Whether you are visiting Budapest for a few days or plan to stay for a longer time, Hungarian food is something you are going to become more familiar with. You’ll find that Hungarians are enthusiastic eaters and their cuisine is the result of thousand years of history as well as the influences of their neighbors and invaders. In the below guide, we’ve collected what is worth to know about Hungarian food before starting your trip.
History of Hungarian food
The food of ancient Hungarians
The colorful palette of Hungarian cuisine combines both Eastern and Western gastronomic traditions. Ancient Hungarian food culture was shaped by the Magyar tribes who arrived in present-day Hungary at the end of 9th century. Their large livestock and nomadic lifestyle are reflected in the dominance of meat in Hungarian dishes and that some traditional meals – such as goulash or fish soup – are best cooked over open fire in a cauldron. The most commonly consumed meat of the ancient Magyars was sheep and poultry, while deer, pork, goat and beef – and not uncommonly horse meat – were prepared for festive occasions. Luckily, the habit of consuming horse meat disappeared from the Hungarian cuisine over the centuries. As Gizella, the wife of the first Hungarian ruler – King Stephen – was Bavarian, German cooking and baking methods started to spread during the 10th century after the foundation of the Hungarian state.
The influence of Italian cuisine
A flourishing period for both food and culture in Hungarian history was under the reign of King Matthias during the 15th century. The king’s second wife, Beatrix – who was Italian and greatly influenced by Renaissance culture – brought not only Italian artists, but also chefs to the Hungarian court. New ingredients such as sweet chestnut, garlic, mace, saffron, onion, breadcrumbs, pasta and cheese were introduced, while the use of fruits – cooked with meat or used as fruit stuffing – also became part of the Hungarian cuisine.
During the Turkish occupation
When the Turks occupied Hungary during the 16th and 17th century, they also brought their cooking habits with them. These included the use of spicy paprika, corn, poppy, tomato and Turkish honey. They taught the Hungarians how to cook stuffed peppers, stuffed cabbage and eggplants. Generally, sweets – such as sponge cake or dumplings cooked in milk – also became popular during this time, and the cultivation of walnuts, almonds, grapes, peach and fig began. The Turks also introduced coffee into the country. During that time, large numbers of Jews, Poles, Saxons, Czechs and Slovaks settled in the Carpathian basin, also contributing to the Hungarian cuisine with new dishes.
Austria’s Habsburg monarchy gained control over Hungary from the 17th century to the beginning of the 20th century. During this era, elements of the French cuisine were incorporated into the Hungarian food culture through the influence of Austrian gastronomy and vice versa. For example, the Hungarian goulash has become as much part of the Austrian cuisine as the Wiener schnitzel spread into Hungarian households. Soups and appetizers appeared at the beginning of meals, and a 5-course menu became a norm in wealthier families. Hungary took pride in its delicious cakes and pastries. At the same time, Hungarians wanted to differentiate themselves from foreign influence more and more. By end of the 18th century, the Hungarian goulash, the chicken paprika, and főzelék – a kind of vegetable dish enriched with flour – and the use of red-hot paprika in general became the symbol of Hungarian political opposition. Efforts were made to create a purely Hungarian cookbook and the excellence of local chefs of the time raised Hungarian gastronomy to international standards.
After the second World War and during the communist era Hungary suffered a major downfall which had an effect on culture and gastronomy as well. Family owned restaurants – many of them working and functioning since generations – were forced into state ownership, while the original owners together with the old authentic recipes disappeared. As a result of industrialization, more and more women started to work and thus, public catering was introduced. The mass production of cheap, low quality meals influenced Hungarian gastronomy in a bad way.
The revival of the Hungarian kitchen
Luckily, after the system change things slowly started to change. Capitalism brought the need to meet customer expectations, so the focus became quality over quantity again. During the last ten-fifteen years, many new restaurants and bistros opened and a younger generation of chefs appeared raising the Hungarian gastronomy to a much higher level. In 2010, Costes Restaurant in Budapest received Hungary’s first Michelin star, and by 2019, Hungary became a well-worthy place to visit not only in cultural, but in culinary sense as well.
