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Fish soup, stuffed cabbage, beigli – what’s on your table at Christmas?

Delicious meat and fish, exciting side dishes, fabulous Christmas cakes – that's what you want at Christmas, right? Let's see what we Hungarians eat during the most beautiful winter holiday and why.

It is exciting to see that Christmas meals are different not just in various regions within Hungary but also depending on specific family habits. Typical Hungarian dishes developed along the lines of old traditions, and later they were extended with, for example, German and English influences. In the time of our ancestors, for example, poultry was never served because turkey, duck or goose scratch backwards with their feet and it was believed to be a bad sign, so pork dishes were selected. All the more since pigs were killed from late November and quite a lot of fresh meat was available for Christmas – so liverwurst or fried sausages were an integral part of the holiday menu. 

Fish was typical food for fasting

As we mentioned earlier, the traditional peasant dishes at Christmas were partly connected to superstitions. Poppy seeds, peas and beans symbolised abundance and apples symbolised fertility, so they definitely had a place on the table in salty or sweet form. Bean soup with carrots and sour cream, for example, was considered a festive dish in the north of the country. Elsewhere, bean soup appeared as a fasting dish – without meat and dairy products – just as sauerkraut, fish soup or fried fish used to. How does fasting come in here? One or two hundred years ago, people used to fast before Christmas, and this period also included 24 December. 

Stuffed cabbage here and Székely cabbage there

Smoked and salted pork and ham as well as game meat were popular on the Christmas menu, especially in Somogy. Braided brioche was – and still is – served in Transdanubia not only at Easter but also at Christmas. The remaining bread was used to make mákos guba (poppy seed bread), which is still very popular today. Today, many people eat fish soup (with pasta in Baja and without pasta in Szeged) and fried or breaded fish (salmon, sea fish) during the holidays. One of the most popular Christmas dishes is stuffed cabbage, usually the Szabolcs version, in which the filling consists of very small dumplings. In the eastern part of the country Székely cabbage is preferred with a lot of smoked meat.

And how about sweets?

Turkey (stuffed with chestnuts or plainly fried in one piece) was brought to Hungarian tables from Anglo-Saxon countries, and mayonnaise salads – for example, potatoes with red onion and mayonnaise or French salad offered for meat dishes – became popular due to the German influence. Aspic made from fish or pork is also a typical food in the holiday season. The most popular sweets are walnut, chestnut and poppy seed cakes – mainly in the form of beigli (a rolled cake). Some families prefer Gerbeaud, Linzer, Buche de Noel or apple pie. 

Did you know?

It was a typical Christmas custom in the Great Plains and in the southern parts of the country that before the meal the family cut an apple into as many slices as the number of people at the table. Garlic with honey was also eaten as a sign of health and abundance. At some places a walnut was cracked and placed in the four corners of the room to protect the household from evil.