About Me
I'm a Melbourne boy, hailing from St Kilda with one ex, one current wife and four kids. Love the outdoors and making new discoveries. I cook a lot at home (cheers from wife) and do some preserving, mostly jams, pickles and fruit liqueurs. This is the diary of a cooking journey.

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Wednesday, January 24, 2007
A Tremendous Trio
Well, plenty of you guessed right about the onion and its importance to Hungarian cuisine, you guys are really good. Onions provide the background notes so essential to the range of gulyas and porkolt dishes that are famous not only in Hungary but worldwide. The best onions come from Mako, where they have been grown for more than two hundred years. It was here that a special method for growing onions was discovered, whereby young bulbs grown from seed are lifted from the soil and dried in a warm place over winter. The next spring the bulbs are replanted and the onions are unable to shoot thus producing huge, top quality bulbs.

It is said in a Hungarian folksong that so long as you have an onion you won't go hungry, indeed a common farmer's breakfast was bread, bacon and onion and if he was too poor to buy bacon it was just bread and onion, of course if he was really poor.... In fact Hungarians enjoy eating raw onions.

There are no really traditional Hungarian dishes that feature onion, but there is one restaurant dish called stuffed onions a la Mako that is quite popular. But really, without onions Hungarian cuisine would be but a pale shadow of itself and it was no accident that I chose onions, peppers and tomatoes as the guesses for these are the base ingredients of Lecso (pronounced lech-o) a traditional Hungarian paprika stew which is popular in surrounding countries as well.

When Hungarians say paprika they could mean two things, either the fresh pods of the pepper plant or the spice obtained from drying and grinding the pods. Outside of Mexico from where peppers, or as they are better known chillies, first originated, it is hard to think of a country that values both the heat and flavour of peppers as much as Hungarians do, most cultures that use chillies extensively do so for the heat.

In an aside it was peppers that were responsible for Hungarian scientist Albert Szent-Gyorgyi winning the 1937 Noble prize, described by the press as the 'paprika' prize. It was in 1932 that Albert was sitting down to dinner which had a fresh bell pepper. In his own words he said, "I didn't really want it, and as I looked at it, I realized I had never experimented on a pepper." Albert took the offending pepper to work for testing and after the initial results, within three weeks over three pounds (1.5 kg) of pure vitamin C had been obtained, a veritable mountain compared to the measly few grams that had been previously isolated.

This new vitamin was sent to WHO to be used treating scurvy and it was this success of Albert that was responsible for the dawning of the mass production of vitamins. It was not his only success either, he isolated flavonoids and later on invented paprika paste which he sold commercially under the names Vitaprik and Pritamin, brands which are still known in Hungary to this day.

To say that Hungarians love their peppers would be a huge understatement. They have developed specific varieties for paprika powder production and have several different types for eating and cooking with, including tolteni valo paprika, bogyiszloi, almapaprika, kosszarvu, cseresznyepaprika, hegyes eros and paradicsompaprika. The last named pepper gets its name from the Hungarian word for tomatoes, paradicsom. Tomatoes were originally known as love apples in England, possibly based on a mistranslation of the Italian name pomo d'oro (golden apple) as pomo d'amore. It looks like the Hungarians must have mistranslated too for their original name for tomatoes was paradise apples, but later on the apple part was dropped. Its fascinating that two totally different cultures had similar names for the humble tomato, perhaps our forebears knew something rather special about them!

How Lecso turns out depends on which peppers are used; some like theirs searing hot while others prefer a much milder version. The great thing is Lecso is adaptable to whatever pepper you have on hand, hot or mild. Personally I favour a mixture of coloured mild capsicums or bell peppers with just a hint of fire through the use of a pinch of cayenne pepper. The version I'm giving is meatless thus suitable for vegetarians, but meat can easily be added, especially smoked pork belly and/or smoked sausages.


1 kg (2.2 lb) capsicum or bell pepper, green, red, yellow and orange
500 g (1 lb) tomatoes, skinned and cut into chunks
1 onion, peeled and sliced
2 tablespoons oil
1 heaped tablespoon paprika
pinch cayenne pepper

If you don't mind the skin, remove the stalks and seeds from the capsicum amd slice into strips. We like to bake the capsicums in the oven before peeling their skins off and removing the stalk and seeds, then cutting into strips. Fry the onion in the hot oil until soft and translucent add the paprika and cayenne pepper and cook a moment more. Add the capsicum and if not pre cooked, simmer for ten minutes before adding the tomatoes and salt. Cook until soft about ten or fifteen minutes. Serve with rice.

