foie gras


Libamaj by any other name ...

The Hungarian word for foie gras is libamaj, which would be easy to remember, more or less, because of course ‘liba’ comes from the same root as ‘liver.’  Except that it doesn’t.  In fact, it doesn’t mean liver at all, it means goose, and ‘maj’ means liver (which is easier to remember if you can recall that ‘vaj’ means butter and ‘haj’ means fat).  And ‘kacsa’ means duck (of relevance because kacsamaj means duck foie gras).

This is important vocabulary, because there is little culinary reason to visit Hungary if you aren’t planning on spending some time communing with a goose liver along the way.

First, though, a word of caution.  Avoid tinned or packaged or processed goose liver designed to be taken out of the country.  Literally every stall at the Central Market will try to sell you tourist packages of goose liver or paté.  These bear about as much relation to decent goose liver as fluorescent lighting bears to a cloudless summer day.  Only fluorescent lights can't turn rancid.  You can’t bring the real stuff back home with you unless the agriculture police from your country permit the import of fresh goose liver, which the USA emphatically does not.

Yet another reason to eat as much libamaj as possible while in Budapest.

It isn’t cheap, up around 7000 HUF per kilo.  As I write this, that’s about $40, which is to say that’s about $18/pound or roughly 25-25% of what it would cost in the USA.  A serious bargain.  You can use it with relative abandon.  Almost every restaurant tries to figure out some way to incorporate it into their menu, and most are quite good; pricey for Budapest, cheap compared to what you will pay at home.

At its best, libamaj is smooth and sweet and tastes (subtly) like liver.  American foie gras tends to be long on fat and short on flavor, but it’s essential in my view.  Goose is a bit stronger in flavor than duck, more liver, less straight fat.  They cost about the same in the markets.

The simplest way to buy libamaj whole (and raw) to prepare on your own if you have access to a kitchen is to go to the Central Market and wander the aisles.  You’re looking for goose liver, rather than duck (duck has two unevenly-sized lobes; goose has two roughly even lobes).  Look for stalls that stock large, pink livers without any external markings, membranes, veins, or dots of blood.  It’s pretty hard to go wrong.  All the prices are posted.  Of course, you can also buy a whole goose and it will come with its own not-quite-foie-gras-but-who’s-counting liver.  Probably about 3/4 kilo rather than the kilo or so that the livers they sell by themselves are, but that also means it will have somewhat more flavor without appreciably less fat.  Make sure to ask them to butcher it for you (cut off the head and eviscerate it); the first time I bought a duck in the market I realized that they had left these tasks for me when I got home.  Even if I weren’t squeamish, which I am, I worried (properly) about getting the shiny green and very bitter bile from the gall bladder to taint the liver (easy to do).

If you have access to any sort of kitchen at all, you owe it to yourself to buy a whole goose liver and do things with it.  Thick (3/8 - 1/3 inch, roughly 1 cm) slabs seared in a red-hot skillet (dust the liver slabs first with hot kalocsai paprika and salt).  REALLY heat the pan (and use a pan that retains its heat, like cast iron does) or the liver will sauté down to nothing but a puddle of its own fat.  Just sear the outside, flip it, sear the other side, keep warm and sauté some onions, very thinly sliced in the goosefat the exuded from the liver (as fat drips out of the liver by the side there next to your stove, add it to the onions), until they are golden; throw in a couple of tablespoons of excellent Tokaji (at least 4 putanyos, preferably 6) and at very high heat reduce the liquid to nothing but fat and flavor, remove the onions, bring the fat back to almost smoking, and toss the liver slabs back in for a couple of seconds on each side to warm them up. 

Onto plates with some of the onion garnish and serve with some goose cracklings (most poultry butchers that sell goose liver also sell cracklings, or make your own ... buy a goose breast and remove the fat and skin, slice into diamonds about 3/4 inch (2cm) on a side; slowly brown in a skillet until they are golden, together with sliced onion and salt; pick the cracklings out as they become dark gold on both sides...they’ll be finished before the onions, which you should keep sautéing until they, too, are golden...then separate out the onions, save the fat for another use (another use like slathering it on a hunk of bread in the middle of the night, like butter) and serve the cracklings with or without the onions).

