As uborkaszezon, or ‘pickle season’—a time when frivolous stories dominate the local news—rolls around again in Hungary, so do actual pickles. You know it’s summer when you see jars of kovászos dill pickles fermenting in sunny window sills and on balconies, or the less tangy csemege uborka, Hungarian gherkins, pickling in briney juice. If you have even the most fleeting knowledge of Hungarian cuisine, you know that most meat dishes, from braised pork pörkölt to chicken paprikás, are not complete unless served with a side of savanyúság, or a sour pickled dish, be it picked peppers, dill pickles, or csalamádé (a type of Hungarian pickled cabbage salad). But in certain circles, that summery pickle flavor can also come in the form of a drink, concocted with the juice from the pickle, be it a straight shot of pickle juice, a pickle juice spritzer, or something harder like a pickle martini for later in the evening.
If you buy your kovászos pickles from the market, the pickle seller will typically ask if you want them in juice. Responding affirmative will get you a bag of cloudy uborka lé, or pickle juice, which keeps the pickles moist until eaten. This pickle juice is also totally healthy to drink, and more and more often, pickle juice enthusiasts are taking to the internet to tout the health benefits and tangy delights of drinking pickle juice concoctions. Because the vinegar in pickle juice is loaded with potassium, zinc, and iron, it is electrolyte rich, helping the body keep hydrated while exercising in the summer sun. Moreover, it is said to be a home remedy for muscle cramps, and also serves as an appetite suppressor. Some people even just drink it for its bracing, refreshing taste.
But just how does it taste? Kovászos pickle juice has a strong flavor, due to the dill and garlic used during fermentation. Gherkin juice will be clearer, but still sharp with brine and a bit sweet. Health enthusiasts tend to drink the juice straight, but if you are in it for the flavor, we recommend tempering the pungent taste by adding seltzer water, making a pickley soft drink. The more daring will exploit the unique flavor to tipsier ends, resulting in various pickle juice cocktails, like the Pickle Martini, which of course resembles a traditional gin and vermouth based martini, only with some added brine and garnished with a slice of pickle. And this being Hungary, where fröccs, or wine spritzers, are king in the summer, you can also add pickle juice to white wine and seltzer water to make a pickle spritzer (this is called an Ujházi-fröccs, named for Ede Ujházi, a famous Hungarian actor from the last century).
One more added benefit: the juice’s rehydrating qualities also make it an ideal hangover cure. So don’t dump that excess pickle juice down the drain, be it from gherkins or dill pickles, especially in the summertime. Fat free and low in sugar, pickle juice may just be the summer wonder drink that athletes, hard partiers, and adventurous drinkers of all stripe may be looking for. And we are not just putting this out there because it is uborkaszezon.
All markets in Budapest will offer a healthy selection of pickle vendors. We especially like the many pickle sellers on the basement level of the central Vásárcsarnok (Central Market Hall) for sampling Hungary’s wonderful pickle products. And be sure to ask for some lé with your pickles. Want to make your own? Check out our recipe for kovászos uborka.