The Hungarian word for food -- eter -- has, of course, no relation whatever to “eat.” As a non-Indo-European tongue virtually all Hungarian words are inscrutable even to the traveler who knows French and German. Few tourists gain any substantial acquaintance with the language, but every visitor comes to know something of the cuisine. The intimate communication of dining, the very paradigm of travel as the foreign outside is taken into oneself and assimilated with delight or dyspepsia, is available from every café, restaurant, and street vendor; it is all but inevitable. (It takes really stubborn satisfaction to return from Acapulco’s Hilton as Henry did, saying, “They eat just like we do: big steaks, salad bar . . .”) Eating Hungarian food while meditating on the word eter, one may come to associate that assertive t with insistent garlic, paprika, and heavy-handed salting, the liquid r with the richness of fats (lard and deep-frying are still popular; cream, sour or fresh, may top anything; pastries and snacks are popular at all hours, including the humblest of all: langos or fried dough, susceptible to toppings ranging from sugar to garlic), and those precise little es with the strength of the basic ingredients, the goose, duck, pork, and carp, the potatoes and pasta and egg noodles veering toward gnocchi that form the cuisine’s foundation. Eter. The word food sounds flat-footed by comparison, but no more than an American diner meal might taste.
The stereotype of Central and Eastern European meals as weighty affairs has some truth yet (though for me Hungarian restaurants offer nothing as hefty as their Czech cousins whose ubiquitous “farmer’s plate” may include two types of dumplings and three varieties of pork, the entire composition chromatically muted, a sort of grey tending toward beige). The category of “special diet” or “health-conscious” options in restaurants with an English menu may list only deep-fried foods, starting with deep-fried Camembert which has earned its role as a “diet” dish due to being meatless.
The Jegverem restaurant in Sopron glories in substantial offerings, calling itself “a restaurant for guzzle-guts.” A rhyme in the menu entertains the waiting customer with its pleasantly garbled English, though reserving a trap-door for the last line:
Be it lunch, dinner, or other meat,
Our lifestyle is to have big feat.
Hungarians always up tull eat,
Whilst they lie under a coffin-sheet.
At this establishment Patricia had venison stew, while for me it was a pig’s knuckle, served over leeks and pickles inside a container of bread topped with sour cream and accompanied by a half liter of Soproni beer. (As this was a “gypsy” preparation, the ever-whimsical menu description said, “First, steal a pig and singe the hair off. If you are too lazy to do this, steal a pig already singed . . .”)
The Hungarian cook operates on a principle of savory overkill, overwhelming the diner with rich substance. At the Lukac in Budapest, I had pork stuffed with liver pate and then breaded, fried, and served with paprika sauce; Patricia had veal stuffed with Roquefort, then rolled in nuts and fried. There was such a quantity of Roquefort she left a great pool on her plate. Ordering goose leg at the Cellarium in Pecs, she was given two sizable legs with thighs attached as well as a side dish of cabbage prepared with apples and champagne. And we were eating at modest establishments.
The typical Central European breakfast of (bread with cheese and cold cuts or sausages in its minimalist form in a cheap pension was enhanced with little individual packets of liver and ham paté, hazelnut butter, and tarragon mustard. One could pass on the sorry sort of juice drink and make the most of the muesli.
At the main indoor market of Pest, the Vamhaz, a fanciful turn of the century building with excited ornamentation, one sees the noble fresh-water fish so popular here, catfish, and trout, giant carp and pike-perch from Lake Balaton. Apart from a marvelous variety of peppers, root vegetables abound: overgrown radishes, unapologetic celery roots, parsnips, even kohlrabi. These fine and sturdy vegetables seem rarely, though, to make their way to restaurant plates where salad is apologetic: a few slices of cucumber, a bit of shredded cabbage, and a pickled morsel or two.
Louis XIV called tokay "Vinum Regum, Rex Vinorum" ("Wine of kings, king of wines"), and, having come to its hometown, we sampled the celebrated Tokaj Aszu which we could hardly stomach in spite of its praise by popes and nobles of earlier eras of taste. Then there are the wines: Egri Bikavér or Bull’s Blood, of course, and some palatable enough others, kekfrankos and kekoporto. Hungarians make as well a variety of distilled palinkas with their intense fruit spirits, and the mysterious bitter liqueur Unicum. John Cross relayed his mother’s folk wisdom about this dark blend of many herbal flavorings, “It’s medicinal, really. After sleeping your blood sugar is down low and you need a swig or two of Unicum in the morning to get going. You see, it has a white cross on the bottle. That’s because it’s good for you.”