“The fire of love’s altar might die down, but the seduction of the stove is eternal. Every plate is the declaration of love, or its opposite: a quiet divorce.” So wrote Hungarian novelist and journalist Mór Jókai, who lived in the 19th century and died just as the golden age of Hungarian literature was being born (a time we touch upon in posts about the Budapest’s Literary Cafes). The writer was a man intoxicated with words and with food. It is said that he delivered the first Hungarian modern novel, and was such a prolific writer that his works have yet to be fully collected. It is also said that, in the placid town of Balatonfüred (on the northern shore of Hungary’s great Lake Balaton), for all his epicurean leanings, his favorite dish was a soup of pinto beans and ham hocks: one which he ate so regularly that they named it after him.
Hungarian Jókai bableves, or bean soup, is an edible example of ‘seduction by stove’. The pinto bean it uses has a luxurious, buttery flavor that couples lovingly with the pork. Jókai bableves is a rare soup in that it has the power of making even turnips taste good. In some versions nuggets of pasta known as nokedli can be found, and a dollop of sour cream the size of a cotton ball rests on top. An aftertaste of garlic reminds you that you are comfortable enough to eat well with one another, it’s no first date. Taken together, the flavors meld into something golden, smokey, at once earthy and sublime.
Since the dish is usually translated as ‘bean soup in the Jókai style’ or ‘bean soup a’la Jókai’ vegetarians often find themselves mistakenly ordering bableves. This happened to me, arriving in Budapest as a non-meat eater. The sympathetic waiter offered to pluck the pork from the soup, once he tallied the situation. I am pretty sure this was not an act of extreme hospitality, but that the waiter coveted the beautiful broth-soaked pieces of pork and Debreceni sausage.
You can see why Jokai was so taken with the soup. Jókai bableves has a rich, nourishing flavor that intoxicates. Like most intoxicants, love included, it demands to be overindulged in. Many soups in Hungary come in a small size portion as well as a large: I’ve never seen a small version of Jókai bableves. It would be cruel. It’s like asking for just a little affection. The meal is hearty in the truest sense of the word. When you have a bowl of Jókai bableves, restraint won’t do. This is something where too much is just right, where you want to be overwhelmed by overindulgence.
Despite the fact that it’s a heavy soup, you frequently see people eating Jókai bableves in the summertime. And it’s great in summer: contrary to prevailing wisdom, heavy food sometimes tastes better in the heat. Of course, it is best in the winter, when you can warm your hands around the side of the bowl. But until you begin eating, it’s not really yours. Just like a book isn’t yours until you’ve read it. Until you have started eating, this love still belongs to the writer Jókai, who was so faithful to this dish.
Beans have always represented immortality and magic in fairy tales. Love is represented by different foods in different cultures, but Jókai bean soup—keeping in mind the great author’s passion for his bableves—is perhaps the singular food that represents love for somebody else’s love.