Pretty much every nation of people on this planet has a version of deep fried dough of which they are fiercely proud, one which they insist is unique and different from all other versions. India has the paratha, the puri, the vada. Bulgaria has the mekitzi. Turkey has lokma. In France it’s the sweet goffre. It’s akara in West Africa, bannock in Canada, frybread for the Native Americans. Sopaipilla in Chile. Pastel in Brazil. Kleina in Iceland. You get the idea. Although this snack is usually one of the cheapest items in a region’s culinary repertoire, it is often the most cherished. This most likely has to do with its ability to bring back memories of childhood, simpler times, vacations with one’s family. Tell any Dominican that while in Santo Domingo you had a yaniqueque on the street and you’re pretty much guaranteed a genuine, sentimental smile in response. It’s a knowing smile brought about by only a handful of topics, a smile that signals the formation of an unspoken bond. I like to call that bond the “You Went to My Country and Ate My People’s Fried Pastry Bond.”
In Hungary it’s the lángos, a beloved deep-fried bread made with flour, yeast and salt. It’s best to get it “with everything,” which means rubbed with garlic (or doused with garlic water/oil) and topped with sour cream and grated cheese. Lángos is most popularly enjoyed as a snack on those summer days spent suntanning and swimming in the silty waters of Lake Balaton. And it’s consumed by everyone, rich or poor, old or young, big or small. Twiggy little teenage girls who would otherwise starve themselves back in Budapest out of the desire to be model-thin like their friends can often be spotted wolfing these down, no questions asked. And despite all the grease from the oil and fat from the sour cream, one still feels light and flexible after finishing a lángos – a fact for which I still have no explanation.
On my latest visit to Hungary I encouraged my boyfriend to try one, lakeside, at Kisfaludy beach in Balatonfüred. It was a basic version fried to order by the guy in the back. His daughters brought it to the table. It hit the spot quite well with a pint of cold beer.
A few days later we also had one with my brothers and their families in Szentendre, a town by the Danube just north of Budapest. It’s hard to miss the Lángos Stand, as there are big red signs all over the main plaza leading to the narrow alley on which it is situated. It’s a nice place with two or three benches and tables in a small garden and potted flowers strewn about. There’s a window and behind it a counter and behind that a vat for deep-frying. Posted outside is a sign that lists the offerings: cheese, sour cream, cheese and sour cream, ketchup, cheese and ketchup, and a sweet one with jam. There are also a few stuffed varieties, a kind of lángos calzone with fillings such as chopped frankfurters, ham and cabbage. These look gross. While I love a good lángos as much as the next red-blooded Hungarian gal I don’t really frequent lángos stands looking for a deep-fried cannonball of dough loaded with day-old delicatassen. And I don’t understand who the hell these are really meant for. A lángos is by no means an empanada. But anyway…
Anyway, we asked for one to share (just to try) and chose to add cheese and sour cream. After it had been fried to a gorgeous golden brown, the lady pushed it towards us and extended also a plastic container full of garlic butter to brush on. My brother dabbed on a generous amount of the stuff and the lady pulled the thing back to spread over the surface some silky smooth tejföl (Hungarian sour cream, similar in flavor to yoghurt) and sprinkle on freshly grated Edam cheese.
And, yeah, as far as a lángos goes, it’s excellent. With a dish so basic and with so few ingredients, it’s key that every step in its preparation be carried out with care and attention to avoid the obvious screw-ups. It’s clear that in this case the lángos making process was respected. The dough is perfect, yeasty enough to provide a slight chewiness but also airy enough to stay relatively light after frying. It’s cooked in piping hot oil (this is important), oil that is periodically replaced (also important), for the perfect amount of time (this is key). The dough around the perimeter offers a very sexy crunch while the interior remains fluffy with the slightest bit of elasticity to make it exciting to chew. It’s very important that the lángos is thin enough not to become too bread-like and light enough not to become a dense and yeasty bomb soaked in grease. As with all dairy, it’s important that the tejföl be fresh and clean-tasting, and that the cheese be grated not too long ago so that the shreds don’t harden and become rubbery or stiff. In this case the cheese was silky soft and melted partially from the heat wafting off the dough.
It might be a bit hyperbolic to call this the best lángos in Hungary. After all how can one really rate something so simple and ubiquitous? It is clearly the most well-known lángos in Szentendre, however, and I can say with determination that it merits this title.