Outside Budapest, it’s not that easy to find the Hungarian dishes you’ve read about and want to try specifically. You definitely need to be proactive about it.
Protip: Find a local Hungarian friend who likes food, not someone who says “Oh you can find all of these dishes in almost any Hungarian restaurant.”
In case it’s not obvious, I’m trying to be facetious. Finding a friend isn’t that easy if you’re like me, and Hungarians are… to keep it simple we’ll say they’re not that friendly and many Hungarians will say that about their own people.
So let’s say, hypothetically, that you don’t have any Hungarian friends in the city you’re visiting and you’ve been struggling to tick any dishes off the advertised “must-try” list and you’re fed up and just don’t want to go home feeling precisely as undiscerning as when you arrived. Okay, then it might be okay to listen to my advice below, because I obviously don’t know much about Hungarian food myself.
In short, these are Hungarian foods that were actually possible to find (based on my brief experience):
- Pálinka. Supposedly “much better than Rakija,” even though I feel like it’s just the Hungarian name for the same thing? (Someone please let me know, I couldn’t find a reliable source.)
- Gulyásleves (goulash soup). If you have trouble finding this you’re blinder than me lol.
- Kifli (cresent bread). Different bakeries sell different stuff but this is preeeetty common.
- Pörkölt. A traditional Hungarian stew and a national dish. It might look similar to goulash soup but it’s not the same.
- Rétes (strudel). Found in bakeries with a variety of fillings such as cheese, poppyseed, and walnut paste.
- Palacsinta (pancake/crepe). Try nutella flavor.
- Nokedli (dumpling noodles). A common side dish to eat with stew for example.
- “Pöttyös” [brand name] Túró Rudi. Chocolate bar stuff with cottage cheese. There are some weird cheese combinations but this actually works for me. Make sure to get the classic version, though you might need some help in identifying it. Also, I found it in the fridge section of the supermarket (oh right it has cheese in it).
- “Mizo” madártej ízű tej (Milk with bird’s milk flavor). I bought this by chance because “floating island” flavor (thanks Google Translate) seemed worth trying alongside cacao flavor lol. Later I realized madártej (meringue custard dessert) was on my hunting list. Unfortunately I’m told that despite being popular, madártej is only ever made at home. This milk flavor is the same as that of the custard though, and is a bit like vanilla.
- Töltött Káposzta (stuffed cabbage rolls).
- Tokaji Aszú. Sweet dessert wine.
- Meggyleves (cold sour cherry soup). This dish exactly matches the description lol, I don’t know what I was expecting. Hungarians like strong flavors, but this is a controversial dish that some love and some hate. I personally would not recommend it, it’s enough to know that such a soup exists.
- Dobos-torta. Five-layer sponge cake with caramel. I only found this in a bakery not at any restaurant. I would not recommend unless you specifically crave this sort of thing.
- Pogácsa. Small pastry with cheese inside. For me it was enough to see it.
- Túrós csusza. Cheese noodle.
- Pastries at the supermarket. There’s this thing that looks flatter than a strudel and inside I think is custard, and it’s soooooo popular among locals. Just buy what every else is buying.
- Pickled vegetables. Not iconic per se, but commonly homemade and just another example of how Hungarians like strong flavors.
If you love meat and you don’t care what you try as long as it’s Hungarian, you can go to the shopping mall food courts. There will often be a place where you can choose what to put on your plates, and you can just pick the stuff with Hungarian flags on it.
Things that are iconic but hard to find
Street food like Lángos and Rétes are not necessarily that common unless there’s a market thing happening. It really helps to distinguish between where you are likely to find something: on the street; in a cafe; at a restaurant; at a pub; in bakeries; in the supermarket; at a fast food place; or at home. Some foods are only made during specific seasons/holidays. Not all Hungarians will have tried or even heard of everything that might appear in a supposed must-try list, so don’t get too sucked into the hype.
Here’s a recording of Hungarian folk music from one particular region/village.
Unfortunately my transcription of the name seems to be a complete failure when I search online. And let’s skip the part on how I obtained it. Traditionally, this music is for a young man to dance to and show off to the girls. I believe it might also be common to have some singing. The instruments in this case are four Transylvanian violas, a double bass, and a classical violin. The Transylvanian instruments have three strings instead of four, a flat bridge to facilitate playing chords, and optionally use a folk bow that offers less precision but more volume than the classical counterpart. The viola players rest their chin on the side/rib instead of the usual place.
