If you spend time in Hungary, sooner or later you’ll hear talk of ‘Hungarikums.’ As any traveler will quickly learn, Hungarians are proud (and fiercely protective) of their natural treasures, achievements, and matchless flavors and culinary products. They also love to boast of the many inventions which its citizens have given to the world (in case you haven’t heard, Hungarian are the brains behind inventions including the Rubik’s Cube, the ballpoint pen, vitamin C, amongst others).
In order to preserve these uniquely Hungarian products on a local and international scale, many of them have been designated as protected Hungarikums. The Hungarikum Act was established in 2012 and includes quintessential local products such as Herend porcelain, Matyó folk art, Hungarian grey cattle, and the Hungarian cimbalom. This is the official definition of Hungarikum: “a collective term indicating a value worthy of distinction and highlighting within a unified system of qualification, classification, and registry and which represents the high performance of Hungarian people thanks to its typically Hungarian attribute, uniqueness, specialty and quality.” Check out the complete list.
We are not the only ones who think that some of the Hungary’s best assets are edible (or drinkable)—out of the 70 Hungarian treasures which have been declared as Hungarikums, 29 are foods, drinks, ingredients, or dishes. The culinary component of the Hungarikum collection shows off the best of what Hungary has to offer—craftsmanship, distinctive flavors, and a time-honored heritage. Below, we highlight the edible Hungarikums (a list of drinkable Hungarikums is coming next). Do you agree with the selection? What’s missing? If you have a suggestion for future Hungarikums, you can submit it and a committee will review it!
Paprika from Szeged and Kalocsa
“Paprika is to the Hungarian cuisine as wit is to its conversation — not just a superficial garnish, but an integral element … the marriage of paprika and Hungarian cooking was almost predestined,” wrote George Láng, the Hungarian restaurateur famous for breathing new life into the renowned Gundel restaurant, in his masterpiece Cuisine of Hungary. Though not native, Hungary’s spicy, red obsession grew from the 16th century when either Turks or neighboring ethnic groups from the Balkans introduced it on local soil. Paprika is now so omnipresent that many of Hungary’s best-known and favorite dishes include a hearty dose of it. The towns of Kalocsa and Szeged, both in the southern part of the Great Plain, vie for the title of “Paprika Capital”, both growing and producing various grades of the iconic product which is at once sweet, vegetal, earthy, and incomparable.
“Winter” Salami (Téliszalámi) from Pick and Herz
Produced in Szeged, a town two hours south of Budapest, Pick téliszalámi (winter salami) has been a staple of the Hungarian diet since its creation in 1869. The company was founded by Marc Pick, a trader of Moravian-Jewish origin, who set out to create an exceptional pork product from his bountiful agrarian homeland that would rival the quality and taste of the preferred Italian salamis of the time. Pick’s téliszalámi is distinguished by its special combination of spices, wide girth, and protective mold that coats the sausage during its three-month maturing period. As its name implies, it is traditionally produced, smoked, and matured during the winter. Rivaling Pick in its popularity is Herz Salami, which was originally produced by the Herz company along the Danube banks in Budapest. It has been under the ownership of Pick since 2013. Herz exudes the typical rich flavor and denseness of winter salami, but it is a bit milder and smoother than Pick.
Acacia Honey (Akácméz)
With acacia making up about one-third of Hungary’s tree stock, it’s no wonder that bees are buzzing around these trees, producing nearly half of the domestic honey supply. Akacia honey, as a single-varietal honey (made from the nectar of a single flower variety) is distinctly pale in color and has a delicately sweet flavor that is rich in fructose, giving it a long shelf life. It’s perfect for stirring into tea, spreading on thickly buttered slices of bread, or used as a cooking ingredients since it mixes easily with liquids and batters.
Fisherman’s Soup (Halászlé) from the Baja and Tisza Regions
In Hungary’s arsenal of traditional soups, fisherman’s soup is one of the biggest stars. Born from the prominent fishing traditions along the Danube, Tisza rivers, and Lake Balaton, this paprika-spiked dish is prepared in a multitude of ways, each with slight variations. The versions from Baja and Tisza have been singled out as Hungarikums. In Baja, situated in the Hungarian Southern Great Plain, fisherman’s soup is traditionally made in a large iron cauldron using mainly carp (any additional fish types are only used to intensify the taste), onions, and high-quality paprika. The defining ingredient of the Baja-style version is the addition of thin, delicate pasta and hot cherry paprika. A classic Tiszai halászlé is prepared by first making the base from several types of fish (including the heads and tails of carp) and onions. This is then strained through a sieve, and then seasoned with paprika and salt, and carp fillets are added.
