A taste for traif—non-kosher pleasures—runs deeper. Mangalica, the furry indigenous pig beloved for its marbled, almost beefy flesh, seems to be on every menu. Pesti Diszne, a stylish gastropub near the Opera House, serves it in a delicious rib-sticking stew or, less authentically, in a burger. Pinczi, a butcher shop near the Nyugati train station, offers a more straightforward lesson in Hungarian carnivorism. The servers don’t speak English and the diners may glower at you, but US$3 will buy you one of the city’s best meals: gamey, garlicky local kielbasas, schnitzel served with great pools of spicy mustard, devilish pickled peppers, giant disks of white bread, and cold Soproni beer.
Worshipping comfort food is an old tradition in Budapest. The local historian Andras Torok traces it back to one man: the fin de siecle novelist Gyula Krudy, who wrote passionately about the country’s gastronomic pleasures. “It would be only a slight exaggeration to say that today’s Hungarian cooking is his interpretation of the peasant cooking during his time,” Torok declared in his surprisingly funny Budapest: A Critical Guide. More than a hundred Hungarian recipes are said to be named after Krudy, who concerned himself with the simplest of foodstuffs: marrowbones, matzo balls, and especially cabbage. Consider a story from his collection Life Is a Dream, in which he compares the sound of cabbage being cored to that of cutting reeds. He then imagines men fishing in those reeds, catching little black loaches under the ice, tiny fishes that, he advises home cooks, “add a matchless flavour to cabbage soup.”
I wanted a bowl of something just as soulful, so I got back on the metro at Kalvin Ter—which, of all Line 4’s stops, most resembles a space station—and crossed the Danube to the Buda side. This felt a bit like going back in time. The Castle District, the medieval heart of Buda, is grand and monumental, but it overlooks neighborhoods that are leafier and lovelier than most you’ll find in Pest. My destination was Fioka, a kind of neo-peasant restaurant that looks like an overgrown birdhouse, where I planned to indulge in Hungary’s greatest culinary hit.
Goulash gets around. The dish has been a staple of Continental chefs since Escoffier. But Hungarian cuisine is about more than goulash, and at Fioka its minor and major notes merge into music. I began with broiled marrowbones—served upright with toast, freshly shaved horseradish, and a spoon. Next came porkolt. This hearty meat stew, generously rouged with paprika, is what most non-Hungarians think of when they think of goulash (which, here, is actually more like a soup).