Hungary, known for its unique wonders of the vine, its hot springs and its great minds. From glass to plate, the products of nation in the heart of Central Europe have flowed over its borders, finding adherents near and far across the continent. Louis XIV, the “Sun King”, is said to have called Hungary’s famous “noble rot” Tokaj wine “the king of wines.” And then there’s gulyas, the hearty red soup known as “goulash” in English, which has found its way into the culinary traditions of many of Hungary’s neighbours.
But then Hungary is also something of a nation apart, deeply integrated into the region and its history though it is. The people who established the country arrived there after a long trek across Asia, speaking a language extremely different from any of their new European neighbours Hungary has, you might say, something of the exotic about it. But then what do Hungarians themselves think of their homeland? What do they like most about it?
“Its history.” Two Hungarians with completely different backgrounds – Levente Magyar, a government state minister in his late twenties, and Akos Nemeth, a seasoned veteran of the Hungarian wine industry – and on two completely different occasions both gave the same answer to this question. So the thing they like most about Hungary is its history? With so much to choose from, you might think this an unusual choice. Especially as these two men hale from such different professions and even generations. It is with this surprising fact in mind that we make our way to the Hungarian Embassy in Tokyo for a traditional lunch, looking for some insight into what makes Hungary the place it is.
Classical music wafts over the air as we enter the embassy dining room centred on a large round table, set with exquisitely detailed Hungarian china. The dishes are all meticulously hand-painted, and put me in mind of the best handcrafts of my own country, Japan.
The obvious care for precision reminds me, too, of the care I’ve been told goes into that Tokaj wine. According to Helga Gál, food and wine advisor to the Hungarian Foreign Ministry, only grapes with exactly the right “noble rot” are picked for that famous sweet wine. To be so selective means picking by hand, and the grapes can only be harvested by women with especially slender fingers capable of plucking only the fruit worthy of the wine out of each and every bunch on the vine. And it’s no easy task, in more ways than one. Not only must the women have an eye for the right grapes and the grace and skill to pick them, they must also endure the high acidity in the fruit, which slowly melts the skin on the tips of their fingers. Perhaps all this attention to extreme detail and quality is an essential part of the Hungarian national character.
Soon, the always smiling Embassy Chef Balazs Szabo appears with the first plate of the afternoon. In the very middle is a dark pink blossom of salami, the colour set off nicely with a wedge of cherry tomato and a sprig of parsley. Next to it are fine folds of cured ham, soft and lovely-looking. These are all products of the Mangalica pig, designated a Hungarian national treasure, and still very rare here in Japan. All on its own, the salami is worth every iota of sensorial appreciation you can give it; the texture smooth, the pork flavour clear and rich with a touch of black pepper. And then there’s the cured ham. Each finely sliced ribbon is an absolute wonder, the firmness of the meat turning into lush, silky flavour in the mouth; a gently expanding wave of savoury pork.
Hiding beneath the salami slice like a little throne is a mix of cottage cheese and paprika atop a homemade cracker, smooth and rich and good company for the savoury meats. Ah, of course. Paprika. It would be difficult indeed to have a Hungarian meal without paprika making an appearance or two.
As they talk of food and culture, our hosts Minister-Counsellor Attila Erdos and Second Secretary Andrea Kalman tell us also about Hungary’s roots. The ancestors of the Magyar majority are not originally from Europe, but area an Asiatic people who made their way there from beyond the Urals. The Magyar were nomadic, bringing with them everything they needed in the world on their long treks, from their livestock to even their houses (neatly disassembled for the trip). Eventually, they arrived in what is now Hungary in the 9th century Hungary had to overcome some serious swings of fortune in the ensuing centuries, going from powerful medieval kingdom to conquest by the Ottoman and Habsburg empires. Along the way, the population mixed and diversified, creating what is now Hungary.
Both Attila and Andrea seem quite enthusiastic as they lay out this history for us, and we are struck once again by the apparent importance of the past for the country. Their obvious affection for Hungarian history, their belief in its foundational role in the country’s identity, echoes what we saw with State Minister Magyar and with Mr. Nemeth.
That essentiality is coming through full-force in today’s feast as well, with the gulyas now arriving on the table. A little while before this lunch, we attended a Hungarian wine and food seminar at the embassy, so we (and our palates) were already well aware of how good Hungarian food and drink could be. Nevertheless, the gulyas makes a very serious impression, in taste, presentation, and the story it tells.
After the appetizer dishes are cleared, what should appear on the fine white tablecloth next to each of our places but a steel pot suspended over a small candle — a miniature camp cauldron over a miniature campfire. Inside the pot is a healthy helping of deep red soup chock-a-block with chunky ingredients. Andrea tells us that the soup, packed with vegetables and cubes of meat, is essentially an entire meal in one pot. Also, the term “gulyas” originally means the person who took care of the livestock, back in the days when the Magyar lived on the Asian steppe. That’s right, the little camp meal setups we all have (next to more exquisite porcelain bowls and plates) is a culinary echo of the meals the Magyar ate out in the open all those centuries ago. And as we serve ourselves and dig in, the talk turns yet again to history.
“When you are building a house, the base is the most important,” says Andrea. If the base “is not strong enough, the house can collapse at any time. That’s what we feel with our history. If we don’t know the base, where we from, what happened in the past, we cannot face other nations.” This is almost exactly what Mr. Nemeth had said to us some weeks before, when he told us in serious tones, “You must know where you are from.”
According to Attila, history is considered essential learning in Hungary’s schools, and is one of the three mandatory final high school exam subjects alongside the Hungarian language and mathematics. In an era when history is often sidelined in favour of more intense focus on math and science, this determination to keep history central to kids’ educations certainly has our attention.
And part of that history, the diplomats are keen to point out, is diversity. The story of Hungary is not all about the Magyar migration. State Minister Magyar told us earlier with obvious pride that Hungary was a place where peoples and cultures mixed, including Slovakians, Romanians, Austrians and Germans, not to mention the Turks who brought with them coffee and the now absolutely indispensable paprika. And everyone is well aware of this diverse background.
Back at the lunch table, Andrea tells us, “In our blood, we have many different nations. … I think in our history we show that everybody can become Hungarian if you speak the language and if you share the culture.” And this view of what it means to be Hungarian and the history of the country seems to inform how the people see the world in general. Andrea says she takes pride in the vibrancy of the minority groups within Hungary’s present borders, including Jewish and Serbian communities.
And the gulyas is a reflection of this diverse identity as well. Yes, it is indeed prefect for a life on the move, rich and filling, and guaranteed to warm chilled bones on a cold night out on the steppe. But then the version we’re eating now is also mixed with ideas and ingredients – potatoes and paprika, to name a couple — that appeared on the Hungarian menu well after the Magyar ended their wandering ways. Yet it is still made in that old campfire way, water and ingredients added to the slowly cooking soup. It is Hungary in a bowl – a harmonious combination of respecting past tradition and embracing diversity and variety.
“Every nation’s food is a footprint of its history,” State Minister Magyar told us, and we’re seeing (and tasting) that here today.
Story by: Rika Sakai
English Text By: Robert Sakai-Irvine