Eating, Eating–and Eating For Christmas
Judit Pach, Hungary’s ambassador to Indonesia, tells FoodieS about the unique delights on the table for Christmas back home.
There’s a light in Judit’s eyes when talking about her grandparents’ huge traditional farm in southern Hungary. The ambassador talks of going through the fields with her grandfather, pulling carrots from the ground and picking ripe peaches off the tree for her grandmother in the kitchen.
“You cannot fool me,” Judit says. “I know if it’s the season of the vegetable or not. I can immediately tell you if that carrot or that radish came out of the earth or is hydroponic. I know how food tastes.”
Judit’s eyes also dance when talking about how Hungarians celebrate Christmas. “For us, Christmas is three days of long, heavy eating–eating from morning to evening. You start on the 24th and you keep eating to the 26th,” she says. “On the 24th, you celebrate with your family. On the 25th and 26th, you go meet relatives. Everyone is bringing their own cakes. You need to try everything. It’s a little bit like Idul Fitri here: You’ll be eating, eating and eating.”
The holiday marathon typically begins with a lighter dish. Always on the table for Christmas Eve during the day is halászlé, a fisherman’s soup with paprika, pepper and onions that’s served spicy hot and with bread. While Hungary is landlocked, freshwater fish from the Danube and Tisza Rivers play an important role in the nation’s cuisine.
“Fish is a festive kind of food. In the Catholic tradition, fish isn’t considered meat, so it is OK for a holiday,” when the devout are expected to abstain from beef, Judit says.
Halászlé, which might feature a fish puree in the south and chunks of meat in other regions, gets its color from a healthy amount of paprika.
The spice that gives Hungarian cuisine its distinct flavor and signature coloring, paprika comes in sweet and spicy varieties. It’s ground from cabe-like peppers and is harvested during the summer, dried for months and then ground into a powder. “It’s in every dish,” Judit says. “When you’re a girl learning to cook Hungarian, you have three spices: salt, pepper, paprika.” After Christmas Eve mass, however, the dishes get heavier.
Christmas Day dinner might start off with an appetizer of warm foie gras, served with apples and potatoes, as seen here, although foie gras could also be fried in oil with paprika. It’s a special dish, Judit says, still quite expensive despite Hungary’s status as of one of the world’s leading producers.
Of course, Judit says, the foie gras would be matched with a bottle of Tokaji–the so-called King of Wines–from Hungary’s northeast. The grapes–selected one by one, by hand–are naturally sweetened by the noble rot fungus, which shrivels the fruit and adds an enzyme that gives the juice an extra unique taste. The number of puttonyos, or sacks, of grapes used to make a bottle show its sweetness and its quality.
For dinner, families traditionally dig into töltött káposzta, a stuffed cabbage dish served with pork sausage and bacon, in a tomato sauce spiked with paprika, Judit says. The stuffing is similar to a salami’s minced filling, although there are regional takes. The southern version is served with garlic, a spicy red paprika and pickled cabbage. Elsewhere, it’s white sauce, sour cream and a fresh cabbage that’s given slightly bitter taste from fresh dill.
On the table with the töltött káposzta would be a bottle of homebrewed palinka, a grappa-like fruit spirit sipped from a small glass, Judit adds. Up to 50 percent alcohol and stronger than brandy, palinka starts meals–and ends meals. It’s even considered a medicine. “If you ask my grandfather, it’s good for everyone….If you have a sore throat, if you have stomach problems, you need palinka. You have a heartache? You need palinka. If you’re happy, you need to celebrate…with palinka.”
For dessert, tables are decked with szilvás gombóc, a plum-filled dumpling made with freshly mashed potatoes that are coated with toasted breadcrumbs and dusted with icing sugar and cinnamon powder. Traditional versions have a plum compote. “It’s a typical ‘grandma dish’, served to kids,” Judit says. “This one even I can have. It’s quite filling, quite healthy. It’s vegan.”
A good digestive is called after all this eating and Judit says that this is when Hungarians turn to a bottle of Unicum, which only is served during the Christmas season. Using dozens of herbs and aged in casks, Unicum has been likened to an astringent Campari.
While Judit asked Gyula Harangi, the executive chef of the JW Marriott Hotel Jakarta to prepare the feast featured in this article and to use her Hungarian Herend porcelain to serve it.
“I am the one baking all the sweet stuff at Christmas time,” Judit says, mentioning her crowd-pleasing vegan Christmas breads, oatmeal and gingerbread cookies, almond fingers and chocolate truffles and even a vegan tiramisu (“You can easily use coconut cream”).
“I love to host a big family Christmas,” Judit says.
Photos by: Dennie Ramon and Danny AW