Top 15 Popular Hungarian Foods
A Brief Hungarian Culinary History
Paprika anyone? Whenever paprika is mentioned, Hungarian food probably comes to mind first as it’s the nation’s quintessential spice. However, Hungarian gastronomy food is so much more than paprika and gulyas (aka goulash), which is Hungarian cuisine’s most popular export.
Let’s take a quick lesson on Hungarian history and geography. Hungary lies in Central Europe, surrounded by Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Austria, Serbia, and Romania. In Europe, neighboring countries and minority groups typically have a profound influence on the development of national cuisines. Expect the same with Hungarian cuisine – you’ll find many dishes that have their roots in neighboring countries or have been influenced by them.
But that doesn’t mean that Hungarian food doesn’t have its own identity – it does. It all goes back to their ancestors – the Magyars – a nomadic people that settled in the Pannonia steppes. Livestock was very important to the Magyars and this is reflected in their many traditional meat dishes cooked over an open fire.
Hungarian cuisine evolved over the years. In the 15th century in the time of King Mathias and his Neapolitan wife Beatrice, new ingredients and cooking techniques were introduced. These included sweet chestnut, garlic, ginger, mace, saffron, nutmeg, and onion, and the use of fruit for cooking with meat, in stuffings, and even in pasta making.
In the last couple of centuries, food preparation methods were borrowed from Ottoman and Austrian cuisine, and vice versa, in particular for some cakes and sweets that show a strong German-Austrian influence.
Hungarian Food particularities
Some dishes come with a customary side dish. For example, csirkepaprikás (paprika chicken) is always eaten with nokedli (noodles), while for some mains bread is almost mandatory while others can be served with whatever you like or have to hand.
A wide range of smoked pork products are staples in Hungarian households. Smoked sausages, smoked lard, and smoked ham are the stars of “cold dishes”.These are enjoyed along with bread and fresh veggies for breakfast and dinner. In restaurants they are sometimes offered as starters. Although one of the main ingredients in the Hungarian kitchen is lard, it is often substituted with goose-fat, duck-fat, or vegetable oil. Goose fat is a perfect cooking medium, even in desserts, being practical and cheap, and preferred by some for its distinctive taste.
Winter salami is a Hungarian sausage made from Mangalitsa pork and spices produced according to a centuries-old tradition. Cured in cold air and slowly smoked, it develops a noble-mold on the surface during the ripening process, which enhances the flavor.
The main pickled product is savanyú káposzta (sauerkraut). This was traditionally consumed in winter as a rich source of vitamin C. In summer, an interesting dish of cold hideg meggyleves (sour cherry soup), that takes the heat off.
1. Gulyás (Goulash)
Goulash, the famous Hungarian food ambassador, was first prepared by shepherds who slow cooked cubed meat with onions and other flavorings over an open fire until all the liquid was absorbed. The meat was then dried in the sun so the shepherds could pack it into bags made of a sheep’s stomach. This was their packed lunch, prepared before setting out with their flocks. When it was time to eat, they added water to a portion of the meat to reconstitute it into a soup or stew.
The classic “kettle goulash” is prepared by frying cubes of beef or mutton with onions in lard. Additional garlic, caraway seeds, tomatoes, green peppers, and potatoes are added to complete the stew.
Over time goulash became the national dish and this delicious stew, with tender cubes of beef, is now enjoyed at home. The recipe features potatoes, carrots, onions, celery, peppers, and tomatoes with lots of paprika and is particularly popular with cooks who prefer to use inexpensive cuts for their rich flavor. Thanks to the slow cooking technique, the cheap and tough cuts of meat soften soften into fork-tender chunks.
Székely gulyás, is a mouthwatering stew of pork and sauerkraut flavored with tomatoes, onions, caraway seeds, and sour cream. This dish can also be made with chicken.
2. Lángos (Deep-fried Flat Bread)
The popular street food lángos is known as the “Hungarian pizza” as it uses the same ingredients for the pizza crust (wheat, yeast, salt, and water). It was introduced by the Turks during their occupation centuries ago and now this indulgent treat can be found at most fairs anywhere in Eastern European countries during local celebrations.
