In Search of Soup in Budapest

In the Hungarian capital, there is a bowl for every occasion, whether a family dinner, a fishing trip, or the morning after a hangover

By / October 2014

Whenever I think of autumn, I think of soup, and whenever I think of soup, I think of Budapest. Although it is easy to find bowls of corba in the town where I live in northeastern Turkey, it’s leves — the Hungarian staple — that I crave in cooler weather.

I first visited Budapest in 2001. I was teaching English in the serene suburb of Erd, on the west (Buda) side of the city. For my first meal, colleagues took me to their favorite lunch-time haunt, Bufe, a dive with no more than six tables. Bufe became my go-to for the next two months.

Lunch normally included a starter of sweet-pickled cucumbers sliced ribbon-thin, with sour cream and paprika garnish. Then I would choose from a variety of savory soups: bean, sausage, cauliflower. Add heaps of hearty bread and a warm bottle of Coke with lemon. I could usually fill my stomach for a couple of bucks.

Photograph by Moyan Brenn 2

Soup, of all things, quickly became a fixture of my time in Hungary. Any trip to Magyarország, as natives call their country, would be incomplete without spooning up to the national dish, goulash. Typically a potage of rendered beef and vegetables seasoned liberally with paprika, goulash recipes can be as flexible as what’s found in the fridge. Historically, it consisted of whatever ancient herdsmen (gulyas) could stuff in their knapsacks.

Hungarian fishermen, not to be outdone by the men of the field, are responsible for another traditional soup of the Magyars. Halaszle, or fisherman’s soup, features freshwater fish — catfish, pike, most commonly carp — from the Danube and Tisza rivers. Preparation of the all-important stock begins with the head, fins, tail, and spine of the fish along with onion and copious amounts of spicy paprika. Once the simple broth is complete, filets of fish are added. Bread and wine, with a plateful of stuffed cabbage, help tame the bold soup, which is customary for Christmas Eve dinner throughout Hungary.

Just as a bowl of zesty halaszle makes for a perfect complement to winter’s freeze, I discovered that Hungarian fruit soup can provide a pleasant relief from summer’s heat. Once my palate recalibrated to the foreignness of soup chilled and sweetened, I quickly grew fond of the Eastern European dish. Typically served as an appetizer, fruit soup is akin to fruity yogurt, though thinner and not overly tart or sugary. Most variations feature local berries or stone fruit and are garnished with whipped cream. The sour cherry selection is exceptional.

Photograph by zsoolt on Flickr

In recent years entrepreneurs and chefs in Budapest have begun a kind of renaissance on the local soup scene. Small cafes and bistros are reworking recipes and rewriting menus with tastes from around the world. Leves, a cubicle-sized haunt on the Pest side of downtown, caters to professionals and young students from nearby universities. With nary a place to sit, the small bar serves up over thirty varieties of soup in a stylish paper cup to go, including inventions like potato and pesto, ginger and turnip, African peanut and chicken, or pumpkin and coconut cream.

A bit further east, in the city’s Jewish quarter, Bors GasztroBar takes a similar approach. Here they offer “soupified” versions of Hungarian classics like potato and paprika or celery and cream. Located on Kazinczy Street, next to trendy pubs and ruin bars in the heart of Budapest’s pulsing nightlife, Bors draws plenty of locals and tourists alike for an evening shot of steaming soup, giving new meaning to a hot toddy.

Hungary, it seems, has a soup for every occasion. The morning after hangover is no exception. Most commonly served on New Year’s Day, korhelyleves, or drunkard’s soup, is a ham shank broth with sauerkraut, sausage, potatoes, sour cream, and to no one’s surprise, paprika.

On a more recent return trip to Budapest with my family, one of my goals was to revisit those familiar earthy flavors in the soups that introduced me to Hungarian culture and cuisine. I also wanted my children to get a taste for the peppery and full-bodied stews of the Magyars. Nearly a decade on, the sausage and bean soups, perhaps the quintessential comfort food, were just as I remembered.

Except, this time around, my children were competing with me for the last bite.


Brian McKanna is a writer and frequent contributor to EthnoTraveler.