Written by Staff Writer by By Peter Casey, CNN Budapest, Hungary
The first menus printed in Budapest in 1962 were “hot-shot” snacks. Still too sparse for gastronomes today, the city was known for its dollar menu dishes, their dizzying variation the ingredients of the day.
Today, however, Hungarian cooking is fast evolving; recent events at the Hungarian National Food Show (NPRF) show that it’s still not dead.
Returning “bread and circuses”
For decades, Hungary was a diet fad spot. However, amid concerns over national problems such as obesity and diabetes, the country’s media have been hard at work researching and promoting healthy eating.
Among these efforts, the Czech and Slovak National Food Shows (NPRF-CJF) created a Budapest counterpart in 2013, an ambitious ambition that’s all the more remarkable for its focus.
Nikolos Adam and the Hungarian Entomophagy Society at the Hungarian National Food Show (NBC) / Courtesy Mirabelle Szczepanik
“Nowadays, more than 100 exhibitors enter the show, like there’s a new cuisine for every season,” said Anton Slezak, event organizer for the Czech and Slovakian National Food Shows.
“The most recent example we noticed was the Himalayan varieties,” he added. “They started seeing that no Hungarian ingredients, such as roots or berries, were available anywhere outside of the capital city.”
Staying ahead of trends
Aside from health and sustainability, Russian-Hungarian travel journalist Mirabelle Szczepanik says that she’s also witnessed the rise of “the Budapest gastro scene” in recent years.
“I’m sad to say that the number of restaurants in Budapest in the last five years only increased by a little. I think it shows an aging population,” she explained.
Six-dishes with three lomi lomi — Hungarian hot-sauce chicken legs cooked over banana leaves — are a classic Hungarian dish. Getty Images Rui Vieira/Alamy Stock Photo
“A lot of people leave that place behind as soon as they get married and start a family.”
Nevertheless, Szczepanik is confident that with the help of trendy, young chefs, the city is “here to stay.”
“Budapest is growing as a trendsetter, even when the rest of the world is still growing old,” she said.
“The local food scene has yet to go full circle, and to this day you can find local chefs placing farm-fresh produce with all the technology, while still working on a farm themselves. But this isn’t about food,” she explained.
“Budapest is full of brands and its in-season seasonality will remain the same — it will still be home to many “wonder” ingredients. But not everyone is familiar with that process.”
Hungarian dishes with a passion for truffles. Getty Images Mirabelle Szczepanik
Shanghai meets Budapest
As well as international chefs, the New ABC Food Show (NBC) provides another opportunity for local talents to learn from international equivalents, and host competitions and events for their peers.
Most notable is its annual Chefs’ Showcase, which includes the judges” challenge, with 15 finalists vying for the title of best chef in the country. One of the celebrity guests that year was chef Sean McDermott, from London’s Mandarin Oriental.
BBC cultural affairs specialist Louisa Percelay is already predicting the “huge rise” of the country’s hospitality industry.
Hungarian wine-making schools have opened — expanding a flourishing industry that dates back to the turn of the 19th century. Photo: Photo: László Szolnai / European Pressphoto Agency
“Of course, more and more tourists are coming to Budapest every year, and it’s a good place to sit, have a coffee, or a classic slice of pizza,” she said.
“However, it’s become increasingly popular for families to come, stay longer, and have children and play around the park or the lakeside. That’s why you’ll see such a diversity in dining options.”
Even with a burgeoning tourism industry and its impending massive infrastructure and transport network, a clear trendline shows that Budapest may still have lots of room to grow.