First fried in vegetable oil, the crusty golden flat bread is brushed with minced garlic, topped with sour cream and shredded cheese, which melts deliciously on the hot surface. “Láng” in Hungarian means flame and is so called because, on bread baking days, it was traditionally baked at the front of brick ovens close to the flames. But because nowadays people don’t have brick ovens, and nor do they do much bread baking at home, lángos is typically deep-fried in oil and sold as a hearty fast-food.
3. Töltött Paprika (Stuffed Peppers)
Another delicious example of Ottoman culinary influence is stuffed peppers, which make a great appetizer or side dish.
Made with Hungarian wax peppers, preferred for their thinner skin and aroma, the two typical Hungarian ingredients of paprika and tomato sauce and the ever-present sour cream to garnish the dish qualify töltött paprika as an adopted dish imprinted with a strong Hungarian character.
The stuffing is a mix of ground beef and pork, rice, chopped onions, minced garlic, parsley, Hungarian paprika, beaten eggs, salt and pepper.
Töltött paprika are cooked standing up in the oven and topped with tomato sauce that’s been sweetened with a pinch of sugar. When they’re done, a scoop of sour crème is placed on top and they are served piping hot.
4. Csirke Paprikás (Chicken Paprikash)
The most famous variation of the paprika dish, common to Hungarian tables, is chicken paprika. It’s so iconic that even my half-Hungarian grandmother living in Romania cooks it and it’s a big part of the childhood memories of Hungarians raised in the countryside.
This staple food derives his name from the ample use of paprika. Chicken pieces are simmered for a while in a sauce based on a paprika-infused roux which is made with equal parts flour and fat (duck or goose fat is good but any kind of fat will do). After melting the fat in the pan, blend in and stir the flour until smooth and golden brown.
This base is colored with paprika and used as a thickening agent for the chicken paprika, which is prepared with onions, sweet peppers, and garlic and is finished with sour cream. The cooked chicken meat is so tender that it drops easily. .
Csirkepaprikás is typically served with dumpling-like boiled egg noodles (nokedli). Other popular dishes include millet, rice, or tagliatelle, but my grandmother always paired it with polenta and it was just perfect.
5. Gyümölcsleves (Fruit Soup)
This refreshing fruit soup is a summer treat that was enthusiastically adopted by the Austrians, Poles, Slovaks, and Germans.
Contrary to expectations, it’s not always eaten as a dessert but can be served as a starter or main and Hungarians typically prefer it hot. There are many variations depending on the fruits in season, which are cooked with cream or whole milk, cloves, cinnamon, and sugar. To turn it into a dessert or appetizer, a small amount of sweet white or red wine along with crème fraîche is added before serving. Other European palates prefer to enjoy it straight from the refrigerator for refreshment on hot summer days.Gyümölcsleves can be made from redcurrants, blackberries, apple, pear, or quince, but the most popular fruit soup recipe is meggyleves (sour cherry soup). This dish can be prepared even in the winter using oranges, clementines, or any sweet fruit available – fresh is best but frozen can be used.
6. Halászlé (Fisherman’s Soup)
One of the hottest dishes native to the European continent is halászlé, a bright red spicy paprika-based fish soup that has a special place on the Hungarian Christmas menu.
Traditionally cooked over an open fire in a bogrács (cauldron), fisherman’s soup is prepared differently on the banks of Hungary’s two main rivers: the Danube and the Tisza. Although the recipe is quite simple, the ratio of ingredients and timing determines the soup’s taste.
The significant flavor is given by the bouillon made from fresh fish trimmings including carp heads, bones, skin, and fins that are boiled in water with red onions, tomatoes, and green peppers for two hours. The base soup is strained and heated for an additional 10 minutes with hot paprika, thick carp filets and roe being added before serving.