Did you know that it was the Turks who showed Hungarians how to make flat bread which later evolved into one of the most well-known Hungarian food specialties, the “lángos”? The name comes from the word “láng” meaning flame in Hungarian, as flat bread used to be baked in the ashes of a fireplace. However, the modern lángos is no longer prepared this way. The dough for lángos is made of water or milk and flour, yeast and salt. It’s usually eaten by itself – as a kind of fast food – freshly fried in hot oil, topped with sour cream and cheese, or without a topping, simply rubbed with garlic and salt.
Hungarian paprika – the most distinguishing Hungarian spice
Although it was brought into the country by the Turks in the 16th century, Hungarian paprika became the symbol of local cuisine. Many of the Hungarian dishes are based on the same cooking technique: warm up some fat, throw in sliced onion, cook slowly until the onion becomes soft and translucent, then add some paprika spice and stir it. The simple combination of onion and paprika cooking in sizzling hot fat provides a characteristic peppery aroma that every Hungarian instantly recognizes. This is the basis of some of the most well-known Hungarian dishes.
What is Hungarian paprika?
It’s an orange colored grind spice made from dried bell pepper or sweet pepper. It can be sweet or hot depending what kind of pepper it was made from. Hungarians also call the plant itself from which the spice is made “paprika”. The paprika plant is often consumed by the Hungarians for breakfast with a slice of bread and butter. Paprika has a significant medicinal value. It’s the greatest source of vitamin C.
Hungarian paprika production
Due to the favourable geographical conditions and great climate, Hungarians are not only consumers, but also the one of the leading producers of the paprika spice in the world. The heart of the production is in the southern, most sunny part of the country, in Szeged and in Kalocsa. Kalocsa even has a paprika museum, where the origins as well as the different techniques of paprika production is explained.
In what forms can you buy Hungarian paprika?
Hungarian paprika can be bought in various forms: as a grind spice in plastic sachets or jars, as paprika paste in tubes under the name Piros Arany (red gold), and in small bottles under the brand Erős Pista (hot), and Édes Anna (sweet). A string of dried red paprika can also be a great souvenir from Hungary.
Did you know that although paprika is often associated with Hungarian cuisine, the pepper plant from which it is made originates in central Mexico and was brought to Europe by the Spanish in the 16th century?
Hungarian food specialities
The traditional Hungarian cuisine is very filling and rich in flavors. And while there’s a common misconception that Hungarian food is hot, many Hungarian recipes don’t contain paprika at all. The most well-known Hungarian meals are the following:
Gulyás leves (Goulash soup)
Goulash is one of the most famous of all Hungarian dishes. The word „Gulyás” is referred to the herdsmen who were the original consumers of this rich soup, containing meat with bones, carrots, potatoes or tiny dumplings, onion, paprika and other spices. The Hungarian Goulash soup is eaten as a main dish by itself or with a slice of bread and is not to be confused with the thicker stew (pörkölt or paprikás) which is consumed with home-made noodles.
Pörkölt (Meat stew)
Pörkölt is a Hungarian stew with boneless meat, paprika, and some vegetables. The word “pörkölt” simply means roasted. Depending on which part of Hungary you eat it in, pörkölt can be can be made from beef, veal, chicken or pork, but onions and paprika are essential ingredients everywhere. The typical garnish of the Hungarian pörkölt is nokedli, which are tiny noodles made of eggs, flour, salt and water – similar to the German spätzle.
Paprikás csirke (Chicken paprikash)
Chicken paprikash is a beloved Hungarian dish which is prepared very similarly to the pörkölt. The only difference is that while pörkölt is traditionally cooked its own juice in a cauldron without adding fat or water, the essence of the paprikash is cooking onion is hot fat, sprinkle it with paprika, then putting pieces of meat on it and adding a little water. Also, in case of the paprikash, sour cream is added to the stew, so it has a lighter, creamier taste.
Főzelék (Vegetable stew)
Főzelék is so typically Hungarian that it can’t really be translated into English. It’s usually made from vegetables like peas, beans, lentils, carrot or spinach, and then it’s thickened with flour so that it has the consistency of gravy. As it’s fairly easy and not too expensive to prepare, it’s a very common main dish in Hungarian households. There are many restaurants in Budapest that specializes in főzelék, where you can also find special flavours.