I’ll let you judge the music for yourself, but I will remind you that alcohol probably makes a good accompaniment in a real scenario.
Music Spotlight: No.1 in D Minor BWV 1052
The harpsichord is an “old school” instrument, and it’s usually played for music composed during the period of Western classical music known as Baroque. (That’s how [in]accurate my terminology is going to be.) Like the piano, it uses a keyboard, but there is no pedal and no matter how hard you press a key the loudness will be the same. Therefore, the harpsichord sounds distinctly mechanical and one might even say dull.
The piece I’m writing about is called “Harpsichord Concerto No.1 in D Minor BWV 1052” by Bach, and specifically the first movement because that’s my favorite. It’s performed with an orchestra. I first heard this performed live with piano, even though it’s written for the harpsichord. The modern piano didn’t exist during Bach’s time, and he wasn’t fond of its predecessor at the time, the fortepiano. The question therefore arises, does the piece sound better on the modern piano or harpsichord? (Would Bach have approved of the modern piano?)
I’ve listened to both versions, and while both fascinate me, I have to say that the harpsichord version sounds so right. How can this dull and lifeless sounding instrument beat the sweet and subtle expressiveness of the piano? I’ll explain my impressions from both performances.
Piano and harpsichord have distinctly different sounds, so the orchestra plays differently to achieve a different balance. With the piano concerto, the piano is the clear star of the show. It’s the loudest and dictates everything: the slower tempo (for the performance I’ve selected) and the whole mood. The orchestra is just there for support, and the entire piece would still sound pretty coherent without the orchestra parts. The strings do not sound beautiful, but subdued and uneasy. The harpsichord on the other hand requires the orchestra to help vocalize the melody, set the mood, and make sense of the whole thing. (Funnily enough, this might be explained by the fact that this harpsichord concerto is believed to be Bach’s transcription of a lost violin concerto.) For example, in some parts you can barely hear the left hand part of the harpsichord because of the limited volume and high clang-to-note ratio (sorry, I studied engineering). In the unison parts (where the orchestra and harpsichord are playing the same melody), the orchestra carries the sound while the harpsichord creates the somber nature to it. Despite the limited expressiveness of the harpsichord, stylistic phrasing and stress on certain notes is done through nuanced variations in the rhythm such as short delays between notes and holding a note for slightly longer or shorter. It’s subtle, but it makes for precious moments when you notice it.
I realize that Baroque music in general is not accessible to all listeners, so I’ll introduce it briefly too. Baroque music is bizarre. It’s characterized by rules and conventions. There’s a lot of repeated themes and variations (e.g., same rhythm and shape is being repeated over and over but with slightly different notes), decorations (flashy notes), counterpoint (simultaneous musical lines that constantly fight for attention), and syncopation (irregular or unexpected emphasis in terms of beat). Baroque music is often very recognizable and “all sounds like variations of the same thing” because of the confining rules. One might find it boring, repetitive, and predictable. So with these potential limitations, what makes great Baroque music? Baroque music is defined by rules, but the flip side is that the whole artistry is in when to break the rules and how. In oversimplified terms, if you have enjoyable themes with a nice flow to the predictable parts, and really exciting and delicious transitions when breaking the rules, then what you have is something potentially very addictive. Each movement should also form a cohesive sequence of moods, usually emphasizing one mood.
I’ll further elaborate the feeling of listening to great Baroque music with the specific example of the piano concerto performance. Just watch the pianist in the video. (Not now; after reading everything.) Her body language says it all. She is dancing inside and out. Trust me, this is a difficult piece. It’s not easy to dance while playing (unless you’re Lang Lang in which case you’re playing while dancing?). But she is, because the beat is irresistible. The piano is more expressive so you can do much more with dynamics and shaping, and arguably it takes a lot more skill than playing the harpsichord. Somehow she makes it seem effortless.
So how do I feel when listening to the harpsichord version? Why do I prefer it? The beginning theme, which is repeated a few times later, is epic. It’s heavy and solemn and charged with something dark. It’s almost satisfyingly depressing. The harpsichord solo sections are lively, yet chilling, and are gently urged on by support from the strings, shaping the pace. The sections played in a major key (sounding perhaps not cheerful, but hopeful or promising) are very pleasant melodically but the passages feel like they just keep flowing on without breaks due to the off-beat emphasis of the orchestral parts. The first long solo, while repetitive and possibly predictable, it’s kind of creepy enough to not be boring. Rather, one asks “What’s going on? Where is this leading to?” Some of the intermediate parts I’ll simply describe as suspenseful and uncertain. The solo in the middle is purely eccentric. The second long solo sounds relatively simple. It doesn’t make you guess, but it keeps you waiting and the beat offers no break. And then the metal goes crazy.