7. Főzelék (Vegetable Stew)
This is a thin vegetable stew or a thick vegetable soup, as you prefer! It’s made with ingredients including potatoes, spinach, kidney beans, bell peppers, cabbage, squash, lentils, peas, tomatoes in any combination you like. Although it’s not cooked with meat, it’s topped with meatballs, spicy sausage, bacon, or hard-boiled eggs for additional flavor.
It is also thickened with roux or sour cream, and additional ingredients may be added: dill, paprika, onions, black peppercorn, garlic, parsley, caraway seeds, and lemon juice or vinegar.
This is a homemade dish, rather than one you’ll find in restaurants, which only rarely include it on the menu.The word főzelék kind of means “something created by cooking” and the main ingredient is put in front to name the dish, so for example zöldborsó főzelék that means “made of green peas”.
8. Somlói Galuska (Spongecake)
This opulent dessert is a Hungarian favorite and can be found everywhere from gas stations, and snack bars to restaurants, so it’s a must try when visiting the country. Despite the name, galuska has nothing to do with ‘‘dumpling’ apart from being round.
In fact, Somlói Galuska is a trifle-like cake made from layers of sponge (chocolate, vanilla, and walnut) alternating with creamy custard and rum soaked raisins. Three scoops of this sweet confection are plated, and drizzled in vanilla and orange syrup and chocolate sauce, topped with whipped cream, and sprinkled with roasted ground walnuts.
This 1958 Brussels World’s Fair award-winning cake was invented by the headwaiter of a Budapest restaurant who dreamt it up and the master pastry chef József Béla Szőcs who actually baked it. Over time it has been recreated in many ways and is usually served in small bowls.
9. Pörkölt (Boneless Meat Stew)
Another national dish, pörkölt, is not to be confused with Goulash, which has more gravy and bones to the meat.
This stew is closer to ragù and the basic recipe calls for boneless meat, sweet paprika, onions, yellow Hungarian wax peppers, tomatoes (or tomato paste), garlic, green pepper, and marjoram.
Hungarian yellow wax peppers are a key ingredient as red bell peppers are considered too sweet while the green ones are too bitter.
There are some regional variations on the dish, usually using beef or pork, but also lamb, chicken, tripe, or liver. One famous variation, pacalpörkölt., is made with tripe and is quite often spicy. Other takes include: kakaspörkölt, made with rooster; kakashere pörkölt, made with rooster testicles; sertésmáj pörkölt with pork; and csirkemáj pörkölt, using chicken livers respectively. By now you may be wondering what pörkölt means, well it’s the verb “roast”.
10. Dobos Torte (Multi-Layered Sponge Cake)
The ultimate Hungarian cake, as some call it, was created by the supreme master confectioner of the 19th century Austro-Hungarian monarchy – József Dobos. Coming from a long line of confectioners, he innovated by combining unique Hungarian flavors with delicacies of French cuisine. He created the Dobos Cake, the pinnacle of his life-time work for the 1885 National Exhibition.
One legend says that Emperor Franz Joseph and his wife Queen Elizabeth were the first to try it. But another legend says the soul of the cake – the butter cream, was created by accident. An apprentice poured powdered loaf-sugar on to some salted butte. As butter was preserved in those times, rather than throw it away, József Dobo added cocoa, coffee, and fruit. His search for a dessert that would last longer than the whipped cream desserts of the day and remain edible for several days seemed to be over.The recipe for this multi layered sponge cake, with chocolate buttercream filling and topped with a thin layer of crunchy caramel, was a secret for a long time and the Dobos Cakes sold in many confectioneries are not made with the original recipe.
11. Töltött Káposzta (Stuffed Cabbage Leaves)
The long evolution of Hungarian cuisine is typified by töltött káposzta, which has its origins in the Ottoman-Turkish cooking method of stuffing leaves. The Hungarian addition was paprika and rice. Hungary’s first opera diva Róza Széppataki was a big fan of this iconic food and proclaimed it “the coat of arms of Hungary”, back in the 19th century.
