While browsing Hungarian handicrafts underneath festive fairy lights, the aromas of mulled wine, roast meat and cinnamon are enough to turn you towards the gastro terrace. Fortunately, this is the perfect spot to explore the country’s culinary culture as Budapest’s biggest Christmas market on focal Vörösmarty tér is abundant with authentic Hungarian dishes. From tantalising sweets to hearty stews and more daring dining options, here are a few must-have Magyar delights to make you fall in love at first bite.
Beigli might be the most traditional treat of the holiday season in Hungary, and it has been dividing the nation for centuries: the lovers of poppyseed and the fans of walnut filling. It’s worth trying both, but bear in mind that they are normally served in thin slices, so it’s best to put more of each type on your plate to ease the decision of which one to take home in a whole roll. Beigli is always special for Hungarians, as making this spiral-shaped speciality is also a festive family activity, bringing generations together. But as they tend to make more beigli than anyone could eat over Christmas, it is also devoured on New Year’s Eve.
Goulash soup in a bread bowl
The national dish of Hungary, goulash is a must-try. Its scents are super enticing, but when this hearty stew of tender beef cubes, vegetables and plenty of paprika is served steaming in a round-shaped loaf of bread that softens on the inside but stays crunchy on the outside, it is entirely irresistible. Devouring this hearty, filling and flavourful soup is a great way to warm up, and the best thing is that you can also chow down on the bread bowl, dunking pieces of it into the succulent contents as you go. Goulash is normally quite dense, so it makes a proper meal.
Hungarian grilled sausage specialities (hurka, kolbász)
Hungarian sausages are revered, whatever the shape or filling. The best time to try them is during the festive season, when the freshly made selection is particularly abundant. Coming in a wide variety of meat types and flavours, hurka is normally boiled and flavoured with liver (májas hurka) or with blood (véres hurka), while sausage is often smoked and seasoned to be spicy or mild. At Christmas markets, sausages can be ordered with various garnishes – if one takes your fancy, you can pick one of the strings of links hanging from the stands to take home.
This typical Hungarian treat is a superstar at wintertime, served warm and in extra-special flavours, in addition to the traditional tastes at Christmas markets. Roughly translated as ‘chimney cake’, these delicacies are baked over an open fire at markets, a traditional sight impossible to pass by. Slightly crunchy on the outside and soft on the inside, chimney cake comes sprinkled with sugar, cinnamon, vanilla, chocolate, coconut, walnut and all kinds of sweet coatings. At some stalls, they can be ordered filled with chocolate cream, whipped cream, Nutella, topped with Oreos or in various dreamy designs for that extra sweet experience. Don’t leave without trying this treat, but be warned that it’s addictive from first bite.
Two thousand calories, irresistible enjoyment and instant regret crammed into a deep-fried dough – this is lángos, a national dish and the superstar of street food in Hungary. Locals simply love lángos any time and anywhere, so it makes an appearance at Christmas fairs just like at beachside huts in summer. This heavy and oily savoury dough is traditionally topped with cold and fresh sour cream, grated cheese and garlic cream, but thanks to modern new-wave trends, it can be ordered nowadays with endless kinds of toppings from bacon to ham and sausage. Lángos fills you up for at least half a day – if you can finish a whole one at all – but it’s a sin to visit Hungary and not try it.
Mulled wine and pálinka punch
The characteristic aroma of mulled wine always fills the air during the festive season, and when the cold kicks in, nothing beats a cupful of this tasty tipple that warms up body, soul and hands. Ingredients for the perfect concoction vary; the classic variety is made of red wine, usually containing some kind of citrus fruit – often orange – and other spices, such as cinnamon, cloves, ginger, nutmeg or even cardamom. Some believe that apple and pepper help perfect this mildly potent potable. While it is always lovely to hold mulled wine in your hand while strolling from stand to stand around the market, this delicious drink can also easily be made at home. This also holds true for the cup of apple punch infused with Hungarian fruit-based pálinka brandy.
Strudel occupies a prominent place in the culinary culture of the country, and while almost all Hungarians would say that their grandma makes the best, they are delicious at Christmas markets, too. A single bite into a slice of flaky Hungarian strudel will have you reaching for a second, and you wouldn’t want to miss out on all of the tasty flavour variations. This delicious dessert is popular throughout the entire year, but is particularly savoured during the holidays thanks to its evocative wintry tastes, such as apple-cinnamon, sweet cottage-cheese and sour cherry.
Roast chestnuts are the perfect accessory to any romantic walk, and an indispensable element to any merry market scene. Chestnuts are harvested in September or October around Hungary, and kept in the refrigerator for a while in order to make them perfect for winter, when they are roasted on covered coal fires on the street and sold in small paper bags as handheld treats. They are soft, fleshy, creamy and sweet, perfect to be washed down with mulled wine. Placed in your pocket, a paper bag of hot chestnuts is the perfect hand warmer.
Töltött káposzta (stuffed cabbage)
Stuffed cabbage is a traditional dish to devour at Christmastime in Hungary. It is made of cabbage leaves wrapped around a variety of fillings, such as minced pork meat and, obviously, paprika, but the recipe for a perfect wrap varies by region. The cabbage rolls are baked, simmered or steamed in a covered casserole dish and served piping hot with cold sour cream on top. This dish takes several hours to cook, filling the air with irresistible aromas. At Budapest’s Christmas markets, this delicious Hungarian delicacy will definitely put a saucy smile on your cheeks.
No Hungarian Christmas tree is ever complete without szaloncukor, a traditional seasonal candy filled with marzipan, flavoured jelly, chocolate, caramel, rum, coconut, walnut, strawberry and other sweet creams. It is wrapped in shiny, colourful foil tasselled at both ends, and hung on Christmas trees in a way that the wrapping matches the colours of other ornaments and the overall look. Big piles are also placed in bowls pretty much everywhere you might wander during the holiday season in Hungary. Most Hungarians have fond memories of Christmases past, sneaking the sweet out of its wrapping then hanging it loosely on the tree looking as if it’s still full of candy. Don’t tell!