In all, I've probably spent close to five months of my life living in Hungary.
When I was a child, my family vacationed there several summers in a row, and upon graduating high school, I toured the country with my mother, taking a train from Budapest southwest into Croatia, stopping in small, quaint towns along the way. And everywhere, though I have always been a fairly adventuresome eater, there was one dish I could never pass up: Cold fruit soup.
It's an Eastern European dish also found in some Baltic and Middle Eastern countries, but largely absent from Asia and the Americas (unless you count gazpacho and a few Asian dessert soups) that's served as an appetizer, even though it's sweet like dessert. Across Hungary, the hot, humid summers are tempered by cold fruit soup in nearly every restaurant and nearly every seasonal flavor.
The most traditional version is meggyleves, cold sour cherry soup, but I also encountered peach, raspberry, strawberry and mixed fruit soups in cafes across Budapest. There was the creamy raspberry soup at Marcello Étterem, the tart cherry soup at Café Kor and the sweet, silky peach soup at Centrál Káveház.
And here in Houston, there's sour cherry soup at Kenny & Ziggy's, our own little outpost for Hungarian cuisine.
The Jewish delicatessen serves the traditional Hungarian dishes goulash and stuffed cabbage all year-round, but every August, chef and owner Ziggy Gruber busts out his special cold cherry soup for the hot Houston summer. In order to have as Hungarian a meal as possible, I ordered all three dishes.
There's no one way to prepare Hungarian goulash. It's done slightly different all over the country. In some restaurants it's a thick and chunky topping for noodles, while in others it's more like a stew. Kenny & Ziggy's goulash favors the former, with large hunks of tender beef and carrots swimming in a dark brown gravy flavored with paprika. It's served over noodles for a hearty dish that isn't exactly a light summer meal, but is still very reminiscent of my Hungarian summers.
The stuffed cabbage is a little lighter, and it comes swimming in a sweet tomato sauce, much like tomato jam. The cabbage is filled with seasoned ground beef, and somehow the whole thing keeps from becoming a gloopy mess, even though the cabbage and beef are both well cooked.
For me, though, the true star of the meal was the cold fruit soup, served, as it always is, during the appetizer portion of lunch or dinner. It may be sweet, but it's definitely not dessert.
Gruber has developed his own recipe for the dish, which makes use of sour cherries, sour cream, nutmeg, ginger and a touch of red wine (that final ingredient took me a while to figure out). It's cool and refreshing, but tart and lively. A portion of the cherries have been puréed with the sour cream to form a velvety sort of broth, while more cherries are left whole (but pitted) to add texture to the soup. It comes with a side of sour cream, should you wish to add more creaminess to the soup, which is fairly thin, but certainly doesn't need anything additional to make it shine.
You can order it by the cup or the bowl, but I very strongly recommend you opt for the larger portion. I suspect that after a few bites you, like me, will become addicted. Order it for dessert if you must, but prefer to enjoy it as a meal all on its own.
Kenny & Ziggy's divine cold sour cherry soup is available until the start of Yom Kippur in October, when Gruber will shift his focus to the ever-popular chicken pot pie. Goulash and stuffed cabbage are available all year.