Hungary has its own unique ways of celebrating Easter. Despite the fact that most Hungarians claim a Catholic affiliation, the population in Hungary tends to be very secular, and our Easter customs reflect this. Most Easter celebrations are still rooted in traditional country folk life, and are generally free both of religious overtones and of over-commercialized sentiments.
In this series, we’ll examine some of the most characteristic features of Easter in Hungary! Join in on the Easter fun this year, and celebrate Easter the Hungarian way!
Easter ham aka “kötözött sonka”
Food is an essential part of Easter celebrations in Hungary, and it usually features ham that looks like it’s been playing some bondage games. You’ll literally see these everywhere, not only by the ton in butcher shops, but all major hypermarket as well as corner stores. As a general rule of thumb, you shouldn’t buy anything that costs less than HUF 1700-1800 per kilogram, since heaven knows what sort of post-processed, flavor-injected meat product you’ll be buying. Generally, look for the stuff that isn’t shrink-wrapped. Please note: This ham is cured, but raw, so it needs to be cooked before you can serve it.
Soak the hog-tied ham in enough cold water to cover it for a few hours. This allows the excess salt to drain away. Discard this water, then cover the ham in cold water again, bring to a boil, then lower the heat so the water is barely simmering. Keep cooking, while replacing the water that has evaporated, until your ham slides off the fork you try to impale it with. This will generally take a few hours. At the very end, you can use the ham’s cooking water to boil your eggs, to give them a nice flavor.
The ham is then sliced and served on a platter along with hard-boiled eggs, green onions, fresh tomatoes, crusty bread and some grated horseradish.
So, why ham, you ask? Well, Easter follows Lent, a long period of abstaining from meat, and the Hungarian name of Easter “húsvét” is actually a reflection on what happens when people are finally allowed to eat meat again. “Hús” means meat and “vét” means sin. Traditionally, pigs are butchered in the middle of winter, when hams are hung up to dry, but no one is allowed to eat them until Easter because people were supposed to abstain from eating meat during the 40-day period of Lent.
Easter, being near the spring equinox, also coincides with some old pagan fertility rites, and many of the traditions we associate with Easter actually come from pre-Christian celebrations of life and renewal.
Next up: Part 2, traditionally painted Easter eggs!