Three ways to experience Hungarian cuisine in Budapest

Sausages at Central Market Hall
Sausages at Central Market Hall
Sausages at Central Market Hall

During a three-day stay in Budapest before a Viking Danube River cruise, my husband and I enjoyed several unique experiences in the city that enabled us to simultaneously learn a bit about Hungarian cuisine, history and culture. The gastronomy of the city is a mosaic that reflects a complicated history of invasions and occupations as well as successive waves of immigration from Asia, the Middle East and Europe.

“The country has benefited from these foreign influences over centuries by adding or adapting ingredients, cooking methods and recipes to its culinary repertoire,” noted Carolyn Banfalvi, author of Food Wine Budapest (Terroir Guides).

Exploring the Central Market Hall

Covered in various shades of orange brick, the Central Market Hall is colorful inside and out. The 100,000-square-foot building, which dates to 1897, was severely damaged in World War II and restored about a decade ago. The metal roof of the neo-Gothic structure is decorated with replicas of the same Zsolnay ceramic tiles that adorn four smaller city markets and other monumental buildings, including Matthias Church, the Museum of Applied Arts and the Gellert Baths.
Tile roof of the Central Market Hall
Tile roof of the Central Market Hall

Locals do their shopping here, but the three-story market also serves as a virtual showroom of Hungarian foods for first-time visitors. Stalls on the ground floor display meats (including countless sausage varieties), local cheeses, fresh fruits and vegetables, candies, pastries, and spirits — and endless stacks of canned goose liver.

Decorative bags and tins of paprika, either sweet or spicy, are ubiquitous. Near-perfect growing conditions in the south have made Hungary one of the world’s largest suppliers of red peppers that are so sweet, robust and flavorful that Hungarian paprika occupies a culinary niche of its own. Though we thought the seasoning was uniquely Hungarian and associated it with savory dishes such as goulash and chicken paprikash, we learned that the term “paprika” means “pepper,” both in English and Hungarian. “It refers to both peppers of all kinds and the spice powder,” Banfalvi explained.

Gift packages of paprika
Gift packages of paprika

On the top floor of the market, not far from the displays of household items, crafts and souvenirs, the wafting aromas of hot-cooked foods from small eateries lining the perimeter caught our attention. Wearing red T-shirts emblazoned with the words “Hungarian Food” in English, servers implored us to try mega-size lunch portions of homemade stuffed cabbage, goulash and cooked sausages.

The most odorous foods are relegated to the basement, where fishmongers are interspersed with vendors selling savory pickled vegetables.

Hitting the streets on a food tour with a local

After an online search before our trip, we discovered Budapest Underguide, vetted the firm through Tripadvisor and arranged for a four-hour delicatessen tour with the company.

Elza Morcsanyi, our energetic 20-something guide, met us at our hotel lobby before we set out on foot. She began by explaining how the Romans and Habsburgs helped shape the food culture of Budapest. “There are three ingredients that are essential to almost all Hungarian cooking,” she said: “Pork, garlic and onions.”

Our first stop was at the small Hold Street Market Hall. Morcsanyi had us make a beeline to a small stand at the rear corner of the market, where a woman was preparing langos, a flatbread specialty made with fried dough, sour cream, garlic and grated cheese. This Hungarian variant of pizza is a popular street food. Though delicious, it tasted heavy and oily so early in the day.

Langos, a popular street food in Budapest

“The number of small local butchers is declining,” Morcsanyi lamented as she led us to Hajos, a narrow butcher shop with a counter along a side wall that was lined with laborers eating sausages. “Baked or fried?” she asked. My husband opted for baked sausage, which came with a slice of country bread, a dollop of mustard, a plate of pickled vegetables (green tomato, apple-paprika, cucumber and pickled melon) and a sharp knife.

Baked sausages and pickled vegetables
Baked sausages and pickled vegetables

We peeked inside Cafe Gerbeaud at Vorosmarty Square, one of the most elegant and expensive coffeehouses in Europe, dating to 1858. Artfully designed (and beautifully packaged) pastries and chocolates were showcased in glass cases beneath crystal chandeliers. Morcsanyi warned us we would be visiting another candy shop, but I couldn’t resist purchasing some “cat tongue” chocolates, whose name derives from their shape.

When our soles began to wear thin, Morcsanyi introduced us to the city’s clean and efficient public transportation system. Hopping on the M1, a train that began operation in 1896 (making it the second-oldest underground electric railway in the world after London’s), we headed to the old Jewish Quarter. There we visited Szimpla Kert, one of the city’s 30 underground “ruin bars” that gained popularity about a decade ago. Inside the shell of an abandoned building with mismatched furniture, vintage decor, dim lighting and graffiti sprawled across the walls, we sampled palinka (fruit brandy), froccs (wine spritzer) and Unicum (an herbal bitter).

Szimpla Kert, one of the city's ruin bars
Szimpla Kert, one of the city’s ruin bars

Our last tour stop was at one outpost of Szamos Marcipan Cukraszda, a family-owned cafe and confectionary empire. The marzipan art was museum quality, but we opted for kave (coffee), sharing a slice of Dobos torte (sponge cake with buttercream filling topped with hard caramel) and a strudel filled with cottage cheese and peach jam.

