Tuesday, April 01, 2014

Táncháztalálkozó 2014: The Unpronounceable Power of Music.

Spring came to Budapest in full force this weekend with sunny days, high temperatures. The Hungarian elections are happening in a week, and that means the weekend was marked by mass marches and election rallies featuring stump speeches by cognitively challenged baboons who display the moral compass of Nigerian email scammers. But,alas, I digress... We all know the genuine harbinger of Budapest spring in March is the national folk festival, the Táncháztalálkozó.

An intimate context for traditional culture.
Held in the uniquely inappropriate venue of the Papp Lászlo Sports Stadium (formerly Népstadion, for all of us Comrades who remember the old days.) As festivals go it does the best it can given the circumstances, that circumstance being a huge cement salad bowl Arena designed for just about anything but a folk festival. The organizers - the Guild of Dance Houses - have a lot of experience finding innovative work-arounds for the shortcomings of the venue, mainly because the crowds converging on the festival are so ravenously enthusiastic that they would enjoy a festival in a septic tank as long as folk musicians were playing in it. You probably get my drift by now: I hate being inside the frigging stadium almost as much as I hate being inside an Ikea. I may not be alone in that opinion, but I think I am definitely not in the majority.

Stock up on all your Moldavian instrument needs!
Heck, a lot of people like folk festivals inside an Ikea, wandering though the maze of Blögg and  Sündqvist and Duda and Koboz browsing for something that suits their personal taste. (Ikea, at least, has meatballs.) Anyway, I had my say about the festival back in 2009, and now I go simply to meet old friends and hear good music, which the Táncháztalálkozó has in spades.

Two Generations of the Csóori Family band, masters of music from Szék
I live in Budapest, where you can find a Hungarian dance house pretty much five nights a week, so I can seem pretty jaded about the folk music scene here. For younger enthusiasts, especially those who live outside of the capitol city, this festival is the high point of the year. You can browse the crafts market for quality items for your folk dance costuming needs, or even pick up hard to find folk instruments as well as the teaching materials you will need to master them. The main arena area is given to mass dance teaching during the day, with bands taking the main stage for shorter sets of dance music.

 Márta Sebestyén and the Vujicsics Band
When we got there the legendary Vujicsics band was burning through some of the local Serbian minority (bet you didn't know that the northernmost Serbian ethnic settlements are north of Budapest!) repertoire when suddenly the world famous and perennially cute singer Márta Sebestyén appeared for a quick photo op. And who was in the front row snapping the photo but our old friend Béla Kása.

Béla Kása 
Béla Kása is a photographer whose dedication to the traditions of Hungarian music is legendary. He has been tramping the back roads of Transylvania in search of the roots of this music since the early 1970s, and his work has found a home in galleries the world over. Kása didn't just document the tancház mevement: he was a part of establishing and spreading it. This year the Hungarian folk dance movement lost one of the key personalities that launched the revitalization of folk music in the early 1970s when Béla Halmos passed away. Bélabácsi was honored with a photo exhibit in one of the upstairs concert rooms depicting his decades of untiring work to propagate the tradition of Hungarian instrumental music. It was fitting that the same room hosted a special event celebrating the publication of Muzsikás 40, a new book looking at the history of the band Muziskás after four decades of music. Muzsikás was one of the first bands to form in the early 1970s under the influence of Béla Halmos and the dance house movement. They were also the most innovative and attracted a huge following, rising to pop star status without ever abandoning their roots in village music, and were eventually the band that broke through to international fame.

Writer Béla Szilárd Jávorszky has collected their histories and anecdotes and put together a fascinating portrait in his new book Muzsikás 40, which is highly recommended. The all too brief Muzsikás session was followed by a blazing set by the Buda Folk Band, comprising of some of the young hot shots of the folk music scene and featuring no less than two offspring from the original members of  Éri Márton and Csóori Sándor, Jr.
The Buda Folk Band
This is the most innovative and enjoyable band I have heard in years, and I will write more about them and their new CD Magyar Világi Népzene. in the near future. It is the Cd to buy this year: traditional, modern, but most of all, tasteful, well thought out, and it sounds like a bunch of guys having a heck of a lot of fun. But I had yet to wander about. Jam sessions are what make a festival for me. Alas, the festival layout leaves only the bar as a suitable area for jamming, which is located in a semi outdoor area that is, in real life, part of the underground parking lot of a bus station. Ideal for noise, not so much for music. The energy level is high, as is the decibel level, but nothing cuts through the ambient noise like a set of bagpipes.

