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It wouldn't be spring in D.C., without the annual global culinary showdown: The Embassy Chef Challenge. The 2013 challenge took place Thursday night, and the winning chef was crowned by the 2012 champion, Chef Viktor Merényi, from the Embassy of Hungary.
Chef Viktor has been cooking in the U.S. for four years now, and he says he has one primary goal when whipping up dishes for the ambassador and his guests.
"Usually the people thinking about Hungarian cuisine [think] it's fatty, spicy, always [has] pork inside," he explains. "And that's my job: to show the people stuff that's different.
"We have beautiful lakes, beautiful freshwater fish," he says. "We have four seasons in Hungary, so [we're] always changing the ingredients. Also, [we have] different areas in the countries with different cooking methods."
One of the traditional foods Chef Viktor prepares with his own special twist is his grandmother's streudel.
"You can play with the stuffing to the streudels here," he says. "For example, I made an apple streudel, but I put inside some black poppy seeds. So it's made a totally different way — a bit healthier way. And keeps the tradition the way it was."
Hungarian cuisine uses many specific and distinctive ingredients, and Chef Viktor says finding these special ingredients in D.C. is a bigger challenge than the Embassy Chef's Challenge. He also says you can't find real Hungarian restaurants in the region.
"Central European restaurants try, but they follow their way, their cooking method," he says.
Chef Viktor says it isn't just the food that makes Hungary special. It's also the beverages; for instance, Hungarian wine. "We make our wines," he says. "Special wines coming from Hungary."
Then there's the famous schnapps-type beverage: palinka. "It's real, real nice," he says. "A kind of spirit made from fresh fruits. You can find 15 or 20 types. A bit strong, but it's okay!"
One of Chef Viktor's favorite Hungarian desserts to prepare is Hungarian pancakes, or palacsinta. "It's totally different than an American pancake," he explains. "The Hungarian pancake is really thin."
Chef Viktor doesn't have a written recipe for palacsinta, but he always uses the same ingredients: flour, milk, eggs, soda water and a pinch of salt. You mix the ingredients together until the consistency is thin and watery, and then you drizzle some of the batter into a pan.
"[In the pan] we use usually olive oil or corn oil," he says. "The traditional way, they use pork fat. But here in the embassy, what we really would like when the guest is finishing [is to not] feel 'Oh, I am so tired. I can't move and I need to sleep a couple hours!'"
Chef Viktor says you can stuff the pancakes with any number of flavorings — from orange marmalade to sour-cherry compote -- and you can cover them with anything from powdered sugar to sweet sauces. But a favorite variation of the Hungarian pancake, he explains, is the Gundel pancake, stuffed with walnut cream and covered with chocolate sauce.
"And in the restaurants they put palinka on the top and flame it," he says. "So when it arrives to the guest, it's got nice, blue flames. And the palinka flavors around. It's so good!"
It's also quite elegant, he says, which is quite important.
"Because the guest eats first with their eyes," he says. "And after a second, they will taste it."
[Music: "Captain Tenkes" by Pannonia All-Stars Ska Orchestra from Made in Hungary]
Photos: Embassy of Hungary