Wondering what kind of Hungarian food there is to try? Lucky for you (and me!) and my friend, Autumn, is back with a guide! She’s been with her Hungarian partner for five years now, so she knows a thing or two around the cuisine. Take it away, Autumn!
Before I hit the jackpot and somehow managed to meet my partner, Alex, I knew very little about Hungarian cuisine. Goulash, as I knew it, was a tomato-y mixture with elbow macaroni and ground meat that could be stretched out to feed many hungry mouths. Growing up in the US, I’d eaten it in my elementary school cafeteria, slopped onto my tray with some baby carrots and a side of thick chocolate milk. Other than that, I really had no idea – and no real interest – in what to eat in Hungary. Surely French and Italian food was the pinnacle of all European cuisine, with, of course, Olive Garden being the height of authenticity.
Boy, have I learned a lot since then.
In the five years I’ve been with Alex, we’ve eaten a good bit of homemade Hungarian food. I will never forget the first time I went to his apartment, when we had just started dating, and he made me true Hungarian goulash. Truly, it was a formative experience that opened my eyes to just how incredibly good Hungarian cooking can be when done right.
Ever since then, I’ve learned a lot about the cuisine as I’ve watched my partner cook, traveled to Hungary, visited Hungarian shops, read through tons of Hungarian recipes, and learned how to cook quite a few Hungarian dishes myself.
In this guide, I’ll lay out some characteristics of Hungarian food, some of the absolute must-tries in different meal categories, and what to eat when planning your own trip to Hungary. As a full disclaimer though, I myself am NOT Hungarian. If you are Hungarian, please feel free to leave a comment below for anything that I’ve left out, or that you think should be added to this guide!
Characteristics of Hungarian Food
Many world cuisines can be summarized by just a few ingredients. If I were thinking of Korean cuisine, for example, I would say kimchi, rice, gochujang, sesame oil, and seafood. For French, it might be butter, cream, bread, cheese, and wine. These summaries give you a decent idea of the flavor profile of each country, so let’s look at Hungary’s:
- Sour Cream
- Túró (which is a soft, unripened cheese a bit similar to ricotta)
Almost every single time that Alex and I are cooking together, we use at least one, if not several, of these ingredients.
Paprika is perhaps the most famous of these factors when it comes to Hungarian cooking and cuisine. As I’m writing this, there are currently four different types of paprika in my pantry right now: one smoky, one sweet, one spicier, and one just a mild, generic grocery store brand that I was foolish enough to buy without consulting the household Hungarian.
Hungarian food tends to lean a bit heavy, with hearty, meaty soups and buttery baked goods being the things that really shine. There are plenty of dishes that are available for vegetarians (which my partner’s parents both were when he was growing up!), but if you’re vegan and looking for a traditional Hungarian meal, good luck.
Hungarian Food Tours
Prefer a fun food tour to get your introduction to Hungarian food? Try these out on your future trip to Budapest:
Budapest Food Tour
A classic food tour in the city’s historic center. Your local guide will take you to six different stops and the group is limited to 10 participants. Check prices & availability here
Hungarian Cuisine Tasting Experience
This tour will take you through Budapest’s Great Market Hall to learn not just about traditional Hungarian dishes but the ingredients that make them so delicious. Besides trying delicious samples throughout the experience, you’ll also get to try some Hungarian wines and homemade syrups at the end. Check prices & availability here
Hungarian Cooking Class with a Local Chef
Over 4 hours, learn how to put together a 3-course traditional Hungarian meal. For a nice touch, the class takes place in your hosts’ apartment, so it feels like local friends teaching you how to cook. Check prices & availability here
Private Urban Feast Food Tour with Wine Tasting & Dessert
This private tour takes takes guests from a traditional Budapest coffee house to the Great Market Hall and teaches you all about Hungarian’s love for their cuisine. They’ll also guide you on how to find the good, authentic dishes. Check prices & availability here
Budapest Street Food Tour with Snacks, Dessert, & Beer
A fun food tour that’ll take you to local favorites and show you some delicious langos, beer, paprika sausage, Granny’s strudel, and a fun treat at the end. Check prices & availability here
Hungarian Desserts Baking Class
A fun baking class for anyone with a sweet tooth! You’ll bake two sweet and one salty dessert during this four hour experience. Menu A includes langos, baked pancake, and gerbeaud layer cake while Menu B includes langos, dobos cake, and strudel with filo dough. Check prices & availability here
Must-Try Hungarian Food
Real goulash is nothing like its American Hamburger Helper-style counterpart. True Hungarian gulyas is a hearty soup with meat, some vegetables, potatoes, and, of course, plenty of Hungarian paprika. It’s the perfect hearty meal for the colder months. Feel free to stir in some sour cream and serve it up with bread (or pogasca, see below).