From start to finish, underlying the whole piece is the feeling of unrest. Every section moves forward and makes you feel uneasy. This is why I love this piece played with harpsichord. No, you can’t have a toilet break because you’ll miss the transition to the next part, and the next. The tension is maintained so well, and there’s an excellent balance between predictable following of the rules and breaking them for effect. The harpsichord version is less dance-like than the piano one but a lot more suspenseful. This piece was intended for harpsichord (at least this transcription by Bach, anyhow) and it conveys the mood more intensely and consistently despite (or even because of) the fundamental limitations of the instrument.
Note: the first video contains all three movements.
I should start by warning the reader that I’m writing about my delayed first impressions of Hungary, and that this post is extremely partial (though not necessarily inaccurate). Why then, do I bother to share what may well contain a fair portion of misinformation? (How can I even talk about Hungary as a country if I haven’t spent more than an hour in Budapest?) My gosh, the internet lied to me and Hungarians lied to me and I can’t believe I was naive about it for so long. Of course, I can’t say that without acknowledging that I made an incorrect assumption somewhere along the line. All the dependent calculations… I could not possibly have known it could skew things so much.
Based on my research, this is roughly what I expected of Hungary:
To the foreigner, Hungary is basically a better version of Romania in terms of its attributes. The most notable downsides are that it’s more expensive and Hungarian is much harder to learn than Romanian.
This expectation was the core reasoning for my initial plan to spend one and a half months in Hungary after one month in Romania. Build up some confidence and skills in Romania, where it’s cheaper, then go all out in Hungary. Save the best for last.
Now on just my fifth day in the country, that whole idea has come crashing down. I’ll start by talking about the good things I’ve noticed in Hungary (mainly compared to Romania):
- The everyday architecture and streets are much prettier (but less interesting) than in Romania.
- Jaywalking is easier and feels safer.
- The standard of living is better. I’ve almost had a good shower.
- Better economic standing and less political corruption, though is this really a pro for a tourist?
- Menu aside, the average restaurant serves better food.
- The customer service is much better, though I still get the “What are you doing in this restaurant?” thing sometimes.
- The process of paying the bill, giving a tip, and receiving change is streamlined into one step so you don’t have to wait anymore.
- I find the clouds interesting and picturesque. Some of the pastures on the train ride look quite nice, though the view is blocked a lot of the time.
- People are generally more polite and the look of depression seems to be replaced by something like arrogance.
- The selection of pastries and cakes is more foreigner-friendly than those in Romania.
- Ice cream (especially gelato) is cheap and popular, although the consistency/taste usually feels a bit artificial.
- Shopping malls are smaller but more accessible and closer to the center.
- City centers seem to feel more well-defined, compact, walkable, and yet less crowded. This might have to do with the major cities (other than Budapest) generally having noticeably smaller populations than the major cities in Romania. Kecskemét, for example, has a real toy place feel to it (in more than one way).
- Wider range of electronic goods.
And some of the bad things:
- Everything except ice cream is more expensive. We’re talking about the cheapest reasonable stuff; places to stay, food, public transport, etc. Ballpark figure 50-100% more expensive. That’s quite a bit when you’re often paying for roughly the same level of quality/comfort as in Romania. Those cost-of-living websites I’ve been relying on… pretty off the mark here, at least in terms of my “lifestyle.”
- The train network is lame. It’s a star; everything goes through Budapest. That sucks for going from one non-Budapest city to another regardless of the population/size of the cities.
- Train transfers are confusing. I bought a ticket from Budapest to Pecs with no instructions given on what transfers I needed. I transferred twice at major transfer stations only to be told that I couldn’t go to Pecs on the unlimited transfer ticket I bought. I ended up illegally riding the InterCity direct train from Budapest to Pecs (which I had missed by a couple minutes at the station in Budapest) for the last leg, but I maintain that it wasn’t my fault.
