From celery to Hungarian meat soup


Hungarians sometimes refer to their beloved zeller as ‘celery’ in English. This is a stubborn misnomer that sometimes rears its ugly head in places like badly dubbed cable cookery shows or even the Hungarian edition of the English Good Food magazine. Also observe this gem on Wikipedia, about goulash, which, I can assure you, does not want an inch of celery stalk in it, and will taste foreign without the herby aroma of celeriac.

The fact that you can’t do the same things to celery as to zeller renders these recipes useless and their captions confusing, but there are hordes of substandard translators out there who need a paycheck, so give a dog a bone, guys.

Zeller is not celery, but celeriac! At any given moment there might be a Hungarian somewhere desperately trying to fit a gnarly root into his Bloody Mary highball glass, as instructed by a badly translated cocktail guide. We’ve seen worse in the wee hours on sultry post-binge mornings. What is more problematic is trying to cook Hungarian food with crunchy green stalks instead of the amorphous root and its green parsley-like leaves, as suggested by the goulash link above. There are so many out there, hence this very useful blog.

To add to the semantic confusion, the English language is rather confusing too: zeller, i.e. celeriac (Apium graveolens var. rapaceum), also called turnip-rooted celery or knob celery, is a variety of celery cultivated for its edible roots, hypocotyl, and shoots; which are sometimes collectively (but erroneously) called ‘celery root’. We’ll call it celeriac here (as we should) and celebrate its ugliness with thoughts of hearty Hungarian meat soup, ignoring the fact that today’s lunch was Chinese takeaway with way more sugar than anyone would want to put on meat.

celeriac

What celery (the green crunchy stalks) is for the trinity in Cajun cuisine (onions, bell peppers, celery), zeller, both bulb and green, is for Hungarian soups and broths. Hungarian children are generally flummoxed by the amount of vegetably detritus that no one in their right mind picks out from a bowl of soup, except of course grandmothers. But then again grandmothers don’t seem to mind the wrinkly skin floating on top of milk either. Most children grow up to be grandmothers, most celeriac will be eventually consumed, life comes full circle. Not sure about the milk skin.

Anyway, back to celeriac. Hungarian chicken soups and other type of broths are indeed made with plenty of vegetables and greens that normally only grandmothers eat. However, it is important to remember that these invisible heroes are absolutely essential for the flavour of these soups. Celeriac root and greens, kohlrabi, parsnip, lovage and parsley are indispensable for cooking a good pot of soup, but rarely make it into the fancy soup bowl or tureen in the centrepiece of the family table. In fact, you can buy packaged vegyes zöldség for soups in a Hungarian supermarket: it will invariably  be a polystyrene tray with carrots, parsnips, half a celeriac and a small kohlrabi sitting under the cling film.

The French way of making a creamy vegetable soup out of celeriac, let alone eating it raw, is not widely practiced in Hungary. Celeriac is almost always invisible, but highly indispensable.

Here is a simple recipe for húsleves, a.k.a. Hungarian meat soup:

Meat:

  • 1 kg/ 2.2 pounds of beef chuck
  • 1 chicken breast with bones and skin
  • 2 thick turkey necks
  • 1 pork back or loin bone

You can use other meat, but the main thing is here to have different types of meat cooked together with the veg, slowly and without stirring, to avoid a cloudy, messy looking soup. Ideally, your soup will be clear and yellow with small golden circles floating on top.

Now the veggies:

  • Half  a kohlrabi (Brassica oleracea gongyloides)
  • 1 celeriac (Apium graveolens, about the same size as the kohlrabi)
  • 1 potato (same size as the kohlrabi)
  • 1-2 leaves of Savoy cabbage
  • 3-4 carrots
  • 3-4 parsnips
  • 1 tomato (one whole big juicy tomato as is, none of the silly greenhouse salad tomatoes)
  • 1 green pepper (long, pointy green wax pepper, NOT bell pepper)
  • 1 onion
  • 2-3 cloves of garlic

Herbs and spices:

  • 2-3 sprigs of the green leaves of the celeriac
  • bunch of parsley
  • bunch of fresh lovage
  • A handful of black peppercorns (whole, not ground)
  • Caraway seeds, cloves, saffron as you like
  • Some people like to enhance the flavour with some type of salty seasoning such as Vegeta (a.k.a. yellow salt) or Maggi stock cubes, but with so much goodness cooking you shouldn’t really need stock cubes.

Importantly: you will need a very big pot! The more you cook, the better the taste.

To cook:

Wash the meats and peel the vegetables. Bundle the greens and tie them together with a piece of string: it will be easier to chuck them before serving the soup.

Once you cleaned everything, fill up your super big pot with lots of cold water and put the meat in it to cook. As you cook, there will be some froth forming on top of the soup, which you will have to remove time and again with a spoon or strainer. Repeat this until your soup is clear like water.

After you removed the foam, put in the veggies, the bunched up greens and salt (or seasoning) and top up the water. Leave it on low heat and go wash your hair, clean the flat, or watch a movie. You have about three hours before your flat starts to smell like Sunday noon and your neighbours begin to make up pretexts to visit you.

Do revisit your soup in commercial breaks and taste it: add more salt or water if necessary and skim any additional froth. After about two hours, take out the onion and the kohlrabi and any other vegetable that looks like it would turn to mush otherwise.  Keep it clear, don’t stir!

To serve:

Okay, now that you’re ready, pour it in a tureen! In a family setting, Hungarian meals are not served on plates. People tend to be seated around the table with empty plates in front of them, using a ladle to fill their plates from the tureen in the middle as many times as they want. The first round of filling plates is often done by Mum, who also keeps a sharp eye on anyone looking like they need seconds.

Soups like this are eaten from deep soup plates, rather than bowls. Most families have salt, black pepper and Erős Pista (a hot paprika paste) at the table for everyone to season their own soup in their own plate if they wish to.

To eat;

Normally, you’ll eat the soup, veg and noodles first. Cérnametélt/vermicelli or csigatészta is cooked separately and served in a smaller bowl next to the tureen. Then you go on and use the same plate to eat meat from, which is often eaten with horseradish or brown German-type mustard.  Then you move on to the second course… the one before the dessert.

Enjoy Hungarian writer Gyula Krúdy’s Bohemian character Szindbád contemplating life over a plate of good soup in a classic Zoltán Huszárik film from 1971. Watch as this Hungarian Sindbad searches for the meaning of life on his journey meandering between existential crises, warmhearted women and soup with bone marrow. Never mind he asks for Tafelspitz after the poultry.

Life, if done well, smells like Hungarian meat soup.

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