Have you ever thought to yourself “wow, I have tons of paprika in my pantry and don’t know what to do with it?” Well, with chicken paprikash, your problem is finally solved! Chicken paprikash is, of course, chicken simmered in a sauce with tons of paprika, sour cream, garlic, and caraway. It’s often served with a side of Hungarian-style free form noodles called nokedli, which are easy enough to make from scratch at home even if you have never made pasta before.
Out of everything included on this list, lecsó is probably the dish that we eat the most often, as it’s healthy and quick to prepare. It’s also one of the dishes that can easily be made vegetarian, or even vegan if you’re inclined to omit the eggs. Make it by sautéing onions, bell peppers, and tomatoes together and then adding garlic, salt, and paprika until they release their water and begin to stew. Afterwards, you can crack in a few eggs and stir them up so they scramble in the sauce. Eaten with bread, lecsó is the perfect healthy start to any day. If you’re an absolute carnivore, you can add sausage or bacon, but it’s not necessary.
Hurka (and other sausages)
Hurka is my absolute favorite Hungarian sausage, and perhaps my favorite sausage ever. (If you’re squeamish, don’t read the next bit.) It’s made of pork blood, liver, lungs, and rice, spiced up with some onions. The organ meat and blood make the texture softer than other sausages, and the flavor is ultra rich.
My life is currently out of control in that I have cabbage rolls both in my freezer and in my fridge (send help). Cabbage rolls are a popular food for Hungarians around the holidays. Since we had both Christmas and Lunar New Year in Korea recently, we celebrated both with this dish. Cabbage rolls are usually made of pork mixed with – you guessed it – onion, caraway seeds, and paprika, rolled up into cabbage leaves and steamed in either water, tomato juice, or some light broth and served with sour cream. A side of good quality, crusty bread really completes the meal.
Hungarian Snacks and Street Food
I’m originally from Tennessee and grew up eating biscuits. Even if you’re not Southern, you’re probably familiar with garlic cheese biscuits from fine dining establishments such as Red Lobster.
Let me tell you, pogacsa (or pogis, for short) are even better than a cheese biscuit.
Pogacsa are tiny yeasted biscuits. They’re made with both butter and sour cream, so the inside is absolutely luscious. Before baking, brush them down with egg and sprinkle them with caraway seeds and cheese, which gives them a diving, shatteringly crisp crust on the outside. Truly, pogis are at their best fresh out of the oven. I’ve burned both my fingers and mouth several times eating them directly from the tray as my partner pulls them out of the oven, but every time it’s been worth it.
If you’re in Budapest, though, it can sometimes be difficult to find super fresh pogis if you just go into a bakery. I was so disappointed the first time we went to a bakery there and we got older pogis that had lost all their outside crunch. Alex later told me that Hungarian people normally order their pogis so they can pick them up fresh, so you can always try that if you’re visiting Hungary.
Chimney cake is popular in both Hungary and some surrounding countries. It’s made from dough wrapped around a hollow wooden tube and then baked while turning next to a hot grill. This creates a crisp exterior and a pillowy soft interior. When the cake is done, it’s slid off the tube (so it’s hollow in the middle!) and rolled in toppings. My personal favorite (and the OG classic) is cinnamon sugar, but of course feel free to do you.
