During a three-day stay in Budapest before a Danube River cruise, my husband and I enjoyed several unique food experiences in the city and simultaneously learned a bit about Hungarian 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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
"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.
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).
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.
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.
On our last evening before embarkation, we dined at Tigris, where we had another exceptional meal. The inventive menu emphasized local foods and wines.