Fish Stew Fisherman Style

While there are written records of Goulash dating back as far as the 2nd century B.C., an ancient recipe could hardly be found of one of the most emblematic dishes of Hungarian cuisine, fisherman’s soup called “halászlé” in Hungarian. Although various types of fish soups are prepared since ancient times in almost all corners of the world, Hungarian halászlé is unique thanks to freshly grated tasty paprika, even though this spice has become an essential part of Hungarian gastronomy only from the 19th century. 

Honey, Ginger, Fish

Our predecessors were familiar with and could prepare various dishes from fish. Hungarians cooked sturgeon, great sturgeon, pike and different other types of small and bigger freshwater fish in various forms. Although they cooked these dishes in liquid, the first dish resembling fish soup was recorded only in the 17th century in the cook book of the Zrínyi Manor in Csáktornya under the name “Fish with black liquid”. A similar recipe can be found in the first printed Hungarian cookbook by the printer, Miklós Tótfalusi Kis dating back to 1698 and titled “Booklet of Chef Craft”.

The recipe proves that halászlé as we know today has little to do with the old fish soup: “Rather, if you want to cook carp or any fish like it, handle it as follows: gut the fish and if it is clean enough, salt it and let it stand in salt while you prepare its liquid; toast thin slices of bread till they are black and throw them into water to get rid of their burnt smell, then take them out of water and put into a jar, add water, wine and vinegar, cook it all well, then filter it through a sieve; cut apple and onion, fry it in honey together with some cracked walnut and cook it with the fish which previously was freed from the salt and flavour the dish with black pepper, ginger, clove, salt, honey to have it real sweet; serve it hot.”

A Good Marriage

Real halászlé as we know today is thanks to the spread of paprika. The marriage of paprika and fish soup has proved to be successful and it had rightly made the dish famous. The recipe of the fish soup as we know today was recorded first in early 19th century. In his travel book written in German, local historian, Sámuel Brezetzky writes about a fish lunch in Tolna (a Hungarian town): “The first course was prepared from carp cooked in liquid flavoured with pepper; locals also call it ‘Halászly’ and they use Turkish pepper (i.e. paprika) to flavour it. I liked the fish slices a lot but soup of such burning paprika flavour was to no taste of mine.”

Which is the Real One?

The Hungarian proverb, “as many houses, as many customs” is the driving principle of halászlé just like it is of stuffed cabbage. Some swear by halászlé Szeged style, others by Baja or Balaton style (the former ones are Hungarian towns, while the latter is the biggest lake in Hungary). In 1863, the newspaper “Sunday Paper” reported on a halászlé prepared in Révkomárom (a town by the Danube): “Carp, catfish, starlet, onion, salt and paprika is needed. People mostly eat it in fishermen’s lodges; it is rare, though, that someone cannot prepare the dish himself. (...) it is cooked similarly only in Komárom and Szeged (Hungarian towns).” 

The first real recipe was recorded in 1870, in the cookbook of Aunt Rézi from Szeged under the title “Fish stew fisherman style”. But this by no means suggests that this heavenly dish was not prepared in other corners of the country. Halászlé River Danube style, River Tisza (or Tisa) style and Lake Balaton style each has a different soul.

Ottó Herman describes it in 1887 as follows: “The good fisherman-chef is famous all along the banks, river villages and towns that compete with each other in quality; each of them declaring their own ‘world famous’”. He was the one to differentiate between the methods of preparation by regions. According to the description of the famous ethnographer “The real halászlé Szeged style has a thick and red liquid resembling bull blood and woe to the foreigner not accustomed to paprika when his lips touch it: he would think that he was burnt by the eternal fire of hell, and in case he swallows a spoonful, he is knocked down by coughing, then drinks water jar by jar to extinguish this purgatory. Those living by Lake Balaton use a lot of onion and prepare a thin liquid, and since there is no starlet at hand they chop bream too into it, and use paprika only sparingly. Those living in Komárom region prefer to use lot of well-selected fish and cook probably the best balanced amount of onion and paprika but of course only ‘to the taste of real Hungarians’.”

Tasty Diversity

It is probably not even worth finding only one system in the case of such an excellent dish. But one thing is sure halászlé is not a synonym of fish soup any more. While the former is thick, full of fish, the latter means cooking in flavoured water mostly without paprika. But be it either Danube style or Tisza style, one thing is certain: a good halászlé is prepared in a kettle from tasty fish. And if our fingers held above the steam while cooking stick together, using the so-called “finger-test”, we can be sure that it is ready and excellent.

The first step in cooking halászlé Tisza style is the preparation of the broth. Onion, the head, the tail and the whitebait is cooked in a little water. This latter is sieved and the thick “broth” is boiled with a little water added to it. Fish slices and chitterlings, the heavenly milt and eggs are all put into it. Pasta is not offered with the soup, it will only be the next course in the form of so-called “túrós csusza”, i.e. pasta with curd (it is a special Hungarian dish, too).

In the case of halászlé Danube style (often called Baja style named after the Hungarian town, Baja), finely chopped onion and the meat of the fish is put into the kettle at the same time. Cold water is added to cover it well. It is boiled on high heat for about 30 to 35 minutes and then it is ready to be eaten. Half of paprika is added to it when it starts to boil, the other half only just a few minutes before it is ready. Chitterlings are added at halftime. Danube style is often eaten with home-made pasta which is offered in a separate bowl on the table and each can take as much as he wants.