrogen bomb). They are proud (and fiercely protective) of their natural treasures, outstanding achievements, and matchless flavors and culinary products. In order to shield and preserve these uniquely Hungarian products on a local and international scale, many are protected under the term Hungaricum. The Hungaricum Act was established in 2012 and includes quintessential local products such as Herend porcelain, Matyo folk art, Hungarian grey cattle, and the Hungarian cimbalom. Check out the complete list of Hungaricums (pdf file).
We are not the only ones who think that some of the Hungary’s best assets are edible (or drinkable)—out of the 60 Hungarian treasures which have been declared as Hungaricums, 25 are foods, drinks, ingredients, or dishes. The culinary component of the Hungaricum collection shows off the best of what Hungary has to offer—craftsmanship, distinctive flavors, and a time-honored heritage. Below, we highlight the edible (and drinkable) Hungaricums which display the pure essence of Hungary.
Paprika from Szeged and Kalocsa
“Paprika is to the Hungarian cuisine as wit is to its conversation — not just a superficial garnish, but an integral element … the marriage of paprika and Hungarian cooking was almost predestined,” wrote George Láng, the Hungarian restaurateur famous for breathing new life into the renowned Gundel restaurant, in his masterpiece Cuisine of Hungary. Though not native, Hungary’s spicy, red obsession grew from the 16th century when either Turks or neighboring ethnic groups from the Balkans introduced it on local soil. Paprika is now so omnipresent that many of Hungary’s best-known and favorite dishes include a hearty dose of it. The towns of Kalocsa and Szeged, both in the southern part of the Great Plain, vie for the title of “Paprika Capital”, both growing and producing various grades of the iconic product. In the Hungarian kitchen, flavor, color, and aroma are equally important, which is why there’s a clear distinction between the four official categorizations of Hungarian paprika: különleges (“special quality,” which is a mild and vibrant paprika made from only flawless, ripe peppers), csemege (“delicate,” which has a strong paprika flavor and a lighter yellow-red hue), édesnemes (“noble sweet,” which is a lighter but more pungent paprika), and rózsa (an aromatic, dark red paprika which tends to be strong). But taste is the most crucial thing to consider, and Hungarian paprika is sweet, vegetal, earthy, and incomparable.
“Winter” Salami from Pick & Herz
Produced in Szeged, a town two hours south of Budapest, Pick téliszalami (winter salami, which is so named for the colder months when it was traditionally produced) has been a staple of the Hungarian diet since its creation in 1869. The company was founded by Marc Pick, a trader of Moravian-Jewish origin, who set out to create an exceptional pork product from his bountiful agrarian homeland that would rival the quality and taste of the preferred Italian salamis of the time. Pick’s téliszalámi is distinguished by its special combination of spices, wide girth, and the protective “noble mold” that coats the sausage during its three-month maturing period after it has been smoked. Rivaling Pick in its popularity and prevalence is Herz Salami, which was originally produced by the Herz company along the Danube banks in Budapest, but has been under the ownership of Pick since 2013. Herz exudes the typical rich flavor and denseness of winter salami, but it is a bit milder and smoother than Pick.
Labeled the “king of wines, the wine of kings” by Louis XV of France, sweet wine from the Tokaj region has been celebrated around the world for centuries. Tokaj is so unique and important in Hungary that it has two Hungaricums dedicated to it—the cultural landscape of the historic wine region is recognized as a Hungaricum, as is and Tokaji aszú. The wine region is located in the northeastern corner of the country, in a location which is perfect for bringing on the botrytis (“noble rot”) which is essential to the sweet wine production. Six grape varieties, all white, are permitted in Tokaj, but 90 percent of the region vineyard’s are planted with furmint and hárslevelű. There are a growing number of fine dry wines made in Tokaj, but it’s really the sweet wines which have made the area famous. Honey-gold, silky sweet aszú is an iconic wine made from botrytized grapes which have shriveled to a raisin-like state. Besides aszú, look for other stand-out wines such as dry furmints and hárslevelű, sweet szamorodni, dry szamorodni (reminiscent of sherry), and the rarest-of-the-rare, Tokaji eszencia.
Wrapped in its trademark red polka-dotted wrapper, túró rudi is a cylinder of chocolate-covered curd cheese that has a strong hold on Hungarian hearts. This indigenous (and ingenious) little snack was introduced in 1968 after a decade of experimentation. Its popularity grew quickly thanks to early viral marketing efforts (aka word of mouth), as well as its irresistible taste. Beyond the classic bar, they now come in different varieties and flavors such as walnut, apricot, raspberry, cherry or caramel. However, it’s the classic túró rudi, with it’s hint of lemon flavor, which has a hold on most hearts.
