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Zsemle: Hungary’s Multi-purpose Wonder Roll
Something fantastic happens when you go to the checkout counter with a bag of zsemle (simple white-bread rolls). Instead of scrutinizing or poking through your purchase, they simply ask you how many zsemle you are buying. Trust between strangers is not typically high on the streets of Budapest, but for one beautiful moment, that bond has been established between you and the cashier. You could make up a number and they would take you at your word for it, and that’s what you get charged for, because while scarce, trust is not dead, particularly where zsemle are concerned.
Besides, you know how many zsemle you bought. It is good to be precise when it comes to these classic rolls, because a day-old zsemle isn’t worth much. More than most types of bread they go not so much stale as flat, as the crust, which should be crisp, becomes limp and overly chewy. When you eat day-old zsemle, you know it, and it is not a good feeling. And god forbid there was something inside that zsemle, a slathering of mayo or mustard for instance, because the fluffed out zsemle only comes in an extra-porous variety, and that condiment will have seeped in and made soggy the bread.
As a rule, zsemle should be eaten soon after purchase. One of its primary qualities should be its freshness. Taken at face value, zsemle doesn’t have a lot else going for it. It exists to be basic, inexpensive, multi-purpose. More than most breads, zsemle is a delivery system for toppings, though it is also a bit awkward in size. One isn’t quite enough for a decent sandwich, but two may be too much. This is why zsemle are frequently served halved, which allows you to take three halves, the perfect amount. Halving them also makes it easier to spread liver paté, körözött (a spicy curd and paprika spread), or other toppings. Zsemle accommodate round cold cuts easily, but square cheese less so, the cheese corners extending conspicuously out of from the round roll.
It is also worth noting that there is little more depressing than seeing a green leaf of lettuce hanging out of a cellophane-wrapped zsemle stuffed with a ‘bécsi szelet’ or another proximity of a Wiener Schnitzel. (Seasoned travelers know that they hang the toppings out of one side of the roll and face that side towards the display case window to make the sandwich look stuffed. You only discover on the train that half your sandwich is empty zsemle.) You should also know that due to their ability to shed flakes of crust and crumbs, zsemle is not an ideal travel food, though this stops absolutely nobody.
Still, though we hesitate to call zsemle beloved, they are definitely depended upon. More convenient than a kilo or half kilo of your standard Hungarian loaf of bread, not mass produced yet inexpensive enough to be a daily staple, perhaps the humble zsemle could be called an overlooked Hungarian standard. But its biggest advantage is that of its currency. Zsemle are freely given and taken. How many zsemle do you have in your bag?
Try loads of Hungarian specialties on a food tour, such as our Culinary Walk or Culinary Walk: Sunday Brunch Edition.