Hungarian Bagpipe jam session
These two younger pipers were playing without their drone pipes attached, which is common when more than one piper plays. Traditionally, Hungarian bagpipes - the duda - were never played in pairs. There is even a saying in Hungarian that "two pipers do not fit in one tavern." But modern innovations have improved the instrument to the level where they can actually be tuned, so tradition be damned. Of course, the folk bar area has the best and most spontaneous music if anything like a traditional context for this music can be found inside a cement bus-station-sports stadium, it will be where booze can flow, and that is where we found our friends the Codoba family band from the central Transylvanian village of Palatka playing.

Lőrincz and Florin Codoba leading the Palatka Band.
The Palatka band is probably the most active of traditional style gypsy bands still working in full form. They still perform using two lead fiddles and two kontra violas, and maintain the old style of harmonizing modal melodies using major chords which characterizes the band music of central Transylvania. Presently the leader of the band is Codoba Lőrincz, whose brothers Marton and Bela were the double fiddle pair that defined the style for a generation of Hungarian folk fiddlers, but Florin, the son of the late Marton Codoba, has been taking front man honors more and more of late, and often comes to Budapest to guest with local bands playing in the Palatka style. This is the music that I love, the stuff that brought me here so many years ago, and the stuff that keeps me here. This is the reason I drag myself into the cement sports stadium. This is the sound of life itself.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

I like Small Fish and I Cannot Lie.

Barbunya: Not a political debate.
So much going on in our little corner of the world that I have been neglecting to comment on my blog. I had wanted to express an opinion on the Ukrainian situation. I wanted to write about the serious threats the Crimean Tatars are now facing. I wanted to examine the current Hungarian election campaigns and the controversies surrounding the Hungarian Jewish community's decision to boycott the FIDESZ led government's revisionist Holocaust Memorial Year plans. And maybe I will - but this blog has remained a politically conflict free zone as much as possible. In the meanwhile, I will address something much more positive, domestic and closer to home. Hamsi var!

Fresh anchovy and tiny fish who will never see adulthood. 
We have fish. Fresh fish. Anchovies! In Budapest! I like small fish and I cannot lie. Right after we got back to Budapest last summer I found a small video documentary on the web about Hungary's Muslims, and part of the story focused on the opening of a new Turkish market in Budapest. We had never heard about it. I pretty much know all of Budapest's limited ethnic food offerings. Budapest has a number of smaller Mid-Eastern grocers and a few halal butchers. Hungary has a population of Turks and other Muslims, mostly involved in business and transport industries, and so for the last two decades at least had some local butchers and markets to provide halal foods and a taste of home, but never anything as extensive as the Turkish markets in Germany or Austria. We tracked down the market and found it: The Troya Supermarket, in Budapest's 8th district up near the old Teleki ter market, is a full service modern Turkish supermarket that seems to have been airlifted from the suburbs of Istanbul and dropped into the eighth district. Our lives have changed.

Troya gets a fresh delivery of fish every week from Turkey - bright-eyed, red-gilled not smelly fresh fish. And even better, not expensive fish. (Hot tip: ask the butchers when the fish are being delivered and go early before the Middle Eastern Diplomats buy it all out.) Fish in landlocked countries is never cheap, but check them against other markets offering smellier, pre-frozen fish. Yes, it is entirely affordable. If you live in Hungary, you know how outlandish this sounds. Fresh ocean fish? Nawwww... can't happen. Hungarians eat lake fish: carp, catfish, perch. Most Hungarians find the taste of ocean fish strange and dry. Believe me: I have traveled all over Europe with regular, non-yuppie Hungarians in places like Portugal and had to learn to say things in Portuguese like "Excuse me, Chef. I see you have prepared a perfectly cooked fillet of sole for our dinner tonight, and I appreciate this sincerely, but my colleagues would like you to return their servings to the fryer and fry them until crisp and dry and stiff like the fish they are used to eating in Hungary? Thank you!" Yes. I can say that in Portuguese, because I had to say it every day. Twice a day for a month. So, after decades of following rumors of fresh fish in Budapest that always led to a freezer full of packaged hake, we were skeptical. But stepping into Troya was like stepping off the ferry in Kadikoy. All our favorites were there.

