Sunday lunch is practically a sacred ritual in Hungary. This I learned soon after arriving on my very first visit. I found myself sitting at a table set under towering chestnut and walnut trees, eating the kind of meal that I usually only ate on holidays. It was the ideal introduction to this cuisine that was new to me. I had come to visit Gábor (now my husband) for the summer. He had already told me stories about his mother’s cooking, his epic family meals, and all the Hungarian dishes that he missed so much when he was away from home. Now, I would taste it all for myself.
First there were shots of homemade pálinka, walnut liqueur, and other spirits poured unceremoniously from used plastic water and soda bottles into stout shot glasses. The meal began with húsleves, a rich consommé which was a staple at welcome meals prepared by Gábor’s mom, Kati, I would later learn. Prepared with beef or poultry, húsleves is made by slowly simmering bones and meat, and adding whole root vegetables and homemade pinched pasta when it is nearly done. For me, it has come to typify Hungarian cuisine more than almost any other dish. At the table, everyone added their own hot paprika. And a long hot green pepper was passed around the table from which everybody cut thin slices directly into their bowls.
After the soup was eaten, Kati removed the beef marrow bones from the pot and I watched how Gábor gently tapped out the bone marrow, spread it on toast, and sprinkled it with salt, black pepper, and sweet paprika. And then I did the same. The rest of the meal was a procession of roasted meats, potatoes, and salads. This meal, my introduction to Hungarian cuisine on my first trip to Europe, was just a typical weekend meal at this house, I would later learn. But I knew from the start that I would like this place.
That summer, Gábor was my guide to discovering Hungarian cuisine. In the countryside, we ate many of Kati’s long, slow lunches. In Budapest, we ate at different restaurants every day. We had lunches at étkezdes—simple lunch rooms—and dinners at fancier restaurants. When a menu listed a dish that Kati prepared especially well, Gábor insisted that I try her version first rather than ordering it. To this day, 17 years later, there are still a few dishes that he strongly recommends me not ever ordering in restaurants. We explored the markets, and since cherries and apricots were in season, we ate them by the kilogram.
A few months earlier, I had been his guide when we ate in America. In Washington DC, where I lived, rather than visiting the museums, I took him to all of my favorite international restaurants—Ethiopian, El Salvadoran, Afghan, Thai, Vietnamese. In Budapest today there is a wide variety of international restaurants, but at that time there were few decent non-Hungarian restaurants, so these foods were all new to him. I had taught him how to pick crabs at backyard crab feasts, and slurp oysters at the seafood market. Now in Budapest he was teaching me how to cook foie gras, add heat to food using a wide array of different types of peppers, and shoot back pálinka like a pro.
Our relationship was unfolding over food, and it still is. But the food and wine has not only guided us through our travels, but has steered the direction of our lives together. Together we are still inspired by the food here, and wherever we travel. I’ve had hundreds of Sunday lunches at Kati’s house over the years. Ever since that first Hungarian Sunday lunch, I’ve been eating and drinking my way through Hungary, and loving discovering (and tasting) all of the subtleties in this cuisine which has so many layers to it.