BUDAPEST — The competition for best cholent in Budapest is fierce. Seemingly the stuff of synagogues, here the savory Sabbath stew is downed in quantities by the general public. The menu of any self-respecting traditional Hungarian restaurant would be naked without it.
Half the taverns in town have a pot simmering in back, but only a few select restaurants have made a name for themselves with their souped-up version of cholent — or as the Hungarians call it, sólet.
At first I had my doubts, but when I walked into Kadar Etkezde — a drab, communist-era cafeteria famous for this Saturday morning specialty — and was told one must call in advance to reserve a bowl, my gut suggested I investigate further.
The Times of Israel presents a cholent eater’s guide to Budapest: a history, foodie destination list — and brief foray into sacrilege.
The big talk in town
Each table in Kadar Etkezde’s crowded dining room spoke a different language — Hungarian, English, Spanish, and even Hebrew — but you couldn’t hear them speak anything at all when the waitress in the clean white apron put their food in front of them.
As the steaming bowls exited the kitchen, the smell alone was to die for — that slightly sweet, meaty aroma that comes from the overnight simmer and just screams “Shabbos.”
One of the oldest in town, this hole in the wall canteen named for its Jewish founder, Bela Kadar, has been open for lunch since 1957. Today, the restaurant is run by Sandor Orban, a former boxer who used to train at the heavily Jewish MTK club, for whom Kadar played on the soccer team.
When he first opened his doors, Kadar encouraged his fellow athletes to come try his food. Soon, celebrities of all stripes were patronizing the cafeteria, and dozens of their photos still adorn the walls today.
Cholent is their flagship dish — an old Kadar family recipe that comes from Transylvania, a region where much of Hungary’s decimated Hasidic community resided before the Holocaust.
Orban isn’t Jewish himself, but was given the recipe along with the keys to the store. He has been faithfully reproducing it ever since – with a few small tweaks. As far as the secret to the recipe goes, the chef will only say that he prides himself on using the highest quality ingredients and never cutting corners.
“It’s a lot better than the cholent in Israel,” Orban said, then asked if I preferred goose leg or smoked pork knuckle on top.
It turns out Hungarians have a pork predilection dating back to the Ottoman occupation of the country in the 16th and 17th centuries. The Turks plundered most of the local livestock with the exception of swine, as it is forbidden to Muslims. Thus the noble pig made its way into Hungarian cuisine — including the cholent recipes.
But despite the extremely not-kosher garnish (which I did not opt for), Kadar’s cholent was most similar to the traditional stuff you find at Shabbat tables in ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods in Israel and the United States.
In fact, it could even go toe-to-toe with the cholent at the G’RA synagogue in Oak Park, Michigan, which is the best I’ve ever tasted — and, full disclosure, used to be prepared at one time by this reporter’s father.
The beans of time
There’s a comprehensive history of cholent out there somewhere, but for the purposes of this article suffice it to say that the dish is old — very old — and is one of the few truly Jewish foods in existence.
It got its start as a way of coping with traditional Sabbath restrictions: Since lighting, stoking, or cooking on a fire is prohibited from sundown Friday night until nightfall Saturday night, Jews who wanted to celebrate on Saturday afternoons with something more substantial than cheese sandwiches would assemble a pot of stew on Friday.
The ingredients would follow a theme: grains, beans, and meat. Everyone would seal their pots with a slurry of flour and water and bring them to the local baker, whose commercial oven would keep burning throughout the day of rest. The pots would slow cook overnight Friday until the families came to retrieve them the next day for lunch.
The dish goes by many names, and can be found in regions spanning from Eastern Europe to North Africa to Spain to the Middle East. It cannot, however, be found anymore in the majority of American synagogues, where lately many congregations eschew it in favor of less hearty options. It almost never appears on even glatt kosher menus, with the exception of a select few – and then only on Thursdays to get people in the weekend spirit.
I didn’t order it the first time I saw it on a menu here in Budapest, nor the second.
“No Jew would pay retail for this,” I thought. I was wrong, of course.
Flat bread, flavorful cholent
I was happy to pay retail (though on this particular visit it was kindly on the house) at Macesz Bistro, the next stop on my cholent tour.
Macesz is a high-end restaurant named after the Hungarian word for matzah — the plain, poor bread that our forefathers ate in Egypt. It arrives in a pretty basket alongside any Jewish food ordered here.
Chef Akos Tasnadi says that the restaurant, which serves both Hungarian and Jewish food, was built around an old family recipe for cholent.
“It was the first dish the owners made,” he said. “They wanted an authentic Jewish and Hungarian restaurant so they prepared it right from the start.”
And though Tasnadi isn’t Jewish himself, he says he’s been eating cholent all his life. “We used to have it at home all the time,” he said. “Everybody makes it – it doesn’t matter what your religion is. If your family is into cholent, they cook it.”
Tasnadi says it took two years to perfect the cholent at Macesz.