Halászlé (Fisherman’s broth)
Hungary is a country without a sea. It doesn’t mean that you can’t have a great seafood dish in Hungary, but meals with freshwater fish are more common. The Fisherman’s broth is an authentically Hungarian paprika-laced fish soup which is prepared from freshwater fish (e.g. catfish, carp or pike-perch) as well. It has a bright red colour from the paprika spice and many versions depending on which region you eat it in: the most famous ones being the fish soup from Baja, Szeged and the Tisza region.
Lecsó (Hungarian Ratatouille)
Lecsó is kind of vegetable stew made from yellow and red peppers, tomatoes and onions. Vegetables are seasoned with salt and paprika powder. Meat lovers often put sausages in their lecsó, but the traditional version is prepared without meat in a cauldron over open fire. Lecsó is usually served with a slice of bread.
Gyümölcsleves (Fruit soup)
Gyümölcsleves is a typical summer dish and it’s served cold. The most popular version is called “meggyleves” (sour cherry soup), made from sour cherries, cream, a little flour, sugar and cinnamon, but various mixed fruit soups are also very popular.
Túrós csusza (Pasta with cottage cheese and sour cream)
Túrós csusza is pasta topped with cottage-cheese, sour cream and sprinkled with flavourful, crispy bacon. Hungarians usually eat it as a main course following a soup. There is also a sweet version of this meal, often favoured by children when bacon is swapped for powdered sugar. Although the meal becomes sweet, it’s eaten as a main dish and not a dessert.
Palacsinta (Hungarian crepes)
Palacsinta is the Hungarian version of the French crépes. It’s typically filled with sweet cottage cheese, jam, vanilla or chocolate pudding. Probably the most famous Hungarian palacsinta is the Gundel palacsinta, which is filled with ground walnuts, raisins soaked in rum and topped with dark chocolate sauce. The palacsinta is so popular in Hungary that it has salty variants as well, which are obviously not eaten as a dessert, but as a main dish. The most famous one is Hortobányi palacsinta, filled with ground meat, fried onion, and topped with a creamy paprika sauce. Very yummy!
Must-try Hungarian desserts
Hungary is renowned for its baking traditions and has many great patisseries for those with a sweet tooth. The country’s most well-known desserts include fancy layered cakes like Esterházy torta (walnut-cake layers and walnut cream) and Dobos torta (vanilla-cake layers with chocolate buttercream and a shiny, solid caramel top), Mákos guba (a poppy seed bread pudding coated in a creamy vanilla sauce), Rétes (a strudel-like pastry filled with sweet cottage cheese, apple or sour cherry, or sweet poppy-seed), Túrógombóc (boiled, sweetened cottage cheese-based dumplings coated in fried breadcrumbs, and finished with sour cream and powdered sugar), Madártej (vanilla custard covered with fresh meringue), Somlói galuska (a kind of trifle made of sponge cake, layered with chocolate cream, walnut kernel, rum and whipped cream on top), and kürtös kalács (chimney cake: long strips of sugary dough wrapped around chimney-shaped spits and roasted over charcoal – it’s typically sold at Christmas markets). Aranygaluska (Hungarian Golden Dumpling) is also a delicious Hungarian dessert. The yeast-raised dumplings are dipped in melted butter, covered with grounded walnuts and baked in the oven, then served with vanilla custard.
Where to eat Hungarian food?
The Hungarian gastro palette has gone through big changes in the last couple years. Countless new restaurants, food bars, bistros, pubs and budget-friendly eateries have opened, and local chefs are making an effort to create lighter, more healthy meals while preserving the traditional Hungarian flavours at the same time.
Hungarian markets & gastro festivals
Budapest has many indoor market halls, selling pretty much everything from fresh fruits and vegetables to pickled veggies, meats, spices and various souvenirs. Among them Central Market Hall in Fővám tér, Fény Street Market near Széll Kálmán tér, Lehet market near Lehet tér and Belvárosi Piac in Hold utca are the biggest. The upper level of the Central Market Hall as well as the Hold utca Market Hall accommodates various food stalls (e.g. Fakanál Étterem and Buja Disznó) which are excellent places to have a good and budget-friendly lunch.
