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As part of my Erasmus programme I moved to Budapest for six months. And you might ask: how does a Vegetarian Southern European girl live in a meat lovers country during the freezing Winter months?
Well, she asks herself the same…
Hungary is know for its hearty meat stews and other butcher’s delights, such as the national favourite goulash, chicken paprika, stuffed cabbage or even the fisherman’s soup (from the sea butchers). Stews are the nation’s staple and although mostly animal-based there are a few exceptions such as Főzelék, which is a thick vegetable stew with lentils, green beans, peas or potatoes - but I have to say it is a rare sight on a menu. I’ve been told there are special bars that serve it, although I did not get a chance to try.
Whenever I see a restaurant’s menu that has a separate vegetarian menu or only one or two meat-free options I’m reluctant. I call these ‘pity dishes’.
Pity Dish countable noun
A dish specially developed so that a restaurant can be labeled ‘vegetarian friendly’.
Example: The note between parentheses next to ‘side salad’ in a steak restaurant that reads: ‘can also be chosen as a main …… £(doubles the price of original salad)’
These are often not house specialities, and don’t translate the quality or value of the restaurant’s food, they simply serve the purpose of caring the burden of a vegetarian friend when you feel like going to a meat restaurant. I am not calling out these places, it is great they are pushing towards more inclusivity, I would just rather go to a restaurant that focuses their cuisine more on vegetables. I love food, I want to experience it at its best.
If you agree with me, in Budapest your best bet is what they call ‘Jewish food’, that might resemble Israeli cuisine but that was actually developed in Eastern Europe in Slavic countries and has become a staple of that region. Although Hungary is not a Slavic country, its proximity has provided beneficial when importing this gorgeous food that often doesn’t reach Southern and Western European Countries. The Jewish community lived in the gothic quarter of Budapest, before the Second World War, and their mark is still highly present - this is the best area to taste the Jewish specialities.
Here are some of my recommendations in the city for food lovers, who don’t care for animal products.
What could be more Jewish that this?
More than a restaurant this is a garden and cultural centre, where you can enjoy concerts and exhibitions, just check out their updated programme online. Mazel Tov opens in the early morning for breakfast - which is very good - and stays open late for wine and cocktails to accompany the live music. They call part of their cuisine Israeli fusion kitchen, enhancing here the Slavic touch on traditional south Mediterranean dishes.
‘FROM THE ATLAS MOUNTAINS TO ARARAT,
FROM THE BOSPORUS TO GIBRALTAR
This is their motto, a mixture of cultures that finds itself in the seventh district of Budapest. This is the true origin of ‘Jewish cuisine’ in the melting pot of the gothic quarter. The restaurant celebrates different countries every week, changing the house specials accordingly, but their staple menu is nothing to sneer at - their shakshuka is glorious and their wine selection is also pretty good.
I consider this to be one of my favourite restaurants in the city, I used to go there every two weeks or more if possible. The space is more fashionable while still being very comfortable, it distinguishes itself easily from the traditional restaurants. It serves Hungarian cuisine, but with a more contemporary approach. Although they have some staples, dishes change daily. The best advice I can give you is to go at lunchtime on a weekday, so you can enjoy the reduced price lunch menu and have a more varied meal.
On the verge of the Hungarian culinary scene, chef Janos Mizsei, named best young chef in Hungary at the age of 24 in 2014, opened this boutique restaurant, focused on local and seasonal products, changing their menu daily. This might be a little bit of a Russian roulette on the amount of vegetarian options, but every time I tried it, I did not regret it. This is a slightly more upscale place, although the price is nothing to fear, here you can find the more fashionable crowds of Budapest.
And, let’s not forget, as far as I’m aware wine is 100% vegetarian and Hungary is a wine country, although quite often overlooked. They are very distinct from French and Italian wines, a sort of acquired taste I would say, just because they don’t taste like more common wines, but that does not mean they are worse in any way.
Although I would not consider this the most vegetarian-friendly place, here you can find dishes made from local ingredients, bistro style, with a menu that changes daily. Nevertheless, the reason why I am recommending this place is because of their wine list, focused on sourcing from small Hungarian wineries (and some French ones). Here you can have a taste of the best the country has to offer.
Budapest has something to offer everyone, whether you fancy something more traditional, stylish or upscale. Don’t be afraid to try new things or give in to the locals point of view, there is always something to learn, especially if we’re talking food and wine.