Magyar magic

Magyar magic

I had the chance to visit Hungary since my childhood, each visit being a peek at a different era of the country. One thing from the first visit on, I truly had a fondness for its food. It resonated with many things that I am familiar with. Hints from my maternal and paternal grandmothers’ food - the former being German, the other Caucasian - reflections of Turkish flavors and French influences which we also had in our kitchen, all tastes spoke to me in a strange way. Especially in my earlier visits when I was small, I was so fond of everything in bakeries and patisseries, and the majestic cream-laden cakes at Café Gerbeaud. I thought I was in heaven.

Clues to a country’s history and culture are most evident in the kitchen. At first glance, there may 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 shows itself even in the most unexpected ways. Hungary is located at a strategic key point of Europe between east and west. Its cuisine bears the characteristics of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and the inevitable influences of French cuisine, which swept all of 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 boundless pasturelands of Central Asia.

Most of today’s Hungary remained under the Ottoman rule in the 16th and 17th centuries. While the Ottoman Empire dominated mostly the middle of the country, including Buda, the western and northern regions were under the Austrian Habsburg administration, while the Transylvania region maintained its independence. The differences in regional foodways can still be followed under these fragmented compartments. During the Ottoman period, Hungary’s lands met with a good number of new ingredients that would change the Hungarian cuisine forever. In a way, my interpretation is that the Ottoman encounter was more or less like a mini version of the Columbian exchange impact, acting as a milestone in the Hungarian kitchen. The Ottomans introduced fruits and vegetables such as tomatoes, eggplant, corn, sour cherries, and last but not least, red peppers. Paprika or red pepper, which gives the taste and color of Hungarian cuisine today, was first mentioned as Turkish pepper in a dictionary dated 1604. Today, paprika, which is an integral part of life for Hungarians, is actually the gift of the Ottomans. It has become the unique Hungarian stamp on dishes. The way it is used is also reminiscent of our ways of treating our paprika, “toz kırmızı biber,” which is the powdered red pepper. It is first combined with hot butter, oil, or fat to release its striking color and aroma, just as we do, especially when we fry red pepper in oil to drizzle over soups and mantı, the Turkish dumplings.

The similarities are endless. Padlizsán, as one might expect, comes from the Turkish Patlıcan, the eggplant, but at the beginning, it was also called a Turkish tomato with the name Törökparadicsom. The name similarities are surprising. There are more than 300 words in Hungarian that come from Turkish, most being 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-style Tarhana soup but will end up with a dish similar to couscous or orzo pasta pilaf. Speaking of orzo or barley, it is called Arpa in both Hungarian and Turkish. There is also the other way around. There are cases that a taste that is almost identical comes up with another name. For example, Lángos, the ubiquitous fried flatbread sold as 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 lavish Turkish breakfast. There are also cases that we find long-lost Ottoman tastes, still living vividly in Hungary. If you want to follow the footsteps, or better to say food-steps of the Ottoman Empire, you can go to a Budapest bakery and commemorate our ancestors with a bite of Tepertös pogácsa that once existed as Kıkırdaklı Poğaça in Istanbul bakeries.

All those taste memories rushed into my mind at a recent dinner organized with the support of the Hungarian Cultural Center and the Hungarian Export Promotion Agency (HEPA) at the roof terrace of BAU University in Karaköy. The chef in charge was Ágnes Tóth, who fell in love with Turkish culture when she came to Turkey for the first time almost 15 years ago. She started her career not as a chief but as a civil servant in the Foreign Ministry, but then her love of Turkish food weighed heavier. She started learning Turkish, received chef training, and even started to write a blog about Turkish food called Nar Gourmet. She now speaks fluent Turkish at a rapid pace, as if galloping in the steps chasing our mutual past. She presented us with Hungarian dishes made with Turkish ingredients and drew attention to the similarities between the two cuisines.

Hungarians like to include fruits in their meals, just like it was once in Ottoman cuisine. It is not difficult to compare Meggyleves, the Hungarian cherry soup, which is drunk cold, to the Vişne hoşafı, the cherry compote that used to accompany buttery rice pilaf. Szilva Lekvár, which is a kind of sugar-free plum paste or marmalade, is almost identical to the Erik ekşisi of the Kastamonu region. Tóth served the guests a beetroot and cherry cold soup with goat cheese to start with, a refreshing slightly sweet taste with the contrasting briny tang of the cheese. Hortobágy palacsinta was gloriously covered with tricolor sauces nodding the Hungarian flag, with a creamy chicken filling. Veal shank with plum sauce was strongly similar to Ottoman lamb shanks with prunes. All summoned with a sweet of curd cheese cream and forest fruits, prepared by layers of crispy baklava dough. All those flavors are very close to the Turkish palate; it was like walking in the history lane. The chef’s passion was reflected in her plates, and the magnificent views of the historical 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 the Galata tower for the Fisherman’s Bastion.