“As you know,” he said, “it’s really hard to get cholent to come out the same way twice. So for years we were experimenting with different cuts of meat, different beans, but it also took a very long time to be able to get it to be consistent. Because when people come here to eat our cholent, they want it to be the same cholent they had last time.”
It was easy to understand the demand for consistency. While it arrived with a perfectly crispy roast duck leg on top, the meat, bean, and barley mixture came out like a dark horse to steal the show.
TheMacesz cholent was almost delicate; it wasn’t too dry or too wet. The smoked meat was cubed small, but it was ample. And in terms of sheer volume of flavor, it was unlike anything I’ve ever had before.
A song of smoke and meat
Fülemüle, Hungarian for nightingale, is a Budapest restaurant that’s become synonymous with cholent since it opened at the turn of the millennium. Ask anyone who knows their stew and this place will be on the tip of their tongue.
The kitchen offers no fewer than five variations on the dish, including “Mexican style.” And though the owner, Viktor Singer, claims that it’s the best cholent in town, it was actually the smoked meat that caught my attention.
Singer’s grandmother Cecilia, a Holocaust survivor, passed this Transylvanian preparation down to her family before she died in 1996. Singer says the recipe is partly written, partly done by instinct, and I’ve got to say, it’s quite good.
But it’s hard to compete with the smoked first-cut brisket sitting up on top of the plate, hogging the spotlight.
It’s the pastrami I’ve been searching for — steamed and sliced thick and covered in a beautiful black crust that suggests coriander and something warmer like allspice or cloves. I was so busy cutting all the tender pastrami with the side of my spoon, I forgot all about poor Grandma Cecilia and her family recipe.
And that might be the reason why the cholent in this city stands out from the rest: because of the unmitigated decadence with which they casually throw a crispy goose leg on top, or melt-in-your-mouth smoked brisket — or both.
To eat as a Jew
The recipe for the Budapest cholent itself — sans toppings — has a distinctly Hungarian twist. Smoked meat is cooked in with the beans and barley, where it adds a deep richness to the flavor base.
And this is where a deep cultural synergy becomes apparent — one that has formed over the centuries since Jews first settled in Hungary nearly 1,000 years ago, overcoming uneasy relations at times and occasional anti-Semitic flareups.
When it comes to food, Jewish Hungarians stand firmly with their fellow countrymen.
“Hungarians like heavy dishes. They like smoked meat, and they like these stews in pretty much any form,” said Gabor Banfalvi, the expert I consulted for some insight into the Jewish food phenomenon.
Banfalvi has been running Taste Hungary, a food tour company, with his wife Carolyn for the last 10 years and has a walking gastronomical tour of Jewish Budapest, among others.
“I think the whole idea of cholent sits very well with Hungarian tastes: the smoke in it, you can make it greasy if you want,” he continued. “And I guess also people think it’s exotic, because it’s this Jewish dish, but it’s exotic in a way that you can relate to because it’s also very Hungarian and very local.”
In general, Jewish food is having a sudden unexpected resurgence in Budapest.
Matzo ball soup cameos on a surprisingly diverse array of menus across this city of nearly 2 million. You can find it in restaurants of the historically Jewish seventh district, but also in distinctly non-Jewish dining rooms like Manga Cowboy, a Japanese-American-Hungarian hybrid that houses the old standby next to tortilla wraps, ramen soup, and rhubarb pie.
It doesn’t end there: Flódni (say “flawed-knee” in a heavy Brooklyn accent), a traditional Jewish cake with layers of plum jam, walnuts, apples, and poppyseeds, is all the rage among a Hungarian generation whose American counterparts would probably shudder at the old-world combination. There are a number of Jewish bakers across the city known for their flódni — none more so than Rachel Raj, who has become something of a household name for her spin on the confection.
“Historically, and until the Holocaust, the Jewish community in Hungary was — well, enormous, and also very influential,” said Banfalvi, “and they were also very integrated with Hungarians.
“The majority of Hungarian Jews were assimilated and lived much like the other Hungarians did. This is reflected in the food — many Jewish dishes were either imitated or simply adopted by Hungarian non-Jews. And it went both ways. For example, most Hungarians ate pork cracklings, and Hungarian Jews ate goose cracklings,” he said.
In a way it makes sense that Jewish cuisine has left a big footprint here, even if today’s less substantial Jewish community has a much smaller one. Before the Holocaust, the city was home to over 1 million people, 23% of whom were Jewish; today’s estimates vary from 35,000 to 120,000 Hungarian Jews.
While many of Budapest’s Jews survived the war, often their Jewish identity didn’t.
Still, Jewish food lives on. The city’s Jewish community is experiencing its own renaissance in parallel with the culinary one, says Banfalvi — though estimates imply that possibly even a majority of the city’s Jews either haven’t discovered their roots yet or are afraid to come out of the closet about them.
Will the matzo ball revival help coax them out into the open? The way things look today, it’s doubtful. Banfalvi closed our interview with a quote from Raj, the famous flódni baker.
“Hungarians aren’t so open-minded about the Jews,” he said. “But they sure are open-minded about Jewish food.”