The great fish soup wars of Hungary

‘Halászlé’, hot Hungarian fish soup, is well known all over the Visegrad region. The age-old fish soup rivalry between Szeged and Baja, the two towns most famous for their halászlé, has recently taken a new turn with the arrival of high cuisine.

Foto: CreativeCommons/ Zsolt Lakatos

Conflicts concerning fish soup are not new in Hungary. The towns of Szeged on the river Tisza and Baja on the banks of the Danube have given their names to two variants of halászlé. Both types move masses of followers, and both towns regard their own variant as authentic.

Szeged and Baja: The Cambridge and Oxford of fish soup

Those from Szeged swear on local ingredients. Their fish soup is made of fish caught from the Tisza river: carp bream, crucian carp, carp, catfish and starlet. This style of soup starts with a basic broth traditionally made of at least four types of fish. Onion is fried with hot powdered Szeged paprika, then the fish meat is cooked until it separates from the bone. After the bone is removed, the meat is pounded, resulting in a thick broth. This broth is put back on the fire, together with the fish pieces to be served later. Chefs in Szeged use the ‘puszta’ (Hungarian Great Plains) style cauldron, which opens up at the top and allows the fish to gurgle around somewhat.

Meanwhile in Baja, those who want to make a quick soup usually make fish soup from carp. The horseshoe shaped fish is boiled in water, and when it is almost ready, paprika (mostly from Kalocsa) is put into the soup. Since the resulting soup is not as thick as the Szeged variant, home-made “matchstick” pasta is added – which is regarded as blasphemy by people from Szeged. Baja chefs use the so-called Balkan style cauldron, which narrows towards its top and therefore keeps the fish more intact.

Enter the gastronomistas

The age-old fish soup wars between Szeged and Baja are now taking on a new, third dimension: that of culinary experts. People have been talking about a gastronomic revolution in Hungary for quite a few years now. Around 2010, the first of three Hungarian restaurants received its Michelin star, high cuisine was rediscovered, and consumer tastes began to change. Suddenly, dozens of restaurants were opening with young chefs who had spent time abroad, and gastro-columns, programmes and celebrity chefs began popping up. Urban youths started to visit farmers’ markets and cookery courses, as well as wine tastings. Long-forgotten ingredients and foods have become curiosities, and unknown farmers from the countryside have become popular in the city.

This promising situation was tread upon by the restaurant review team of Gault-Millau. The renowned reviewers visited Szeged and evaluated the fish soup offered there. “Smelling of stew, too salty, not fresh, often reheated,” as well as overly large portions, were some of the harshest criticisms of the fish soups. The criticism caused a huge uproar among more self-assertive Szeged citizens. Locals proud of their city defended their favourite places, and chefs emerged from their kitchens infuriated.

They reminded the reviewers of the continuing colossal demand for their soups. Besides Hungarians, the restaurants also receive floods of Romanian, German and Serbian guests who are satisfied and return regularly. There are never enough parking spaces around the restaurants, the chefs claimed, therefore their fish soup cannot be that bad. ‘I cannot serve a cupboard-sized Serbian man a tiny plate of high cuisine fish soup!’ one chef is known to have exclaimed.

In questions of style and authenticity, it is hard to make an objective choice. The country has so many settlements near water that, in addition to the two famous variants already mentioned, there are many more local varieties, all of which are purported to be the real thing. At present, twelve settlements on riverbanks (not including settlements near Lake Balaton) claim their fish soup was the original.

Experts of gastronomic history posit that the fish soup of Baja, which doesn’t require pounding, is the oldest variant, as it can be prepared in a shorter time and with fewer tools than the others. Nevertheless, about a hundred years ago the dominant use of paprika in Hungarian cuisine, still prevalent today, brought about major changes. With the appearance of urban restaurants and roadside inns, public taste changed once again. Today the thicker Szeged-style fish soup is more popular.

Some fish restaurants have already responded to the challenge of the gastronomistas. They are now serving only completely freshly prepared fish soup. Try these at your own risk: you may have to wait an hour or so before you get a plateful!

Boros-Tóth István

Boros-Tóth István

is a financial PR professional. As a former journalist in his private time he researches and writes stories about wine, gastronomy and agricultural new phenomena (e.g. investment wines, organic movement).