- Prepaid SIM cards and all the prepaid plans are not cheap. They also have pretty strict rules on acquiring an active SIM card. I went to Telekom and the guy said “I’m sorry, you cannot buy a SIM card in Hungary without Hungarian ID.” He went on to explain how new laws in 2017 were stricter and so on. I’d done my preparation for this so I was pretty sure he was wrong, but either way he thought he couldn’t sell and activate a card for me. I went to Vodafone instead and there was no such problem, except it was way more expensive…
- Hungarians are less rude than Romanians, and thus it could be considered that they’re more polite. But Romanians are way friendlier towards foreigners, which makes so much more difference. Largely irrelevant, but one Hungarian guy pretended to come and attack me when I looked up from reading Maps just to make his girlfriend laugh…
Let’s talk about the downright disgusting stuff
Hungarians have a superiority complex. I’ve heard stuff like Hungarians think their neighboring countries (e.g., Romania) should be a part of Hungary as they might have once been. At least that can be explained by attitudes based on the past or lingering propaganda. What really sets me off is that Hungarians all talk about how the food is better and there’s really great nature spots and the villages are just as good as in Romania, and then no one can recommend a single city or village or hiking scene outside of Budapest. Not one fucking name. You wonder for a second whether everyone lives in Budapest or they don’t know the geography of their own country. The same is true of travelers; no one will be able to mention anything other than Budapest. Which brings me to my next point.
Budapest carries the entire reputation of Hungary as a tourist destination. My fatal mistake was the assumption that like Romania, Hungary had many good things to offer other than its capital city. Boy was I wrong. Budapest usually appears in the top 10-20 cities in lists of European destinations, whereas Bucharest wouldn’t even make it to a top 50 list if there was one. If Budapest and Bucharest didn’t exist, Hungary wouldn’t be popular whereas Romania would still be a great (and unpopular) country to visit. When people compare the two countries, they’re usually just comparing one really attractive capital city to a whole country with a far less attractive capital city. It’s going to be a very skewed comparison.
There is nothing particularly worthwhile outside Budapest. This is the only explanation I can think of that accounts for why no one has heard of any other place in Hungary. Look at the map of Hungary and its four regions. Read up on every major city except Budapest. Note the absence of things to do in each city like hiking or visiting a nearby village or any other highly recommended tourist attraction. Go to the city or save the trouble and just browse the audio walking tours for it. Look up all the waterfalls in the country. Ask the locals what you can do.
That superiority complex again. The locals will tell you how nice their city is while admitting there’s nothing to do except be there. Nothing to see in the villages and no nearby nature attractions. It’s embarrassing. People just want to share how good things are rather than share what those things really are. And often, those good things don’t even exist! Read the descriptions of each city. No matter how fancily you could describe any of the cities, there’s simply no substance behind it.
“Grand McChicken” burger. ^
I regret not having taken advantage of people more.
INTPs are pretty good at accepting the truth. We’re the type that is least prone to bias, but we’re certainly not immune when it comes to things like emotional trauma, which can damage our sensitive ’emotionalogical’ circuits. Anyhow, regret is one of those emotions we see as logically pointless and a waste of energy. To indulge in regret would mean that accepting the truth of the past is difficult, which it is not. Accept the things you cannot change, and focus on the things you can change. (However, one common INTP bias is to assume we can’t change something all too easily, usually something that requires social interaction.) You can reinvent the past, but you can’t change it.
With that gnarly introduction out of the way, I’ll talk about the only thing that I “bothered to regret about” in Romania.
I regret not having taken advantage of people[‘s kindness] more.
For anyone who’s known me for an extended period of time, this is not at all a controversial statement. On the contrary, it’s somewhat evident that I would be a better person if I was better at taking advantage of people. I’ll clarify for good measure, since INTPs can operate by pretty weird definitions (relative to everyone else) when it comes to standards of behavior (such as honesty).
To me, taking advantage of a person(s) means willfully taking and receiving what excess they were already willing to give, in a manner that results in a positive outcome for both parties.
Like I said, probably not the definition you expected. Why is it so conservative? Despite being prone to breaking rules, INTPs have a strong sense of moral principles. Mix that in with social awkwardness, a lifelong attraction to autonomy and independence, sometimes crippling beliefs about whether one in fact deserves good things, and an uncanny respect for other people’s right to be left alone. And that’s why you have such a strange definition. I mean, normal people would probably call that kind of behavior something else, not taking advantage, but I struggle to identify what it might be.
Life gets better for an INTP once they realize they deserve what they get and what they take. The INTP population is split in terms of this metric. I hypothesize the main predictors as being age and presence of childhood emotional trauma/repression. A large proportion of us (possibly even a majority) suffered from childhood trauma in some form. We’re at greater risk than other types because of how specific our needs are and how different it is from the norm.
