The synagogue in Budapest—and when you say “the synagogue in Budapest,” there is really only one you can be referring to—gives visitors a sense of the Jewish community that once thrived in the Hungarian capital. The Dohany Street Synagogue, with Moorish-style onion-shaped domes and ornate brickwork, was built in the 1850s, and is the largest in Europe and second in the world only to New York’s Temple Emanu-El.
But the grand synagogue isn’t the only hint that Hungary was once home to quite a thriving Jewish community. Peek into some of Budapest’s bakeries and restaurants, and you’ll see, smell and taste some of the once-flourishing culinary traditions being revived today.
Frohlich Cukraszda is a cake shop specializing in the kinds of pastries that were staples of Budapest’s Jewish neighborhoods. While kosher bakeries were once numerous in Budapest, this one—which opened in 1954—is the only one still operating in the city.
The signature sweet treat at Frohlich Cukraszda is the flodni, a multi-layered confection that stuffs apples, walnuts and poppy seeds between sheets of dough. The cake makes frequent appearances at Jewish weddings.
Aranygaluska, a cinnamon and nut pull-apart coffee cake whose name means “golden dumpling,” was a favorite in Hungarian Jewish circles and even grew to be popular enough to be featured in a 1972 Betty Crocker cookbook.
The shop also offers the renowned Dobos torte, a seven-layer cake filled with chocolate buttercream and capped with caramelized sugar.
It wasn’t all about sweets for Budapest’s Jews. Dishes like shlishkes, potato dumplings tossed with sautéed bread-crumbs, were often eaten on Friday nights. And the Hungarian version of the Shabbat classic cholent—called sholet—is full of smoked meat, beans and paprika.
Tomatoes and peppers were introduced to Hungarians by the Ottomans and were incorporated into many dishes, among them lecsó (pronounced “letcho”). This ragout is popular throughout Hungary for breakfast with bread and some meat or scrambled into eggs, and now also as part of lunch or dinner with rice or pasta.
A defining dish of Hungarian Jewry uses what may seem like a surprising ingredient—sour cherries as in sour cherry soup or hideg meggyleves. The soup was particularly popular at Shavuot, the late-spring holiday when it is traditional for Jews worldwide to indulge in dairy meals and desserts. In Hungary, Shavuot has always coincided with the sour cherry harvest. The soup is both tart and slightly sweet, and made with fresh or sour cream, sugar and whole sour cherries. It can be a first course or a dessert.
Jewish-style restaurants like Fulemule, Spinoza and Koleves, though not kosher, serve traditionally inspired foods such as roast duck with cabbage noodles and roast goose leg as well as salads and hummus, Israeli-style.
Even sholet makes an appearance on some menus, in an updated fashion. At Fulemule, the stew comes in six versions, including one with goose foie gras and grilled onions. Some restaurants even dabble in a more extreme form of modernizing—sholet made with pork instead of goose.
Though the Hungarian Jewish population of nearly half a million people was decimated by the Holocaust, today there are some 90,000 Jews in the country, and their culinary traditions are experiencing a renaissance. Jewish-style cooking has grown in popularity, thanks in part to bloggers like Eszter Bodrogi, whose writing emphasizes the accessibility and tastiness of Jewish cooking.
The Hungarian Jewish community may be rooted in the past, but its recipes aren’t staying there.
Top photo by Creative Commons