A Hungarian rakott káposzta recipe passed down through the generations | A taste of home (2024)

I’d forgotten about this dish until a month ago. I went to visit my aunt and uncle, who live in Cambridge. Ros is a very good cook, so I don’t know why she had been stressing about cooking for her nephew, but she had. Finally, she settled on something we’d all remember – my grandmother’s rakott káposzta.

I was so happy eating it; it took me right back. As I ate, I made her tell me – a few times over – what she’d put into it, then went home and made it from my notes. It came out the same, so she must have told me right. So, I’ve made this dish exactly once. But my grandmother Agnes used to make it all the time.

Agnes was an exceptional woman, nurturing, loving and warm. She’d had an incredibly hard life, but it never seemed to get in the way of her love for others. I am mostly Jewish; she was completely Jewish. She lived through the Holocaust, escaped from transfer to a concentration camp and fled from Hungary to Ireland. There, she and her family did what a lot of people did at the time and hid their religion, for fear the worst might happen again. They changed the family name from Kauders – a Hungarian Jewish name – to Kenedy – a made-up Irish name. And they started to eat pork. Somehow, though, in my grandmother’s mind, the prohibition from eating pork was transferred to lamb, which she never ate thereafter.

Agnes lived on Westpark Road in Kew. Her house was a little dowdy – a bit ugly, perhaps, and full of lots of smelly things – not all good smells – but I always looked forward to going there. She had a very smelly little terrier called Mitsy, and a pond in the garden that stank to high heaven, but which I spent hours fishing in for newts. Camelias and redcurrants grew in her garden; I loved to pick and eat the sour berries. I puzzled over a bottle garden in her conservatory that my father had made as a child, which was still growing – I could never figure out how that was possible – and her box room, piled high from floor to ceiling of unidentifiable things in boxes. My great-grandmother, Lily, spoke not a word of English and her presence added to the mystery of the house while she was still around.

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My grandmother loved to cook for anyone – she was a real feeder – but especially for her grandchildren. I remember playing about her feet as she worked in the kitchen, and her peeling grapes and slicing granny smith apples so thin you could read a book through them. I’d reject slices that weren’t thin enough – I was a bit of a twat. I remember being bloody excited anytime I heard she was going to make rakott káposzta, and awfully disappointed if it wasn’t on the table when we sat down to lunch. It doesn’t need anything on the side – it’s a multilayered meal of a dish – but there’d still always be an enormous spread of other dishes. The table would be groaning with stuff. She made an excellent roast chicken, cold tongue and an amazing fish soup, which both my dad and his sister still make; oddly, they follow the same recipe, but it turns out completely different depending on who’s cooking.

Agnes made lots of cakes. Layered crepes with chocolate and jam and nuts, or pancakes filled with walnuts, rum and raisins and drenched in chocolate sauce. And the best doughnuts ever. I think food was of particular importance to my grandmother, because of her experience under the nazis, when it had all been about survival.

If she was all stoicism, my maternal grandmother Ginnie was the exact opposite. I’m not sure she ever engaged in thinking about pain or misery in any way. She was the very definition of glamour. She came from a small Louisiana town on the bayou called Plaquemine – most everyone else in her family stayed put; she was the one who really made it. She went to New York, appearing on Broadway, then on to Los Angeles where she became a starlet – she was in an early Marilyn Monroe movie – and finally to Italy, where my mother grew up. My parents honeymooned in Tuscany, and much of the food I grew up eating – they are both excellent cooks – was Italian.

We were a strong and close family, and Agnes’s home was one of the hubs of our family. My parents divorced but remained very close, and I to each of their families. So there are so many dishes that speak of home to me – so many evocative flavours and dishes, all with good memories. Eating a boiled artichoke sitting on my grandfather’s lap, pretending to be a pirate. I’ve loved artichoke ever since. I remember almost everything I’ve eaten and anything I ate before I turned 16 reminds me of home. I’ve always had a head fixated on food.

Rakott káposzta

My favourite of the dishes my grandmother made was, without any doubt, her rakott káposzta – a Hungarian peasant bake of layered sauerkraut and minced pork. It’s beautifully balanced, tart, meaty, savoury, spiced with lots of paprika and quite rich too.

Many recipes are made with the meat and rice in separate layers. But this is how Agnes made it, and it’s perfect. I suspect she used more lard, and indeed that it might be better that way, but this is the minimum amount for optimal results. Aside from the fat, this is a balanced meal in one.

Serves 12
For the cabbage
4 x 650g jars sauerkraut
125g lard (or butter, or 125ml oil)
2 tbsp caraway seeds
6 garlic cloves, chopped
3 large onions, chopped
Salt and black pepper
100g dill, chopped (optional)

For the meat
500g brown rice (Ros and Agnes I think used white; brown is more forgiving)
125g lard or butter (or 125ml oil)
6 garlic cloves, chopped
2 large onions, chopped
2 red or green peppers, chopped
Salt and black pepper
300g Hungarian Kolbász sausage or chorizo (or 200g smoked Kabanos), cut into discs
120g Hungarian (unsmoked) sweet paprika
200g concentrated tomato paste
1.5kg minced pork
500ml chicken, pork or vegetable stock

For the dairy part
1kg greek yoghurt and 1kg soured cream, stirred together. (Fat-free greek yoghurt and reduced fat soured cream are OK – the topping will become a little dry when cooked, but still tasty. Full-fat versions are nicer)

1 To prepare the cabbage, drain the sauerkraut, rinse once and drain well.

2 Heat the lard. butter or oil, then add the caraway seeds, garlic, onions, some salt and plenty of pepper. Fry over a medium heat for 20 minutes.

3 Add the sauerkraut and continue to cook for 45 minutes, until it is translucent and glossy. Season to taste, adding dill at the end, if desired.

4 For the meat, put the rice on to boil in lightly salted water. Heat the fat, add the garlic, onions, peppers, some salt and plenty of pepper, then fry over a medium heat for 20 minutes.

5 Add the sausage and fry for 5 minutes more. Add the paprika and tomato paste, then fry for 5 minutes more. Add the pork, mix well to coat in the spice, and cook over a medium-high heat, stirring often, till piping hot, the meat particles separated. Add the stock and simmer 20 minutes. Take it off the heat. Drain the rice when cooked, and stir into the meat.

6 To assemble, layer the dish in a large, deep roasting tin – half the meat, half the cabbage, half the dairy; repeat. Bake at 180C/350F/gas mark 4 for 1 hour, or until browned on top and heated through.

  • Jacob Kenedy is chef-patron of the Bocca di Lupo restaurant in London; @jacobkenedy
  • This article was amended on 4 May to clarify the method of the recipe.
A Hungarian rakott káposzta recipe passed down through the generations | A taste of home (2024)
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