A Thousand Years in a Single Plate

Just imagine a table set for a Sunday lunch and a family sitting around it. Granny’s chicken soup is a natural, integral part of the lunch, a plate of real tradition.  No wonder, this wonderful dish is the essential part of a Hungarian’s life since the settlement of the Magyars in Hungary and it is not an exaggeration to say that even soup in pouch was invented by our ancestors.

The joy of a meal eaten together is probably one of the most wonderful experiences of one’s life but imagine how poorer a table full of food would be without a bowl of soup!

Soup in Pouch á’ la Ancient Hungarians

Besides the oat bag for feeding the horse, our equestrian nomad ancestors carried “soup in pouch” hung on the pommel in a leather sack. The recipe was not too complicated. The meat, flavoured with the spices of the wild and salt was layered in a cooking pot and if it was too dry, tallow added on top as the last layer. It was cooked slowly till the juices evaporated. The meat slices were dried separately on a sieve for approximately ten days. If needed, this “dehydrated stock” was always on hand for the Magyars who could prepare a hearty feast from it by adding water and flavouring it with dried spices.

Primordial Goulash and the Tree of Life

A big bowl of “keng” is the real national dish of the Hungarian cuisine. As shocking as it sounds, this was probably the “proto-goulash”, and is mentioned in several written chronicles of the 2nd century B.C.  The ancient recipe was recorded by the Chinese historian, Sima Qian (Sze-ma Chien) in his work “Records of the Grand Historian”: “Take a heated cast iron or bronze kettle and when it becomes so hot that water sprinkled into it immediately evaporates, drop into it fatty pork meat or mutton with its tallow and chopped onion. When all this is dropped into the hot kettle, the grease from the fatty meat or tallow will melt fast from at this high temperature and roast the onion and the meat.” The original soup, the base of which was this kind of a stew prepared without paprika was probably a Hun dish and has become part of the Hungarian cuisine while the Magyars and Huns lived together.  

Water used to be not only a necessary but a deeply sacral part of the culinary culture of our ancestors. Similarly to the traditions of the Eastern nations, dishes were preferably cooked and not fried. Water was cherished as one of the prime elements of the life tree and thus played an important role in the preparation of sacrificial food. 

A Pinch of Hungarian, Bavarian, Armenian, Saxon and Romanian

The Hungarian “soup culture” had been continuously flourishing during the following centuries. The big variety of liquid delicacies was the result of the coexistence of various nations. In the era of the Turkish conquest, Hungarian cooking habits lived on in their purest form in Transylvania. Saxons, Seklers, Armenians, Jews and Romanians ate and lived together with Hungarians for centuries. As the result of this multicultural environment, Transylvania has become the inexhaustible treasure of exciting and diverse gastronomy.

This was the time when Hungarian cuisine has not even heard of paprika. Paprika is mentioned as Turkish pepper the first time in the 1604 edition of the dictionary compiled by Albert Szenczi Molnár. Initially, it was only an exotic ornamental in manors and it has become a popular spice of Hungarian cuisine and thus of soups only in the 18th century.

Csorba Soup and “Earsoup”

Armenians who settled in the Transylvanian Gheorgheni (Gyergyó), Ciuc (Csík) and Depresiunea Targu Secuiesc (Felső-Háromszék Medence) in the 17th century had brought the strange mix of tastes with themselves. “Churut”, the “solid canned soup” is still prepared across Transylvania from minced parsley and other leaf vegetables and curd. A kind of dumpling is offered with it, the form of which resembles an ear. Thus it is no surprise that the dish was sweetly named “Armenian ear soup”.

One of the emblematic dishes of Transylvanian Romanian cuisine is “csorba,” i.e.  pickled soup. Its origin dates back to the era of the Turkish conquest. “Csorbadzsi” originally meant “the one who gives soup”, i.e. the host or the logistics soldier of the Turkish army. This rich, pickled soup is only characteristic of the Romanian cuisine. To prepare real Romanian Csorba soup, one would need fermented bran juice. It is prepared like pickled cucumber (kovászos uborka, meaning in Hungarian leavened cucumber) but instead of cucumbers, bran has to be scalded. There are countless varieties of Csorba  and depending on the feast or the pantry it can be prepared with meat, fish, or chitterlings.