Open-air farmers’ markets are organized in the Hungarian capital on a weekly basis where you can shop for organic produce, food, herbs and spices. Budapest’s most iconic ruin pub, Szimpla Kert, hosts a farmers’ market every Sunday. You can also buy bio veggies, fruits and craft food on the Közös Piac Farmers’ Market at the Central Passage in Király utca every Sunday.
As the Hungarians are food enthusiasts, various gastro festivals are organized in Budapest and the country throughout the year. Mangalica (Furry pig) festival organized in January awaits with roasted whole pigs and other swine dishes, and excellent wines and Pálinka, while the Budapest Fish Festival – a gastronomic event with a lot of fish dishes – takes place is March. April awaits with the Spring & Easter fair, while a Gourmet festival is organized in May. Christmas fairs are also very popular in Budapest, if you’re in the Hungarian capital around the festive season, make sure you don’t miss it (but be prepared for large crowds). For more information on fairs and festivals in Budapest, click here (link to „When is the best time to visit Budapest” article).
Best Hungarian fine dining restaurants
Currently six Hungarian restaurants hold a Michelin star as of 2019. They all have one star, except for Onyx, which is the first restaurant in Hungary to have two Michelin stars. All restaurants are located in Budapest. These are Costes, Costes Downtown, Onyx, Borkonyha, Stand and Bábel, all offering high-end dining experience with rare ingredients and carefully sculpted plates.
Popular dining areas in Budapest
There are a couple of areas in downtown Budapest where you’ll easily find a good Hungarian restaurant.
Ráday utca is a long, partly pedestrian street connecting Kálvin tér with Boráros tér in the 9th district. It’s often called Budapest’s restaurant street because it’s full of great restaurants, bars, cafés, and terrace diners. Here you’ll find Costes, Budapest’s first Michelin star restaurant, but the old, authentic Hungarian restaurant Vörös Postakocsi Étterem as well. A new trend in Budapest is the mix of cultural services and gastronomy. At the beginning of Ráday utca, Púder bar-theatre puts this idea into practice, offering a bar as well as an open cultural space for music, fine arts, theatre and literary events.
Liszt Ferenc tér is a small square near Oktogon surrounded by upscale restaurants & cafés like Royal Étterem, Menza or Meat on Fire. The square is a popular hang-out place, especially on warm summer nights when terraces are filled with both locals and tourists.
The area around St. Stephen’s Basilica – including the streets: Sas utca, Hercegprímás Street and Október 6. Steet. – are packed with pubs, restaurants and terrace diners, providing an ideal location for a delicious dinner. Borkonyha, a Michelin star restaurant is located in this area as well as Bestia, a fairly new, industrial style pub serving quality food and crafted beers.
Hungarian restaurants & bistros
If you’re looking to a more budget-friendly option, there’s still plenty of options to cheese from. To eat a bowl of Hungarian Goulash, go to Gettó Gulyás or Hungarikum Bisztó, both strictly offering traditional Hungarian meals. Budapest’s oldest traditional Hungarian restaurant, the Százéves Étterem offers a great variety of delicious pörkölt including the classic chicken paprikash with noodles and boar stew with buttery parsley potatoes. If you want to try the Hungarian vegetable dish, főzelék, Főzelékfaló ételbár offers a wide variety of főzelék at budget-friendly prices. For a delicious Fisherman’s soup, try Szegedi Halászcsárda and Horgásztanya Vendéglő – both serve some of the best Fisherman’s broth in town. To eat a tasty lecsó, go to Lecsó, a family owned self-service place during the day which turns into an a la Carte Restaurant in the evening.
Hungarian street food
Budapest has not only seen a burst in the fine dining scene, but in the street food genre as well. Many new, cool places have opened up rencetly. Bors Gasztrobar in Kazinczy Street offers great street food made from high quality ingredients, while Cupákos in Dob Street serves traditional Hungarian meat dishes with a modern twist. Leves (Soup) is also a classis street food place, offering a wide selection of delicious soups.
Did you know that Pálinka has many variants, among them the “Ágyas (bedded) pálinka”, in which the fruit practically grows into the bottle?