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The Influence of Different Empires and Nations on Hungarian Cuisine

Budapest is a city full of surprises and wonder, with its majestic ancient buildings, tall church spires, lavish spas and the serene Danube river. The architecture, just like its delicious cuisine is a confluence of different cultures, which have occupied or influenced the city during the course of its history.

Hungarian goulash soup in a loaf
Hungarian goulash soup in a loaf
Hungarian cuisine is truly a melting pot of different cultures, yet grounded in the ingenuity and spirit of its original Magyar people, who were artisans in combining different ingredients and flavors. In this article, we take a look at the major influences on the Hungarian cuisine, starting with its early history.

Early Hungarian History and Cuisine

Hungarians were nomadic people referred to as Magyars who conquered the Carpathian Basin in 896, having moved from the East, somewhere around the Ural Mountains. The cuisine of the Magyars was primarily based on meats, fish, seasonal vegetables, wild fruits, honey, diary products and cheeses.

Gulyás (goulash) a soup or stew of meat and vegetables, and tokány a meat stew were the popular food dishes of the Magyars who were known to experiment with different vegetables or meats available to them to prepare their food.

Hungarian conquest of the Carpathian Basin and subsequent events from the Chronicon Pictum
Hungarian conquest of the Carpathian Basin and subsequent events from the Chronicon Pictum
In 1000, King Saint Stephen I founded the Kingdom of Hungary, and accepted the Catholic religion as standard. At the time of King Stephen many monasteries and convents were built, and they were obliged to provide tired travelers with food and lodging. In the Middle Ages, cooks were highly respected artisans and the royal court employed the best staff, which in turn evolved the cuisine of Hungary in the medieval period.

Hősök tere (Heroes' Square) in Budapest a tribute to its Magyar chiefs and the great kings
Hősök tere (Heroes' Square) in Budapest a tribute to its Magyar chiefs and the great kings
Fish based dishes were popular during the medieval period with beluga and the European sea sturgeon being considered fine delicacies. At the palaces and stately homes meat dishes made from beef, pork, mutton and poultry which was usually goose and duck were heavily consumed.

The medieval market in Buda offered a variety of food ingredients and products, ranging from meats, vegetables, fruits, spices from far-off lands, herbs grown at monasteries, cheeses and freshly baked bread.

The Hungarians during the medieval period indulged in good food and were creative with their use of herbs and spices; they were culinary artisans and their dishes varied from meat, fish, vegetables, and the adoption of new ingredients available to them.

Influence of the Ottoman Empire

From 1541 to 1699, a large part of the medieval Kingdom of Hungary was ruled by the Ottoman Empire also known as the Turkish Empire. Ottoman occupation covered mostly the central and southern territories of Hungary while the other areas of the Kingdom were part of the lands of the Habsburg monarchy.

During the 150 years of cohabitation, the Turks introduced rice, tomatoes and rice dishes which were an important part of the Turkish cuisine and food supply for its military.

Meat dishes like kebab, based on grilled meat and guvech, a casserole/stew made of eggplant, roast peppers, tomatoes, rice and meat were also introduced by the Turks during their occupation.

Töltött káposzta (Stuffed cabbage)
Töltött káposzta (Stuffed cabbage)
Stuffed and wrapped dishes known as dolma and sarma came from the Turks. Dolma and sarma are general terms used for many varieties of vegetables and leaves stuffed with meat and rice fillings. In Hungarian cuisine these dishes are referred to as Töltött káposzta (cabbage leaves wrapped around a variety of fillings), Töltött Karalábé (stuffed kohlrabi, a variety of the cabbage) and Töltött paprika (stuffed peppers).

Paprika vendor at the Great Market Hall in Budapest by Takkk
Paprika vendor at the Great Market Hall in Budapest by Takkk
Paprika a powdered spice made from red bell peppers, which is an important element of Hungarian cuisine was introduced to the region in the 16th century during the Ottoman rule. It originated in central Mexico and was brought to Spain in the early 1500s, from where its cultivation expanded to other parts of Europe. Paprika was initially grown in the gardens as an ornamental or medicinal plant, and limited in its use for cooking as it was considered very hot. It was only after the mid 19th century, it became a dominant spice in Hungarian kitchens and restaurants after different experimentation and cross-breeding had managed to reduce its heat. Paprika is an important ingredient in preparing the Goulash, which is a famous Hungarian dish.

