Hungarian Cuisine

By Chef Nancy Berkoff, EdD, RD

Growing up in the multicultural village that was New York City, I had lots of Hungarian friends. In fact I had lots of German, Polish, Russian, Greek, Italian, Armenian, Irish, Korean, Cuban, and Puerto Rican friends, and we all wheedled dinner invitations to each other’s homes. We also became very adept at appearing at each other’s homes right at mealtime. At risk of dating myself, those were the days when moms, aunties, and grandmas were at home, part of the extended family that seemed to live in the kitchen, conjuring up savory dishes from all over the world.

In addition to perfecting the art of the free meal, we all became street-side connoisseurs. We knew all the international feast days and whose house at which to show up to sample the delicacies of the day. Greek and Russian holidays were good for delicious pastries, Korean for forty varieties of spicy and sweet kimchi, and Cuban for anything made with guava.

We knew to head to our Hungarian friends’ houses for groaning boards of baked goods, served with steaming coffee heaped with whipped cream. Visions of poppy seeds and chopped nuts danced in our heads.

You didn’t need a feast day to enjoy Hungarian cuisine. It seemed that there was always someone just finishing up a batch of piping-hot homemade noodles. Depending on the season, they’d be topped with sauerkraut, steamed cabbage, caraway seeds, or lecso (read on for info on this). And every dish was topped with a big dollop of sour cream.

In college and high school I was on school fencing teams. My teachers, called maestros, were all dashing Hungarians. As far as I can tell, Hungary produced some of the best fencers in the world. Many of them established themselves in New York, in fencing salles. These long rooms resembled ballet salons, with waxed wooden floors and mirrored walls. In addition to matches and lessons, our maestros choreographed fight scenes for opera and theater companies. There was always lots of activity.

And lots of noodles, gulyas, and pastries. The maestros had adoring fans (fencing groupies?) who brought offerings of hot food and desserts at every hour of the day. If you were lucky, and the maestro was in a good mood, you might get a taste of this scrumptious fare.

Several years later, I moved to New Brunswick, New Jersey, home of Rutgers University and, coincidentally, a very large Hungarian population. There were neighborhood competitions for the silkiest noodles. Two days a week, Hungarian ladies opened the front rooms of their houses and vied for customers in their storefront itinerant restaurants. They dished up paprikash, noodles, home-pickled vegetables, and pastries with poppyseeds, nuts, and dried fruit. Nirvana in a bowl!

Hungarians are intense, political, and passionate, and this includes food. In cities and towns, everyone stops at a café or restaurant at least once a day to catch up on news and to have a nosh. Coffeehouses (cukkraszdas) are central meeting places to have coffee, pastry, and a good debate.

Many cultures left their marks on Hungarian cuisine. Hungary was fought over because of lots of fertile land and a great growing climate. Because of its location, Hungary has had the influence of Moslem, Jewish, Christian, and Byzantine leaders. The original Magyar tribes were defeated by Russians, who also left their culinary calling card. Hungarian wheat is considered the best in Europe. You can see vestiges of Greek, German, Polish, Slovakian, and Romanian visitors with sauerkraut, dumplings, sour cream, noodles, fruit soups, and pastries. Royal weddings brought Italian and French influence.

Unfortunately, the cornerstone of Hungarian cuisine is lard; fortunately, onions, paprika, and sour cream are also important ingredients, found in almost all savory dishes. Cabbage, potatoes, tomatoes, and green peppers are staple veggies, and the bases for popular stews, stuffed veggies, soups, and pickled veggies. Vegetables are usually braised, stewed, baked, or boiled, and rarely served raw.

Lecso is an all-purpose condiment made from combining onions, bell pepper, garlic, and tomatoes and simmering them for a long time, until all the flavors have melded. Lecso is sometimes served cold as an appetizer or side dish and is used as a flavoring agent for soups and stews.

But one can’t talk about Hungary without paprika. Surprisingly, paprika is not originally from Hungary, but from 150 years of Turkish occupation. The Turks introduced paprika, a species of red pepper plant, into Hungary, and the rest is history. Paprika is grown in many Hungarian regions, with different flavors and colors. People are paprika gourmets just like they are gourmets of wine or coffee beans. Paprika is used to finish a popular stew of meat and potatoes (no other veggies), called paprikash. I’ve taken some vegan liberties and adapted a tofu paprikash recipe. By the way, you can see the Turkish influence in many Hungarian dishes, including strudels, called retes, which bear a striking resemblance to Turkish baklava made with phyllo.

Stews are important lunch and dinner items. The most famous is probably the paprikash, as we have mentioned, made with onions and paprika and finished with sour cream. Tokany is another type of stew, using pepper and mushrooms and also finished with sour cream. Gulyas contains only meat and potatoes, simmered with paprika, but not finished with sour cream.