Goose Liver Products
Despite the controversy, foie gras is abundantly consumed in a variety of ways in Hungary. Accounting for some 80 of the world’s production, Hungary produces over 2,000 tons of fattened goose liver, of which the vast majority (up to 85 percent) is exported, mostly to France. At its best, goose liver has lots of earthy flavor so there’s no need for additional spices or ingredients when it is grilled, seared, or roasted. Hungarians tend to prefer simple variations of goose liver, cooking it in its own fat and serving it in thick slices, so the smooth and slightly sweet taste melts in the mouth. There are piles of fresh, creamy-white goose livers (as well as duck livers) for sale at every butcher shop in Budapest and supermarkets also stock frozen versions.
Chimney Cake (Kürtőskalács)
Kürtőskalács (chimney cake) is a spiral-shaped pastry served in special kiosks and at every festival in Hungary. It is enormously popular in Hungary, and has also spread around the world. Following an old Transylvanian recipe, a sweet yeast-raised dough is rolled onto a wooden pin, rolled in sugar (which caramelizes and hardens during the cooking process), and baked in a special oven until golden. The crispy, hollow loaf is then rolled into various toppings, from crushed nuts, cinnamon, and ground walnuts to vanilla, coconut flakes, poppy seeds, or cocoa powder. It is best eaten straight from the fire while still warm.
Gulyás Soup (Gulyásleves)
This beloved soup is one of the most easily identifiable symbols of Hungarian cuisine, and deservedly so. It’s a national dish that typifies many local flavors, and is sold at every restaurant, festival, and even at the airport. But the most delicious and authentic gulyás is made on hot summer days in massive iron cauldrons in back yards homes throughout the country. George Lang, in his book on Hungarian cuisine, traces the origins of the dish to the 9th century when it was simple, meat-heavy soup prepared by the nomad herdsmen (known as ‘gulyás’). He states that to make the most authentic gulyás, one must “never use any flour. Never use any other spice besides caraway. Never Frenchify it with wine. Never Germanize it with brown sauce. Never put in any other garniture besides diced potatoes or galuska (a small pasta-like dumpling).” Today, this hearty, one-pot meal is made primarily of beef, potatoes, carrots and onions that are spiked with a solid dose of red paprika, bringing to each bite a rich brown color and a sweet, pungent flavor.
Onions from Makó
Onions may be a lowly root crop, but their versatility and ever-present quality in the Hungarian kitchen makes them an unsung star. The southern edges of the Great Hungarian Plains, especially the city of Makó, have been fertile ground for onions for several centuries. Over time, their cultivation has led to a special type of onion typically consisting of a firm, bone-white flesh and a strong, spicy taste that can be stored through the winter period. The unique qualities of Makói vöröshagyma or Makói onion have thus ensured their place in the Hungarikum club, forming the irreplaceable base of iconic local dishes such as gulyás, lecsó, and pörkölt.
Karcag Mutton Stew (Karcagi Birkapörkölt)
A rugged and mind-blowingly flavorsome dish, bikapörkölt (mutton stew) prepared in the traditional Karcag style was the first recipe to be included in the Hungarikum inventory. It is a centuries-old recipe prepared by the Cuman people residing in Karcag and the surrounding region in east-central Hungary where sheep are the primary source of meat in the diet of the common folk. Traditionally, the stew is prepared in a massive cast-iron pot over an open fire in which the entire animal is sautéed without the addition of liquid. Once the cubes of meat and internal organs are browned over diced onions, locally-grown paprika and hot green peppers, the mixture is cooked together with the knuckles, hoofs, tail and the head, which is cracked in half for the brain inside to be seasoned. It’s a dish designed for adventurous eaters who don’t mind their food staring them in the face.
Beef from Hungarian Grey Cattle (Szürke Szarvasmarha)
Hungarian Grey cattle are cherished Hungarian icons and symbols of the puszta (the great plain). But after being threatened with extinction just a few decades ago, they are lucky they’re still around. Until the beginning of the 20th century, the Hungarian Grey cattle—which have silvery hair and exotic long black and white horns—were the most important breed in the country. In 1870 they made up 99 percent of the Hungary’s cattle population, but by the end of the 1960s they were down to less than one percent. The entire breed consisted of just three herds with a total of 200 cattle. Since Grey cattle mature slower, produce substantially less milk than other breeds, and spend their days grazing, they didn’t fit with the Communist-era economy which required quantity over quality. By 1966 a few elderly farmers, who had kept their Grey cattle out of attachment, were practically the only ones who owned them. By this time only three state farms had small herds of the cattle (from which all of today’s Grey cattle originate). It was illegal to mate Grey cattle, and the breed only survived because a few breeders at the state farms consciously broke the law and bred the cattle in order to maintain the breed. Because of their devotion, there has been a steady increase in the population of Grey cattle since the 1970s and the breed is no longer considered endangered. Relatives of the Hungarian Grey cattle include the Italian Chianina (one of the oldest breeds in existence and best known for its bistecca Fiorentina) and the Texas longhorn (another breed saved from extinction).
