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Lunch at the Butcher’s: the Real Hungarian Street Food

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The concept of ‘street food’ is now a global phenomenon. This is especially true in tourist heavy Budapest, where even sit-down restaurants will advertise their fare as such. Budapest is saturated with barbeque, Tex-Mex, and burger joints. But while backpackers munch on pulled pork sandwiches and tacos, the real local street food is going largely unnoticed by those who are not Hungarian.

In Hungary, it is normal for butcher shops (hentesbolt) to also serve pre-cooked food, in addition to the regular butchers’ offerings, with some shops offering menus that rival most lunch canteens. But the real star, and what most people come for, are the sausages. Any sausage selection will be anchored by three of the most common Hungarian varieties: hurka, (liver and blood sausage) and kolbász, Hungary’s version of Kielbasa. If you are lucky you may find Debrecener, the spicy sausage that is curiously more popular abroad, despite its origins in Debrecen, Hungary.

Usually there will be somebody at the counter dedicated to serving lunches, but sometimes you will deal with the butcher him (or her) self. Hungarian butchers can be an intimidating bunch, and typically conform to stereotypes of thick muscled men who spend the day wielding knives. But when called upon to serve a sausage, or csülök (ham hocks) they do so with the care of a head waiter. Not many tourists make their way into the butcher’s for a meal, and foreigners are still something of a novelty, so don’t be surprised if extra attention is paid to get your order right, or they take the opportunity to practice their English. To step into a butcher’s is to step into unjaded, pre-tourist boon Budapest.

The sausages are what you would expect from a butcher: fresh, loaded with flavor. Liver sausages (májas hurka), though I hesitate to call them delicate, may crumble upon cutting due to the rice used in the filling. This is when a slice of bread comes in handy: finding an unmessy way to eat them takes practice. Blood sausages (véres hurka) are not the dry blood sausages of Spain, or molten blood sausages of Austria, but something in between, and like the liver sausage, they may crumble. Both are oven roasted, plump parcels of porcine tastiness. Kolbász is made of denser filling, making it tricky to cut with the plastic knives they supply. Experts at the hentesebéd (lunch at the butcher’s) bring along their own pocket knives.

Along with your sausage, which will be served on a paper, or occasionally, plastic plate, you should order a dollop of mustard, a slice of white bread, and whichever pickle variety you prefer, be it pepperoni (the hot pepper, not the meat), csalamádé (mixed pickle salad), or Hungary’s favorite fermented sour pickle, kovászos uborka. Eating standing up in the butcher’s, you will likely be in close quarters with other diners, as these places get packed around lunch with laborers, office workers, and retirees who are out for a quick, inexpensive lunch.

In terms of street food in Budapest, the choice seems obvious. You can go for a second-rate dish that is internationally trendy, which are oftentimes sold at a premium. Or you can explore a bit, flex a little Hungarian or sign language, and try some original Hungarian street food: the perennially satisfying hurka, kolbász, or Debreceni of the closest butcher’s shop.

Here are some of our favorite Budapest butchers which serve lunch …

Photo credit: Ica Mama Húsboltja facebook page