This potent national drink can be found stashed away in just about every liquor cabinet in Hungary. Unicum is a beloved bittersweet digestive made from a secret recipe and 40 herbs and spices. According to family lore, in the late 1700s, the Royal Physician to the Habsburg Court, Dr. József Zwack, was asked to concoct a medicinal liqueur for the ailing emperor, Joseph II. Voicing his pleasure, he reportedly said, “Dr. Zwack, Das ist ein unicum!”(literally translating to “This is unique”). Thus became Unicum, the trademark product of Zwack, Hungary’s best-known spirit maker that still operates under the family’s hand in Budapest. The company now has a portfolio of more than 200 spirits, but the chocolate-hued Unicum still shines as its flagship, with its memorable bomb-shaped bottle, emergency-cross logo, and a truly unforgettable (even acquired) taste.
With acacia making up about one-third of Hungary’s tree stock, it’s no wonder that bees are buzzing around these trees, producing nearly half of the domestic honey supply. Akacia honey, as a single-varietal honey (made from the nectar of a single flower variety) is distinctly pale in color and has a delicately sweet flavor that is rich in fructose, giving it a long shelf life. It’s perfect for stirring into tea, spreading on thickly buttered slices of bread, or used as cooking ingredients since it mixes easily with liquids and batters.
Baja Fisherman’s Soup
In Hungary’s arsenal of traditional soups, fisherman’s soup plays a substantial, yet secondary supporting role to that of gulyás, which is the best-known local soup. Born from the prominent fishing traditions along the Danube, Tisza rivers, and Lake Balaton, this piquant dish is prepared in a multitude of ways, but it’s most notable and unique version is made in Baja, situated in the Hungarian Southern Great Plain. The Baja-style fisherman’s soup is traditionally made in a large iron cauldron using mainly carp (any additional fish types are only used to intensify the taste), onions, and high-quality paprika. There are many styles fisherman’s soup (halászlé), each with slight variations. The defining ingredient of the Baja-style version is the addition of thin, delicate pasta and hot cherry paprika.
Goose Liver Products
Foie gras is an indulgent treat in much of the world, and in Hungary it is abundantly consumed in pates, parfaits, terrines, and mousses. Accounting for some 80 of the world’s production, Hungary produces over 2,000 tons of fattened goose liver, of which the vast majority (up to 85 percent) is exported, mostly to France. At its best, goose liver has lots of earthy flavor so there’s no need for additional spices or ingredients when it is grilled, seared, or roasted. Hungarians tend to prefer simple variations of goose liver, cooking it in its own fat and serving it in thick slices, so the smooth and slightly sweet taste melts in the mouth. There are piles of fresh, creamy-white goose livers (as well as duck livers) for sale at every butcher shop in Budapest and supermarkets also stock frozen versions.
Hungarians are spoiled for choice when it comes to desserts and pastries. The Hungarian kitchen has a huge arsenal of decadent treats—think Dobos torta, Rigó Jancsi, Indiáner, Rákóczi túrós, and Somlói galuska, to name a few—but only two are declared Hungaricums. Pozsonyi kifli, a crescent-shaped pastry filled with poppy seeds or walnuts and baked to golden-brown perfection, harks back to the days of Turkish occupation in Hungary. It takes its name from the Hungarian name for the Slovakian capital, Bratislava, but it is also inspired by German and Austrian confections. Pozsonyi kifli is a delicious staple for the Christmas season Hungary.
The other sweet Hungaricum is kürtöskalács (chimney cake), a spiral-shaped pastry served in special kiosks and at every festival in Hungary. Following the age-old Transylvanian recipe, a sweet yeast-raised dough is rolled onto a wooden pin, rolled in sugar (which caramelizes and hardens during the cooking process), and baked in a special oven until golden. The crispy, hollow loaf is then rolled into various toppings, from crushed nuts, cinnamon, and ground walnuts to vanilla, coconut flakes, poppy seeds or cocoa powder. It is best when eaten straight from the fire while still warm.
A family-run marzipan and chocolate manufacturing company, Szamos epitomizes the nation’s devotion to craft and quality. Mátyás Szamos was a poor Serbian-born boy who grew up in Szentendre and started honing his marzipan making skills by making roses as an apprentice confectioner in 1930s. He launched his sweet empire from a small apartment in Budapest. Today, the company boasts a factory in Pilisvörösvar employing more than 250 people, six confectionaries, a growing number of stores throughout Hungary, and a marzipan museum in Szentendre. The Szamos Gourmet House in Vörösmarty tér is a confectionary, cafe, and chocolate factory located in an elegant palace decorated with Herend porcelain products (Herend is another Hungaricum). All shops carry the classic Szamos specialties including chocolate-covered marzipan, handmade truffles, bonbons, and cakes made from top-notch ingredients such as cocoa butter and premium almond paste.