Piros Arany and Erős Pista
Paprika is omnipresent in Hungary, in all forms. Erős Pista (which translates as ‘Strong Steve’), is a thick coarse hot pepper paste. It’s made by grinding raw hot peppers and mixing them with salt. It is too thick to be a sauce like Tobasco, too pungent to be spread like catsup. “While locals make a lot of its spiciness, with Erős Pista, heat is actually not the prevailing flavor. That would be salt,” writes Matt Henderson Ellis on this blog. “It’s the salt, which is mixed with the minced peppers, that keeps diners from overloading their food with the product. It’s the type of strength that is best taken in small doses. In this sense, Erős Pista is a two-in-one condiment, and you can dispel with the salt-and-pepper shaker when there is a bowl of Erős Pista at the table.” Erős Pista is made commercially by Univer, and also in homemade versions which you can find sold in unmarked bottles at the markets. Édes Anna (Sweet Anna) is a variation made with sweet peppers instead of hot peppers. Piros Arany (‘red gold’) is a mild paprika cream that comes in small tubes and is sold at all grocery stores. All three of these condiments are used to add heat and paprika flavor to soups and other dishes.
Alföld Chamomile (Alföldi Kamillavirágzat)
The use of chamomile as an herb was first discussed in 1578, though it had already been used for centuries for healing. It grows wild all over Hungary, especially in the Great Plain and in the Tisza region.
Gundel Heritage–Gastronomic and catering trade heritage of Károly Gundel and the Gundel Restaurant
Károly Gundel (1883-1956)—and his father, János (1844-1915)—were major influences to Hungarian cuisine and also to the hospitality and restaurant scenes in Budapest. János ran the luxurious István Főherceg (Archduke Stephen) hotel and restaurant, which was said to be one of the finest in Hungary at the time. Károly got his start here as a busboy, and in 1910 he took over the run-down Wampetics restaurant in Budapest’s City Park and opened the Gundel Restaurant in its place. It became known as one of the best restaurants in the world, and Károly Gundel is remembered as Hungary’s greatest restaurateur. János, Károly, and the kitchens at Gundel created dishes that became essential parts of the Hungarian repertoire, like palócleves and Gundel-palacsinta, Hortobágyi palacsinta, and Somlói galuska. Gundel was nationalized in 1949 and Hungarian-American restaurateur and author George Lang renovated and reopened it in 1992. Since 2004 it has been owned by the Danubius Hotel Group.
Debrecen Sausages (Debreceni Paros Kolbász)
Named for Debrecen, located in eastern Hungary (and the third largest Hungarian city), these sausages are omnipresent at grocery stores and butchers. Always sold in pairs, they are made of ground beef and pork, are lightly smoked, and have a mild paprika and garlic flavor. They can be baked, broiled, or fried, and are a typical dish served at butcher shops for lunch, usually with a slice of thick white bread and a dollop of mustard and horseradish. The better versions are made with Mangalica pork. These simple sausages from eastern Hungary have also spread elsewhere in the former Austro-Hungarian Empire, and are commonly seen (sold under variations of the name Debrecen, such as Debrecziner, Debrecinka, etc) in Austria, Croatia, Slovakia, Slovenia, and Italy.
Sausage from Csaba (Csabai Kolbász)
Kolbász is to Hungary what bratwurst is to Germany—part sustenance, part cultural identity, and purely delicious. Whether it’s a regular weekday or Christmas morning, this kitchen staple makes an appearance at the breakfast and dinner table, in soups and scrambled eggs, and is also a key ingredient in many complex warm dishes. Hungarian kolbász can be fatty, dry or slightly dry, smoked, hard or soft, natural or with some chemical additives and various degrees of spiciness. The most famous brands of kolbász are Gyulai and Csabai – made respectively in the regions of Gyula and Békéscsaba, from long-standing traditions that are still upheld today. A naturally smoked and dry cured sausage, Csabai kolbász is distinct with its intensely paprika-fueled flavor. It was raised into the ranks of Hungarikum in 2013 and is being manufactured by over 180 producers in Békéscsaba.
What does soda water have in common with wine from Tokaj? They are both Hungarikums! Check back soon for “The Drinker’s Guide to Hungarikums.”
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