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Six Hungarikums to place in your shopping basket for a true taste of Hungary

What exactly is a Hungarikum, and is it really what you believe it to be? One thing is for sure, Hungarikums are all part of our common national heritage though of course, it is also so much more than that. A Hungarikum is a concept whose experience we must pass on to future generations: something we must introduce to the world, because we feel that it captures a very characteristic, central essence of being Hungarian.

This subject comes up most often if you want to give someone a unique or very Hungarian gift or experience. In fact, a Hungarikum is a collective concept denoting the outstanding achievements of our country and a quality trademark at the same time: a distinction that fills all Hungarians with pride. These products, services, phenomena and properties signify a feature, uniqueness, personality and distinctiveness that are characteristic of Hungarians, while conveying values that are important for the entire nation. Let’s see some examples that will help you grasp what a Hungarikum is. A couple of these come from the field of agriculture and the food industry, because Hungary has historically always been an agricultural region, so a lot of our values come from there. And a couple of others from the hospitality category, because you’ve probably encountered these before.

Pick Wintersalami

One half of the country will immediately think of Pick salami upon hearing the word wintersalami. This is like when a whole product category is identified by a brand name. As with Polaroid, Rotring or Nescafé, or with Kleenex, which is equivalent to paper tissues in other parts of the world. This is exactly what Pick from Szeged is like, which is no longer wintersalami, just plain salami.

The unique recipe and seasoning of this classic was developed by Márk Pick at the end of the 19th century and is kept secret to this day. The pork meat and bacon in it are cut and not minced so as not to damage the tissues. The taste of the cold-smoked, dry-matured salami sticks, stuffed only into casings made from natural ingredients, is truly unique, and the characteristic noble mould coating renders it unmistakable on the outside.


Herz classic wintersalami

The other half of the country, on the other hand, swears by Herz wintersalami and puts that into their sandwiches. No artificial colourings are or have ever been used to make Herz salami sticks, and only meat and bacon from pigs over one year old, weighing at least 150 kg and withdrawn from farming, are used for its production. These strict rules are the legacy of Ármin Herz, who founded his meat company in 1882 and won an award with his salami as early as 1896, the year of the Millennium. Wintersalami, which has been produced with the same technology and composition ever since, requires a lot of artisanal work, great dedication and special expertise. Moreover, the fungi that give the individual mould coating are special because they are not smoke sensitive at all, so the resulting outer layer is extremely durable. 

Unicum bitter liqueur

A Hungarian aperitif that has become iconic in Hungarian culture, and the accompanying phenomenon or even protagonist of countless pop culture, film and literary works. The drink was created in 1790 by János Zwack, Royal Physician to the Imperial Court of Emperor and Hungarian King Joseph II. One day, Doctor Zwack offered his self-inspired drink of special herbs to the ruler, who was known to be constantly struggling with stomach ailments and who then wouldn’t stop singing the praises of the wonderful concoction. According to the historically authentic anecdote, after the first sip, he exclaimed: Das ist ein Unicum! The creator then kept the “name,” began large-scale production, and with that, Unicum embarked on its world-conquering journey. Unicum is particularly popular in Italy, Germany and the former Habsburg Monarchy: Austria and Hungary. Currently, the sixth generation of the Zwack family guards the recipe and constantly updates the brand while working on new products, such as Lánchíd Brandy, which could easily turn out to be the Hungarikums of the future.

Makó onions

The excellent quality of Makó onions is ensured by the layered, strong skin closing tight at the top of the bulb, which is also required for a long shelf life. Even weeks later, an onion should be as fresh as it was when it was pulled out of the ground The history of onions in Makó began with the locals being driven to develop technology specific only to this area as a makeshift solution. This is none other than the two-year cultivation method, which is also a brilliant example of the success of folk breeding. This was necessary because traditional red onions were unable to grow large enough in the climate of Makó one summer, so their development time had to be increased and made biennial. Thanks to the dry and hot summer and the high number of hours of sunshine, the bulbs from Makó are much denser, juicier and more succulent than their traditional counterparts.

Makó onions

Mutton stew from Karcag

Anyone who hasn’t yet tasted it has no idea what they’re missing. This mutton stew from Kunság is completely different in its flavours from the usual dishes in other towns of the Great Hungarian Plain, and in fact the Karcag cooking technique seems rather archaic even within the Kunság. Thus, the Karcag name does not primarily denote the place, but rather the unique cooking method, similarly to Szeged fish soup, which is not even from Szeged. The mutton dishes of the Nagykunság are characterised by the body of the sheep being cooked at the same time. This means roasting the animal's meat at first without the addition of water, practically frying it, and then cooking it together with the pre-scorched head, feet, tripe and offal. To keep it simple, only onions, ground paprika, peppers and salt are used to season the stew – not even pepper. The dish is cooked in a cast-iron casserole, big enough to fit the meat of the entire animal. The end result is a thick ragout cooked over several hours, similar to the Spanish rabo de toro.

Nagykunság was once the largest livestock area in the Great Hungarian Plain, so it is understandable that mutton played an important role in the diet of shepherds. This mutton processing method, which is Cumanian to the core and can easily compete with Balkan recipes, comes from those times. Everyone should try it once.


Tisza fish soup

Tisza fish soup is a collective concept, as the paprika fish soup is made a little differently in the Upper Tisza area or Szeged, and even the type of fish added to the soup base varies from region to region. The starting point can be catfish, sterlet, carp or a mixture of these. However, their common characteristic is that the soup base is prepared with great care and over a long time, from which no flavour can escape, which is why it contains so much fish offal. In this respect, it is similar to the Lake Balaton fish soup, with the key difference that predatory fish such as zander, pikeperch or pike are also cooked in the juices for preference. In both cases, the soup base is prepared first, unlike in the case of the Danube version. The Danube fish soup keeps in mind the freshness of the soup, so is made quickly on a high flame, with the juices and the fish cooked at the same time. This is lighter, while the fish slices in it are overcooked, which is why pasta is added to get that al dente experience. By contrast, the special feature of Tisza fish soup is that the dense, puréed soup base itself results in a rich, fuller bite. In this case, however, care must be taken not to “tire” the soup during the long cooking time, which is why making Tisza fish soup requires serious craftsmanship. The base is made with the offcuts of white-fleshed fine fish, such as carp heads, tails, occasionally fish blood, and various small fish (bream, crucian carp, compo), to which Makó or Szentes onions cut into larger pieces are added. In some places, a few tomatoes and peppers also go into the soup base and finally, just enough water is added to cover the fish. It is cooked over a low heat until the meat comes off the bones. When it is almost a purée, it is passed through a sieve. The fish brew thus concocted is put back on the heat and water, salt and paprika are added. It is brought to a boil on a moderate heat and simmered, and the pre-salted carp slices are placed in the soup base and cooked for no more than 10 to 15 minutes. This ensures the fish is cooked in its own juice but is by no means overcooked. Tisza fish soup is usually served in a small cauldron, accompanied by slices of hot chili peppers and bread. The oldest written record of any Hungarian fish soup is of Tisza fish soup from 1871.