Of Paprikash and Tokaji, The Kosher Traveler in Budapest
While located in Central Europe, Budapest was planned and built in the decidedly Western style of Paris and Vienna. It is the largest city of a relatively obscure country, and it’s teeming with Jewish history and rich culinary culture.
Hungary’s culinary reputation is modest, revolving around beef stews such as goulash and generously spiced chicken paprikash, but for those who are used to their kosher food being packaged and processed, a visit there is a welcome change, even if your selection of kosher options is somewhat limited.
In Hungary (as in many other countries with a relatively large Jewish population but no system of kosher certification), kosher “certification” goes by word of mouth. The rabbis and other prominent members of the community do their research and let their friends and fellow synagogue-goers know what’s okay to eat and what should be avoided.
Budapest Jews and visitors are lucky to have ready access to several restaurants and groceries that specialize in classic Hungarian dishes, with servings so large, authentic, and delicious, you won’t feel like you’re missing out at all.
Almost all of these food shops are centered in the former Ghetto area, near the famous Dohany Synagogue, at the intersection of Dob and Kazinczy streets. The area isn’t exactly the most touristy of the city, with run-down buildings and crooked streets, but it’s beginning to be slowly rebuilt, and is definitely worth a visit for the Jewish Museum and synagogues scattered beside the restaurants and cafes.
Best Classic Hungarian Restaurant
Located in a courtyard behind a synagogue in the heart of the former Ghetto, the historical Hanna restaurant was recently redone and takes reservations for pre-paid Shabbat meals. The décor is simple but elegant. The Hungarian first course is typically soup, so start with the classic gulyas leves (goulash soup), a hearty mix of beef chunks, vegetables, and flavorful spices, endearingly served in mini cauldrons kept warm over tea lights. Though the soup is filling enough, it would be a shame to miss out on the classic entrees which include rantott csirke (schnitzel-style chicken breast) served with potatoes and cucumber salad, and the only kosher goose you are likely to find anywhere on the continent. For dessert, try the traditional gundel palacsinta, a crepe filled with walnut and chocolate sauce, doused with brandy and set alight.
Hanna Ortodox Kóser Étterem; 1074 Budapest, Dob utca 35, Hungary
Like France and Italy (though perhaps on a smaller scale), Hungary boasts a selection of excellent kosher wine from the northwest Tokaji-Hegyalja region. Tokaji wines are sometimes available but very expensive here in New York, and are best bought for a fraction of the price in their homeland. Tokajj, a slightly, but not overly, sweet white wine is aged through a special process (rather unappetizingly named “noble rot”), which brings out the flavor and color beautifully. The Furmint and the high-alcohol Szamorodni wines are both good choices, but the real specialty is the world-famous Tokaji Aszu, known to the English-speaking world simply as “Tokay.” The wine ranges in quality from 3-6 puttony (roughly comparable to 3-6 stars). All of these wines, plus some imported French and Israeli ones, are available at Chabad, active synagogues, Jewish community centers, and the two kosher groceries on Dob Utca.
My favorite part of any trip to Budapest is the wonderful and authentic Frohlich Bakery and Café. Don’t be put off by the bright orange walls or the odd, antique-metal décor, or you’ll miss out on the only place that serves true Hungarian pastry the way it was meant to be made. Everything is dairy, so you’re best off enjoying a cappuccino and a pastry for breakfast, or a slice of cake for your afternoon snack before heading to Hanna for dinner. Frohlich specializes in classic Hungarian pastries made with heavy cream, rich chocolate and fresh fruit, as well as holiday treats unique to the Hungarian Jewish community. Flodni, for example, is the traditional Purim dessert, a thick slice of poppy, walnut, and apple fillings layered between flaxy pastry. For a real taste of Hungary, order a slice of dobos torta, a sponge and chocolate cream layer cake topped with hard caramel, or turos retes, a sweet-cheese strudel. If you’re feeling extravagant, try the popular somloi galuska, a trifle-like concoction of cake, chocolate cream, whipped cream, nuts, and brandy, which is easy to order but very difficult to share.
Frohlich Cukrazda; 1072 Budapest, Dob utca 22, Hungary*
Best Foodie Experience
For a far more touristy (though by no means kosher) food culture immersion, make your way over to the Budapest Central Market or Vasarcsarnok, a huge, three floor marketplace that puts even the largest American farmers’ markets to shame. The main floor boasts an impressive selection of local produce, meats, and culinary specialties such as Unicum liquor and szegedi paprika, while the lower level offers fish, wild game, and pickled vegetables in impressive varieties. The top floor is devoted to souvenirs of every kind, from t-shirts and shot glasses to hand-made lace and folk art. If you’re a tourist picking up a few gifts, this is the best (and cheapest) place to look. The Vasarcsarnok is crowded and almost intimidating large, but offers the best look into the local culture and some of the sweetest, ripest locally-grown produce you’re likely to taste. This is also the only place I have ever managed to find fresh Italian Truffles, a perfect example of the “treasure hunt” quality of the Central Market.
Vásárcsarnok Market; Vámház körút 1, Hungary*
*Aliza Donath is an art education student/full time foodie living in New York city. To read more about her adventures keeping it Kosher at home and abroad, visit Arbitribe where a variation on this article and other quirks of keeping Kosher appears.