Ingredients you will find in every Hungarian pantry
In my opinion one of the best ways to learn about a certain culture is to taste their local food. The aromas, the spices and the ingredients people use can tell so much about the characteristics of a country, the inhabitants and their sense of hospitality. Tasting a well-prepared dish with your eyes closed can immediately transport you to foreign places, and as this might as well be the closest we get to travelling these days, we better enjoy every bite.
In order to get to know the authentic Hungarian cuisine, let’s take a look into grandma’s pantry and see what we find!
Paprika, also known as the red gold of Hungary is the one of the most important ingredients in the Hungarian cuisine. When asking Hungarian friends about the most typical Hungarian staple, their answer was so unanimous that I almost felt paprika needs a separate ode. Dried, grinded, fresh, smoked, spicy: you name it and they have it!
This dates back to the 20st century, when the Hungarian scientist and nobel-price winner Albert Szent-György discovered vitamin C in the paprika. It turns out that whereas a lemon contains 47 mg of vitamin C, 10 dg paprika contains 369 mg vitamin C. This was an invention that turned the food science upside-down, even though for Albert it was just a lucky accident. The story goes Albert didn’t like paprika at all, so when his wife prepared him his lunch every day with a royal dash of ground paprika, he was finally so fed up with it that he told her he will research this weird vegetable in his lab. The rest is history!
Compote, marmalade, preserved fruit
One of the first things I learned about the Hungarian food is that they have found many creative ways to preserve food as long as possible. Most of the authentic Hungarian houses still have a room dedicated to food the so-called kamra, a.k.a. Hungarian food heaven! This is the coolest place in the house which used to serve its purpose as fridge.
Compote, marmalade and preserved fruit are ideal techniques to store the abundance of fresh summer fruits so you can still enjoy the taste of summer in the middle of winter! They are perfect to use on palacsinta (Hungarian pancakes), in pies and desserts.
Sausage, salami, lard
To balance out the healthiness of paprika and fruits, Hungarians need meat, lots of meat. This resulted in the folk festivity they call the pig slaughter (disznóvágás) that dates back to the Middle Ages. The slaughter of the pig was and remains till this day a big traditional event in villages, complete with ceremonial rituals and lots of pálinka. The event is usually held in winter time, either before or after Christmas, as in this time of year the processing was the easiest; the meat would be either frozen, salted or smoked. As tradition, all the parts of the animal were used and prepared in different ways, producing not only sausages and bacon but also greaves (tepertő) and lard.
Lard, also known as pig fat, is used on the widely beloved Hungarian “puszta sandwich” called zsíros kenyér (fatty bread), zsíros deszka (fatty board) or paraszt pizza (farmer’s pizza). This is a very easy and cheap dish invented by farmers and shepherds, consisting of a slice of white bread with a layer of lard, a pinch of paprika powder and slices of red onion. Lard is also used to cook with instead of oil or butter.
Sour cream and cottage cheese
Technically these products aren’t kept in the pantry nowadays, but they are a very big part of the Hungarian cuisine and you will find them in every Hungarian household. Sour cream, in Hungarian called tejföl, is a very versatile ingredient used in soups, salads and savory dishes and even cakes. Most importantly; lángos, a typical deep-fried flatbread found at every food truck and festival, isn’t the same without a big scoop of sour cream. Cottage cheese (túró) is it’s sweet companion, used in pancake fillings, sweets such as túrógombóc and the most popular candybar called túró rudi. The taste of túró is the taste of childhood.
Poppyseeds and walnuts
The Hungarians, though known for their goulash and chicken paprikas, are excellent pastry chefs and sweets play a very important part in their culture. On every street corner you can find a cukrászda, a confectionary completely dedicated to the many Hungarian cakes, pies and sweets. Both poppyseeds and walnuts are very popular staples to have as a backup in the pantry, just in case guests are spontaneously showing up at your doorstep and you quickly need to whip up some pie. These ingredients are also used for the most famous Christmas dessert called bejgli.
Pálinka runs through the veins of every Hungarian. This might be a stereotype, but I speak from my own experience when I say that I have never visited a Hungarian house without being offered a shot of palinka, or two… Even at 10 o’clock in the morning! There is always a reason why to drink this traditional fruit brandy, in sickness and in health, or “just because”. And be aware that is considered very rude to refuse! Pálinka is traditionally made from all kinds of fruits from the orchard that are too ripe to eat anymore. To avoid throwing them away, they prepared pálinka, the most popular flavors being plum, peach and cherry. Egészségedre! Cheers!
Pickles and sauerkraut
Another great invention to preserve summer vegetables for long winters is pickling them. Even though they might take this a bit too far, as Hungarians literally pickle everything from cabbage to baby watermelons and spicy paprika to tomatoes with garlic. All you need is a basic brine made of vinegar, water and seasoning, and lots of patience, as the longer it soaks, the stronger the flavor. It is a very regular staple that is served as a side dish with lots of typical Hungarian food, such as stew, stuffed cabbage, casserole or fried cheese.
Semolina and breadcrumbs
Speaking of fried cheese; Hungarians love to fry things. Whether it is meat, vegetables or a chunk of trappista cheese, they will dip it into some coating, fry it and voila! Ready is your typical Hungarian meal. Throw some paprika powder on top and some pickles on the side and you will have your regular weekly dish which you can find in any Hungarian restaurant, guaranteed. Semolina is another very important staple, as it is used for a classic dish like pudding, tejbegríz or any other sweet guilty pleasure. Give these 3 ingredients in grandmother’s hands and she will be able to make anything.
Enter any Hungarian kamra and you will find all of this and more, for example ingredients such as potatoes, flour, onions and garlic definitely cannot be missed either. The Hungarian food is heartwarming, not ideal for dieting but plentiful. You are always welcome at the dinner table, and even if they don’t have a lot to offer, according to the culture food is meant to be a lot and shared with family, friends and foes. There is no party without food and no food without love for the authentic Hungarian cuisine.