FOODS IN HUNGARY
Fresh milk is seldom used as a beverage, but it is used in many dishes, especially puddings, custards, and milk soups. Variations of Zsendice – a staple so long ago – are still popular in certain areas and fresh curd is the type of cheese most used both as a spread with added seasonings or as an ingredient for fillings in baked goods and dumplings. Fresh sweet cream and sour cream are used liberally whenever possible.
FRUITS AND VEGETABLES
Traditionally fruits and vegetables have been produced in fine quality and great quantity. More recently most have been used for export, leaving those available for local sale often too expensive for large or even adequate consumption. Apples, plums, apricots, peaches, and many types of melons are not only available in season but are also used as preserves and in the production of fine fruit brandies.
Cabbage, potatoes, onions, green pepper, tomatoes, and cucumbers are not only the staple vegetables, they are the most popular, most used, and the basis for many stews, soups, and pickled vegetables. Raw salads with fresh greens are seldom if ever used. When income permits, a much greater variety of vegetables is used, preferably those that are fresh and seasonal. Vegetables are never served simply boiled; they are braised, baked, or boiled then drained and blended with a sauce of onions, paprika and sour cream, buttered crumbs, or prepared as stuffed vegetables, vegetable puddings, vegetable soufflés, or fresh vegetable soups.
Lecso is a well-cooked blend of lard, onions, tomatoes, and green peppers. This basic sauce is of South Slav origin and is used throughout Hungary not only as a basic sauce but also as an appetizer. With added sausages or meats it becomes a main dish. By itself a little may he added to stews and soups or vegetable dishes to enhance flavors.
MEATS AND ALTERNATES
The time of the Khazar Kingdom was the only time in Hungarian history that pork was not the number-one meat. In many areas, especially Transylvania, Disznotor (pig-killing day) is set aside as a feasting holiday and every part of the animal is either used fresh or preserved by smoking, brining, drying, or sausage-making. Cattle, sheep, and pig raising are basic industries and game is widely available, so meat is usually a big part of the diet if income permits.
Hungarians are very fussy about the freshness of their fish and would rather eat locally caught fresh fish than imported varieties. Fish may be prepared as a soup, smoked, or baked whole as a main dish; but fish is not consumed in great quantities. Most fish used in Hungarian dishes originate in the Danube and Tisza Rivers: carp, perch, pike, sturgeon, trout, fogas, silure or catfish, and small amounts of tiny crabs and crayfish, the latter usually used for soups.
All types of offal and variety meats are used efficiently in sausages, stews, soups, and casseroles with vegetables. Goose liver is considered a luxurious treat, comparable to caviar in Russia.
Legumes are not an important part of the Hungarian diet, occasionally only used in soups or a bean casserole called somogyi. Nuts and poppy seeds are an important ingredient in the many fine cakes, tortes, retes, yeast pastries, and breads. Nuts and poppy seeds tossed with buttered noodles are often a side dish to meats, or a snack or dessert.
BREADS AND GRAINS
Bread is much revered in Hungary and seldom is a table set without a display of a variety of breads and rolls made from wheat or rye flours. In fact, bankoti (Hungarian wheat) is considered one of the finest in the world and high in gluten content. In the 1840s the introduction of iron rollers for milling white wheat flour caused the wheat germ to pop out without crushing, thus resulting in the whitest milled flour available anywhere. Breads, cakes, and pastries baked with this new white flour quickly became a status symbol.
Tarhonya, one of the staple foods of the nomadic Magyars and still a favorite accompaniment to meat dishes and a soup garnish, is made from eggs and flour blended to a stiff dough then grated to form tiny pellets. After drying, these tiny pellets or grains may be stored for long periods and cooked as needed. Noodles and dumplings are widely used as well. Cereals in the form of dried breakfast flakes or cooked porridge are not traditionally used.
Lard is the most widely used fat in Hungary. Butter is also used, especially for baked goods and sometimes to add flavor. Hungary’s margarines and oils are considered of inferior quality and are seldom used.
SWEETS AND SNACKS
The Hungarian sweet tooth prefers cakes and rich pastries over candy. The national preference for temptingly sweet baked goods both as a snack with coffee and as dessert (as well as reward, consolation, and medicine) makes the intake unquestionably high. Sugar is also a major ingredient in the fruit brandies, wines, preserved fruits, and the many cups of coffee enjoyed daily.
Paprika, onions, tomatoes, green peppers, and sour cream are the staple seasonings of the Hungarian kitchen. Of course, it is impossible to describe traditional Hungarian cuisine without emphasizing the importance of paprika. Hungary’s paprika is not only considered among the finest in the world, it also ranges in flavor from sweet to very hot. Most Hungarians prefer the mildest. Because of its sugar content, it is always allowed to cook with great care together with the melted lard and gently simmered onions to create the base and rusty-red hue of countless meat, fish, and vegetable dishes. Hungarian cooks would never turn their backs for even a moment on the careful simmering of this lard-onion-paprika combination. A touch too much heat or a little too long cooking and the mixture may well be discolored or taste bitter.
The range of seasoning extends to many herbs such as dill and tarragon, and in some areas black pepper takes precedence over paprika. Poppy seeds, apricot preserves, and nuts often form a part of the flavors or fillings of desserts and pastries, and chocolate and whipped cream are great favorites.
Coffee, wine, and brandy are the main beverages consumed in Hungary and by Hungarians everywhere. They are not tea drinkers and seldom is beer consumed.
Breakfast coffee is often served with hot milk. Afternoon coffee with a dollop of whipped cream seems the only fitting accompaniment to the staggering array of pastries offered. But by evening perhaps a little guilt has set in, for the coffee after dinner is usually served black.
Hungary produces many fine wines and is famed for her tokay variety. Wines and fruit brandies are produced everywhere, but Transdanubia and Northern Hungary are famed for their vineyards and it is the area in Northern Hungary called Paloc that produces the red wine called bull’s blood or Egri Bikaver.