I have been fortunate enough to visit Hungary since I was a child, with each visit being a glimpse of a different time in the country. One thing from the first visit, I really had a fondness for its food. It resonated with a lot of things I know. Hints of the food of my maternal and paternal grandmothers – the first being German, the other Caucasian – reflections of Turkish flavors and French influences that we also had in our kitchen, all tastes spoke to me of a strange way. Especially on my previous visits when I was little, I loved everything about the bakeries and pastry shops, and the majestic cream-laden cakes at Café Gerbeaud. I thought I was in heaven.
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Clues about a country’s history and culture are most evident in the kitchen. At first glance, there might not be a great similarity between Hungarian and Turkish cuisines. However, there are such strong ties between the cuisines of the two countries that it manifests itself in even the most unexpected ways. Hungary is located at a key strategic point in Europe between east and west. Its cuisine bears the hallmarks of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and the inevitable influences of French cuisine, which swept across Europe in the 19th century, as well as traces of the deep-rooted Ottoman past. On the other hand, there is a common past between the Hungarians and the Turks, whose roots go back to the immense pastures of Central Asia.
Most of today’s Hungary remained under Ottoman rule in the 16th and 17th centuries. While the Ottoman Empire predominantly dominated the center of the country, including Buda, the western and northern regions were under the Austrian administration of the Habsburgs, while the region of Transylvania retained its independence. Differences in regional eating patterns can still be traced under these fragmented compartments. During the Ottoman period, the Hungarian lands encountered a good number of new ingredients that would forever change Hungarian cuisine. In a way, my interpretation is that the Ottoman encounter was more or less like a mini version of the impact of the Colombian exchange, acting as a milestone in Hungarian cuisine. The Ottomans introduced fruits and vegetables such as tomatoes, eggplants, corn, sour cherries and, finally, red peppers. Paprika or red pepper, which gives the taste and color of today’s Hungarian cuisine, was first mentioned as Turkish pepper in a dictionary dated 1604. Today, paprika, which is an integral part of Hungarian life, is in fact the gift of the Ottomans. It has become the unique Hungarian cachet on the dishes. The way it is used is also reminiscent of our ways of processing our paprika, “toz kırmızı biber,” which is red chilli powder. It is first combined with hot butter, oil or fat to release its striking color and aroma, just like us, especially when we fry red pepper in oil to baste soups and mantı, Turkish dumplings.
The similarities are endless. Padlizsán, as you might expect, comes from the Turkish Patlıcan, eggplant, but at first it was also called a Turkish tomato with the name Törökparadicsom. The similarities of names are surprising. There are over 300 words in Hungarian that come from Turkish, most of which are terms of agriculture, animal husbandry and gastronomy. Sometimes the name is borrowed, but the food turns out to be different. For example, you can order Tarhonya hoping for a Turkish Tarhana soup, but you will end up with a dish similar to couscous or orzo pasta pilaf. Speaking of orzo or barley, it is called Arpa in Hungarian and Turkish. There is also the reverse. There are cases where an almost identical taste comes with another name. For example, Lángos, the ubiquitous fried flatbread sold as a street food, is very similar to our beloved Pişi, which is a smaller version often eaten with cheese as a quick snack or in a sumptuous Turkish breakfast. There are also instances where one finds long lost Ottoman tastes still alive in Hungary. If you want to follow in the footsteps, or better say in the footsteps of the food of the Ottoman Empire, you can go to a bakery in Budapest and commemorate our ancestors with a bite of Tepertös pogácsa that once existed as Kıkırdaklı Poğaça in Istanbul bakeries.
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All of these taste memories came to my mind at a recent dinner hosted with the support of the Hungarian Cultural Center and the Hungarian Export Promotion Agency (HEPA) on the rooftop terrace of BAU Karaköy University. . The chef in charge was Ágnes Tóth, who fell in love with Turkish culture when she first came to Turkey almost 15 years ago. She started her career not as a chef but as a civil servant in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, but her love for Turkish cuisine then carried more weight. She started learning Turkish, received training as a chef, and even started writing a blog about Turkish cuisine called Nar Gourmet. She is now fluent in Turkish at a rapid pace, as if galloping down the stairs in pursuit of our common past. She introduced us to Hungarian dishes made with Turkish ingredients and drew attention to the similarities between the two cuisines.
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Hungarians like to include fruit in their meals, as it used to be in Ottoman cuisine. It’s not difficult to compare Meggyleves, the Hungarian cherry soup, which is drunk cold, to Vişne hoşafı, the cherry compote that once accompanied rice pilaf in butter. Szilva Lekvár, which is a kind of sugarless plum paste or marmalade, is almost identical to Erik ekşisi from the Kastamonu region. Tóth served the guests a cold beet and cherry soup with goat cheese to start, a refreshing slightly sweet taste with the contrasting brackish flavor of the cheese. Hortobágy palacsinta was gloriously covered in tricolor sauces nodding the Hungarian flag, with a creamy chicken filling. The veal shank with plum sauce was strongly similar to the Ottoman lamb shanks with prunes. All accompanied by a soft cream of cottage cheese and forest fruits, prepared with layers of crispy baklava paste. All these flavors are very close to the Turkish palate; it was like walking the path of history. The chef’s passion was reflected in his plates, and the magnificent views of the historic peninsula and the Galata Tower added to the Magyar Magic. I think with the help of delicious Hungarian wines, at one point I might have thought I was in Buda, mistaking Galata Tower for Fisherman’s Bastion.