Childhood trauma is obviously a barrier to healthy adult development, and it seems to be a rather polarizing barrier that is difficult to cross. Personally, I believe that I am now aware of the appropriate tools to overcome the limitations brought on by my own past. It has been two years since I first became self-aware, and although I made great leaps and bounds initially, it wasn’t until I reached another all-time low in February this year that I realized my methodologies were far too shallow and that I had to deconstruct myself once again to move away from the plateau.
In particular, the mindset that I needed to “fix myself, crawl out of the abyss, and become a normal, healthy adult” was harmful and unsustainable. Although it might not be so far from the essence of what I want to achieve, as a human being I cannot (successfully) navigate through emotional truth in such a precise manner. I’m a human, not a computer. I need principles, strategies, the use of the senses, feedback, reassurance, and light to guide me. But I digress, so I’ll try to wrap up my point quickly. Lasting positive change must come from a place of self-acceptance. (The media and commercials don’t want you to know that, because it’s not a message that sells; in fact, it scares us because it involves confronting our uncomfortable feelings rather than ‘powering through so quickly we don’t have to think about it.’) This leads to one of my favorite quotes, which is the mantra of Sierra Boggess (my favorite Christine Daaé by the way):
“You are enough! You are so enough, it’s unbelievable how enough you are!”
The incident I regret the most was the second time I consciously distanced myself from friendly locals because I didn’t want to burden them. I was afraid that they would invite me a second time, and ashamed to admit how much I would have wanted that. I was afraid that they wouldn’t invite me. I left in a hurry so that I wouldn’t put them in the position to have that decision over something I felt vulnerable about.
It was stupid, but understandable given my flawed upbringing. Expressing my true desires has always been a shame trigger for me, because I grew up under the idea that my wants and needs were mostly a source of trouble. This misconception was something I could not change as a child, so I accepted that “reality” and silenced my needs.
I should have loitered around. I should have expressed further interest, asserted my presence, and given myself a chance to be invited. Because of that cowardly decision, I never ended up discovering the limits of Romanian kindness, which had been one of my specific missions. (And I never got another chance to speak with the first girl to ever strike me as ‘angelic’ in appearance.)
While it still takes courage for me to accept kindness from others, I did eventually realize that I wasn’t the only one to gain from obliging. To be able to give freely is a privilege that I envy. But people received the benefit of my presence too, and if only for a few passing moments, I felt that it was real.
I chose Romania with my head and it captured my heart.
I finally left Romania after more than a month, and with great sadness. In my previous megapost on travel advice myths for Romania, I gave a list of pros and cons that basically explains why Romania was a logical choice of destination for me. For those who prefer to be convinced with their heart or emotions or whatever, there was one common sentiment among visitors that definitely intrigued me: people say that they discover an unexpected sense of home in Romania. Even though it’s rather vague what is meant by this or how it could really be the case, my logical instincts believed it to be possible. But would I experience this too?
The social odds have always been against me, but I’ve been deliberately trying to improve my luck. After all, those of us born into bad luck have no better alternative but to manufacture better luck. I don’t feel like explaining this idea right now, but it’s something that’s important to me now even if it’s something I’ll outgrow later.
In short, I did find the feeling of home in Romania, multiple times. I think it can only happen when you least expect it. Maybe it can only happen because you don’t expect it. (‘Nonsense’, my left brain objects.) I felt that Bucharest could have been my workplace and haven, Brasov my coffee shop, Sibiu the place for childish delights, Cluj a social hub, Timisoara my campus, and everywhere in between the vast outdoors. Then again, everything I just mentioned is irrelevant. It’s not even the place, or the wonderful horrible buildings. It’s the people, and it could only be the people. There’s no home without people. “Happiness only real when shared.” ― Christopher McCandless.
The truth is, I don’t know what home is. I’m part of my family, but that doesn’t mean I have a place I feel that I belong to. On the contrary, I’ve often explicitly felt that I don’t belong. I struggle to grasp whether my sentiments about this profound homeliness in Romania is real or not. My feelings are real, but they may not be accurate. Even so, I don’t know if I care. The lie is often better than the truth, and it may not be a lie at all. I’ll bring it back with me if I can, because it’s so much better than what I have right now.
This post got a bit out of hand. I had actually wanted it to make sense. It made sense to me at one point. But I’m just going to stop here. All I can say is that Romanians are the some of the friendliest people I’ve ever met—a statement that I cannot possibly qualify. I chose Romania with my head and it captured my heart.