Goulash - Hungarian dish made with vegetarian ingredients

How to be Vegetarian in Hungary

Our food columnist, Zsófi, revisits her Hungarian roots and tells you every thing you need to know about finding vegetarian hungarian food, from your local Hungarian restaurant to the streets of Budapest.


How to be Hungarian and Vegetarian

I am vegetarian, and Hungarian. I stopped eating meat when I was 18, a few months after I moved out of a house endlessly filled with the smells of my mother’s delicious cooking into a cold Edinburgh flat. The kitchen there was unequipped, empty, and in desperate need of some homemade food. But there was a slight problem: I didn’t know how to cook.

It’s not that my mother never tried to teach me. There were many times in my childhood when she called me downstairs to help her with this or that Sunday lunch or Saturday dinner party. Each time, I’d say yes out of obligation and follow her instructions absent-mindedly while thinking about the film I had to pause at her call or the lyrics I was in the middle of memorising (yes, I was that kid).

In Scotland, however, standing in that empty kitchen, I realised that while the post is a wonderful service that I trust with my holiday postcards or handwritten letters to my pen pal (I was also that kid), they would be reluctant to accept parcels of tupperwares full of húsleves and töltött káposzta to transport from the small Hungarian city of my mother’s wondrous kitchen to my bare flat in Edinburgh. So I had to learn.

As soon as I started cooking for myself, with initial clumsiness (yes, I did once burn kidney beans so badly that our kitchen was full of smoke, we were even unable to see the furniture from the door) but with ever-growing enthusiasm, vegetarianism came quite naturally.

Firstly, meat was expensive and I was a broke international student. Secondly, living abroad opened my eyes to many food-related revelations. I found out that black pudding isn’t actually a dessert despite what its name would suggest. I discovered that spotted dick is not a serious genital condition. And, most of all, that a meat-free diet is easily accessible in a city where restaurants serving food from all over the world are scattered around every corner.

I know that this is not big news to those who were lucky enough to have spent their childhood with Indian takeaways across the street and Polish shops sprinkled between Tesco’s and Sainsbury’s. But I grew up in Miskolc. 

A town of about 150,000 people in the northeast of Hungary, Miskolc is famous for its heavy industry, gorgeous mountainous landscapes, and meat jelly festivals organised every February. Miskolc’s food culture was like any other Hungarian city (other than Budapest). There were many restaurants, fantastic restaurants in fact, but discarding two Italian and two Chinese restaurants, all served exclusively traditional Hungarian food. And while these numbers seem discouraging, I am by no means complaining. Oh no, Hungary, although home to only about 10 million people, boasts a cuisine that ranks highly worldwide. According to TasteAtlas’s 2022 ranking, Hungarian cuisine sits comfortably as the 21st best cuisine in the world. Out of 95. Not to brag.

And it is fantastic: the smell of gulyás on a Sunday morning, the sight of gherkins being pickled in salted water in backyards in the sun, the patience of those who braved the long process of making stuffed cabbage (töltött káposzta), the spiciness of the paprika and Erős Pista in our soups, the necessity of sour cream in every single dish. The Hungarian cuisine is rich, hearty, absolutely delicious, and unfortunately, primarily meat-based.

A hand holding a plastic cup of bubble tea in budapest

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Some more info on Hungary’s food culture for fellow foodies

“Reggelizz úgy, mint egy király, ebédelj úgy, mint egy polgár és vacsorázz úgy, mint egy koldus.”

“Have breakfast like a king, lunch like a bourgeois, and dinner like a pauper.”

As the idiom shows above, in Hungary, unlike in the United Kingdom, dinner is not the most important meal of the day – that would be lunch. As a Hungarian, the idea of a Meal Deal mortifies me. A sandwich on the go just does not compare with the three-course feast every Hungarian is used to at lunchtime. 

Your first course is traditionally a soup, and in my humble opinion, there is nothing that Hungarians do better than soup (I’ll let you in on a little secret: if you want to make amazing soups, put your blender away! The veggies in the broth all cooked together seasoned with parsley, cumin, and paprika give the soup a special flavour you wouldn’t want to lose in the blender).

The most famous one is, of course, gulyásleves (or goulash). This is a hot and hearty soup of cubed meat, onions, carrots, potatoes, and tomatoes, seasoned with paprika, cumin, salt, and pepper. Gulyás, much like most of our dishes, can be traced back to the Middle Ages when herdsmen tending to their cattle camped out in the Great Hungarian Plain (Alföld) away from all populated areas for days on end. To feed themselves, they brought with them ingredients that were light and easy to carry and a portable metal cauldron (bogrács) in which they cooked their meals on an open fire. To this day, despite the magical appliances in our modern kitchens, Hungarian families take their bogrács out to the garden, light a fire under it, and make gulyásleves the old-fashioned way. 

It is also from gulyás that many other Hungarian dishes originate. Hungarian meat stew (pörkölt), for example, was developed by people adding paprika powder into gulyásleves to preserve the meat. Other famous soups include Meat soup or húsleves (a favourite in my family), Fisherman’s soup or halászlé (which is a popular Christmas dish), and Bean soup.

Your second course will be a main dish. This can come in different forms: you may choose a slab of meat or meat stew with potatoes, rice or dumplings on the side, or opt for a dish that you eat on its own such as layered potatoes. Otherwise known as rakott krumpli, this dish is made from potatoes, eggs, sausages, and sour cream and is similar to a potato casserole.