Chimney cake is really best when it’s very fresh and hot. Try to avoid places selling pre-wrapped or bagged chimney cakes. You should be able to spot the cakes baking when you buy them – if you don’t, find a different stall!
Budapest also has this fun chimney cake workshop where you can learn how to make it.
As an American, I used to somehow think that we had a complete monopoly on how unhealthy (and delicious) we could make any food, but wow, has travel changed my mind on that. Langos is a huge piece of deep-fried dough (think at least the size of a small pizza) topped with garlic, sour cream, and shredded cheese that half melts on top of the hot dough. You can also sometimes get different toppings on them as well.
While langos are sold individually, I do recommend sharing one with a friend. They are finger-lickin’ good but also very heavy, as I’m sure you can imagine.
If you want to learn to make your own, try this langos cooking class in Budapest.
Hungarian Cheesecake (Kapros Turos Lepeny)
I have some of this sitting in my fridge at home right now and let me tell you what, it is living at the front and center of my mind. When my partner first told me about this recipe a couple of years back, and requested it for his birthday, he called it “dill cottage cheese pie” which sounds atrocious. I was very skeptical, but found a recipe online and did my best to make it anyway and wow, was I wrong. Kapros turos lepeny is essentially a cheesecake (but made with túró rather than cream cheese) with a crust that’s reminiscent of shortbread. The dill that’s sprinkled through the cheesecake batter adds a bright, sweet taste. I had never thought about using dill in a dessert, really, but trust me: it works.
Cold cherry soup
I KNOW I am going to cause controversy by putting this soup in the dessert category, but let’s all be honest with ourselves. Cold cherry soup is melted cherry ice cream in a bowl. It’s made with sour cream, cherries, and sugar, and spiced up with things like anise and cinnamon – tell me that doesn’t sound like dessert to you.
When you think of Hungarian cakes, this is probably one of the first things to come to mind. A dobos torte is a multi-layered, very extravagant-looking cake topped with caramel. I made one for my partner’s birthday a few years ago and also tried some when we went to Budapest on a recent trip. The cake itself is a basic white cake, layered with chocolate frosting and topped with caramel.
Just as I have some Hungarian cheesecake sitting in my fridge at home right now, I also totally have a beigli we baked at Christmas wrapped up in my freezer. Beigli is a yeasted dough wrapped in a spiral around fillings, usually either poppy seed or walnut, and then cut after baking so it vaguely resembles a cinnamon roll. There is fierce debate about which topping is better, poppy or walnut, so be fully prepared to take a side if you really want to roll with the Magyars.
One day, years ago now, some Hungarian woke up and thought, “I would like put rum into pancakes” and since then, the country as a whole has never looked back.
Hungarian crepes, or palacsinta, are a bit thinner than their French counterparts, but other than that, the spirit of the actual pancake is the same. The real difference between crepes and palacsinta are the fillings. Hungarians prefer jams, turo (see above) with sour cream and powdered sugar, or ground nuts with chocolate. My personal favorite (and possibly the most decadent filling) is ground walnuts with chocolate and rum.
Where Can I Find Hungarian Products/Recipes?
If you live in the US (and I’m assuming that you do), most ingredients that you’ll need to make a solid Hungarian dish can be found in any supermarket. You might have to order some specialty ingredients (like the sausages) online.
If you’re in New York, there doesn’t seem to be a shortage of Hungarian restaurants or bakeries, either! A ton of Hungarians emigrated to the United States, especially during and after the second world war, and they set up shop.
There’s a lot more to Hungarian food than what I’ve talked about here, but if I went over every single thing that we ever have, this guide would be obscenely long. I encourage you to use this as a jumping off point to do more exploration on your own of Hungary’s rich food culture, whether you plan to visit a Hungarian restaurant, cook something special at home, or maybe even plan your own trip to Hungary someday.
For more of Autumn’s posts, read these next:
- Budapest to Szentendre: The Most Scenic Way to Get There
- A Hiking Guide to Odaesan National Park in Korea
- Skiing in Korea: Your Ultimate Guide
- A Guide to Hiking Gyeryongsan in Korea
Cover & pin photo by Ervin Lukas via Unsplash
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