Though főzelék—which is best translated as ‘pottage’ (despite the fact that most Westerners, or at least Americans, wouldn’t know a bowl of pottage if they saw one)—seems like an outlier on a Hungarian menu filled with meat, carb-heavy sides, and pickles, it is actually a lunchtime staple as much as any gulyás or paprikás. Főzelék is the unheralded anchor of any étkezdé’s (lunch canteen) menu. It’s popular with good reason, and certain Hungarians take their főzelék very seriously.
My first hint that főzelék was not merely a default choice when other dishes looked too heavy or complicated was at one of the many excellent food stalls at the Fehérvári Market Hall in District XI (one of several interesting market halls to explore that aren’t the Great Market Hall). Wanting something easy and quick, I ordered a burgonya (potato) főzelék and grabbed a dish of cékla salata (pickled beets) to bring some color to the otherwise drab looking meal. The lady behind the counter looked horrified, stricken. “Nem Hagyományos,” she barked, looking me in the eye, meaning that főzelék and savanyúság (pickles) together are ‘not traditional.’ She simply refused to hand over my potato pottage until her colleague diffused the situation by taking over my order.
Only later did a Hungarian friend explain that pickles and főzelék don’t go together on a traditional Hungarian menu. Főzelék has its place, but it is not next to a bowl of pickled beets. But why is that? Perhaps because főzelék is occasionally served as a side dish itself, and a side for a side would seem too cute. Or perhaps a vegetable accompanying another vegetable is just too much pant. I am still trying to figure this one out.
Főzelék is also hard to pin down as a dish. It is neither soup or stew, but somewhere in between. It’s comfort food, a delicious delivery system for vegetables, and a refreshingly light lunch option in a country where lunch is the day’s main meal. Főzelék comes in many varieties including lentil, spinach, green pea, yellow pea, squash, potato, and sorrel (which may seem like an exotic flavor for a pottage, though with its earthy bitter bite, it is quite popular in the warmer months).
Főzelék is also a food that is easily mistaken for being vegetarian. But though főzelék seems vegetarian friendly at first blush, it usually incorporates lard as an ingredient. Vegans won’t get that far, having shied away at most recipes’ liberal use of sour cream or roux. This is not to say there is no room for flight of fancy when it comes to főzelék. My local étkezdé, the Muskátli, sometimes offers a wonderfully vibrant carrot pottage, and newer venues like the pottage bar Hokedli experiment with imported flavors like Thai and Mexican in their pottages. Moreover, vegetarian főzelék is easily made, as is a vegan version (what would my ‘nem hagyomanos’ lunch lady think of all this, I wonder).
That said, vegetable-friendly főzelék usually benefits from being topped with another, usually meatier component. The way to get the most out of your főzelék is to request a spoonful of pörkölt (spicy stewed meat), fasírt (Hungarian meatballs) or egg on top. I have unsuccessfully tried to bring a slice of rántott sajt (fried cheese) into fashion as a főzelék topping, but I don’t think it’s an impossible dream. Staff are more tolerant of my liberal use of Erős Pista to spice up the uncharacteristically mild dish. Just don’t ask for pickles on, or anywhere near your főzelék, and you should be OK.
For a wide selection of dependably good traditional főzelék in Budapest, try Főzelék Faló, or for vegan or more modern takes on főzelék try Hokedli, also on Nagymező utca.
ZÖLDBORSÓ FŐZELÉK (GREEN PEA POTTAGE)
- A few slices of smoked bacon, diced
- 450 grams (1 pound) peas, shelled
- 1 teaspoon sugar
- 1 Tablespoon flour
- 150-200 grams (5-7 ounces) sour cream
- The dish can be made of any type of vegetable, and essentially just involves cooking the vegetables in a bit of fat and water and then making a sauce by adding the cooked vegetables to roux or adding sour cream mixed with a little flour at the end (called habarás, a common method of thickening soups and other dishes in Hungarian cooking). Some dishes also call for milk in the sauce. If you have any fresh herbs on hand, feel free to stir those in near the end.
- In a skillet or pot, over low heat, slowly sauté the bacon until it is a little crispy and most of the fat has been melted. Add the peas, sugar, a pinch of salt, and half cup of water (more if needed). Cook for about 15 minutes (or until taste), until the peas turn lighter green. Meanwhile, mix the flour and the sour cream (use more sour cream if you like your főzelék with lots of sauce). Thin the sour cream mixture with a few spoonfuls of the liquid from the peas. When the peas are cooked, add the sour cream mixture and cook, while stirring constantly, for about three more minutes.