About the food of Hungary

Ava meeting her great grandpa (my Hungarian grandpa) Michael Molnar. He died a few months later at age 96 after suffering a heart attack.

I’m Italian-Hungarian on my mother’s side. Which is like saying I’m wet-dry. Hot-cold. Tall-short. In our family, the Italian side is loud, boisterous and in each other’s business. On the Hungarian side no one talks about anything. Discussions rarely surface and, if they do, they begin and end with “just forget about it.” I rather like the combination. It makes for interesting family gatherings.

When I quizzed my mother about our Hungarian heritage, she said “I don’t know. It wasn’t like the Italian side, where we got together every Sunday to have a big fight.”

The only story I ever heard my Hungarian Grandpa tell was how he would ring the chickens’ necks for dinner. It consisted of two sentences: “I wrung their necks. Your grandmother cooked ‘em.” I had to really probe to get this tiny tidbit.

My mom only found out what her grandpa, Lajos, did for a living a few years ago. The story? He was in construction. She asked for details.

“Like building houses?”

“Yeah, something like that.”

End of story.

The Foppiano cousins, on the other hand, told me anything they could think of and mostly stories I was not supposed to know.

The conversation picked up when I asked mom what she ate growing up. The first thing she said was “Paprika, paprika, paprika.” This rusty red spice was in and on every dish imaginable, from Chicken Paprika [recipe], to eggs, soups, and cucumber salad with sour cream. Instead of common, mild paprika, she uses half-sharp paprika which is spicy and impossibly tingly, with a heat level floating somewhere between regular paprika and cayenne.

The conversation died down and we sipped our tea.

After a long silence, mom blurted out “Pig’s feet.”

She explained that her dad brought home pickled pigs feet – something her Italian mother had zero interest in. In general, meat was a big deal – mom was raised to chew the fat. The men did a lot of hunting. Rabbit, deer – it was all fair game.  They even ate bacon kabobs at campouts [recipe]. Stews like goulash and paprikas were served with buttered noodles.

Sweet summertime dishes included strudel and stone fruit, like cold cherry soup [recipe]. Hungarian crepes – palacsinta [recipe] – were adored any time of day. Mom rolled them up with apricot jam, walnuts, or yogurt/sour cream and we ate so many our tummies stuck out for hours. Savory versions were a big hit, too – mom stuffed many a palacsinta with chicken paprika. The funny thing is, growing up, I always assumed she was cooking French when she made crepes – I had no idea until this week that the versions we munched on my entire life were actually a Hungarian treat. Life is funny that way.

Full disclosure: except for the photo of my grandpa and great grandpa, my mom has no idea who the people in these pictures are. She said she found them in her dad’s family album, unlabeled. Which, as with any good tragic-comedy, makes us cry a little, but laugh more. As the Hungarian side of the family would say, “just forget about it.”

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Comments

  1. Jessica Bennett says:

    As I’ve mentioned before, you write so vividly and have such wonderful stories. I used to work with a woman whose mother was Hungarian, and I got the impression that her family was the same way (the other side of her family was Irish, and she was closer to that side, so she definitely had stories to tell there). I spent a week in Hungary (mostly Budapest), and enjoyed many dishes with paprika but did not experience the sharp paprika you mention. It sounds delicious. I use the common mild paprika often, but I’d love to try the sharp. I’ll have to look for it. Can’t wait to see your menu. I hope you had a wonderful time with your mom.

    • Sasha Martin says:

      If you can’t find the half-sharp paprika in a shop near you, you can definitely order some from Penzey’s Spices. They have a beautiful collection that you can order via catalog or over the phone. They also have a few shops now.

      • Jessica Bennett says:

        I usually find all the spices I need between all the shops in my area (and when I get back to NYC), but this Penzey’s sounds great. And a few shops is putting it mildly- they’re all over the place! I could even visit one if I ever get myself to Richmond or Raleigh (which I never seem to do, but I should- I need to try to make time to get out more).

      • <3 thank u!!

