A few months ago, I stumbled upon an Hungarian cooking class which largely caters to Americans and other western tourists who “want to see inside a real Hungarian apartment” and visit the main market hall – one of the “must see” attractions in Budapest – with a local guide.
Since I live in a typical apartment in an Hungarian neighborhood and I shop at the market hall, neither of these elements were particularly alluring. My motivation was purely a love of cooking and a desire to master an authentic version of a classic, Hungarian dish. Why hadn’t I thought of this earlier?
I sent an email realizing we have little time left in Hungary. Shortly, I received a reply from the owner, Agnes. She was out of town for the moment, “I just had a baby and have moved to the countryside – to my village – where I have family.” She said this as though everyone decamps to their home village upon giving birth (and that everyone’s family drops everything to help out). But still, she would put me on a list. Her colleague, Andrew, was teaching courses until she returned. She might have one option the weekend before our departure.
A week later, one Thursday afternoon, I received an email from Agnes. She had a last-minute cancellation for Saturday, and Andrew could meet me for a private lesson. I mulled this over for a few hours. By now, this hair brained scheme had run its course, and I was inclined to say no. I regretted giving up a leisurely Saturday. But I pictured a woman in rural Hungary who made her living off these classes and now had a last-minute cancellation. “Sure, I’ll be there.”
Two days later, promptly at 9AM, I met Andrew at the front door of the main market. We headed upstairs to the Hungarian version of a food court. Agnes warned me to eat a light breakfast as we would be sampling food. I passed on the langos (fried dough slathered with sour cream) but accepted a selection of classic, Hungarian dishes which we shared. As we picked at the food – after all, I was now eating stuffed cabbage and kielbasa just after 9 in the morning – we finalized our menu. A simple potato soup with sausage, cucumber salad, chicken paprikas (pronounced: paprikash) with homemade noodles, and cottage cheese balls for dessert.
All of these items, Andrew assured me, are staples in any Hungarian home. “We always make the potato soup. Who doesn’t have potatoes and salami in the pantry?”
With the menu decided, we ambled the periphery of the top floor as Andrew pointed out various souvenirs; table clothes embroidered with red peppers and goose eggs – for Christmas or Easter – carved with the most intricate patterns. He shared stories of Hungarian traditions and put them in the context of the goods for sale. “See, that tablecloth has peppers mixed in with the flowers. That is from the biggest pepper growing region in Hungary. You know the Easter tradition, right? Men sprinkle water over the heads of women in exchange for a treat.”
Our browsing exhausted, we descended to the main floor with our shopping list in hand. Andrew’s commentary brought the market to life; a tiny, back room where wild mushroom hunters bring their bounty to have it confirmed safe for consumption; the vendor who sells deeply discounted goods nearing their expiration date; and the single aisle which is totally local. “You see, the vegetables here aren’t as glamorous.”
Lastly, we stopped in the basement to peruse the fish stalls. And I bought pig intestines for my sausage making venture – taking advantage of Andrew’s Hungarian and solving my inability to communicate with the purveyor of all kinds of intestines. “These are the ones you need. He said to soak them for 30 minutes before using them,” Andrew translated.
We grabbed a taxi for the short ride to Agnes’ apartment where we began the day traditionally – with a shot of palinka. “You live here, Julie. You know palinka, right?” By way of answer, I grabbed my shot and tossed it back. “Yes, Andrew,” I sputtered, “I have learned how to survive palinka!”
Over the next hour, we diced peppers, onions and tomatoes for the paprikas. “Julie, put in paprika until the onions turn dark red. We add this for color, not taste.” As the paprikas cooked, we threw together a simple soup of water, 2 bay leaves, cubed potatoes and a few slices of firm, spicy salami and placed it on the stove..
We mixed together cheese balls; finely sliced cucumbers and added them to a sweet, vinegar dressing; and lastly grated a wet, pancake like batter over boiling water to make nokedli noodles (more commonly known as spatzle).
Pat joined us to take photos and, of course, to eat. Two hours after arriving at the apartment, we sat down to our meal. My apprehensions about a potato and salami soup dissolved with the first taste. Delicious. Besides, in Central Europe, all meals start with soup. To skip this course would have dashed any hopes of making this an authentic meal.
Next, we alternated tastes of the sweet cucumber salad and the more savory chicken paprikas and noodles. Every Hungarian restaurant serves cucumber salad as an accompaniment to paprikas. (A few weeks ago, I ordered cucumber salad with a different main dish to which the waitress wrinkled her nose and replied, “No, we do not pair cucumber salad with that.”) The layering of these two opposite, yet complementary, flavors is the Hungarian equivalent of wine pairing. Again, everything was perfect.
