From Goulash to Gourmet

2013. február 25. 16:24
Írta: Stumpf Anna
Recently in America’s capital, Hungarian paprika was the talk of the town. Chefs from embassies representing countries around the world faced off in the annual Embassy Chef Challenge, Washington's premier culinary competition, cooking up a signature dish within two hours from a list of surprise ingredients: tomato, rainbow trout, sour cream, and Hungarian paprika.

This is not your average weekend cooking contest, though. Chefs from Jamaica, Korea, Norway, Russia and other countries have been preparing for months to creatively use Hungarian ingredients in their cooking to impress the panel of culinary expert judges, including Chef Viktor Merényi, who was last year’s competition champion. Chef Merényi had the difficult task of judging his peers on how well they could use Hungarian ingredients. “The chefs might have been surprised by the sour cream, because nobody used it, but they were very creative in incorporating Hungarian paprika. Everybody tried to add it to the dish somehow,” Chef Merényi said. “It was also interesting to see all the different variations used for the rainbow trout. We tasted smoked, poached, grilled, pan-fried and oven-baked variations.”

The second round of the Embassy Chef Challenge will be held in mid-March when the chefs must prepare no less than 400 dishes representing their own countries’ cuisine. No improvisation this time. Last year Chef Merényi won with a dish which he had practiced for months prior to the big day. The Merényi menu featured slow-cooked beef served with traditional Hungarian accompaniments: ‘lecsó’ sauce-stuffed potato, semi-dried oven-baked tomato, country style pasta pellets, and red wine glace. He had spent hundreds of hours perfecting the dish, and the winning result was a terrific showcase of artistry, creativity, and tradition at the same time.
“The biggest challenge for me was the mere number of the dishes--400 portions! Our main course contained 5 different accompaniments, each ingredient served warm.”  Chef Merényi could not have done it without his wife, Zita helping him all along the way. “We served the food a’ la minute for all four hundred guests. We needed to be fast, but we couldn’t make any mistakes, because we didn’t know which plate will end up in front of the judges…one small mistake and we are losing a bunch of points.” Repetition makes a master, hence the nearly year-long preparation and long hours of planning and practicing. At the concluding ceremony this year, Chef Merényi will only have to worry about not dropping the prize – a glass pineapple, which is the traditional symbol of hospitality in America.
The Hungarian chef’s success in Washington is but one example of Hungary’s culinary renaissance slowly gaining international recognition. The mushrooming of Budapest’s outstanding restaurants has been one of the country’s most reliable magnets for tourism and visitors. In 2011, the Hungarian restaurant Onyx--adjacent to the famous Café Gerbeaud, and run by the same group of Hungarian culinary enthusiasts--won a Michelin star, which put Budapest back on the world’s map of haute-cuisine. The restaurant’s star chef, Tamás Széll, competed this year at the world-class Bocuse d’ Or culinary competition and finished among the top ten finalists, the best ranking Hungary has ever achieved at the chef face-off. Team Széll also won the audience prize for best country poster, depicting Széll as a culinary magician, which he undoubtedly is.
Hungary certainly has a long culinary history on which to build. Paprika stew with handmade noodles is only the folksy side of what Hungarian cuisine has to offer today. Take any of the turn-of-the century cookbooks from the best Hungarian chefs of the time and you will find exclusive ingredients like a whole panoply of fish (that’s when Hungary used to have a sea coast) and spices like ginger, cinnamon, anise, and mint – which harken back to the Hungarian cuisine influenced by the Renaissance, and not the least by Beatrice, the Italian wife of the 15th century Hungarian King Matthias.
Sure enough, Hungarian trademark dishes like csirkepaprikás (chicken paprikash) and gulyás (beef stew or goulash) are still part of the basic menu almost anywhere you go, but the restaurant revival is bringing re-interpretations that make traditional dishes heart-healthy, pleasing to the eye, and still delicious. So keep an eye on those Magyar chefs: something’s cooking in Hungary – and it is not (only) your grandmother’s goulash!
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