This is my entry to Weekend Herb Blogging this week hosted by Ed from Tomato. But you have to pick which vegetable I'm talking about because clearly I have no idea! I'm also deeply sorry about not being able to put accents and dot thingy's on the Hungarian words. Whenever I manage it, something in blogger changes everything to weird symbols.
  posted at 10:11 am

At 2:29 pm, Blogger MyKitchenInHalfCups said...

Excellent dish I think. The over rice sounds lovely and I think a baked potato would be good also. Interesting research.

At 8:20 pm, Blogger thepassionatecook said...

Hi Neil, letscho (as we spell it in austria) used to be one of my favourite dishes when I grew up... good to see it on your blog! i can't wait for the summer to make some myself, it's so easy, yet so quintessentially summer and so comforting!

At 9:59 pm, Blogger Pille said...

Letšo (as we spell it in Estonian:) is also well known over here. I've never tried to make my own though - thanks for the recipe!

At 12:09 am, Blogger Ed said...

I'll break the rules for you Neil and allow you to get away without picking a single veggie. I really didn't realise how much vitamin C is in these peppers. i must try this. Does it freeze well or is it one of those dished best fresh?

At 12:54 am, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sounds like a pretty yummo dish. And over rice would be good, but I like Tanna's suggestion of serving it with a hot baked potato. Mmmm!

At 12:44 pm, Blogger neil said...

Hi tanna, it's a great vegetarian option, the baked potato sounds good too. Who would have thought my little bit of research would've turned up all that?

Hi Johanna, it is a little scary blogging about foods from countries you've never been to, but if it tastes great, what the hey. Lucky you having had this since childhood, I've a bit of catching up to do.

Hi pille, funny how the name changes depending on where you are. It is a great dish and easy to make, do try it.

Hi ed, thanks for the dispensation, I just couldn't make up my mind! I can't say about freezing but I would imagine no problem. Hungarians preserve it in glass jars and treat it like any other preserve.

Hi ellie, the potato sounds delish, that could be the winter version!

At 11:16 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is cooking after my own heart, Neil ... and i adore peppers. It's so very "real" to be able to work with what's to hand ... some melted cheese on top would be good too, or maybe even feta chunks popped in at the last moment? Would be good on toasted/warmed crusty bread for breakfast too ...

At 7:57 pm, Blogger Helene said...

I love peppers and it looks so yummy.
Thanks for the recipe, Neil.

At 10:39 am, Blogger neil said...

Hi shell, or is that anon? Stupid Blogger. Everything is better with cheese melted on top, you're after my own heart!

Hi helene, peppers are the best. I think I like them cooked more than raw, it brings out new flavours.

At 12:37 am, Blogger Shell said...

i emerged from various logging in efforts and repeated "copy what you see" experiments as anonymous?? *humph - anyhow, you're right ... 'twas me ... *melts cheese slowly over Blogger* .. still, at least i sorted out your site name on mine .. my apologies *doh* ... out of blind habit used original name at first *rolls eyes*

ps have just done that word verification 3 times now and on 4th go it hasn't even given me any letters *implodes*

At 6:13 am, Blogger Lisa said...

Hi there! I'm so glad I found your recipe for lecso. My husand's mother's family were Hungarians who settled in Chicago. His parents are no longer living, but he learned a dish from his mother that he calls "serebyanka" (we are unsure of the spelling). I wanted to do a post on it and so searched the Internet for that dish, to no avail. Finally realized that what he makes is referred to as "lecso" -- hurray! He always puts smoked sausage in it, but I can see how it would be a nice veggie dish also. Now I can do my post with a lot more interesting info...thanks.

Uh-oh -- there is no word picture for me to look at to do the verification, so I don't know if you'll ever see this comment. I'll try again, though. Cheers!

At 1:28 pm, Blogger neil said...

Hi lisa, it's one of the tastiest dishes going around. We mostly have it with some smoked bacon as well. Can't wait to see your version.

At 12:36 am, Blogger Lisa said...

Hello again Neil, just FYI -- I put the serebyanka (lecso) post up today. Cheers, Lisa

At 4:24 am, Blogger zsófi said...

this is zsofi from Hungary, I have been just working on a vegetarian site searching for info Albert Szent Gyorgyi trying to find out if he was really vegetarian when I came across your blog, gave me a smile.
Yes, we love lecso very much.
Hungarian peppers are a bit different, they are light green and longer than the bell peppers widespread in the west. In Hungary we only use these light green/yellow peppers for lecso.
We normally add two or three beaten eggs when the lecso is almost ready and fry it together with a few minutes, it is lovely.
My grandma used to add boiled rice to the lecso. I prefer it without the rice just with fresh white bread.
kind regards,

At 11:49 am, Blogger neil said...

Hi zsofi, sorry I can't help with your Gyorgyi question, but I bet he wasn't short of vitamin c. I've seen those peppers you're talking about and will give them a try, thanks.

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