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Hungary: Tarhonya (Rivilchas): Grated Fresh Egg Pasta

This traditional Hungarian pasta harks back to the nomadic lifestyle of early Hungarian people -- always on the move across the steppes, with a need for any dish they made to be quick, easy to make, and requiring minimal storage or care afterwards if it was to be kept for any significant amount of time.

Tarhonya (or rivilchas as it's sometimes called) has left its traces all through Central European cooking, reflected in a tradition of all kinds of small, simple soup pastas based on egg and flour and not much else. (By the way, some people translate the two Hungarian names as "egg barley".) Tarhonya doesn't take a lot of preparation, and if you find you've made more than you need, you can always do what the Huns did (and what Hungarian families did in more recent centuries): spread it out somewhere airy and warm to dry out thoroughly, then put it away until you suddenly realize you want some for a soup or stew. As a side dish it makes a pleasant change from the more usual accompaniments for Central European main courses: tarhonya can be made to sop up gravy nicely, or can be cooked in the traditional Hungarian manner with some onion and paprika.

The basic tarhonya recipe:

  • 1 cup flour
  • 1 egg
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt

In a bowl, beat together the egg and salt. When they're combined, start adding in the flour, a few spoonfuls at a time.

You are going to wind up with a very, very stiff dough. This is why you should only add the flour a little at a time, as flours vary in how much liquid they're going to absorb, and it might happen that you'll need less than a full cup of flour to produce the result you want.

You'll reach a point in this process where you won't be able to work the dough terribly well in the bowl any more. When you do, turn the dough out onto a work surface and knead it for ten minutes or so (or as long as you can stand to). In the final stages of kneading, roll the dough out into a sort of sausage shape. Cut it into four or five pieces and leave them out to airdry for several hours.

When they're dry enough, grate these pieces on the large or coarse holes of a standard grater. You want the resulting bits of tarhonya to be about lentil- or barley-grain-sized -- maybe just a little bigger: some people like it to be the size of dried peas. If at first you find the dough isn't grating correctly, then the dough's probably not dry enough: wait another couple of hours and try it again.

When you're grating, don't pile the tarhonya up, as the bits may stick to each other: scatter them across a cookie sheet or baking sheet instead. Then let them dry for half an hour or so before cooking them.

If you're not going to be cooking the tarhonya immediately, dry them. Turn the oven on to maybe 100F / 50C and put in the baking sheet with the tarhonya: let them dry out very gently for a couple of hours, keeping an eye on the temperature -- you don't want them to brown at all. Shake the baking sheet occasionally to make sure that they dry out evenly. When they're dry, take them out, let them cool, and put them in a jar or other airtight container. Keep them somewhere cool and dry, and like any other pasta, they'll keep for a long time.

To cook tarhonya:

If you've just made them, bring a potful of water to a boil and add the tarhonya 1/2 cup at a time. Cook until the pasta is done to your liking (probably about eight minutes, though it might be less: take out a few grains every couple of minutes and test the consistency until it's the way you like it). Drain: then (if you're making them to go with soup) add them to the soup, or (if you're serving them as a side dish) toss with a little butter, grind some pepper and / or paprika on top, and serve. (Note that if you're making a stew or soup, tarhonya can also be cooked in with them. Just sprinkle them in, stir, and cook until they're done.)

A more traditionally Hungarian approach to tarhonya as a side dish goes like this:

  • 1 cup tarhonya
  • 2 tablespoons butter or lard (not oil: it won't work in this dish)
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • Fresh ground pepper to taste
  • 3 tablespoons chopped onion
  • 1 1/3 cups boiling water or stock (the version made with stock comes out much tastier)
  • 1-2 teaspoons sweet Hungarian paprika

Melt the butter or lard in a saucepan. (The lard would be much more traditionally Hungarian.) Add the tarhonya and onion: fry slowly until golden. At the very end of the process add the paprika, frying it just long enough for it to lose its slightly raw flavor and being very careful not to burn it.

Then add the water or stock, salt and pepper, and stir well. Cook, stirring occasionally as necessary, until the tarhonya are twice their size and all the water has either been absorbed or has boiled / steamed off, leaving the contents of the pot frying gently again. The tarhonya should all be separate.

They're ready! Serve the tarhonya in their tasty sauce.

(North American visitors: you can also order tarhonya (and other Hungarian pastas) from Otto's Hungarian / European Foods of Burbank. Non-North American visitors: they also ship worldwide. Tell them EuropeanCuisines.com sent you.)