Szamos Marcipan Cukraszda cafe and confectionary
Szamos Marcipan Cukraszda cafe and confectionary

Dining at Budapest’s fine restaurants

Hungarian cuisine has been characterized as flavorful but hearty, caloric and unhealthy. “One of the most exciting things happening now is the new wave of contemporary Hungarian restaurants where chefs are taking liberties with traditional recipes that their grandmothers would have never even imagined,” said Banfalvi, who runs a tour company called Taste Hungary. “They are not only lightening up the dishes but looking at their ingredients in more creative ways.”

There has been a surge in restaurant openings across the city as well as a renewed appreciation for Hungarian wines. To experience the modern cuisine of Budapest, we dined at two restaurants. At Aszu (named after the world-famous Hungarian dessert wine from Tokaj), we enjoyed nouvelle presentations of goulash with potatoes and carrots, and seared goose liver with apple jam.

Goulash with potatoes and carrots
Goulash with potatoes and carrots
Seared goose liver
Seared goose liver

On our last evening before embarkation, we dined at Tigris, where we had another exceptional meal. The inventive menu emphasized local foods and wines.

My husband had a memorable entree of succulent pork tenderloin and cheek served on a bed of potato mousse and pumpkin puree.

Hungary is the second-largest producer of foie gras in the world after France. If you enjoy foie gras, don’t miss the restaurant’s sampler plate.

[A version of this article was published in the Chicago Tribune Sunday Travel Section on June, 19 2014.]


Previously on More Time to Travel:

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  1. You’ve transported me back to Budapest. I was so busy eating goulash that I seem to have missed out on some of the treats you’ve mentioned. I also want to dine at Tigris next time. The Central Market Hall is amazing — loved walking through there.

  2. Very happy to see you enjoyed one of theexperiences that I consider mandatory, Langos (the other would be their Salami)

    The ‘ruin’ bars are certainly a delight as well, some obviously very trendy with the younger crowds, and others, a bit more subdued, but nonetheless charming.

  3. I too loved Budapest’s Central Market Hall and stocked up on paprika and a bottle cherry kirsch ( at least I think that’s what it was). If I could have stashed some langos in my suitcase to take back to Canada I would had! I remember getting yelled at by a vendor who didn’t want me to take a photo of her cabbage display. It was so beautiful I couldn’t resist but lesson learned. Ask first – even if the subject of your intended photo is a vegetable.

    1. You made me laugh, Michele. Yes, I’ve been shooed away from store windows and vendors across the world, even after I asked. I would have taken the request as a compliment.

  4. What a great food post, Irene. I feel like I was with you in Budapest. I love exploring a city’s food the way you did.

  5. That seared goose liver looks sinfully good… The only problem with such good food before your cruise is that you’d then have high expectations of the food onboard the cruise – hopefully it was as tasty :-).

  6. That colorful tile on the roof just is amazing. It’s like looking at tapestry in a museum. Then you show me the colorful gift packages of paprika and the food offerings, which makes my spending fingers and diet conscious mind want to go there immediately. Wonderful post, Irene.

  7. Eastern Europe is way up there on our “someday” list; and this food looks so good, my favorite though is the sausage with bread and pickled veggies. We love to eat simply like that. And Paprika is one of our favorite spices, love the little decorated spoon with the bag, so cute!

  8. Lovely, I enjoyed touring Central market and boy those sausages were good…the ruin bars are always my favorite night time jaunts, but I never make it past 11pm when things really just get started.

  9. Went to Budapest many years ago and although I didn’t really look into the food scene, I remember being so impressed by some of the food out there! I’d love to go back and see the city and sample its food again one day. I’ve recently done food walks in London and Ljubljana and loved them so would enjoy trying out a food tour in Budapest too! Great post!

  10. Wonderful and delicious post! My step father is Hungarian and I really want to go – one day perhaps. I really appreciate you listing the restaurants at the end of the post, that is super helpful. I will share this with my friends who are traveling to Budapest in the Fall.

  11. I see you explored the delicious foods at The Great Market Hall (Nagy Vásárcsarnok). I love Hungarian food and especially Budapest! We have an apartment there and go about once a year. Great post, by the way.

  12. This food looks just as good as what I experienced in Italy. That Langos looks irresistible. I’m afraid I’d have to go on a diet before and after 🙂

  13. Looks like I could happily sit in Budapest until I gained 20 pounds! And as far as langos goes… Greasy, heavy, oily bread and cheese, my kind of bedtime snack! -Veronica

  14. I love this survey of food in Budapest, with its wide range of locations, styles, prices and cuisine. I’m afraid we only scratched the surface on our visit late last year, so…another place to return!

  15. We will be in Budapest for 3 days in September. It sounds like the market you describe is a “must see”. I’m not sure I’d do very well on a 4 hour food tour. However, I’m making a note for the restaurants where you had dinner. We will be in Budapest after Munich and Vienna. I may have had it with heavy pork dinners by then. We’ll see. 😉

    1. I highly recommend both tourist companies. They not only do food tours but also historical and cultural ones. With only three days in Budapest, they can help assure that you see the things of most interest to you. How lucky you are to be headed to Budapest!

  16. That sounds just like my kind of tour and I wished I’d done that when I was in Budapest. We did visit the market though and had Dobos Torte at the Boscolo New York Cafe which was wonderful. I love your descriptions and that pork tenderloin looks scrumptious…

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