When my mother and I met up in Budapest, Hungary, the first thing we did was walk to a nearby cafe. We hadn’t seen each other in seven months, since I had started traveling, and we were excited to catch up. We sat across from each other in a beautiful courtyard cafe, chatting about my mom’s long flight from Chicago and our plans for the next two weeks. The afternoon flew by as we slowly ordered coffee, then food, and finally finished with some Hungarian wines. Our server never hurried us out of our seat or rushed us; plenty of people here spend an afternoon at the local cafe.
There is no better beginning to a Europe trip than a slow afternoon in a leafy cafe. Europe’s “cafe culture”, comparable to the cafe scene in Vietnam, encourages relaxation and long conversations. The late 19th century was a golden age for Budapest and its many cafes. However, the city suffered the destruction of the world wars, which was followed by four decades of communism. Cafes, like many civil society institutions, suffered under communist leaders. Cafes are places where dissent can breed, so many were closed down or replaced with stand up, quick espresso counters.
But today, thankfully, slow cafe culture is thriving again in Budapest. Cafes line every street, full of friends and partners gossiping around empty espresso cups. Cafes flourish here in the gentler, warmer months, and cafe owners even try to lengthen the season by offering blankets and heat lamps. Cafes are a place for people watching and relationship building, a place to fuel the average European’s espresso addiction. Cafes are where couples meet, where ideas are born, and where a country’s real business is done. And for my mother and me, these cafes were a place for many enjoyable hours of catching up.
Budapest is actually made up of two cities. Hilly and quiet Buda lies in the west, and commercial Pest in the east; the Danube river separates them. The city is located on top of some thermal springs, which fill the many hot baths (“Pest” comes from the Slavic word meaning “oven”). This old capital of part of the Austro-Hungarian empire is full of different architectural styles, though most date after 1838 (the year of an incredibly destructive flood).
Hungarians pride themselves on being unique among the surrounding Slavic countries. Hungarians are descendents of a migrant Asian people, the Magyar. Their language shows their lineage, being distinctly different from its neighbors and notoriously difficult to learn. Hungary is also a melting pot in central Europe, historically influenced by neighboring Slavs, Aryans, Turks, and many others. All of these factors combine to form a uniquely Hungarian culture, and of course, Hungarian cuisine.
Though I do love the meat, potatoes, and bread based diet that sustains much of eastern and central Europe, I was excited to visit Hungary for the one thing I’ve been missing: spice. Thailand had stoked my love for spicy food (though it is quite doubtful that I’ll ever be able to eat “Thai spicy”). And since I had started traveling in Europe, I had missed spice- the kind of spice that encourages crying regularly during meals, or gulping down the nearest liquid to calm down the fire on my tongue.
But in Hungary, I found spice, because paprika is everywhere. When Hungarians say paprika, they can refer to two things: the red or green peppers, or the powder made from them. In addition, there are two main types of paprika, sweet and hot. The sweet variety are used during cooking, to add flavor and a beautiful red color to a dish. Particularly in the tourist places, the hot paprika is served on the side, powdered, pickled, chopped, or otherwise. Each person can adjust the individual heat of a dish. Paprika- pickled, roasted, stuffed, stewed, chopped, or used for color- can be found in most Hungarian dishes.
Walking around the (albeit, touristic) Central Market Hall in Budapest, I scan for peppers. I spot peppers dried, fresh, pickled, powered, and nicely packaged for tourists to take home. There are peppers in key chain form, printed on bags, and made into plush toys. Paprika is a national symbol, and Hungarians are certainly proud of it. And I could not be more excited: I have found spice, finally, in Hungary.
Dishes never seem to stay within borders, and as I travel around eastern and central Europe, I continue to discover many linking threads. However, as with most things in Hungary, the cuisine is slightly different from its neighbors.
For example, goulash (gulyás in Hungarian) can be found in many different counties in central Europe. However, whereas in places like the Czech Republic the goulash is a thick stew (that usually leaves me wanting to roll out of the restaurant), in Hungary it is a thin broth soup. The meat, potatoes, and other vegetables are spiced but fresh, making it a delicious meal on a cool day.
Another uniquely Hungarian dish, one I have yet to see anywhere else, is meggy leves, or cold fruit soup. While this cream based, rich soup would be considered a dessert by most, it is actually eaten before the meal (when my mother and I ordered it, we thought that there must have been a mistake, until we were informed that it was normal). This soup is usually made with sour cherries, and it is unbelievably rich and delicious.
We also try the delicious nokedli, boiled egg noodles, which strongly resemble German spätzle. It is frequently served with káposzta, similar to sauerkraut. However, these dishes are usually spiced with hot paprika, making them truly Hungarian.
Hungarians are wine lovers. They have grown grapes since the Roman era, and in the years up to WWII, Hungarian wine had an excellent reputation. However, under communism and collectivization, the vineyards suffered, and the quality of wine declined.
Today, Hungarian wine is popular again, domestically. The industry has not yet grown enough to be widely exported, so my mother and I took the opportunity to try a new Hungarian wine with most meals. As two wine lovers, we agreed: we never had a bad glass. I’m sure that Hungary’s reputation will only grow as the industry recovers and the vineyards return to their former glory.
But as my mother and I found out after our first traditional meal in a Hungarian restaurant, Hungarians don’t just drink wine. At the end of our meal, the server brought us small glasses of pálinka. Pálinka is a powerful schnapps made from different fruits, similar to liquors found in Romania and Bulgaria. Another strong bitter liquor, unicum, is a bitter liquor made from dozens of different herbs, aged in oak casks. As digestifs, these liqueurs are a great cap to the meal, guaranteed to make you leave the restaurant in a good mood.
I tried my first Hungarian food in Warsaw, Poland, weeks before I visited Hungary. I had spent the night trying new beers at the Warsaw Beer Festival, chatting with friends and walking around the stadium. Late in the night, my friends and I checked out the food trucks, hungry for something to soak up the beer in our stomachs
I spotted lángos, a Hungarian specialty. It is a simple dough that is deep fried, usually rubbed with garlic and covered with sour cream and cheese. Predictably, all this fat, dairy, and bread was delicious. After an introduction like that, I was very excited to visit Hungary.
Once there, between the cafes, two strong liquors, Hungarian wine, and spicy but delicious cuisine, Hungary charmed my mother and me. Like someone warned me in Romania, “the best Hungarian food will make you fat, but very happy!”