Guest Essays | Guest Post

Hungarian Food That Tastes Like Home

Written and photographed by Max Rudy

Last October, I moved to New York City while still keeping my day job in Virginia. Most of the time, I work from my Brooklyn abode, except for one week a month when I return to company headquarters in the small but idyllic Shenandoah Valley town of Winchester, VA. You can get no farther north in the South. During the Civil War, Winchester changed hands seven times.

I have the pleasure of working with some great people, including a vendor-turned-friend named Tim. Tim is half British and still has family ties to a small village in Northern England, where he vacations every year to pull pints for a month at the local pub. During one of these stints, he met Marta, a Hungarian-Romanian working and living above the pub as she learned English in town.

Marta was running her own successful business importing Western European goods to Eastern Europe and learning English so she would no longer need to use a translator as a middleman. She and Tim grew quite close, and before you know it, they were married. But immigration issues forced the newlyweds to be separated for nearly a year and a half before Marta could move to the U.S. with Tim. I specifically remember Tim telling me about how tough this was but just how amazing Marta is. 16 months later, the two took the Queen Mary II across the pond together to begin their life in Winchester, VA.

Marta grew up in Transylvania in communist Romania, as a Hungarian minority under the iron fist of Nicolae Ceauşescu. She lived without electricity for the first ten years of her life, and learned how to cook and garden out of necessity, in ways that make our farm-to-table movement look quite cutesy. This was how you sustained your family. This was life.

When I finally met Marta, we hit it off instantly. I have always been a traveler and culture junkie, so some of my favorite relationships have been built upon on food. When Marta offered to cook me a traditional Hungarian meal, I was more than welcoming! My first meal in November consisted of whole peeled root vegetables from her garden with chicken broth, stewed in a Dutch oven. That was the day I fell in love with parsnips. She also made the best chicken paprikash with homemade Hungarian spaetzle I had ever encountered and will ever encounter in my life. As I sat stuffed, I was quite smitten knowing any other chicken paprikash would simply be chasing the dragon.

Since I have been going back to Winchester each month, I have been experiencing simple, classic, and remarkable Hungarian dinners from a bygone era. Marta masterfully uses her dried herbs. home-canned produce, and basement-stored vegetables from her garden, and most importantly, her human-trafficked paprika. (She has her paprika imported from Hungary, and it comes in paste, powder, and as a condiment.)

Our meals since then always have a soup. It may be a woodsy mushroom soup, lemony cauliflower soup, or a garlic soup in bread bowls. All homemade from scratch, all better than the next. The main dishes are always exceptional. Marta’s stuffed cabbage with cream dill sauce made the golopki in my Polish neighborhood look meek. Her goulash adds no water; it derives its liquid only from onions, meat, and that remarkable paprika paste.

hungarian soup and cabbage
The last meal we had consisted of chicken hearts and gizzards in a hearty pepper sauce. It was so regal, you remember why organ meat was once a rich man’s meat. (After my meal brag on Facebook about my offal feast, my aunt reminded me when she was married into our farm family, my grandmother told her, “oh, honey, you’ve been so sheltered,” because she wasn’t used to eating heaping amounts of organ meat!)

A week away from home can be tough on anybody, let alone leaving the comfort of my Brooklyn apartment and neighborhood for a chain restaurant-oriented town. Marta, Tim, and I all look forward to my weeklong visits—though I think Tim and I have it best, as we get all of the spoils of Marta’s sublime cooking. I will always be thankful for this gift from Marta, because there is nothing more honoring you can do for a friend than invite them to your house and cook.

max>Max Rudy is a globe-trotting, food-loving good time waiting to happen. When not running the Interwebs for Rubbermaid (not Tupperware), he can be found planning vacations based around food and friends, eating ethnic delicacies, or being woken up by his cats for their food. Max resides in Little Poland—aka Greenpoint, Brooklyn.

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    1. Wino, I’d pour a few whites to go with my Hungarian food – a dry Riesling, Viognier, or even a cool unoaked Spanish Chardonnay like the Enanzo I had the other night would be nice. And cava goes with everything!

  1. Everytime I see the word paprikash, I think of the scene in When Harry Met Sally when they say it over and over with a silly pronunciation!

    1. Melanie, me too. It’s hard to escape When Harry Met Sally… but why would you want to avoid it?

  2. Believe it or not, our Christmas dinner was Hungarian themed–it started with the goulash my friend offered to make, then snowballed from there to include liptauer, mushroom soup, and butter cake. I’ve intrigued by the chicken paprikash now!

  3. It’s so lovely having a friend that will take you in and feed you well. When James and I bought our home, we discussed making sure that this was always a goal of ours – that friends would feel welcome and well-fed.

    My mouth absolutely watered at your description of the Chicken Paprikash, and I haven’t had it in absolutely YEARS.

    Just a side note.. I don’t really understand why WINO is commenting if he doesn’t like the food or your wine suggestions? How is that constructive or supportive? Didn’t your mother ever teach you if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at ALL?

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