Carolyn Bánfalvi’s Guide to Eating and Drinking in Budapest
Food writer Carolyn Bánfalvi was our guide for our Markets Tour in Budapest. Her knowledge of the local cuisine was so fantastic that we couldn’t pass up the opportunity to ask her a few more questions about eating and drinking in Budapest and get some tips for culinary take-homes from the city.
Carolyn has lived in the city since 1999 (apart from a stint in culinary school in the USA) and there wasn’t a question she couldn’t answer. Her Food Wine Budapest tome is a must-buy for foodies visiting city. It’s a detailed book, but very approachable and well-written. And for someone who is fanatical about book design, I have to say it’s beautifully designed too.
Q. In ‘The Dish’ for Budapest, I said all I really knew of Hungarian food and wine before visiting was Bull’s Blood red wine, Tokaji sweet wines, salami, paprika, and goulash. Is there more to it?
A. Most people have heard about all of those things, but yes, there is much more! There is a huge variety of wine — including many excellent native varietals — which is largely unheard of outside of Hungary. There are amazingly delicious and complex pastries and desserts. There are market halls filled with an astounding number of different types of sausage, bacon, and cured meats. And concerning the cooking itself, Hungarian cuisine tends to be relatively unknown outside of Hungary. But once you start eating at the restaurants here (or in homes, if you are lucky enough), you will see that there is really a wide repertoire of dishes.
Q. So when a visitor goes to a traditional restaurant and orders ‘goulash’ what can they expect?
A. This can be kind of confusing for newcomers. In Hungary, goulash (spelt “gulyás”) is always a soup with the main ingredients being beef, potatoes and paprika. The stew that non-Hungarians tend to think of as goulash is actually “pörkölt.” Pörkölt can be made with any kind of meat (or with mushrooms). The other main ingredients are lots of onions (to make a thick sauce) and paprika. Here is a recipe adapted from my Hungarian mother-in-law.
Q. The traditional dishes are wonderful and we’ve tried some clever updates of them in restaurants such as Babel, but is Hungarian cuisine best served at grandmas place?
A. If you have the opportunity to eat a home-cooked meal (especially one cooked by a Hungarian grandmother), that would be ideal. But there are some great restaurants in Budapest that are the next best thing and serve ultra traditional cooking. That said, I always love trying updated versions of the classics.
Q. Which are the best places to try traditional cooking (besides sneaking into a family feast) and the best places to sample more creative Hungarian fare?
A. There’s a category of restaurant in Hungary called the étkezde, which I love and always recommend for sampling good, simple, home-style Hungarian cooking. They are generally only open for lunch, and they rarely serve coffee or wine (the idea is to pop in for a quick lunch and then turn the table over). The best étkezde in the city is Kádár in the seventh district. For more creative Hungarian fare I like Borssó, Bock Bisztró, and Klassz.
Q. Last year a Budapest restaurant received the city’s first Michelin Star. Why did it take so long?
A. The dining scene in Budapest has been growing up and Budapest’s restaurants have become more sophisticated over the past few years.
Q. We’ve visited in the colder months every time we’ve come here and love the hearty food, but do menus change with the seasons and is the food lighter in summer?
A. Yes, menus do change. There are many restaurants which pride themselves on their seasonal and market-based approach to cooking. At the simpler, traditional places you will find things like various types of fruit soup on the menu…but you will still find gulyás and pörkölt as well!
Q. Walking around the markets you can see how popular foie gras is and it’s an important export, particularly to France. Are Hungarians worried about the EU banning its current method of production?
A. Hungary is the second largest producer of foie gras in the world (after France). Yes, they are worried that someday the practice will be banned. In the meantime, more humane methods of producing foie gras are being researched.
Q. What makes every pork item in Hungary so damn tasty?
A. Pork is definitely what Hungarians do best! They seem to have mastered the art of preparing it judging by the amount and variety available at the butcher shops. And for the best pork you will ever taste, be sure to taste Mangalica pork if you happen to see it on a restaurant menu.
Q. I’ve seen just about every part of the pig on the butcher shop shelves. Are Hungarians secretly the leaders in ‘nose to tail’ eating?
A. Yes, they might be! Butchers are alive and well in Hungary, especially at the market halls. As you could see when we wandered through the market, the butchers sell every part of the animal, from rooster testicles and fish innards to pork lungs, snouts, and tails. There are recipes that utilize all of these things, and they are commonly found on restaurant menus.
Q. Paprika is everywhere in the markets. What makes it so special in Hungary and such an important part of the cuisine?
A. According to the statistics Hungarians eat more than a pound of paprika per capita annually. While paprika is essential to Hungarian cooking, it didn’t become such an important spice in the Hungarian kitchen until sometime in the 17th century. Paprika is made in the southern part of the country, and the quality in Hungary is excellent. You don’t have to buy any fancy brand, just whatever they sell at the local grocery store will be good. There is such a high turnover on the shelves that it will never get old and stale (as paprika sold in the USA tends to get). There are different levels of coarseness, the color ranges from deep orange to bright red, and it ranges from sweet to fiery hot.
Q. Behind every supermarket counter where they sell spirits, there are the distinctive bottles of the almost medicinal-tasting Unicum, which appears very popular. Is it used for ‘medicinal’ purposes?
A. Unicum is indeed very popular. It is a bitter spirit made from a secret recipe of more than 40 different herbs. Hungarians will tell you to have a shot of Unicum as a cure for many ailments. My father-in-law, a general practitioner, used to hand them out to his patients. For awhile I thought this was just an excuse for Hungarians to drink more. But I am now a convert. A sip of Unicum when you have a cold or a sore throat really does work wonders.
Q. Tell us about Palinka. Where and how should visitors to Budapest try it? Any tips?
A. Pálinka is Hungarian fruit brandy, which can be made from a wide variety of different fruit. For a very longtime the only choices were super strong házi (homemade) pálinka or cheap and rough mass-produced brands. Over the past five years or so, there has been a pálinka revolution and many companies have started producing excellent, very smooth, artisanal pálinka. While the most common (and traditional) flavors are plum and apricot, you can find everything from strawberry and raspberry to marc and a number of grape varieties. Most good restaurants will offer a number of types of pálinka, and the best time to drink it is after a meal. Otherwise, if you are buying a bottle, try the shops that sell good wine; they will almost always stock some good pálinka as well.
Q. What should visitors not leave Budapest without trying ?
A. I recommend that all travelers to Budapest try Mangalica pork because it might be the most delicious kind of pork in the world; a variety of wines from the Tokaj region, because the whole range from dry to very sweet is not easy to find outside of Hungary; good pálinka (quince is my favorite flavor), because you’ll never want to taste the homemade stuff after that again; a bowl of gulyás because it is so simple, but characteristic of Hungarian cooking; and coffee and cake at one of Budapest’s gorgeous coffee houses.
Q. And what should foodie visitors stock up on in Budapest?
A. Some good foodie souvenirs are Hungarian wines by small producers that are only available here, paprika, Unicum or high-end pálinka, or a bottle of Hungarian walnut oil. Try one of Bortársaság’s several locations for the wine and pálinka. Foodies might also appreciate Hungarian folk-style pottery, serving dishes, or handmade tablecloths. For these, I recommend checking out Mester Porta (I. Corvin tér 7).