Hungary is full of hearty, slow-cooked food, which makes it hard for restaurant co-owner Janos Zsolt Vigh, commonly called Zack, to pick just one dish as his favourite.
"Where I come from in Hungary, is a very historian city called Eger, a wine region famous for its Bull's Blood red wine and matching beef goulash," says Zack, who co-owns Hungarian restaurant Korona Csárda on the outskirts of Melbourne with his wife Eniko.
But it's ultimately chicken paprikash with homemade egg dumpling that makes him salivate. "To make the egg dumpling is so fascinating, yet very tricky and very Hungarian," he says.
He was eight when he first experienced how his grandmother, Elizabeth, prepared this meal in the kitchen. "I observed her carefully knead the egg dumpling dough and then drop by tablespoon one by one the gnocchi shaped dumplings into boiling water. I asked her a few questions and from then I found myself cooking with her constantly," says Zack.
But, it's mostly his perfect meal because it utilised chickens from his own yard and slow cooking methods. He also loves the contrast between the lightly spiced chicken paprika and egg dumplings with juicy cucumber and vinegar salad.
"The first time I actually tried to make the dumplings as a kid I covered the whole kitchen in flour and started to play and throw the dough around – as kids do," he laughs.
To the likely relief of his grandmother, Zack early on realised that his passion was outside the kitchen.
"While I was always interested in helping out with the cooking by way of peeling potatoes and carrots – and a few cut fingers later – it was the serving of the food that fascinated me the most. I love entertaining my family, so I began setting our dining table offering the food."
What gave him plenty of practice to develop these skills, was a tradition in the small township of Eger, which involved sharing food on the weekends with your closest neighbours and relatives.
A pig would be slaughtered early in the morning from which sausages were made into a meat pudding known as Hurka and Kolbasz. The rest was roasted.
"As kids, we were assigned the job of distributing plates of food to neighbouring houses and family members and in exchange, we would receive a tip for our delivery services," recalls Zack.
"That was a great memory and what sparked my love for food service."
A career in food
Eager to begin his career in hospitality, age 14, he enrolled in waiters' school, a three-year degree.
"During my second year, I decided to take part in the Hungarhotels service competition. I was tested on my skills to set a table, suggest a matching wine, serve the food and cook a dish in front of the judges. I took third place that year so, I decided to try again in my final year of school. I succeeded in taking first place and my reward included graduating from my degree six-months earlier."
After working at the Kempinski Hotel Budapest for six-months, he moved to the US and began working as a waiter for Princess Cruises as a way to combine work and travel. He eventually set anchor in Miami for five years where he held down several jobs at a time, mostly as a waiter by day and a bar manager at nightclubs.
Being on the other side of the world, he missed his grandmother's home cooking so he started making his favourite chicken paprikash, mostly from memory. "To get it completely right, I did call my mum and grandmother from America to make it to perfection."
After being rejected for American residency, he returned to Europe and worked as a bar manager on a river cruise along the Rhine and Danube river for a few years. In 2004, he migrated to Melbourne to continue his studies in advanced hospitality. Although the plan was to return to Europe after two years, his residency application was successful in Australia and after receiving his citizenship he opened his own restaurant.
"In 2006 I opened my first Hungarian restaurant Paprika Hussar in Malvern. I made every first business owner mistake possible and I had to close it.
"However, I learned a lot from those mistakes which made me perfect for navigating my second restaurant Korona Csarda, which I opened with my wife [Eniko] and my new family in [Wantirna in] 2009."
Knowing that the food had to be exceptional to succeed, he hired his mother-in-law Rozsika as the head chef.
"My mother-in-law isn't a trained chef, but she makes the most amazing meals. She comes from Transylvania, a Hungarian region, home to many cultural and authentic diverse cuisines," Zack says.
"When, I asked Rozsika if she can cook her food instead [of] for four people, for 80 people perhaps, she said she needed to add more ingredients to her recipes and bigger pots to cook them in. I said, 'Great, I will buy them and all you need to do is just cook'. Since then, she has been cooking and cooking and has never gotten tired of it."
His wife Eniko helps her mother and plates the dishes. "Without them and our passion for Hungarian culture it would be just another ordinary restaurant, but because of them we're getting stronger and better day-by-day in introducing our Hungarian traditions to Aussies."
"Without my mother in law, wife and our passion for Hungarian culture, it would be just another ordinary restaurant."
Before the pandemic, the restaurant served a buffet of up to 25 different foods, but now it has transformed into an a la carte menu, offering clients a selection of their buffet favourites including cold appetisers and two slow-cooked stews: one the chicken paprikash and the other the beef goulash - both with egg dumplings and the cucumber salad on the side.
It also features pickled cabbage rolls stuffed with pork mince, pork smoked meat, rice and secret seasoning, which is slow-cooked for just over two hours and served with sour cream and a dash of paprika.
However, Zack explains, "Our mission isn't only to serve people that we love and introduce them to our Hungarian food culture." Since 2015, he and his team have taught Hungarian cooking. Before the pandemic, they also led food and heritage tours in Hungary to introduce second and third-generation Australian-Hungarians and Transylvanians to their place of origin. They even helped them to track down their ancestors' heritage.
Zack's says his team's passion is what makes his business work. "The best part is when I go into the kitchen and I hear [Rozsika] talking in Hungarian to the goulash soup: 'Oh, you beautiful paprika, let's bring out your best colour so the guests can fall in love with you'.
"And that's how she makes it to perfection – she puts her soul into it."
Love the story? Follow the author here: Twitter @ellijac. Photo credit: Janos Zsolt Vigh
Zack's chicken paprikash with homemade egg dumpling
- 800 g meat either chicken thigh, wings, drumlets or breast cubed
- 2 medium onion diced finely
- 3 tbs oil
- 1 tbs red Hungarian paprika powder
- 1 sweet chilli paprika diced into small pieces
- 1 medium tomato diced or puree
- 1 tbs Hungarian goulash and paprika paste (Gulyas paste and Piros Arany)
- Ground black pepper
- Garlic salt
1. Heat the oil in a large pot.
2. Add the diced onions and saute until golden brown.
3. Reduce heat and sprinkle with paprika powder and saute a bit further.
4. Add the tomato, sweet chilli paprika, goulash paste and spices into the large pot.
5. Mix the meat and saute together until the meat begins to whiten. Stir occasionally.
6. Add water if needed and cover the pot with the lit and let it simmer on low heat until the meat is tender.
Egg dumpling ingredients
- ½ kg special white flour
- 3 eggs
- 1 tsp salt
- 1 tbsp oil
- 1 ¼ cup water
- Grater or colander spatula
1. In a large pot bring water to boil, add 1 tsp salt and drop in 1 tbsp oil.
2. In a bowl, combine flour, eggs, salt, oil, and water until stiff, smooth and batter forms.
3. Using a spatula press the dough a little at a time through a grater or colander over the boiling water.
4. Keep stirring to make sure the dumplings don't clump.
5. Boil until they rise to the top, about 4 to 5 minutes.
6. Drain and rinse them through with cold water and toss, drizzle or oil to prevent them from sticking together.
7. Add salt to taste.