It may not be the most politically correct one, but probably the most memorable description of Hungarian food is "a bright spot in a culinary black hole". With neighbors like Austria, Slovakia, the Ukraine and most of ex-Yugoslavia, all firmly entrenched in either the sauerkraut-and-sausages line of German cooking or the horrors of Communist-era Eastern European food, Hungary definitely stands out. But be forewarned, Hungarians like their fat and salt, so health food it ain't...

The defining ingredient for Hungarian cuisine (Magyar konyha) is of course paprika, a mild spice made from sweet peppers. Alas, quality paprika is difficult to obtain outside Hungary, it doesn't keep well and by the time it turns brown it is only a pale shadow of the original, ruining many a goulash. Fresh paprika is fiery red and has a strong, pleasant smell; store it in the fridge and it will last longer. Paprika is commonly used either with sour cream or with rántás, a heavy roux of flour and lard.

If paprika is the Hungarian spice, the quintessential Hungarian dish is naturally goulash. The thick paprika-laden beef stew typically called goulash in the West is known as pörkölt in Hungary, where gulyás refers to a (marginally) lighter paprika-flavored beef soup. Less well known in the rest of the world are csirke paprikás, chicken in paprika sauce, and my personal favorite halászlé, paprika fish soup often made from carp.

Goose is also quite popular in Hungary. While tourists gorge on goose liver (libamáj), still cheap by Western standards, probably the most common dish is sült libacomb, roast goose leg. Stuffed (töltött) vegetables of all kinds are also popular, and Hungarian pancakes (palacsinta), both savoury and sweet, are a treat. Common snacks include kolbasz, a Hungarianized version of the Polish kielbasa sausage, and langós, deep-fried dough.

A Hungarian meal is almost always accompanied by Hungarian pickles called savanyúság, literally "sourness". (I still remember my surprise the first time I was served sauerkraut for breakfast.) These are often dubbed saláta on menus, so order a vitamin saláta if you want fresh veggies. Starch is most often served as potatoes, rice or dumplings (galuska), the primary Hungarian contribution in this field being an unusual type of pasta called tarhonya.

The national drink for washing all this down is Hungarian wine (bor), which is cheap and excellent. Best known in the West are the very sweet white Tokaj dessert wines and the strong red Egri Bikavér (Eger Bull's Blood), but most Hungarian wines fall between these two extremes and even at scruffy borozó wine bars doling out jugs for 200 Ft/L (less than $1) you really do have to go out of your way to find undrinkable wine. (Alas, finding a dependable source of truly excellent wine is also rather challenging...) Many Hungarians will also take an aperitif of Unicum or pálinka on the side.

Now just get someone to teach you how to pronounce egészségedré, meaning both "Cheers!" and "Bon appetit!", and you're all set! (A bottle of two of wine will help considerably...)

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