Serve with the rest of that bottle of Tokaji that you opened to make the liver with.  Chilled.

Or make a paté.  Or a mousse.  Or mess around with other flights of fancy.  You likely won’t get another chance after you head home.  There are two great foie gras books in English:

Foie Gras : A Passion, by Micahel Ginor (heavily discounted at Amazon and searchable on their website so you can troll for recipes and ideas and who needs to buy the book until you're fully addicted?).  And:

Foie Gras by Andre Bonnaure (quite hard to find, and very costly when you do; retails for 99 Euros), which is aimed at food professionals who are looking for a coffee table book that they can write off as a capital business expense and depreciate.  Still, some great recipes, including Foie Gras Ice Cream.

Did I say Foie Gras ice cream?  I haven’t tried to make it yet from Bonnaure’s recipe (I have tried to make foie gras Oreos from the Ginor book, so I'm pretty sure I'll get to the ice cream), but I had it at Lou-Lou in Budapest and their version was utterly marvelous.  Believe it or not, light and smooth and livery and only slightly sweet, a savory starter, melting on the plate as one ate it, easily the best form of foie gras I’ve every come across.  Lou-Lou is kind of a trip in its own right...see the more extended description on the Foodie Budie page.

Other sources on libamaj that don’t rely on access to a home kitchen? 
Well, first, butchers in Budapest tend to specialize.  Some sell only poultry.  And some of those stock hazi libamaj...that’s Hungarian for Holy Grail.  Actually, for Homemade Foie Gras.;  I favor a place on Semmelweiss utca, just across from where Vitkovics utca dead-ends into Semmelweiss.  There’s usually a line out onto the street.  They sell raw chickens and geese and ducks and turkeys, and parts, and fried chunks of chicken and turkey (a wonderful lunch; Col. Sanders enlists in the Austro-Hungarian Army).  And they have a fridge filled with small plastic tubs of Hazi Libamaj.  Sliced into slabs, sprinkled with a bit of salt (and paprika if you like), served cold with paper-thin sliced onion and a glass of Tokaji...

Gives a whole new meaning to the concept of liver and onions.

Restaurants with great libamaj?  A couple of serious tourist venues that do a wonderful job: the Gresham Kavehaz in the Four Seasons Budapest Hotel.  Costly, but their foie gras three ways plate is as good as it gets.  The Gerbeaud pastry shop is not really a place to go for pastry, but a wonderful place to sit and watch the other tourists and make believe you are not one of them (because you know that my grandmother used to sit at that same table and gossip with her friends after a hard day of shopping on Vaci utca, and none of the rest of the out-of-towners know that).  But the real thing that separates you from the tourists is that you know that the pastry’s not so great but the goose liver paté is excellent, as is the Gerbeaud Salad, and that the house Tokaji is made by Janos Arvay, easily one of the top two vineyards in all of the Tokaj region (and my personal favorite).

Tom-George, a trendy nouvelle Hungarian restaurant (and none of the first places to serve serious sushi in Budapest, owned by the same people who own the Leroy chain, does really lovely things with libamaj. 

Klassz, on Andrassy ut, owned by the Hungarian Wine Society and sporting a wide array of wines by the glass, does a fine paté as well.

But my favorite all around restaurant libamaj is at Café Bouchon, a wonderful Hungarian Bistro very near the Opera and the Operetta Theatre, where the owner, Lajos, lavishes you with a solicitousness that no one since your mother has shown on the subject of whether or not you are enjoying your dinner.


If there is one food that dominates Hungary's presence at the world table, it's goose liver, with a tip o' the hat to goose fat and occasionally even goose itself; it doesn't matter whether or not you think of yourself as an entrails kind of person -- and I emphatically avoid offal despite the worldwide reverse snobbery of the modern foodie menu -- goose liver is an exception you must try, and try in Budapest where it actually has flavor and personality  and is part of the national soul.