Monday, August 18, 2014

5 Hungarian Souvenirs That You Shouldn't Bother With, and 5 Options to Replace Them

This weekend we celebrated the 40th annual Birmingham Ethnic Festival in Toledo, OH. It is one of the biggest celebrations of Hungarian heritage in the USA. I spent a lovely and entertaining afternoon browsing the booths along the main festival avenue, and eating some Hungarian food. I have to note, however, that while the Hungarian-ness of most souvenirs on sale cannot be doubted, the variety of such items was... well, not great. What I mean is: Hungarian marketing limits itself to a very narrow set of objects that might or might not be enticing to foreigners. So, if you are a foreigner in Hungary or at a Hungarian event, here is a quick and dirty guide to your options.
Let's see one of the all-time hits first:

1. Paprika
Let's get real, people: Our ancestors did not ride in from Asia carrying paprika in their saddlebags. While we Hungarians do love our spicy food, paprika is something that I can find in great variety and good quality in most American grocery stores. Just because there is a Hungarian flag on it, it's not worth the extra cash.

2. Pálinka
I have stated my opinion on pálinka before. If you and your friends and family are known for their taste for exotic liquor (or their tendency to take hard bets), sure, buy a whole crate.

3. Embroidery
It is gorgeous, it is traditional, and it is absolutely all over every freaking Hungarian souvenir ever. Like, ever. Most of what you see on souvenirs, however, is the visual culture of one specific region in Hungary, and it is one specific style, used to represent the entirety of Hungarian culture. I would love to see more diversity. Also, as pretty as embroidered blouses might look, I am a full-blood Hungarian person, and I have never worn one in my life. Neither has anyone of my extended family. Just sayin'.

4. Cookbooks
So far, the list has given you the impression that Hungarians like to press towards foreigners: We eat and drink a lot (and we paint embroidery on our food and drinks). I kid you not, 90% of foreign language books about Hungary that I found are all cookbooks. And if my history of cooking Hungarian food for American friends is any indication, only a small number of the recipes will ever be worth trying more than once.

5. Anything with the Parliament building on it
It is the symbol of Hungary. It is stunning and pretty and goes well with the Danube view. It is also a little more than 100 years old. There are many other historic buildings, even in the immediate vicinity of the Parliament, that are worth checking out.

If you really are interested in something that is Hungarian, and less of a tourist kitsch, you might want to check some of these things out instead:

1. The Subjective Atlas of Hungary
I adore this book, and the project behind it. It is a collection of random images, art projects, facts, and tidbits that describe and represent Hungary more than any coffee table photo album ever could. It is not afraid to make fun of our weaknesses, and it shows hidden beauty in mundane places. Get a copy if you can, or check it out online. This should be in every Hungarian bookstore.

2. Hungarian books that are not cookbooks
Believe it or not, we have a few in English! Not many, but they are worth reading. I have already mentioned our favorite historical novels, and this gorgeous short story collection. If you keep visiting this blog, I promise I have more recommendations lined up in the near future!

3. Anything with a puli on it
I am not going to tell you to go home with a puli puppy (although you could! Zuckerberg did). But pulis are cute! And they look good on t-shirts. Believe the MopDog.

4. Hungarian cartoons
Sadly, most of the masterpieces of Hungarian cartoon animation have never been released with dubs or with subs. But if you look really hard, you might find some that were, and they are worth watching! For example, there is the classic Cat City, the adorable Vuk, and some collections of Hungarian Folktales are also available with subs (post coming up on that series later). Let's put some pressure on the Hungarian souvenir business, and maybe we'll have more!

5. Hungarian music that is not folk music
Folk music is amazing, but it is not all there is. If you are in Hungary, allow yourself to browse the Hungarian Artists (Magyar Előadók) section of the music shop, and give a chance to some contemporary Hungarian music! Ask Hungarians what they enjoy. I will also post suggestions on MopDog later on.

Hungary is a LOT more than paprika, pálinka, and kitsch.


  1. Great tips!

    However, as a Hungarian folk singer&dancer, of course I would disagree with #5 tip to buy: we do have lots of excellent non-folklore music - Hungary has been giving extraordinary talents in music to the world.

    Do check out our jazz, for example.

    But the Hungarian folk music is really unique and without that, anyone who wants to learn some essentials about Hungary and Hungarians, would miss out on one of the most basic ingredients of "Hungarian Spirit".

  2. You forgot the variety of tiny Unicum bottles. I have unwillingly poisoned many a foreign friend that way.