For years, I’ve been living with the illusion that the standard for fish soup (halászlé – which translates literally as fisherman juice) was what is made in Szeged, the third-largest city in Hungary with a population of about 160 000. The first time I visited the city, that’s was what I was told. And sure why wouldn’t I believe them? It was on every menu in every restaurant I ate in or passed by. Situated on the banks of the River Tisza and close to Lake Fehér, (white lake) Hungary’s largest saltwater lake, fish are plentiful.
They have an annual fish soup festival that has been running for 24 years – usually it’s around the first weekend of September. The city has a massive 5000-litre cauldron in which the soup is cooked. Seasoned with the famous Makó onions and salt from Transylvania and of course the ubiquitous paprika, Szeged is proud of its culinary masterpiece. In normal times, about 100 000 people would visit the city over the weekend to sample what’s on offer. And for the serious enthusiasts, there’s a seven-stage process spanning seven consecutive years, that you can go through to get your membership to the order founded to preserve this tradition. When you’ve cooked for seven consecutive years, you can qualify for the title of örökös halfőző (hereditary fish cook).
Szegedi halászlé or fish soup from the Tisza region generally is a two-stage cooking process: first the base of the soup, and then the fish. Check out this recipe if you’re interested.
Baja, a town of about 35 000 in the south of Hungary, sits on the banks of the River Danube. It, too, has a famous fish soup. Bajai halászlé doesn’t take nearly as long to prepare. Made from fish from the Danube (Duna) that is well salted beforehand, everything cooks at the same time. Invited recently to a Baja fish night in a neighbouring village, I got to watch the whole process.
It’s a simple dish: salted fish (carp) added to lots of onions and some garlic, then covered in fish stock and brought to a boil. Paprika and some dry red wine are added and it’s boiled some more. The liquid is then strained and the fish removed. It’s cooked together but served in three stages. First, you take some gyufatészta (match pasta). Apparently dreamed up by some old néni from Baja, gyufatészta is peculiar to the region and most often served with the Bajai halászlé. This seems like a good recipe if you fancy trying it. Or this one.
Once you have your bowl of pasta, you pour over the soup and then top it all off with a piece of fish. The fish is whole. The dry red wine helps keep it from falling apart or getting mushed up.
I’m not a huge fan of fish soup having had one rather awful experience in Tihány many years ago. But this was good. Very good. And it seemed that for everyone apart from the Baja peeps, it was a new experience.
Baja is now on my list of places to visit. It seems like a fairly progressive place with the city’s council offering weekly sessions on a Monday evening focusing on a key world religion. This week it’s Buddhism. Next week it’s Islam. Impressive stuff. Of course, that it’s only a short drive across the border to one of my favourite Serbian towns, Subotica, is an added bonus.
Grateful indeed for the invitation and the education.