At this point, we returned to the kitchen where we boiled the cottage cheese balls, rolled them in bread crumbs, and served them warm with a dollop of apricot jam. And of course, throughout the meal, we sipped a wonderful, white, Hungarian wine from the north shore of Lake Balaton.
After class, Andrew presented me with a grate to make my own noodles at home. I had already concluded this tiny implement would be something I would buy and take on our journeys. Seriously, if you had one suitcase for three months, you would pack the spatzle maker, right?
The six-hour class ended at precisely 3PM, and we started for home. I asked Pat, “Why do I dread taking classes when I know I’ll have the best time?” Pat just kept walking. He knows a rhetorical question when he hears one.
I do have one regret – I didn’t take this class sooner upon our arrival in Budapest. Then, I could have dazzled guests with my Hungarian cooking skills – whipping up a simple chicken paprikas with homemade noodles with the ease of a native. Instead, whether friends visit us in Paris or Guatemala, they will sample authentic chicken paprikas with cucumber salad and nokedli (paired, bien sur, with a homemade crepe for dessert).
Taking a class to learn a few of the local, everyday dishes is going to become part of our settling in ritual. Unlike some of my ideas, this is one haired brain scheme we both agree needs to stick around.
Enjoy these recipes. As we toasted each other when we sat down to eat, “Egészségedre!”.
If anyone is coming to Budapest and is interested in a cooking class, I wholeheartedly endorse this one. (Disclosure, I paid the full price for both of us, neither requesting nor expecting any compensation to write about this.)
You can easily replicate these two recipes at home. For the remainder, come to Budapest and take a class of your own!
Chicken Paprika – Paprikás csirke
Preparation time: 20 minutes
Cooking Time: 50-70 minutes
Ingredients for 4 people:
· 4 chicken legs
· 3 medium or 2 large onions – diced
· 2 tablespoons lard or 6 tablespoons of vegetable oil (sunflower)
· 2 tablespoons of sweet paprika powder
· 1 medium fresh tomato – chopped
· 1 sweet yellow pepper (or bell pepper, wax pepper, or babana pepper) – cut into small pieces
· 2 heaping tablespoons of sour cream
· Salt to taste
Important: Never use butter in place of vegetable oil or lard. Also, it is best not to use canned tomatoes – your paprikash will end up bitter. If you do not have a fresh tomato, then do not use tomatoes at all.
You need to chop the onions very finely. They are what make the stew sauce thick. Also, don’t try to thicken with flour. The sour cream is enough.
Remove the skin, but never use boneless chicken. You need the bones for flavor and consistency.
1. In a large soup pot, sauté the onions in pork lard over low heat, stirring frequently, until translucent. (at home, I will use vegetable oil). Do not let them burn. Salt lightly to help tenderize them. The onion should be cut into very, very small pieces. This is essential to get the “stew consistency”. Add a small amount of water, if necessary, to keep them from sticking to the pan.
2. Skin the chicken and cut the legs into half at the joint.
3. Remove the pot from the heat, add the sweet Hungarian paprika, stir. Add the tomatoe, the sweet yellow pepper, and the chicken legs and thighs and stir again. Do not burn the paprika, or it will become bitter.
4. Salt to taste and add a little bit of water, about 3/4 cup). Make sure that the bottom of the pan is wet so the paprika does not burn. Be careful not to add too much water! The meat contains water that comes out during the cooking process. If you add too much water it will lose the stew consistency.
5. Cover, reduce heat, and simmer until the meat is tender. This can take up to 50-70 minutes. Stir occasionally. If it is starts to stick to the pan, add a bit more water. If it is soupy, cook it with the lid off.
6. The dish is done when the meat falls off the bone. Add 2 tablespoons of sour cream, stir gently (do not break the meat) and simmer for a few more minutes.
· 1 egg
· Pinch of salt
· 100 ml (0.4 cup) of water
· 150 grams (1 cup) of plain flour
1. Bring a large pot of well-salted water to a boil. Beat the eggs and 100 ml of water together with the salt. Slowly mix in the flour a 1/4 cupful at a time to make a soft, sticky dough. You may not need all the flour, or you may need more. Stop adding flour when you get an elastic moist dough.
2. Place a nokedli grater (spaetzle maker) over the pot of boiling water. (You can also use a simple cheese grater or large hole pasta strainer). Lay a portion of the dough on the grater and move it back and forth over the grater using a spatula or wooden spoon to push through small egg noodle bits that drop into the boiling water. When the noodles float to the top, wait about 30 seconds and drain them. Serve immediately as they cool quickly.
Categories: Insiders Budapest