The New York Café in Budapest
The New York Café in Budapest
Coffee, which was a popular drink among the Turkish officials was introduced to Budapest, or rather, to what were then the separate cities of Buda, Pest and Óbuda in the late 16th century. Hungarians of the time seldom drank coffee, not wanting to acquire the habits of the conquerors. It only gained prominence after the liberation of Buda at the end of the 17th century, at which time it had already spread throughout Europe. The first coffeehouses opened in 1714 in Pest, then in Buda and Óbuda. By the late 19th Century, these coffeehouses had become important literary and political meeting grounds, and a permanent fixture of the Hungarian culture.

Filo or phyllo, a very thin unleavened dough used for making pastries such as baklava was also introduced to the Hungarians by the Ottoman Empire.

Influence of the Austrian Empire

The Kingdom of Hungary between 1526 and 1867 was part of the lands of the Habsburg Monarchy, that became the Empire of Austria in 1804. From 1867 to 1918, Hungary was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, after the lands of the Habsburg Monarchy were reorganized as a real union between the Austrian Empire and the Kingdom of Hungary. This union created a multicultural cuisine and inspired many creative new Hungarian dishes and pastries.

Following the European discovery of the Americas, crops such as maize and potatoes were introduced to Europe. They were cultivated in Hungary by the Austrian rulers and for some time potato and maize growers were even exempt from tax, hence these crops began to be adopted in the Hungarian cuisine.

Bécsi szelet (wiener schnitzel)
Bécsi szelet (wiener schnitzel)
Hungarian dishes like virsli (hot dog sandwich / wiener) and bécsi szelet(Viennese slice), borjú bécsi (Viennese veal) or rántott hús (breaded meat) which refer to wiener schnitzel, originated from the Austrian influence of the Austro-Hungarian era.

Hungarian strudels by Thaler Tamas
Hungarian strudels by Thaler Tamas
Vienna which was the primary capital of the Monarchy also influenced Hungary with the fine art of pastry making as cakes and tortes were popular among the nobles of the time. A variety of Hungarian strudels (rétesek) originated during the Austro-Hungarian era, though the origin of strudel can be traced to the Turkish baklava and phyllo pastry.

Influence of Different Nations and People

In April 1849, an independent government of Hungary was established after gaining independence from the Habsburg Monarchy. This was the start for Hungarian cuisine and its chefs to begin finding their own expression, identity and developing a world class cuisine.

Hortobágyi palacsinta, a savory crêpe filled with veal
Hortobágyi palacsinta, a savory crêpe filled with veal
At the end of the 18th century, Austrian noble families were known to have begun hiring French chefs to raise the quality of their cuisine, a practice that was followed by the Hungarians in the 19th century. This approach helped refine many of the ancient dishes by adding a lightness of touch to the different spices and ingredients used in cooking while adding sophistication and improving the presentation of these dishes to the noble families and inns.

A French chef, József Marchal was one of the pioneers in the refinement of the early Hungarian cuisine. While still young he was employed at the court of Napoleon III, where he mastered the culinary craft. Having being invited to Hungary, by Prince Pál Esterházy, he was the chef de cuisine at the National Casino. While still keeping the original ingredients and traditional seasonings of Hungarian dishes, he refined and balanced the flavors by reducing the amount of onion, hot paprika, substituting other fats for the heavier pork lard, adding cream and sour cream. He also trained many other Hungarian cooks, who went on to become some of the best chefs of their generation.

Gundel palacsinta filled with nuts and chocolate sauce
Gundel palacsinta filled with nuts and chocolate sauce
János Gundel is another iconic person who influenced the Hungarian cuisine. Having immigrated to Hungary from Bavaria, he bought his own hotel and restaurant in Pest and refined many of the traditional Hungarian dishes, making them appealing to a larger audience. Later on, his son Károly Gundel continued the legacy of refining the Hungarian cuisine. Today, his restaurant Gundel, located in the Budapest City Park, is considered one of the finest restaurants in Hungary.

Dobos cake at Gerbeaud Confectionery Budapest
Dobos cake at Gerbeaud Confectionery Budapest
The third man who played an important role in the evolution of Hungarian cuisine is József Dobos who is known for the famous multi-layer pastry, Dobos cake, named after him. He came from a cook-dynasty and besides being an excellent chef was also a very gifted writer. His best-known work was published in 1881, titled Hungarian-French Cookbook, which truly reflects the fine evolution of Hungarian cuisine in the 19th century.


References

A Concise History of Hungary by Miklós Molnár

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