We’re sitting with Cafe Gundel’s Ferenc Bodó, a Hungarian who’s been cooking professionally since age 12, and Cathy Lui, his Chinese Hungarian-speaking wife. What’s a typical Hungarian meal? “We start with deep fried bread, after [that] you order soup; seafood soup or matzo-ball soup. Then there's main courses and dessert,” he says.

It’s a huge amount of food, which is compounded by it being, as any person who’s visited Eastern Europe will attest, overwhelmingly hearty. “You’ll be full of energy with this. You can do plenty of running,” says Bodó, jokingly puffing out his chest. Of all the stomach fillers in Hungary, goulash and lángos, a deep-fried flat bread, are the most well known.

The latter is as widespread in Hungary as coffee is here. That’s mostly because it’s cheap and addictive; the dough is made with sour cream to give it extra chew and a slightly brittle skin. In Hungary it’s eaten with almost anything. At Café Gundel it’s served with its two most classic sides, sour cream and minced garlic. What comes next depends on the season. In winter you’ll find heavier soups with meat, potatoes or even matzo balls, but because the weather’s still hot, Bodó recommends a fisherman’s soup or meggyleves, a sour-cherry soup made with lemon, red wine, cloves and cinnamon. “It's sweet and sour, it has a very beautiful red colour,” says Bodó. We’d say it’s more amaranth in colour; either way it’s striking.

Then it’s onto the big hitters – the dishes that’ll give the requisite oomph necessary to plough a field, milk a sheep or dehorn a cow in minus-20 degrees. Rather like fried rice or spaghetti bolognese, goulash is one of those dishes without any strict rules. The standard ingredients are meat, paprika and root vegetables, but there can be a variety of additions. Bodó’s version is a veal stew served with stodgy, handmade galuska – pasta dumplings. Because he’s cut the fat content and added more caraway seeds it’s more reminiscent of Middle Eastern soups than heavy Eastern European gravies. “In middle Europe we pick up lots of other countries’ tastes – Turkish, German, Yugoslavian. There’s lots of things within Hungarian food,” says Bodó. If you can fit it in after the goulash, try the schnitzel or the roast veal shank, which is tender and, due to a long reduction, richly savoury without being particularly heavy.

After a final few sips of Hungarian beer, the last thing to try is one of Bodó’s homemade desserts. There’s plum dumplings and strudels, but Bodó says the most Hungarian choice is vargabéles, a cheesecake full of cranberries and strands of baked noodles.

Cafe Gundel
698 Old South Head Road, Vaucluse
(02) 9337 3111

Hours:
Wed to Sun 12pm–9.30pm