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Elegy to Zsiros Kenyér: A Good-bye to Budapest’s Classic Pub Grub

4 minutes read

In Budapest, some dishes go out of style, only to be re-introduced years later as more expensive ‘retro’ fare. I’m thinking along the lines of the ‘retro burger,’ as it is now called, which is the original Hungarian version of a hamburger, featuring a catcher’s-mitt sized bun and a handful of csalamade—a very particular, pungent type of pickled Hungarian cabbage salad—slapped down on the not necessarily beef patty.

It also happens that some dishes disappear not to be seen again. This is what seems to be occurring with zsiros kenyér, in central Budapest, at any rate. Zsiros kenyér, which transliterates into ‘fatty bread’ is just that: a thick slice of white bread slathered with lard, topped with red onion and dusted with paprika. Stacked precariously one on top of the other on a cake tray, under a plastic lid or cellophane, zsiros kenyér is a great bar snack, and used to be easily found at any corner pub. Unlike packaged snacks like pretzels or peanuts, in its own way, zsiros kenyér is homemade, as well as being portable, filling, and particularly Hungarian. The fat acts in balance with the alcoholic bite of, for instance, palinka, the two doing a tipsy dance in your mouth. They are surprisingly addictive, as one slice of bread does not a sandwich make. After a few, you can say that you even had a meal.

I’m told that in the 1980s, zsiros kenyér was made with the fat rendered from whatever a particular pub’s specialty pub grub, like fasírt (a kind of meatball), or töpörtyű (cracklings, or greaves), which they spread on bread and gave away free to regulars, a bit like the Spanish used to do with tapas. There was a small eruption of outrage when the more capitalist-minded pub owners began charging ten or twenty cents for one.

It turns out that ‘those were the days’ as zsiros kenyér is being replaced by prepackaged food, or more expensive dishes from the kitchen, like pulled pork or charcuterie. Perhaps its disappearance from the bar is not a huge loss. Haute cuisine it is not. But zsiros kenyér has its place, though like so many places in the center of the city, it is one that is disappearing. More likely, instead of a tall, tepid mug of Arany Ászok or Borsodi, which are the low-rent big brand beers, you will likely find Czech or Hungarian craft beers, which don’t ‘pair’ well with such common fare. So, as tastes change, and the center is redeveloped to accommodate tourism, along with many long standing pubs the humble zsiros kenyér is being pushed out.

But who knows, maybe the snack will make a comeback. There is just as much nostalgia here as anywhere else, so why not? On the other hand, we may see its return elevated, perhaps with artisanal bread and mangalica fat and caramelized onions. Already you see inner city pubs like Fekete Kutya (the Black Dog) offering an alternative in an open face chicken liver spread sandwich, (one that meets the approval of several Taste Hungary staffers). As for authentic zsiros kenyér, you can still find it centrally in at least a few classic pubs like at the Akali in the 13th District, and the Tokaji Borozó in the 5th District. Even a few new bars, like Sly’s in the tourist heavy inner 7th occasionally have a tray of zsiros kenyér on the bar. Maybe announcing its demise is premature after all.

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