Hungarian Food and Culture

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Food and culture in Hungary

Foods in Hungary | Foods Commonly Used | Domestic Life | Special Occasions | Meals and Customs | Hungarian Food Glossary | Budapest | Northern Hungary | The Hungarian Plain | Transdanubia | Transylvania


Hungarians do not take anything lightly, least of all food. The romantic, volatile, and soulful Hungarian uses food the way most other people use psychology, politics, literature, material acquisitions, and even medicine. Food is the prelude to a mood, the buffer for difficult situations, and the solace even the cure for adversity. Food elevates the spirit, food promotes confidence, food is a comforting symbol of success and status. But most important of all, in the Hungarian mind, food, love, and music are inextricably interwoven with one's very existence.


The Hungarian coffeehouse symbolizes the uniquely Hungarian viewpoint. Softly lit and comfortable, well supplied with sumptuously sinful pastries and good coffee, it is here that the Hungarian finds inspiration and sustenance, even on occasion, solace. No Hungarian could survive a day of business without repeated fortifications of smoothly rich pastries and sensuous whipped cream floated gently down on a wave of strong coffee. And how could one sustain oneself in the suspenseful prelude to a love affair, the inner strength required and then the agony at the breakup, without a coffeehouse?


Hungarian restaurants are so much a part of daily life that not even the vicissitudes of wars, the reversals of economics, or the upheavals of politics could empty their tables or close their doors. When all else in life falters, food, love, and music remain steadfast in the life of the Hungarian. It would be unthinkable to make love on an empty stomach, conclude a business deal, or even survive a normal day without fine food and wine to the accompaniment of Gypsy violins. Who but the Gypsy violinists could understand one's every mood and knowingly accompany it with melodies that can be at once tender and passionate or haunting and sad?


And when on those rare occasions all seems to be moving well in life, the Hungarian can still find a reason for sadness that requires consolation. It seems that no Hungarian ever had a happy childhood. Mournful recollections of that "unhappy childhood" are always considered suitable excuses for further gastronomic indulgence. Just why there seem to be so many unhappy Hungarian childhoods is uncertain. Perhaps mother and father were too preoccupied with love and food? Perhaps a rich little pastry became the substitute for parental love? Perhaps too the unhappy childhood is fabricated. No self-respecting Hungarian could indulge in food and love (with musical accompaniment) without reasons.


Given such vital significance, can the finesse of the Hungarian cuisine ever be underestimated? History is witness to the many influences that resulted in the complex subtleties so much a part of the Hungarian table.


A part of Hungary's earliest history concerns the Khazar Kingdom which occupied a strategic position between Asia and Byzantium and spread to much of the area that is Hungary today. In 740 C.E., these tribes converted to Judaism. Although many reasons for this dramatic change are given, the most logical seems to be that both Islam and Christianity had political and military underpinnings while Judaism allowed the Khazars to retain neutrality. For a long time they maintained the Jewish laws of Kashruth and no pork was eaten.


Although the Khazars were believed to be of Magyar origin, they were defeated in 896 C.E. by seven other Magyar tribes. Finally driven to a small area near the Bosporus Sea, the Khazar Kingdom came to an end, defeated by the Russians. Many Hungarian towns still bear names believed to be of Khazar origin (Kozar and Kozardie), the language of the Khazar Jews is still spoken in parts of Poland, Lithuania, and Hungary, and the agriculture, handicrafts, commerce, and wine making that they introduced are still very much a part of Hungary.


Hungary's appeal to conquerors was not only its strategic location in central Europe but also the fertility of the vast Hungarian Plain. Here a mellow climate and a rich land yield orchards and vineyards, grain fields and pastureland a plentiful reservoir of abundance that probably more than anything else has made the Hungarian a lavish and appreciative cook. It would be difficult to find a farm without pigs, an abundant supply of fruits, vegetables, and grains, and cool pantries without fresh cream, sour cream, and butter.


To this natural abundance, the 150-year Turkish occupation introduced to Hungary not only many tropical fruits and nuts but also coffee and many seasonings, the most important of which was paprika. Today Hungary's production of quality paprika is highly regarded. The Hungarian uses paprika with the deft understanding of a connoisseur. Although paprika, a favored seasoning, is not used exclusively, it is used widely in Hungarian cookery.


While Hungarians are willing to admit that many things were the result of Turkish influence, it would be more difficult to get them to admit that the beloved Hungarian retes (identical to the Austrian strudel) probably had its origin in the paper-thin crisp Turkish pastries made from phyllo the most famous of which is baklava. And these Turkish pastries, in turn, originated from Greek influence.


Further influences on Hungarian cuisine, now so deeply embedded that they are difficult to separate, are Slovakian, Serbian, Croatian, Romanian, Russian, Polish, and German. This vast span of influence was mostly due to the fact that Hungary was for almost 200 years more or less under Hapsburg (German) rule and a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire until its breakdown after the First World War. Extended uses of sour cream, dumplings, noodles, sauerkraut, and the art of making soup, pastries, and sweet delicacies may well be the only pleasant aspects of this period for it was also one marked with almost continuous inner strife and feudalism.


If nothing else, both the very rich and the very poor in Hungary always shared a love of food. Just as a laden table was essential to the Hungarian aristocracy, so the filled larder was essential to the Hungarian peasant.  Finally to the many influences of colorful and hearty foods that found their way into the Hungarian cuisine came the refining influences of the sophisticated Italian cuisine from Queen Beatrice, and the subtle French culinary arts from Queen Anne. King Matthias of Hungary wed the Italian Queen Beatrice in 1475 and enriched Hungarian aristocratic cuisine with all the delights of the Italian courts including ice cream and forks. The gentling effects of French and Italian cuisine still evident in Hungarian cookery include wider use of sweet cream instead of sour cream, a preference for butter, especially in bakery, and a general lightening of seasonings, especially the use of garlic.