Metelt is the Hungarian word for noodles, and every household and restaurant has its technique for coaxing flour and water into satiny ribbons. Tarhonya is a type of egg barley made from flour and eggs, grated into boiling water. Like spaetzle, gombo are dumplings, and galuska are soft noodles made by dipping thin pieces of bread dough into simmering liquid, which causes them to congeal and then swell. There are as many varieties of Hungarian noodles as there are political opinions.

Apples, plums, apricots, and melons are eaten fresh, but they are also made into preserves and brandies. Fresh vegetables are not that popular, but fresh fruit and fruit juice is. If fresh fruit is not in season, then dried fruit is served. A wonderful New Year’s Eve punch (see the recipe below) is made from a combination of fresh juice, fruit zest, and dried fruit. The famous Dobos torte is shortcake slathered with plum preserves.

Nuts and seeds are more important than dried beans for flavoring. I’ve included a recipe for caraway seed soup that is very flavorful. Lentil soups may be made on occasion and beans may be served as a side dish, but vegetable and potato soups are more popular.

Hungarian wheat, bankoti, high in gluten, is considered great for bread and pastry baking. Hungary is known for its sweet tooth, with a national preference for cakes, cookies, and pastries rather than candy. The Cukraszda is a buffet of cakes, tortes, and pastries, most topped with lemon or orange zest, toasted nuts, and poppy seeds. Retes, the Hungarian equivalent of strudel, can be sweet or savory, filled with fruit, nuts, potatoes, or cabbage. Try your own fast version of retes by filling frozen vegan phyllo sheets with canned pie filling, raisins, and chopped nuts. Even noodles get into the act. Meleg Tesztak can be any number of sweet noodle dishes, ranging from hot, buttered noodles tossed with cinnamon, sugar, chopped nuts, and poppy seeds, to more complex noodle “puddings” layered with chopped nuts, raisins, and fruit preserves. Palacsintak are very thin crèpes, usually used for sweet dishes, filled with fruit preserves, cream cheese, and chopped nuts. You can make a vegan version by using egg replacer in the crèpe batter and soy cream cheese in the filling.

In Budapest, strudel shops offer prune, plum, poppyseed, and apricot fillings, and even savory fillings of potatoes and cheese. Transylvania uses both wheat flour and cornmeal for breads and dumplings, serving them with lots of sauerkraut and noodles. From Transylvania we get the idea to eat flax and flaxseed. Stuffed grape leaves and cabbage are another Transylvanian creation.

All this great food has to be washed down with something. Coffee, wine, and brandy are very popular. Breakfast coffee is served with hot milk, and afternoon with whipped cream. Dinner coffee is black. Hungary makes lots of wine, including some from the famous Tokay grapes. So, sit back, sip some coffee or some wine, and plan your Hungarian feast.

Krampampuli New Year’s Eve Punch

(Serves 10-12)

This hot and spicy beverage is served hot on Sylvester night (New Year’s Eve). It is usually made with brandy, but you can use apple cider instead.

  • 1/2 cup chopped dried figs
  • 1/2 cup chopped dates
  • 1/2 cup candied ginger or fruit peel
  • 3/4 cup vegan granulated sweetener (*see note at end of recipes)
  • 2 Tablespoons orange zest
  • 1 cup brandy or apple cider
  • 4 cups red wine or 3 cups grape juice and 1/4 cup vinegar
  • 2 cinnamon sticks
  • 2 cups hot brewed tea
  • 3/4 cup orange juice
  • 1/2 cup lemon juice

Place figs, dates, and ginger in a large nonreactive bowl. Sprinkle sweetener and zest over fruit and toss to combine. Cover and allow to stand for an hour at least.

Pour brandy and wine (or cider, juice, and vinegar) over fruit, cover and allow to stand for 30 minutes.

Place cinnamon, tea, and juices in a medium pot and bring to a boil. Pour over the fruit and serve hot, with a little fruit in each glass.

Total calories per serving: 272 Fat: <1 gram
Carbohydrates: 38 grams Protein: 1 gram
Sodium: 16 milligrams Fiber: 2 grams

Tofu Sour Cream

(Makes 3 cups)

Many Hungarian dishes have sour cream as an important ingredient. You can purchase soy or nondairy sour cream, or you can whip up a batch. Store, covered, in the refrigerator, and it should last for up to four days.

  • 2 cups silken or soft tofu, drained
  • 3 teaspoons lemon juice
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1 Tablespoon vegetable oil

Place all ingredients in a blender or food processor canister. Process until smooth and creamy. Cover and store in refrigerator until ready to use.

Total calories per 1/2-cup serving: 66 Fat: 5 grams
Carbohydrates: 3 grams Protein: 4 grams
Sodium: 101 milligrams Fiber: <1 gram

Hideg Almaleves

Cold Apple Soup

(Serves 5-6)

This is a lovely cold summer soup. Serve it as a dessert, garnished with a lemon sorbet or a vanilla soy ice cream.

