Written by By Spencer Thomas, CNN
Unlike many modern-day cities, Budapest, the capital of Hungary, hasn’t had the greatest relationship with cuisine. The country’s small population, primarily concentrated around the northern city of Szeged, has yet to build a rich culinary tradition.
This neglect has seemingly emboldened younger generations to rebuild Hungary’s food credentials. Since the start of the 2000s, a number of young entrepreneurs — many of them former TV producers — have begun dishing up creative interpretations of Hungary’s national cuisine.
Travel writer Spencer Thomas (in right) sampling traditional Hungarian dishes at Zheresenkeldi. Credit: Courtesy Zheresenkeldi
While these ventures, often known as “authentic restaurants,” have tended to cater to tourists with packages of upscale food, opening a cafe in the capital provides a real challenge to Budapest’s reputation for bland meals.
Fahim Ondrops, general manager of Zheresenkeldi, says there is an appetite for something new and different among Budapest locals.
“Hungarians always wanted to try something new and different, and since then they were able to find them at other restaurants — but now they are very unhappy,” he says.
At Zheresenkeldi, however, the restaurant’s dishes are simpler and fresher than many in Hungary’s capital city.
“The cuisine in Hungary … has not been modernized,” explains Ondrops. “There are still dishes with traditional ingredients, but just cooked very well with modern techniques.”
Growing interest in Hungarian cuisine has, in turn, led to a boom in start-ups and boutiques that cater to a much wider market. Many choose to adopt what they term “authentic” dishes — including Hungary’s own fruit and vegetable “meets beer” dish — rather than replicate them wholesale.
Cozy cafe and wine bar Lemme Lemme is a magnet for local citizens. Credit: Courtesy Lemme Lemme
Convenience is high on the menu for the cafe Zheresenkeldi. Ondrops is currently developing a new call-ahead service through which he will deliver orders from just steps away from the cafe.
Zheresenkeldi’s success has been compared to that of Warsaw’s Gozer restaurant, which opened its doors in 2015 with the same goal of connecting locals with a taste of Hungary. But while the latter has focused on “quaintly Hungarian” dishes, Zheresenkeldi’s style more closely resembles that of European cities like Paris and Barcelona.
The city has a distinct Balkan flavor. Credit: Courtesy Zheresenkeldi
This trend in culinary innovation hasn’t escaped the attention of government officials. Since coming to power in 2010, Hungary’s prime minister, Viktor Orban, has sought to strengthen regional identity and boost Hungary’s economy.
A recent study by Budapest’s Economics School — conducted to find ways of helping these efforts — includes a call to implement what is termed “authentic regional cuisine” policy.
But while Orban’s government enjoys a strong mandate, convincing many of the country’s Hungarian citizens to try a dish that would otherwise be “out of their price range” may prove difficult.
“Budapest has a whole community of people who are interested in it, but they are not the people who really make the difference,” says Ondrops.