  2. Collette says:

    I think I am going to love this week…. Cliff might have to embrace it too, lol

  3. I have heard countless times that Hungarian immigrants wanted to forget all about the mother country and didn’t really pass on their cultural legacy (mostly the language) to their children. It’s true that Hungarian history is really, really chaotic and sometimes (at least for me) hard to understand.

    What you describe is close enough to what I’ve experienced : beef is seldom to be found – and they wash it before using it (I have never eaten lamb there, as in I could never find any) – pork is much more common, as is poultry, and lots of people go to Hungary for hunting.
    I always used the “édes” paprika, and not the “csipös” (strong) one – you can find both in the supermarkets (known as ABC but revived under the different brandname CBA).

    In Hungarian your grandpa’s name is Mihàly, and Lajos is Louis. I have fond memories of my stay there, not in Budapest but more in little villages. People were a lot like in Alsace : you had to get to know them first ! But generally Hungarians are very welcoming, all the more so if you speak the language a little. Ha, now I’m “homesick”… I’d better stop here or I’ll just ramble on.
    Your family pictures are great ! Such a pity not to know who these people are. Do you know where exactly they lived ? (you never know…)

    • Sasha Martin says:

      You’re making me *homesick* for Hungary and I’ve never even been. I need to dig around some more and find what town we’re from – maybe a voyage is in order. Then I can stock up on the édes and the csipös paprika for myself and my mom. :D

  4. Just one last thing : lots of similarities between Hungarian cooking / culture and the Alsacian ones (spätzle = galuska for example)

  5. Those are some fantastic photos!! More and more folks are now willing to give pig’s feet a go!

  6. Keith Glennon says:

    Looking forward to this week too!! Wonderful entry (as usual :)) Say “szia” to Ma, Ava and Mr. Picky!

  7. Lovely, personal introduction to this week of food, Sasha.

    I don’t officially have any Hungarian blood, but some of my maternal relatives live so close to the Austrian side of the border that I’m sure in the days of Empire, the genes flew back and forth from the Steiermark to Vas and Zala. My male relatives still go over to hunt the big-horned sheep in Hungary. Anyway, I am also a paprika lover and am looking forward to the week.

    Jó étvágyat!

    Laura

    • Sasha Martin says:

      Thanks Laura. Who knows, we could be cousins! I love the mystery that surrounds my Hungarian background – the more things are hush, hush, the more room for me to daydream.

  8. Great story and photos…very looking forward to what you whip up.

  9. It is fascinating to learn about one’s family, one’s heritage. It becomes important when you grow up. I wish my parents’ parents had told them more. I will make sure to tell my kids as much as I can. My mother, who is German, also grew up eating cold stone fruit soups and loves them to this day.

  10. I got the link from an American friend of mine from Thulsa and unfortunately I could check it just now, when the hungarian week is almost over. This idea is really amazing and the stories are nice too, but of course we Hungarians are a bit different as you see. Sad to hear that people who left the country are not spreading our culture and values to thier descendants.Your description about the hungarian cuisine is perfect – greasy and spicy. Just as some dishes to add for the forum that are nice any typical hungarian:
    – fishsoup
    – sponge cake
    – any desserts with poppy
    – potato goulash
    – gundel palacsinta (the flaming one)
    – aranygaluska with vanilla cream
    – brittle
    – rolled cakes stuffed with poppy or wallnut

    Thanks again for sharing these nice pieces of information, and I hope you enjoyed all the food you prepared during the week. My recommendation for tomorrow is hungarian meat-soup with vermicelli, veal or deer stew with dumplings (galuska), and sponge cake (somlói galuska) – this is a nice and typical hungarian lunch!

    Greetings from Budapest!

    Jó étvágyat és egészségetekre!

    Levente

    • Sasha Martin says:

      Oh, Levente …

      This all sounds sublime. I particularly love the flaming palacsinta… it’s been one of my favorites for a long time.

      The food was fantastic (and will post up my review tomorrow).

      While we sadly don’t have a lot of stories from the old country, my mom definitely passed down the recipes (all the ones from this week I learned from her – except the bacon one). Thank goodness for that! :)

      Best,
      Sasha

  11. Love this!

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