Fisherman’s soup or halászlé is a hot, spicy paprika-based river fish soup, originating as a dish of Hungarian cuisine, a bright red hot soup prepared with generous amounts of hot paprika and carp or mixed river fish, characteristic for the cuisines of the Pannonian Plain, particularly prepared in the Danube and Tisza river regions.
The dish is a famous soup, and often consumed by tourists and locals. An important ingredient in Fisherman’s Soup is in the court bouillon, which adds significant flavour. To prepare the soup base, fish trimmings are used, fresh carp heads, bones, skin and fins. These are boiled with water, salt and vegetables (red onions, green peppers and tomatoes) for two hours. When ready, the court bouillon is strained. Hot ground paprika and two finger-thick carp fillets, the roe and coral is added, ten minutes before serving, to the boiling soup.
Fisherman’s Soup variations
- Fisherman’s Soup a la Szeged. Different kinds of fish are used.
- Hell’s Pub style Fisherman’s Soup or Drinker’s Fisherman Soup. Bay leaf flour, sour cream and a small amount of lemon juice is mixed into the hot soup. Garnished with lemon rings.
- Fisherman’s Soup a la Paks. Home made thin soup pasta called csipetke is added.
- Fisherman’s Soup a la Baja. According to traditional recipes 3kg fish is added and approximately 75% is carp. It’s served with home made soup pasta called gyufatészta.
Traditionally, the soup is prepared in small kettles on open fire on the river banks by fishermen. Fisherman’s soup in kettle is prepared with fresh fish on the place. When prepared in kettles, first, chopped onion is fried in the kettle with some oil until it is caramelised. Then, ground paprika is added and the kettle is filled with water. When the water comes to a boil, other spices (such as black pepper, white wine, tomato juice) are added, and finally the fish, chopped into large pieces. Entire fish, including heads and tails, are often added to the soup. The soup is usually prepared with mixed fish, the most common species are common carp, catfish, perch and pike. Depending on the amount of added hot paprika the soup is mildly to very hot. The Hungarian soup is famous for being very hot and spicy.
The soup is poured directly from the kettle into the plates and eaten with bread (the spicier the soup, the more bread is required).
Many people, especially fishermen, regard the preparation of fish soup as somewhat secretive. Although the recipe is basically simple, the “right” ratio of spices, onion, fish (its quality and variety) and water, as well as timing, affect the soup taste significantly. Many dedicated fishermen regarded their recipe as a highly-kept secret.
Competitions in preparing the soup are popular and are usually held at fairs or picnics along river coast. Visitors are offered to taste the soup for money or for free; the quality is determined by public or committee and (un)success of competitors is often subject of mutual teasing.
The soup is best accompanied by dry white wine (such as Riesling), which may be diluted with soda water. The combination of wine and soda water (a wine spritzer) is called fröccs in Hungarian or špricer in Serbian and Croatian from the German word spritz, which imitates the sound made by soda water as it fizzes out of the dispenser.
Fisherman’s Soup Recipes
A number of versions exist, some are served over pasta, others include cream, but all are made using freshwater fish such as carp, perch or pike. Fried fish are also served at the festive dinner, along with warm potato salad. To complete the feast, beloved Hungarian desserts are offered, such as beigli (walnut and poppyseed roll), kifli (crescent-shaped yeast roll), and chocolate-coated fondant candies called szaloncukor, which are hung on the Christmas tree and used to decorate yuletide gifts.
- 3 tablespoons olive oil
- 2 cups (loosely packed) roughly chopped red onion (or 1 cup each of brown and red onions)
- 1½ cups chopped green capsicum
- 6 cloves garlic, crushed
- 2 cups diced fresh tomatoes with their juices
- 1 cup white wine (optional - add additional fish stock if not using)
- 1 litre fish stock
- 2 tablespoons Hungarian sweet paprika
- 1 - 2 pinches smoked paprika (optional)
- 2 medium potatoes, cubed
- 1½ kg whole perch (about 2 fish) ( or similar firm-fleshed white fish), filleted, bones and heads reserved (ask your fishmonger to do this for you), cut into large 3 - 4 cm pieces
- salt and pepper, to taste
- fresh parsley, for garnish
- sour cream and bread rolls, to serve
- Heat the olive oil in a heavy bottom pot and add onion and peppers. Add a pinch of salt and cook until a light brown colour.
- Add garlic and stir for 2 minutes, then add diced tomatoes and white wine (if using). Bring to a simmer, add the fish stock.
- Bring back to a slow boil and add paprika(s). Add potatoes and continue cooking at a simmer for 20 minutes. Season with salt and pepper.
- When potatoes are cooked through, add diced fish and simmer as further 10 minutes or until fish is just cooked. Taste and adjust salt and pepper.
- Ladle soup into bowls and garnish with fresh parsley and a dollop of sour cream. Serve with warmed bread rolls.
Garlic bread is a very good accompaniment to this soup
- 600 g carp (see notes regarding this ingredient)
- 600 g catfish (see notes regarding this ingredient)
- 400 g brown onions, peeled, finely chopped
- 10 g fresh garlic, peeled, finely chopped
- 2 tablespoons paprika, or to taste
- 1 tablespoon salt, or to taste
- 2- 3 hot chilli peppers, sliced
- Unless already done for you, clean, gut, and fillet the fish. Set aside
- To make the court bouillon, fill a large saucepan with 4½ litres of water. Add the fish bones and head, finely chopped onions, chopped garlic, ground paprika, and ¾ tablespoon salt. Simmer gently for 2½ hours.
- Meanwhile, cut the remaining fish fillets into 3 - 4 cm pieces, season with the remaining salt, cover, and place in the fridge until needed.
- When the court bouillon has simmered for the required time, carefully pour the contents through a colander into another suitable sized large saucepan.
- Remove as much of the fish flesh as possible from the bones and head and set aside. (This will add flavour and help to thicken the soup.)
- Bring the soup stock to a boil and add the prepared pieces of fish fillets.
- Simmer for a further 10 minutes, or until fish pieces are cooked through.
- Taste and adjust seasoning as required.
- Pour soup into four bowls and garnish with sliced chillies.
A suitable alternative in Australia is Silver Perch, or ask you fishmonger for similar firm-fleshed white fish.
The spiciness of the soup can be adjusted by changing the amount of paprika used in the court bouillon.
- 1 tablespoon butter
- 1 medium onion, finely chopped
- 1 medium green capsicum (bell pepper), chopped
- ½ teaspoon caraway seed, crushed
- 1 litre chicken stock
- 800 g can diced tomatoes, drained
- 450 g Desiree red potatoes, cut into 1 cm cubes
- 1 tablespoon hot Hungarian paprika
- 1½ teaspoons sea salt
- 2 bay leaves
- 450 g firm white fish fillets, cut into 2 cm pieces (see notes)
- 450 g large prawns, peeled and deveined
- Melt butter in large saucepan or Dutch oven on medium heat. Add onion, capsicum (bell pepper) and caraway seed; cook and stir 5 minutes or until tender.
- Add chicken stock, tomatoes, potatoes, paprika, sea salt and bay leaves. Bring to boil. Reduce heat to medium-low; simmer 20 minutes.
- Stir in fish and shrimp. Simmer 5 minutes or just until shrimp are pink.
- Remove bay leaves before serving. Ladle into soup bowls.