I met Suzi and Julius Klucso a few years ago in the now-closed Caribbean Gardens in the eastern suburbs of Melbourne. The husband-and-wife duo owned my favourite deli: Suzi and Julius' Doyzies Deli, a Hungarian delicatessen in the once-thriving food market, which sadly closed due to the pandemic. Although the Klucso family recipe for cabbage rolls is a secret, SBS Food has a handful of versions for you to try so you can have your own love affair. Suzi Klucso shares her family's story.
These rolls are perfect autumn fare, a dish that heads towards hearty territory yet still retains a certain amount of lightness and delicacy. You will need to start with a whole head of cabbage despite not needing it all – luckily there are many other uses for it.
'Meat and cabbage are the coat of arms of Hungary." Only a few people today still know this old saying, which was in frequent use in the 17th and 18th centuries. Nowhere else in the world was any other dish served as frequently as this one in Hungary – sometimes every day. Whether rich or poor, aristocrat or burgher, cabbage and meat was always right at the top of the menu, and today cabbage rolls are regarded as one of the country’s national dishes.
Suzi Klucso: "Julius was born in a little town in Hungary called Kiskunmajsa, about 200 kilometres from the capital of Budapest. Together with his brother, mother and grandma, they escaped the revolution in 1956 when he was 3 years of age.
I am also Hungarian but was born in New Zealand in 1958.
Perhaps it was fate, but in 1973, Julius went on a holiday to New Zealand with his parents and that is where we met. We were in a caravan park; I had just finished cleaning up after dinner and was trying to put the scraps in the bin outside our caravan. In the 70s, the bin was something we now see in cartoons — metal and secured with a lid.
I remember trying to open the bin with my hands full, but couldn't get the lid open. Frustrated, I kicked the bin open and the lid fell off. Julius, who was camping directly opposite my caravan, was watching. Laughing hysterically, he turned to his parents and said, "I'm going to marry that girl". Moving quickly, the next day he did some snooping and found out that my family was also Hungarian: destiny.
We officially met on Christmas Eve that year and had dinner together. I was 17 and Julius was 22. We had cabbage rolls for dinner. My mum and dad made them. That was our first memory of having cabbage rolls together.
I moved to Australia with my family on Christmas Eve in 1974. I stayed with Julius and his parents while my family went back home to New Zealand to 'sell up' and return to Australia. They never did return but I stayed with Julius and built a family and life together.
With my family in New Zealand, I learned different Hungarian foods from Julius' mum Ilona, who was known to Australians as Helen. One of the recipes was for cabbage rolls. The recipe was quite different to how my parents made them. Mum made hers like balls, wrapped in cabbage leaves, whereas Julius' mum made hers like dolmades, slightly cylindrical in shape but only four times the size!
Cabbage rolls, I guess, are special to us because they were the first meal we had together and also what my family and I ate when we arrived in Australia. Since then, we have made it our tradition. We have it twice a year — in the middle of winter and for Christmas dinner.
"Our recipe is definitely a family secret, but I can tell you that we use smoked bones."
We have them with a dollop of sour cream, however, some people have them with a slice of bread to soak up the juices. There are so many varieties around the world. Europe alone has more than a dozen which differ in flavour and ingredients compared to our Hungarian recipe.
Our recipe is definitely a family secret, but I can tell you that we use smoked bones and not just ham or bacon like others do for the stock and broth.
For the last 40 years, we have spent Christmas dinner with Julius' parents and family. Last Christmas we had more than four generations at one table or 20 people in total. There were a lot of cabbage rolls, as well as roast pork, schnitzel and white and black pudding with sauerkraut.
My mother-in-law, Helen, taught me how to make cabbage rolls. I've made it every year for the last 25 years. I'm teaching my daughter so that she can continue the recipe which is the only one she's keen to continue.
I'll always remember Helen's tips, like poking the meat stuffing to stop it from expanding during the cooking process which is at least two hours. Julius usually helps me by pre-rolling the meat while I wrap and roll up the cabbage rolls."