  • 3 cups red and green apples, cored, peeled and diced
  • 1/2 cup vegan granulated sweetener*
  • 2 teaspoons lemon zest
  • 3 cups hot water
  • 1/2 cup white wine or ¼ cup unsweetened apple juice
  • 2 Tablespoons flour
  • 2 Tablespoons cold water
  • 1/2 cup soy cream or soy sour cream (See note at end of recipe.)

Combine apples, sweetener, zest, and hot water in a medium pot. Cover and cook on medium heat until apples are tender, about 30 minutes. Add the wine or juice and continue to cook.

In a small cup, combine flour and cold water to make a smooth paste. Add several spoonfuls of hot soup to paste to temper it (making it easier to incorporate into soup). Add paste to soup, stirring vigorously to combine. Simmer for 5 minutes. Remove from heat, cover and place in refrigerator to cool for at least 2 hours. Stir in cream before serving.

Note: Westsoy makes a “Crème de la Soy,” which is a thick soy cream.

Total calories per serving: 151 Fat: 1 gram
Carbohydrates: 32 grams Protein: 1 gram
Sodium: 73 milligrams Fiber: 1 gram

Komenymagos Leves Caraway Seed Soup

(Serves 5-6)

This is a real peasant soup, requiring few ingredients and only a couple of pennies to make. It can be a light soup, good for serving before a heavy meal.

  • 2 Tablespoons caraway seeds
  • 6 cups boiling water
  • 2 Tablespoons vegan margarine
  • 4 Tablespoons flour
  • 1/2 cup soy sour cream
  • 1/2 cup croutons

In a medium pot, combine caraway seeds and water. Simmer, covered, for 15 minutes. In a small cup, combine margarine and flour to form a paste. Add several spoonfuls of hot soup to the paste to temper (make easier to incorporate into soup). Add paste to hot soup and stir vigorously to combine. Cover and allow to simmer until thickened, about 20 minutes. Place 1-2 Tablespoons of sour cream in each soup bowl. Pour soup over cream and garnish with croutons. Serve hot.

Total calories per serving: 105 Fat: 7 grams
Carbohydrates: 9 grams Protein: 2 grams
Sodium: 211 milligrams Fiber: 1 gram

Szarittott Babfozelek

White Beans with Sour Cream

(Serves 5-6)

A light entrée or a hearty side dish, this is the perfect recipe for leftover cooked beans, or green or wax beans. It actually gets better the second day, so make extra to enjoy again.

  • 3 cups cooked or canned white beans (about 1-1/2 cups uncooked beans)
  • 1 Tablespoon vegan margarine
  • 3/4 cup chopped onions
  • 2 Tablespoons flour
  • 1 Tablespoon vinegar
  • 1/2 cup soy sour cream

Rinse and drain beans and set aside.

In a medium frying pan, heat margarine. Add onions and allow to brown, about 3 minutes. Stir in flour and blend. Add vinegar, and about ¾ cup of cold water to make a thick sauce. Stir in beans. Allow to heat for 5 minutes on medium heat. Just before serving, stir in sour cream.

Total calories per serving: 203 Fat: 4 grams
Carbohydrates: 32 grams Protein: 12 grams
Sodium: 93 milligrams Fiber: 7 grams

Dill and Mushroom Sauce

(Makes about 2 cups)

Serve this savory sauce over baked or mashed potatoes, with a barley or rice pilaf, or over baked or grilled tofu or seitan, or even use it as a base for a soup!

  • 2 Tablespoons vegan margarine
  • 1/2 cup finely chopped onions
  • 1/4 cup finely chopped fresh mushrooms
  • 2 Tablespoons flour
  • 1/2 cup vegetable stock
  • 1 Tablespoon chopped fresh dill
  • 1 teaspoon lemon juice
  • 1/2 cup soy sour cream

Melt margarine in a medium frying pan. Add onions and mushrooms and cook for 2 minutes. Stir in flour until well incorporated. Add stock, reduce heat and cover. Allow to cook until thickened, about 20 minutes. Stir in dill, juice, and sour cream and allow to cook, stirring, for 3 minutes.

Total calories per 1/2 cup: 94 Fat: 7 grams
Carbohydrates: 6 grams Protein: 2 grams
Sodium: 199 milligrams Fiber: 1 gram

Tofu Paprikash

(Serves 4-5)

A spin on the traditional and omnipresent paprikash stews. This can be made a day ahead of time and reheated when ready to serve.

  • 2 teaspoons vegan margarine
  • 1/2 cup thinly sliced onions
  • 1 pound smoked firm tofu, drained and cubed
  • 1 Tablespoon ground paprika
  • 1 cup soy sour cream

Heat margarine in a medium frying pan. Add onions and cook until browned, about 3 minutes. Add tofu and paprika and continue to cook, stirring, for 8 minutes, or until tofu is heated. Stir in sour cream, cook for three additional minutes, and serve immediately over cooked noodles.

*Note: Some cane sugar is processed through bone char filters. See for further information.

Nancy Berkoff, RD, EdD, CCE, is VRG’s Food Service Advisor and the author of, most recently,Vegan Meals for One or Two.