Minced light pork meat mixed with onions, spices, and rice is rolled up in fermented cabbage leaves, fresh cabbage leaves, or vine leaves, depending on the region. The veggies added to the stuffing vary too in other countries.
Traditionally töltött káposzta is slowly cooked in the oven or on the stove top with tomato sauce and smoked bacon is added to the pot for additional flavoring. They are served with sour cream and bread, and are cooked for celebrations such as Christmas and at weddings.
12. Kürtőskalács ( Sweet Bread)
Another street food star that can be easily found at fairs is the kürtőskalács, a typical sweet bread specialty popular in all Hungarian speaking regions.
The cake is cooked on an open fire, which might explain its name, “kürtő“, which translates as “chimney”. “Kalács” means “cake”, thus we can call it “chimney cake.” A strip of sweet dough is spun and wrapped around a cone-shaped baking spit and left to roast over charcoal until the surface is brownish-red in color.
Granulated sugar sprinkled over it forms a shiny crispy crust during caramelization, enhancing the red color of the surface. The cake can be topped with additional ingredients such as cinnamon powder, chopped walnuts, almonds, or coconut flakes. Kids and parents alike love this sweet bread because it makes a great snack. .
The legend has it that a Szeklers’ village was attacked by Tatars and the villagers flew and hid in a cavern of Les Mountain, where they were later discovered. The Tatars were planning to starve them to death but the Szekler leader’s wife had the idea of making a giant flue-shaped milk-loaf to show the Tartars they still had enough food to endure the siege.
13. Túrós Csusza (Cheese Pasta)
Túrós Csusza is the Hungarian take on American “mac and cheese”, However, it’s made mainly from cottage cheese (not cheddar). What makes this dish unique is the combination of hot and cold layers. The hot bottom layer of cooked pasta and cottage cheese are covered with an extra portion of cold cottage cheese. And now the best part kicks in: hot and juicy bacon gets in the mix before being finished with cold sour cream.
This luscious mixture can be heated in the oven for a few minutes before serving. Traditionally the dish is made with home-made egg pasta. The floury dough is torn by hand into flat small pieces that are then boiled in water. Overall, a perfect comfort food and you’ll be glad to know that the leftovers taste even better.
The name of this restaurant staple and budget-friendly homemade meal refers to the fact that the pasta is slippery due to the sour cream.
14. Szilvásgombóc (Sweet Plum Dumplings)
Hungary is a major plum producer, so dumplings filled with plums are no surprise. Very popular in many Central and East European countries, this dessert is a family favorite and recipes are passed down from grandmother to daughters or nieces.
Mashed potatoes, flour, salt, butter, and optional eggs form the dough that is flattened with a rolling pin to prepare the bed for the dark, juicy plums that are stoned and placed on cut out round shapes of dough.
The dough is then wrapped around the plums and boiled in water. For a finishing touch Szilvásgombóc are rolled over a streusel made of sugar, cinnamon, and fried golden bread crumbs.
Another variation that my grandma used is to fry them in a pan before rolling them through sugar. I can’t say which way I like best, but you can make them at home and tell us.
15. Rakott Krumpli (Potato Casserole)
This is a Jewish take on a Hungarian peasant classic where potatoes, hard boiled eggs, sour cream, and csabai or kielbasa (both are smoked Hungarian sausages) come together in separate layers to form a casserole bursting with flavors. It’s the ultimate comfort food.
This meatless version traditionally calls for trappista, a semi-hard cheese that was brought to Hungary by French monks in the 18th century.
Rakott Krumpli is served on its own for dinner or as a second course after a light soup. As the casserole that leaves out the sausages, it is a traditional meal for Hungarian Jews eaten during the “nine days” when orthodox Jews refrain from eating meat in remembrance of the destruction of the Temple. The literal translation of rakott krumpli is “layered potatoes”, simple and hearty and pairs well with pickled salads.
Have we included all your favorite Hungarian dishes? Let us know in the comments below and share your suggestions with our community!
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