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Stuffed Cabbage, the ‘Grandmother’ of Hungarian Cuisine – With Recipe!

Adrienn Vass 2020.12.20.

Stuffed cabbage is not only a typical Hungarian Christmas dish, but one of the most popular, beloved, classic Hungarian dishes of the country’s inhabitants, as well as a constant offer of restaurants cooking typical homemade Hungarian foods.

Translated by Fanni Kaszás

As the base of the dish is cabbage, Hungary’s oldest crop dating back almost 8,000 years, we might think stuffed cabbage may have really been born locally, or at least it is a product of Slavic culture. However, in reality it actually has a much more southeastern history – at least in part.

Although Hungarians have prepared a similar dish long before the first written mention of it, it was first called “cabbage meat” in the country. The dish was not much different from today’s stuffed cabbage, only in that it was not “stuffed.”

The first written mention of cabbage meat can be found in the 17th century manuscript cookbook of the Zrínyi court in Csáktornya, written before 1662. At that time, this dish was so popular that many people referred to it as the “Coat of Arms of Hungary.” In the 18th century, stuffed cabbage, more similar to today’s dish, was spread around the Balkans as well as in Hungary. However, paprika had not yet been used to prepare it. The food was probably introduced by the Turks, where it had been a long-standing dish called sarmak.

According to a writing from 1695, back then it was not prepared with sauerkraut, and people rather used ginger, saffron, and pepper to season the dish at the time. Later, a Hungarian-tuned version with a dill sour cream side was developed. In Transylvania, stuffed cabbage is still consumed that way. Later, when paprika arrived in the country, and it was widely introduced in Hungary as a seasoning, stuffed cabbage, just as many other traditional Hungarian food began to be prepared with the new ingredient.

In addition to Hungarian cuisine, similar dishes can also be found in Swedish, Arabic, Romanian, Serbian, Ukrainian, and Turkish cuisine to this day, with only minor differences. If only two dishes could be served on a Hungarian Christmas table, one of them would definitely be stuffed cabbage – the other would be bejgli.

Stuffed Cabbage
– ingredients –

  • 1 head cabbage (can also use sauerkraut leaves)
  • 500g minced pork
  • 200g rice
  • 500-600g sauerkraut
  • 2 eggs
  • 2 tablespoons condensed tomatoes (or a couple of tablespoons of letcho)
  • 3 onions
  • 3 cloves of garlic
  • bacon and/or sausages
  • ground red pepper
  • cumin
  • bay leaf
  • pepper and salt to taste

Stuffed cabbage can be prepared with tomatoes and dill as well, but the soul of this version is the good, old, traditional Hungarian paprika. It is up to everyone’s taste whether to use meaty bacon or sausage in the pot. Either option will give it a good taste, but even if you omit both, the food will still be delicious and full-bodied. If you don’t like pork, you can use ground beef or even turkey. If you can manage to buy sauerkraut leaves, you will have an easier time, because they can be filled right away. But the end result will also be a little more sour, so if you like sweeter flavors, work with fresh cabbage.

First, cut out the bottom of the cabbage from below, so the head stays whole. Put it in a large pot of water and start cooking it. You can take the leaves off the cabbage head one by one, with a little wooden spoon. Once the cabbage leaves have softened so much that they can be folded, take them out of the water one by one and set them aside to fill it later.

Then mix 1 onion, 1 clove of garlic, 2 eggs, and 2 tablespoons of condensed tomatoes together. Season it, then pour in the uncooked rice and the raw minced meat and mix it all together well. Then fill the cabbage leaves with the mixture. If your cabbage is big enough and you have a lot of leaves, you can put smaller portions in a leaf and wrap it well so it doesn’t leak later. If the leaf is too large, you can cut them into shape. It is important not to throw out the falling pieces.

After you filled the leaves, layer the food into a large pan as follows: grease the bottom with a little grease or oil. Then put the other two onions and the rest of the garlic on it, diced. Add the leftover cabbage sliced, then a layer of sauerkraut and a set of the wrapped mixture. Following this, you can add another row, then the top is also worth covering with cabbage. Season each layer with paprika, salt, pepper, cumin, and a few bay leaves. Pack the dish as tightly as possible and pour over only as much water as covers the whole.

Then cook it over medium or low heat, covered, for approximately 2 hours, but pay attention not to burn it. It is important that the food should not bounce around in the pot too much while you boil it. If the water is evaporated, replace it, but only as much as to just cover it. Before getting the dish off the cooker after 2 hours, pick out one of the dumplings, take it apart, and check that the rice is cooked. You can also thicken the juice of the cabbage with a flour roux, but this is absolutely not necessary. Serve the prepared stuffed cabbage with sour cream.

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Photos and featured photo: Péter Csákvári/Hungary Today