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Hungary’s Unique Szilveszter (New Year’s) Traditions and Superstitions
EAT RIGHT, STAY LUCKY
In Hungary, you’d be doing yourself a disservice for the rest of the year if you didn’t eat plenty of lentils to ring in the new year. And to increase your chances for luck and success in the coming year, you should also eat roasted pork and kocsonya (pork aspic) with your lentils. Since pigs symbolize progress, the pork will bring you luck. As in many other cultures, lentils and legumes—which are round and disk-shaped, resembling coins—will bring you wealth. To further increase wealth and luck Hungarians also eat rétes and korhely soup (a thick cabbage and sausage broth), which is also a well-known hangover cure. Whatever you do, just don’t eat chicken (which will scratch away your luck) or fish (which will swim away with your luck).
SUPERSTITIONS AND DIVINATIONS
According to tradition, fortune-telling has played a very important part as the year draws to a close. Some people bake pogácsa and cakes containing lucky coins and the person who finds it will have luck in the coming year. In eastern Hungary locals used to created garlic calendars to foretell the weather. Salt was inserted in twelve cloves of garlic, one for each month of the year, and the ones that became moist by the morning would be a rainy month. Others believed that single girls could predict the name of their soul mate by making dumplings, each filled with the name of a man, and the one that would rise to the top of the water first would be the real ‘Prince Charming’.
Other interesting superstitions are in the form of admonitions about what not to do. Most forms of cleaning and household chores—from cooking to trash disposal—are considered back luck. Some believe, for example, that washing or sewing clothes will bring the death of a loved one.
Traditionally, it was customary to wash in cold water early in the morning to stay healthy in the new year, and for the same reason doctors were to be avoided by all cost. With a chance to start over, people generally steer clear of anger, conflicts, breaking things and all sorts of bad behaviors as it is believed that whatever happened on the first day of the new year would happen over and over again in the months ahead.
MAKE SOME NOISE
In an effort to bid farewell to winter, a common Hungarians tradition is to bury or toss in water a small straw doll that symbolizes the passing year. Making a merry racket to scare away troubles and even spirits is also a common practice, which used to include costumed gatherings and loud singing. These days the main streets and squares of Budapest are filled with all sorts of open-air street parties, attended by large masses of people armed with noisemakers, firecrackers and whistles for making a big bang. Popular outdoor parties and concerts are held each year at locations around town, like Nyugati tér, Oktogon, and Vörösmarty tér.
In Budapest it has also become a local tradition (since 1999) to go to the horse races (Ügetőszilveszter) at Kincsem Park, Budapest’s last operational horse racetrack. Along with the races, there are concerts, other festivities, and food trucks.
Whatever you do to ring in the new year, we wish you a Happy New Year! BÚÉK! Boldog Új Évet Kívánunk!
Főzelék is a classic Hungarian vegetable preparation (usually served as a main course) in which sour cream and roux (rántás) are added to thicken cooked vegetables. It can be made of practically any type of vegetable, and it’s a frequently used cooking technique in Hungarian kitchens. This is the way my mother-in-law prepares lentil főzelék, which she usually serves with roasted meat or sausage. Whether you are superstitious or not, this dish is perfect to eat throughout the winter, not just to ring in the New Year.
LENCE FŐZELÉK (LENTIL STEW)
- 3 cups of lentils
- ½ teaspoon salt
- 2 small onions, finely chopped (approximately 3 cups), divided
- 1 large garlic clove, chopped
- 2-3 bay leaves
- Pinch of Marjoram
- Pinch of black pepper
- Lemon zest
- 1/4 cup sunflower oil
- 1/4 cup of flour
- 1 tablespoon sweet Hungarian paprika
- Salt and pepper to taste
- Sour cream
- Rinse the lentils, and soak them for about 30 minutes. Discard the water.
- Add the lentils to a pot and fill with enough water to cover them by an inch. Add the salt, half of the onions, bay leaves, marjoram, black pepper (if using), and lemon zest (if using). Cook for 20-30 minutes (or until the lentils are almost soft, adding water if needed. When the lentils are cooked, removed from the heat (but don’t discard the water).
- While the lentils cook, prepare the rántás. Heat the sunflower oil in a saucepan, add the remaining onions and the garlic, and sauté over low heat until they are translucent. Add the flour and sauté over medium-high heat for about one minute, while continually whisking. Reduce the heat to medium and cook for another minute, while still continually whisking. Reduce the heat to low and stir in the paprika (being careful not to let it burn). You may need to add a bit more oil to help the paprika dissolve. Cook, while continuously stirring, for about one more minute.
- Add a small amount of water from the cooked lentils to the rántás, constantly whisking it so it smoothly incorporates. Continue to do this until all of the water has been added and the rántás is creamy.
- Gently stir in the lentils. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Bring to boil and then reduce the heat to low, simmering until the lentils are cooked through. Serve with sour cream and hot paprika on the side.