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From goulash to paprikás: take a food tour of Budapest

Hungarian cuisine is synonymous with paprika. Taste the fruits of this relationship on your next trip to the capital by seeking out these seven classic dishes.

Chefs Szabina Szulló and Tamás Széll describe their restaurant, Stand25, as a “freestyle Hungarian kitchen”.

Photograph by Tamás Bujnovszky
Published 17 Mar 2022, 10:34 GMT

Few cuisines are quite so intertwined with a single ingredient as Hungary’s is with paprika — the spice that gives some of the country’s best-known dishes their intense orange colour and characteristic peppery flavour. Paprika is made from the dried ground pods of several types of capsicum annuum pepper, and it comes in a range of heat levels from édes (sweet) to csipos (hot) and different levels of coarseness.

Most of Hungary’s paprika is grown in the south, particularly around the city of Szeged and the town of Kalocsa, and in Budapest it’s sold everywhere, from small grocery stores to local food markets, where small-scale producers sell it by the kilogram in unlabelled plastic bags. For the highest quality, seek reputable family producers such as Hódi or PaprikaMolnár.

Peppers made their way to Hungary in the 16th century, and paprika has since established itself as an everyday ingredient in the Hungarian kitchen. To coax out paprika’s flavour, it should be added to hot fat (which, in Hungary, is very often pork fat) and heated briefly to prevent it from burning and becoming bitter, before the rest of the ingredients are added. This is the first step for countless Hungarian recipes, for dishes such as gulyás (goulash), pörkölt (a meat stew), lecsó (a vegetable ragout), Paprikás csirke (paprika chicken) and halászlé (a fish soup), where the paprika adds depth and that unmistakable spicy complexity.

Halászlé

There are many versions of this Hungarian fisherman’s soup, such as Bajai, which features pasta, and korhely, with lemon juice and sour cream, but what they all have in common is the deep brick colour from the abundance of paprika. Catfish and carp are the typical fish used, and recipes often also include roe and milt. Eat it with bread and a glass of light Hungarian red wine such as Kadarka.

Where to start: Halkakas fish bistro specialises in dishes made with local freshwater fish. There are always a few types of halászlé on the menu, including versions with fish dumplings.
HUF 2,150-2,450 (£5-£5.60).

Goulash

The most quintessential of all Hungarian dishes, goulash is also deeply misunderstood. While most of the world thinks of it as a stew, in Hungary it’s unmistakably a soup. Goulash is simple in its perfection: tender cubes of beef, a hearty amount of paprika, a few potatoes and carrots, a bit of pasta, some onions and little else. It’s served at nearly every Hungarian restaurant, from the simplest hole-in-the-wall operation to Michelin-starred establishments. Cooking it over an open fire in a bogrács (a heavy metal pot) is a treasured family activity and a great way to experience this iconic dish.

Where to start: Chefs Szabina Szulló and Tamás Széll describe their restaurant, Stand25, as a “freestyle Hungarian kitchen”. They’re known for their masterfully prepared goulash. HUF 3,200 (£7.40) 

Read more about Goulash here.

Cholent

This hearty, slow-cooked bean stew is a traditional Jewish dish that would be put in the oven on Friday before sunset (since it is forbidden to light a fire on the Sabbath), baked over a low heat all night, then eaten on Saturday. Preparation varies in different countries, but in Hungary it, naturally, includes paprika. It also has additions such as hard-boiled eggs, goose leg and other types of meat.

Where to start: Rosenstein is Budapest’s best Jewish-Hungarian restaurants, and if you visit on Fridays and Saturdays, you’ll find cholent on the menu.
HUF4,200 (£9.70). 

Traditional Jewish Cholent Hamin - main dish for the Shabbat meal, slow cooked beef with potato, beans and brown eggs.

Photograph by from_my_point_of_view

Hortobágyi Palacsinta

Palacsinta are ultra-thin pancakes (similar to crepes), which are most often served with sweet fillings. Hortobágyi palacsinta are the savoury type, usually stuffed with chicken or veal and drizzled with a paprika cream sauce. The dish was created by Károly Gundel, the restaurateur who opened the historic Gundel Restaurant in 1910.

Where to start: Nancsi Néni serves this, plus all manner of Hungarian classics under the shade of towering chestnut trees in its garden. HUF 2,950 (£6.80).

Pörkölt

The dish most often confused with goulash, this rich stew gets its burnt-orange colour from the abundance of paprika. It can be made with meat or mushrooms, and is often served with egg dumplings, egg barley pasta or potatoes.

Where to start: Where else but Getto Gulyas — the restaurant with one of the city’s widest selections of pörkölt. HUF 2,720 (£6.40).

Lecsó

A national staple made with sweet Hungarian peppers, onions, tomatoes and paprika, which are cooked in a bit of smoked bacon fat then stewed in their own juices. It’s often called Hungarian ratatouille and is prepared in abundance in late summer and early autumn when tomatoes and peppers are at their peak. Lecsó is delicious with just a piece of bread to mop up the juices and it’s often served with roasted meat, sausage or egg to make it a full meal.

Where to start: Café Kör bistro’s daily handwritten menu is always full of Hungarian classics. It’s a perfect place to sample lecsó when it’s in season, served with dumplings, sausage or pork medallions. HUF 3,980 (£9.20).

Chicken paprikás

This dish, known locally as paprikás csirke, is so named due to the large amount of paprika that goes into the sauce. According to George Lang, author of The Cuisine of Hungary, the paprikas method is one of the four pillars of Hungarian cooking (the others are goulash, pörkölt and tokány). Chicken paprikás is essentially chicken stewed in its own juices with onions and lots of paprika. ‘The chief difference between pörkölt and paprikas,’ writes Lang, ‘is that paprikás is usually finished with sweet or sour cream, sometimes mixed with a little flour, but always stirred in just before serving.’

Where to start: Déryné bistro is as popular with celebrities as it is with locals. To sample chicken paprikas, visit for the elegant Sunday brunch. HUF 3,780 (£8.70).

Published in Issue 15 (spring 2022) of Food by National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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