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Palacsinta: it’s Not a Pancake, Don’t Call it a Pancake

4 minutes read

There are certain mistranslations which once they have worked their way into common parlance are near impossible to weed out. We have already looked at the misunderstanding menu scribes have when translating between Hungarian and English with szallona and bacon, but that is certainly not the only offense when it comes to Hungarian/English food translation. Perhaps more common, and more unsettling is when menus mistranslate palacsinta as pancake.

Palacsinta, in case you don’t know, are a beloved Hungarian flat cake that can be stuffed with fillings both savory and sweet. It of course looks nothing like a pancake. While it has minor differences with a crêpe, it is eaten in a similar fashion. Let’s just say it: crêpe is a far more accurate translation, and is still counts in English as a loanword in, borrowed from the French, naturally.

But really, how can this mistake be repeated again and again? Google translate, which is woefully underwhelming when it comes to Hungarian to English, doesn’t help. But one only needs to take a look at an American pancake to know the two are hardly even distant cousins. Like so many from that part of the west, the pancake is fat, thick, too clumsy to be rolled. And why would you want to? Pancakes get syrup, butter; neither of which make an appearance  on the lithe, doily-thin palacsinta. Moreover, a spinach or smoked cheese or mushroom stuffed pancake is a somewhat stomach churning prospect.

Though there will no doubt be gourmands who take issue with the translation of ‘crêpe’ as a palacsinta, that is by far closer to the essence of what a palacsinta is than the fluffy, stiff pancake (though if we are being precise, it is more similar to a slapjack variety of pancake, in appearance at least). But it’s more than just the look that differs. We are talking about the very essence of two very different foods. For instance, while pancakes are distinctly breakfast food, palacsinta can be eaten at any time of the day. Indeed, they are best during the off hours: very early in the morning, or very late at night. Though they have largely disappeared from the city’s landscape, there were once late night palacsintázó (palacsinta makers) that competed with kebabs for post party-goer custom. It’s fair to say that palacsinta is about versatility. It accommodates more types of fillings, can be eaten at any meal, and is highly portable as well. But functionality aside, there is one essential difference between the two. According to Chowhound, “The main difference is that pancake batter has a raising agent in it, such as baking powder or baking soda, and crepe batter does not.” Palacsinta recipes do not call for a rising agent.

Historically they differ as well. The American pancake, some say, derives from what is known as a ‘drop scone,’ originating in Scotland. Palacsinta has a different lineage. This won’t be popular with Hungarian lovers of the food, but wikipedia describes them as plăcintă or ‘rinsed pie’, and being of Romanian origin. Despite this, Hungarians have made them their own, particularly when it comes to fillings. Take for example Hortobágyi palacsinta, a palacsinta rolled with an herbed minced-veal filling, slathered in paprika sauce and sour cream. Or the ‘world famous’ Gundel Palacsinta, a decadent flaméed dessert crêpe made with walnut, raison, dark chocolate, and rum.

So should you spot a pancake option on the menu, and end up with something very non-pancake like, do not despair. Palacsinta—or, Hungarian crêpes—are up to the task, and it may the most delicious mistake you make.

Try your hand at making Hungarian palacsinta with this recipe (which we have used many times for great results).