Think “Hungarian food” and for most people it’s the goulash that springs to mind, or a spicy red fish soup, perhaps served at a restaurant in a mock one-person bogrács (pot) with its stand – the traditional implement for preparing such dishes over an open fire.
A nod to nagymama
The shroud of mystery that confines Hungarian cuisine to a few stereotypes in many foreigners’ minds is not helped by the dearth of accessible foreign-language cookbooks. For the many who do not have a Hungarian grandmother readily at hand to teach the relevant tips and tricks, the aptly named Hungarian Cookbook that came out this summer is one step closer towards filling that gap.
Former diplomat’s chef-turned-cookbook-writer Tamás Bereznay has written previously, in Hungarian, about cakes – the cukrászda-worthy, fiddly, multi-layered, creamy affairs – and about regional German cuisine. This particular tome, in English, is about solid local fare, the kind that might adorn the family table on both weekdays and Sundays.
It features just under 90 recipes, spread across appetisers, soups, fishes, poultry, meat, “one-dish meals”, vegetarian dishes, salads and pickles, savoury baked goods and sweets. In other words there is goulash, and fish soup, but there is also enough to make a complete Hungarian meal from start to end, from cold fruit soup, veal stew and the mixed pickled vegetables that go with it, to the emperor’s crumbs best left explained by the book.
Real home cookin’
It is difficult to imagine that all the dishes have, as the blurb says on the back, passed the test of foreign diplomats, royalty and aristocrats’ palates (or do they really eat cracklings?). Many of the recipes, in fact, belong unashamedly to the most humble among Hungary’s repertoire, the kind that is cheap, sticks to the ribs and still packs punch in terms of flavour. Many are dead easy, too, but will provide a more satisfactory experience than reaching for often inferior products on supermarket shelves (curd cheese spread, körözött) and possibly a lesson in basic food chemistry (fermented cucumbers, kovászos uborka) as well.
The selection is, however, as versatile as Hungarian cuisine itself. The cracklings (töpörtû) rub shoulders with fried duck or goose liver. A few pages further, wild boar stew with puff pastry neighbours with black pudding (véres hurka). There’s a touch of cognac, a suggestion of Tokaj but also, just to show Hungary isn’t a closed gastronomic environment, a splash of soy sauce.
Lángos is demystified (400ml of sunflower oil does the trick), so is rétes – though only in part, as the book shies away from encouraging would-be kitchen daredevils from replicating the famously thin strudel pastry. Even vegetarians are catered for with variations on the vegetable stew (fõzelék) theme, dumplings with eggs (tojásos nokedli) or pasta with cabbage (káposztás tészta).
The evocation of these last few names is perhaps not sufficient to induce a mouth-watering reaction, but this is what the full-page photographs that match each recipe are there for, along with the few shots of grey cattle on the flat Hungarian puszta, of drying corn cobs or of farmhouse pottery added to remind the reader of what the country stands for.
In practical terms, the recipes are clearly explained and the English-language approximations of tricky Hungarian ingredients (tejföl, mangalica) usually indicated.
By Tamás Bereznay
Boook Publishing, 2012
224 pages, hardback, illustrated