Where else but in Budapest could so many cukraszdas (coffee and pastry shops) flourish? And where else but the Hungarian capital could the world's first museum dedicated to catering and gastronomy be opened, or a holiday be declared to celebrate a cake the dobos torta?


But the history of the Magyars, speaking their Hungarian language of Finno-Ugric origin, is not just one of gastronomy. It is also one of defeats and partitions, of conversions and peasant uprisings. Hungary was defeated by the Turks in 1526 and partitioned into three main areas: the part that is half of today's Hungary and partly Czechoslovakian and partly Russian, the area west of the Danube; the Great Hungarian Plain, which is today also part of Romania and Yugoslavia; and Transylvania in the Eastern Carpathian Mountains, which is today mostly Romania.


In the early 1700s, fighting between the Turks and the Hapsburgs (Germans) resulted in a tug-of-war with Hungary, forced conversions to Roman Catholicism and even compulsory Germanization. It had been King Stephen who, in 1001 C.E. converted his people to Christianity, so the main objection 700 years later was not to religion, but rather to the enforcement of the German language and customs.


The first Hungarian to emigrate to Canada was Stephen Parmenius De Buda who accompanied Sir Humphrey Gilbert to Newfoundland in 1583. But the first real wave of immigration came after the 1849 Hungarian defeat against the combined strength of the Austrian and Russian armies. October 6, 1849, is still remembered as a day of mourning in Hungary. These first "freedom fighters" were to be followed by many subsequent emigrations of fiercely independent peasant rebels seeking a free life. Most came to Canada via the United States, working as miners, farmers, and industrial workers.


It is interesting that up to 1930, 90 percent of Hungarian emigrants were from the poorer classes of Hungary, especially the rural areas. From 1930 to 1945, the class of Hungarian emigrants changed to include professionals, intellectuals, and members of the aristocracy mostly Jews or those whom Hitler classified as being Jewish fleeing from Nazism. Even after 1945, the flow of upper-class emigration continued, culminating in 1956 when the October Revolution was crushed by the Russians, and 175,000 people left the country.


For about forty years, between 1949 and 1989, Hungarian politics, economics, and cultural life were dominated by Communist tenets. The industrialization that began then altered the nature of the Hungarian economy, shifting it from agriculture to industry. Collectivization of agriculture was enforced but most collective farms disbanded with the 1956 Hungarian Revolution. Museums and free public libraries, sports clubs, radio and television, and a widespread system of education prevail, but some-how, for many the zest for good living and attention to food and cooking have been reduced to necessities and fast food. This change may also be the result of more women joining the workforce, although men still remain dominant in family life.


Although Hungarian organizations in North America have attempted to unite all Hungarians, they have met with limited success. The reasons burrow deeply into Hungarian culture, where until recently feudalism and class distinctions were a way of life. These differences in manners, customs, and even appearance survived the pressures of the North American way of life. Moreover, the importance of kinship patterns, similar to those in Poland, Germany, and Italy, have had a profound influence on family life. These kinship patterns include primarily one's obligation towards helping and maintaining the status of the family, which may include relatives, in-laws, godparents plus all their families, rituals of marriage, birth and death and assistance in education or business. To add to this complexity, the once-privileged classes have reconciled themselves only slowly, if at all, to the democratic way of life in North America. Many still cherish dreams of returning to the life they once knew.


The final difficulty in attempting to unite Hungarians is the result of the frequency of changes in the Hungarian borders which at various times included Poles, Serbs, Germans, Romanians, Jews, and Austrians. Although each of these peoples was officially classed as Hungarian when they emigrated because of their having shared for so long in the social and political culture of Hungary, once they reached a new land many reverted to their former identity and united with cultural groups other than Hungarian.


But the Hungarian pattern of life in North America has closely followed that shown by many other ethnic groups. The first generation of immigrants clung together not only in their kinship patterns but also in their manners, appearance, and language. The original intention of many was to work hard and save money in order to return to their former homeland. In many cases, as in the case of the Hungarians, the conditions that they left behind changed, but not for the better. They were fortunate to escape from the system of land estates and rigid class distinction where there was no hope of owning more land, advancing their position in life, or gaining an opportunity for education. Later emigrants sought to escape religious persecution and the Communist regime which seemingly favored the labor classes, but which in fact further suppressed social, religious, and political freedoms.


The changes that occurred in North America were gradual but profound. In Hungary the kinship pattern promoted the success of the whole family as a unit rather than individual success. In the new country, schools lauded individual achievement, newspapers and store catalogues advertised materialism, and the opinions of neighbors and peers gradually took on more importance than those of distant members of the Hungarian's family. Gradually, too, Hungarian calendars marked with special name days and saint's days were lost, and with them went many holiday rituals.


As ties with the Old World and the old traditions weakened, Hungarian immigrants regarded themselves more and more as Americans and Canadians. But Hungarians, together with many other ethnic groups, have witnessed and are happily participating in a partial reversal of this apparent assimilation for there is currently a newfound pride in old crafts, songs, customs, and traditions and increasingly these are being revived.


There may be evidence of Hungarians adapting and even integrating into the community that is their home. There may even be intermarriage. But one thing is certain: so long as there is even a trace of Hungarian soul there will be an appreciation of fine food and wine, and somewhere a Gypsy violin will play the haunting melodies that will bring tearful reminiscing about unrequited love and unhappy childhoods - and the consolation of sumptuous pastries.