Celebrating spicy Hungarian fish soup

The southern Hungarian town of Baja, which lies on the lower stretch of the river Danube, is famous for its unique fish soup. Baja has traditionally been the place for a fish soup cooking competition, held always on the second weekend of July. This is not merely a gastronomic event, but also a social one, now even recognised by the Guinness Book of Records. Its 'father' is Gabor Szetnivanyi, Hungary's former ambassador to the United Kingdom, now ambassador to the Netherlands. Agi Varga of Radio Budapest asked him to give the recipe.

"This is not really a competition because you cannot compare hundreds of dishes all cooked at the same time. It's just a big feast, a fiesta, which was created in 1996, when the town of Baja was celebrating its 300th anniversary and a few local leaders, including myself were having a chat over a glass of beer. We were wondering how to celebrate this, and there were a few ideas. Then somebody said, 'Why don't we do something that attracts media attention.' I think it was my idea to say, 'Let's do something extraordinary, on a large scale.' It was an obvious choice for it to be fish because the fish soup of Baja is very famous. It's something that people like to make, it's also something that people have the equipment to make, and also something that they are very proud of making and eating."

There are many types of fish soup in Hungary, depending on what kind of fish you use or how it is cooked, but what makes fish soup Baja-style special?

"The speciality of it is the way it is prepared. We prepare it in huge cauldrons over an open fire. These pots are hanging from a tripod and the open fire is also very important. What also gives a special flavour to it is the paprika, which is grown around Baja. It is a typical product of Hungary and this particular region. The fish is freshwater fish, carp basically, but some say that the best fish soup should include, in edition to the carp other small fish, like for instance catfish, pike, perch and some other smaller fish. One has to use also a very special onion to cook it. Also the way it is cooked is very simple. You have the fish and you cut the surface of the fish quite deep, and then you put it in the pot, add the onion, which is cut into very small pieces, put the water in it and just put it over the fire, heat it up and when the water boils and the onion is already boiled, then you add the paprika. You have to cook it on a very strong fire for another half and hour or so. Then you can serve it.

"Another very particular feature of the Baja fish soup - and this is typical, even in Hungary, only in this particular region of the southern Danube - is that we eat this spicy hot fish soup with pasta, with a special type of pasta, which is matchstick sized. This is also made locally and is marketed only in this region."