1. Hungarian food is very spicy.
Don’t be fooled by the red color of the paprika, the main spice in many Hungarian dishes. Even though Mother Nature has taught us that red often means danger, you can relax. Hungarian dishes are definitely spiced, meaning well-seasoned and never boring, but they are usually not hot. Just one warning: in case you ever encounter Hungarian peppers, you do need to exercise a little caution. Some of them are just harmless, friendly, little peppers, and some of them will send you directly to hell.
2. Goulash is THE Hungarian dish and the only Hungarian dish.
Before we talk about the wide variations of Hungarian cuisine, let me clarify one thing: real Hungarian gulyás doesn’t have much in common with what you known as goulash. Traditional Hungarian gulyás is a soup, heavy on meat, paprika and other spices, prepared in a huge pot over open fire. What is mostly known as goulash outside of Hungary, a kind of meat stew in paprika sauce, served with various side dishes, is called pörkölt in its supposed home country. Needless to say that a visit to Hungary’s capital is not complete without trying both of them.
But you are by far not done getting to know Hungarian cuisine by tasting these two. Fish soup, Hortobágyi palacsinta (pancakes with meat filling in a spicy paprika sauce), cherry soup, and chicken pakrikas are also on top of the list of the tastiest dishes. Don’t miss out on Hungarian pickled vegetables, essential for understanding Hungarian food culture. And never be ashamed to treat yourself to a palinka with your famous Hungarian sausage, even if it’s only lunchtime. For dessert you may choose between dobos torta, kürtőskalács, a chimney cake prepared over open fire, sprinkled with sugar, cinnamon, and/or cocoa and mákos guba, old pastry boiled with milk and sugar, covered in poppy seeds. Lucky are those who live and feast in Hungary!
3. Budapest is a vegetarian’s nightmare.
There is one movie that quite coined the public opinion about eastern and central European countries and vegetarianism. Who doesn’t remember the scene in Everything is Illuminated where Elijah Wood tries to order vegetarian food in a restaurant in rural Ukraine, and all he is served after a long discussion is a plain potato, not without being asked what’s wrong with him. Afraid the same thing might happen to you in Budapest? Don’t worry. While you might have problems to find a wide choice of vegetarian food in the rural areas of Hungary or in Budapest’s more traditional restaurants, there are several vegetarian and even vegan restaurants directly in the city, with number increasing steadily.
4. There is no culinary variation in Budapest.
Budapest is no place for culinary adventures besides guylás and fish soup? The last time someone has been so wrong was the day that Columbus thought he had arrived in India. Speaking of which, Native American cuisine is probably the only one that you can’t find in Budapest. In the mood for borscht, a Russian beetroot soup? Or some khoresh, a Persian stew? Can’t choose between Georgian hachapuri (cheese bread) and Hungarian lángos, a deep fried piece of dough, covered with sour cream, garlic, and tons of cheese? Pad Thai, sushi or Indian curry? Or just go for an Iskender kebab at the Turkish restaurant around the corner? Culinary life in Budapest is a hard one! Luckily, at least money is not a problem, as most restaurants have astonishingly affordable prices.
5. Places with English menu are tourist traps.
The problem with the Hungarian language is that you won’t understand a word, no matter if you speak English, French, Italian or German. But Budapest is full of foreigners, not only tourists, but a huge amount of expats. So by now most restaurants in the city center also an English menu. Even where Hungarians hang out after a hard day at work for a couple of palinka and where not even the waitress speaks English, you will find an English menu. Just avoid Vaci Street and prices over 3000 Forint (approximately 11 USD) and you can’t go that wrong with your restaurant choice!
6. Hungarian beer is to be avoided.
Opinions about traditional Hungarian beer brands are divided. While some believe Hungarian beer is a God-given blessing for their throats, for the others it tastes like pure piss, however they are able to identify that specific taste. But something new is coming up in Budapest, and it spread quickly: craft beer bars. With a mixture of Hungarian and foreign craft beers, they cater for every taste. In one of these ascending establishments you can even try up to 21 different kinds of beer freshly from the tap.
7. Discounted vegetables are just as good as the ones from the local markets.
You are on a tight budget, I understand. And what’s the difference between vegetables from the supermarket and the ones from the local markets, anyway, besides that the latter are more expensive? For one, you support local farmers and local merchants by buying in local market halls. And you will actually spend less money on better products while having a larger selection of seasonal vegetables, fruits, and also of fresh bakery, dairy products including local cheeses, honey and other Hungarian delicacies like paprika-salami. So forget the discounted tomatoes that taste like water and go for the local ones. They might not be as pretty, but like in every long lasting relationship, inner values are what truly count.
8. Cheap wine is bad wine.
Every bar, every restaurant offers a cheap house wine, name- and label-less. You can get a glass for about 2 € or less. Many people are hesitant, as they associate quality with a high price. While in some of the better known bars, the house wine indeed should be used as vinegar, there are tons of places where it is in no way inferior to the more expensive wines. Time for a scientific case study, isn’t it?
You insist on drinking wine with a name and a family tree? Then leave the tourist and mainstream party path and pay the dodgy cellar bar next to your apartment or the amazing Tokaj place around the corner a visit – places where usually only gangs of retired Hungarians hang out and get the best Hungarian quality wines for next to nothing. Happy taste buds, happy wallet, happy days!