The cuisine of the Viennese Court and French cuisine greatly affected Hungarian cooking as practiced on the territory of the Royal Hungary. This is how in the second half of the 17th century soup has become the opening dish of a good feast.

Paprika and Roux and National Resistance

The 18th and the 19th centuries have brought a significant change in the history of soups. Hungarian nobility has travelled extensively under the Habsburgs and was introduced to many foreign dishes. A new French thickening procedure, the roux has for example become popular among Hungarian housewives who before that used to thicken food with breadcrumb and thus soups thickened with roux had started to spread.

Paprika was first used by peasants on the Great Hungarian Plains as a substitute of the very expensive pepper to give a spicy and hot taste to the dishes. This kind of flavouring had for a long time remained a speciality of this region. In his work of 1804, entitled “Hungaria in parabolis” the historiographer and ambassador of Zemplén County, Antal Szirmay himself considered the dishes prepared with paprika the emblem of “unspoiled Hungarians” and recorded a contemporary poem that goes:

“Beyond Tisza, Magyar drinks from jar,

And eats good paprika meat from a kettle,

Beyond Tisza,

From kettle,

Say-so, it is proper in Hungarian!”

Hungarian nobility resisting the Habsburg reign immediately embraced this statement and considered it to be one of the eloquent evidences of the independence of the Hungarian nation. This is how dishes prepared with paprika, among them Goulash, had become the emblem of Hungarian national resistance before the Austro-Hungarian compromise of 1867.

Examples of the “national menu” are the well known and world famous dishes like Jókai Style Bean Soup or Palóc soup. And since Hungarians really love to eat, culinary craftsmanship inspired many giants of Hungarian literature. Mór Jókai’s favourite dish was the special bean soup which has not lost its popularity and is still on numerous menus. Palóc soup was created in honour of one of the greatest Hungarian novelists, Kálmán Mikszáth by the chef of the onetime Hotel Archduke Stephen in Pest, János Gundel.

Újházy, or more correctly Újházy hen meat soup is still a widely popular dish. It was named after one of the most famous actors of the 19th century, Ede Újházy. The famous artist travelled as far as his hometown, Debrecen to find the tasty ingredients and cooked the delicacy for hours till the tastes have become a fantastic blend. The famous soup had soon become a standard dish offered by restaurants.

The tasty legendary soups of mostly this era have become the top dishes on the menus of the Hungarian restaurants. But it is worth spending some time on culinary research to be introduced to the liquid delicacies dating back to the era before paprika, when delicacies were still flavoured only with thyme and wild spices. Even plain soup prepared with fermented bran juice has a soul and thickening with bread crumb is not worse than with roux. After all, these old recipes are as important elements of our soup gastronomy as Goulash is.

Palóc Soup á’ la János Gundel

Ingredients: 400 grams lean mutton (preferably shoulder); 120 grams onion; 60 grams lard; 10 grams red pepper, cumin, bay leaves, garlic, 350 grams potato, 250 grams fresh, tender green beans, 2 dl sour cream, 20 grams flour, fresh dill.

Cut the meat into small dices and prepare “pörkölt” (i.e. a kind of stew. It is prepared as follows: fry the finely chopped onion in the lard until golden brown, take it off the heat and add the finely chopped garlic, red pepper, salt, black pepper and stir in the meat. Put it back on medium heat, cover and simmer till the meat becomes tender.  Add only a little water at a time, if needed.) Cut the potato into cubes and the green beans into 2 cm long pieces. Cook them separately with salt. Pour their juice on the “pörkölt “. Add bone stock to get altogether approximately 2 litres of soup. When it starts to boil, thicken it with the fine mixture of flour and sour cream, sprinkle with finely chopped tender dill. Add sour cream or tarragon vinegar according to taste.