Főzelék is another option. A boiled vegetable dish with an untranslatable name, főzelék is a middle step between a soup and a stew: it is thicker than the former, but not as thick as the latter. It can be made from any vegetable; I try to cook seasonal. Some popular ones include pumpkin főzelék, bean főzelék, and lentil főzelék. It is a fantastic starting point for anyone wishing to eat vegetarian in Hungary as it is usually meat free.

Finally, the last step in a great Hungarian lunch is the dessert. This is, of course, optional, but if you are lucky enough to try any of the country’s desserts, I highly recommend you do so. They are all vegetarian (yay!) and they offer a fantastic finish to an already indulgent meal. The dessert culture is so abundant in Hungary, I think I will dedicate a whole article to all my favourite sweets. So keep an eye out for that!

Becoming Vegetarian in Hungary

Becoming a vegetarian as a Hungarian was not only a diet restriction for me, it was a readjustment of a part of my identity. The food culture with all its richness is a crucial part of the constructed idea of “Hungarianness”. As such, when I switched to a lifestyle that ostensibly excluded the majority of our national cuisine, well, everyone was appalled.

I was confronted with the judgments of my aunts and uncles, the good-natured incomprehension of my grandparents, the forcefulness of hands as they put meat in front of me and dared me to eat it. In restaurants, there were confused looks on servers’ faces, and boring plates of solely mashed potatoes and rice as side dishes were the only non-meat options.

At first, I didn’t mind. Having suddenly found myself in the midst of all those new cuisines and ingredients in Edinburgh, I was happy to leave behind all my stomach ever knew and experiment with all it hadn’t tried. I became a fan of Thai cuisine and craved Panang curry on a bad day. I bonded over Bibimbap with a friend who loves South Korean food. I ate ramen when I fell ill and I went out to Indian restaurants to celebrate my birthdays. But soon, the absence of the salted flavours of Eastern European pickles (kovászos uborka) and the simplicity of potato dumplings with sour cream and cottage cheese (sztrapacska) from my kitchen transformed from mere fact to homesick longing. So, I thought, there must be a way to live a vegetarian life in Hungary.

And there is. Firstly, vegetarianism is becoming more and more widespread even in that little country of the great cattle herders. According to a 2022 University of Nyíregyháza study, 4% to 6% of Hungary’s population now follows a vegetarian diet. As a result, the number of purely vegetarian and vegan places to eat has grown immensely – and so has the number of vegetarian options available in any restaurant.

Anybody travelling to Hungary will find a place to eat and a dish to love, no matter their diets. However, if you’re like me, trying out a country’s national cuisine is a holiday priority for you. Here are five vegetarian dishes you can order in a traditional Hungarian restaurant without the risk of accidentally biting into a pork schnitzel or munching on vegetables fried in lard.

Lescò - Vegetarian Hungarian dish with tomatoes and peppers

Vegetarian Hungarian Dishes You’ll Find in Hungary

Fruit soup or gyümölcsleves

I know exactly your reaction. Why would anyone want to eat – scratch that, make – a soup from fruit? The answer: because it is delicious. Consumed cold during the hot summer months, fruit soup is usually made of sour cherries or apples. Alongside seasonal fruit, it is the cinnamon sticks, cloves, and just a little bit of lemon juice that give this Hungarian specialty its emblematic sweet flavour – perfect for a lunch on a summer holiday.

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Sztrapacska

While originally from the Slovak regions, Hungarians are huge fans of this soft egg noodle dish. Similar to a gnocchi, the dough of sztrapacska is made from finely grated potatoes, and it is often served with sour cream and cottage cheese. It is the ultimate comfort food for a weeknight dinner, easy to prepare and more importantly, incredibly cheap. However, you have to be careful here: in some places, they add fried lardons as a topping. I recommend you read the restaurant menu carefully and make sure this is not the case in the restaurant at which you are dining. Once you have sztrapacska in front of you, mix it with the sour cream and cottage cheese, season with salt, and don’t hesitate to get your fork into it – it is wonderful!

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Lentil főzelék or Lencsefőzelék

As I mentioned above, főzelék will always be a safe choice. One of my personal favourites is made from lentils and is often consumed on New Year’s Day. As superstition has it, eating lentil főzelék on the first day of the year will bring you good luck and prosperity for the New Year. While it hasn’t yet changed the numbers on my bank account, it has always provided me with a good meal and welcome nostalgia every January.

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Hungarian Ratatouille or Lecsó

Lecsó is a vegetable stew that combines Hungary’s favourite ingredients in one simple dish: peppers, tomatoes, onions, and paprika. Many Hungarian families make lecsó in batches in late summer/early autumn as that is the time when Hungary’s unique wax peppers are in season.

However, if you are at a push, you can make this dish with any other kind of pepper, it will turn out just as tasty. It is probably the simplest dish in all of Hungary’s repertoire, as it comprises only of cutting the vegetables and then letting them simmer in their own juices until they turn soft and a little bit smoky. It can be consumed on its own as an appetiser, with scrambled eggs for breakfast or a light dinner, and with egg noodles as a main.

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Hungarian mushroom stew or gombapörkölt

Once in Hungary, you can’t miss the most traditional dish of all: stew or pörkölt. Most pörkölts are made from meat, but many restaurants will have a vegetarian version with mushrooms that you can try and fall in love with at first taste. Like any other pörkölt, it is prepared with onions sautéed in oil, mushrooms, and paprika in a little water. Simple, but absolutely delicious.

And if you do find yourself in Hungary around lunchtime, I wish you ‘Jó étvágyat!’ and enjoy your meal.

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