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Saturday March 3, 2012

Budapest beckons food lovers

THE capital of Hungary is arguably one of the prettiest capital cities in Europe.

While Vienna attracts music-lovers and Paris draws aficionados of art, Budapest is quite a delight for gourmands who are looking for authentic local and regional food.

Like any major capital city in the world, Budapest has quite an international selection of food.

Hungarian coffee is unique in preparation and taste.

A walk through the scenic parts of town will reveal everything from superb French haute cuisine and hearty Italian fare, to fresh Japanese sushi and piping-hot Chinese take-away. Although I noticed that Kentucky Fried Chicken, Burger King, McDonald’s and Starbucks outlets are beginning to multiply in this charming old world city, the traditional food of Hungary is still served with pride at a variety of restaurants, cafés and small take-away kiosks throughout town.

I had the opportunity to visit the trendy Chefparade Cooking School where they tried very hard to help me master the basics of Hungarian cooking in a fun and interactive atmosphere. The hands-on courses give participants the opportunity to cook and ask questions side-by-side with the resident chefs and trainers.

The courses run in the morning and finish with a lunch consisting of what has been cooked. Mercifully, I was soon relegated to stirring, holding recipes and washing up! Most of my large group of fellow students were seasoned travellers from all over the world, so it was quite a treat to see them reduced to child-like glee and hysterics at this first-hand experience of Hungarian cooking.

I wasn’t sure if their tears were caused by uncontrolled laughter or by the amazing mix of spices used in everything from soups and starters to main courses and desserts!

The Sour Cherry Soup is sweet and spicy.

Often referred to as Magyar cuisine, original Hungarian food is usually quite spicy, using generous quantities of black pepper and the finely-chopped dried chilli known as paprika. Meats and starches form the basis of many popular dishes, which is nice in a chilly cold winter. And just like the uniqueness of Magyar culture, some of the traditional Hungarian dishes are quite distinctive, delicious and unforgettable.

The iconic Hungarian Goulash aside, here is a sampling of the more unusual traditional offerings I found in Budapest.

Hungarian Fish Soup

Locally known as halászlé, this spicy clear soup is coloured bright red because of the paprika and spices used. Succulent freshwater fish like carp or perch is used, with hearty helpings of chopped onions, jalapeno peppers, lemon juice, and a tomato or two. It is healthy, wholesome and wholly delicious, I assure you.

Veal Pancakes

Eaten in small portions as a starter or in entirety as the main course, hortobágyi palacsinta is quite popular. The pancakes are filled with the minced meat, chopped onions, mushrooms and spices, folded at the ends, and baked in the oven with a paprika-flavoured sour cream sauce, then topped with fresh parsley.

Sour Cherry Soup

Although made with whole sour cherries complete with pits, hideg meggyleves is actually quite sweet and spicy! This comes from the generous dollops of cream, sugar, cloves, and cinnamon plus, often, a small amount of wine. It is served cold – either as a pre-meal appetiser or a post-meal dessert. Go figure!

Hungarian Egg Coffee

The entire egg, shell and all, is mixed with freshly-ground roasted coffee beans and poured into boiling hot water with a pinch of salt. The coffee foams to the top while the egg and bean grounds settle at the bottom of the pot. The clear coffee is then served in cups – and intriguingly, has a wonderful rich taste with no hint of egg!

Mixed Grill Platter

This is my idea of a “balanced diet”! The traditional Hungarian Mixed Grill Platter or fatányéros that I had for lunch was served on a typical large wooden platter and included grilled veal, pork steak with cabbage, barbecued beef, chicken cutlets, a rasher of bacon and fresh vegetables. Some places add pate and pheasant.

Csipetke Pinched Noodles

There are a variety of traditional noodles in Hungary, most resembling our familiar egg noodles, but served in broths of cheese, eggs or butter. Csipetke, however, don’t even look like noodles! They are a form of pasta, and are actually tasty little lumpy balls of pinched dough. Why they are called noodles bemuses me.

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