Istavrit (above) and bream 
Fresh çupra or gilthead bream (dorado) as well as istavrit,  (scad or horse mackeral) well known to anybody who has hung out with the fishermen on the Galata Bridge. There has been fresh palamut (bonito) and even barbunya, the small red mullet that are one of the Mediterranean's most elegant and pricey delicacies, although here they were priced the same as any other small fish - meaning we bought a half kilo without argument and were gobbling them down that night.

Fried red mullet and anchovies.
And how do they keep these babies fresh? Turks know something about this. For one thing, the fish is already gutted and mostly scaled. They also dowse the fish in fresh ice water regularly. There is not much you can teach a Turk about fresh fish. They already know. Winter is the season for the Black Sea anchovy: hamsi. When hamsi season arrives, its party time. Muslim Turks don't usually drink in public. Instead they eat anchovies in public. Hamsi isn't just a fishHamsi is news.

Hamsi is more than a food to Turks around the Black Sea - including Istanbul. It is a regional national symbol. Think wine and France. Wurst and Germany. Hungary and paprika. Sinop and hamsi. Trabzon and hamsi. Ordu and hamsi. Rize and hamsi. Ardeşen and hamsi. We traveled around the Turkish Black Sea coast some years ago, and yes,they do eat a lot of hamsi. A lot of restaurants in towns like Trabzon or Rize served only hamsi while we were there. When the hamsi arrive in late autumn there are hamsi festivals and hamsi eating contests and hamsi dances. I have CDs of local Black Sea pop bands playing the addictive fiddle music of the kemenche and singing endless verses about either hamsi or tea. Singing about tea? Really? But I can understand singing about hamsi. If you only know anchovy from the salty nubs packed in cans and tossed on pizzas you don't know anchovy at all. Fresh hamsi do not have that oily, fishy flavor that a lot of people recoil from. You can eat them whole or easily fillet them using only your fingernail before cooking, leaving little finger length boneless butterfly fillets. Turks eat them fried, boiled, baked, made into hamsi pilaf, baked into corn bread, pickled, or even dried.

Hamsi pie
We like them fried into a hamsi pita, or hamsi pie: boned fillets fried on a skillet, flipped like an omelet onto a plate and then slipped back into the skillet and fried crisp on the other side. We also made some pickled hamsi. Raw, boned hamsi is marinated in vinegar and salt, rinsed and them mixed to marinate with onions, (in this case, some wild ramps as well: Hungarian medve hagyma which are the first fresh wild veg of the season and available now) and diced hot pepper in olive oil.

Anchovy ceviche with wild ramps
The flavor of fresh anchovy was enough to transport me to the Mediterranean enough so that I hardly remembered that I was in the middle of East Central but Mostly East in Fact Awfully Close to the Balkans Europe in the middle of a mudslinging electoral campaign while Putin annexes the Crimea. So much to worry about. But here in our little reserve on the edge of Zuglo we were happy. But there is something that makes me even happier: meat. Lovely meat. Lamb

Sorry, but perfectly  roasted lamb is not an open source resource.
Hungarians don’t produce a lot of lamb anymore, and what we have bought here was pretty tough and tasteless. When Hungary lost 2/3 of its real estate after the First World War a lot of that territory was highland where the Magyar sheep raising tradition was strongest. If you want good Hungarian lamb or mutton stew or sheep cheese today you are best advised to head to Slovakia or Transylvania for it. Over the years the Hungarian taste for lamb and sheep cheese (in fact, the entire cheese making tradition) have shrunk to an afterthought, and butchers don;t really know how to treat mutton except as a fluffier, less bacony version of a pig. Search no more. 

Perhaps the best butcher in Hungary.
The Troya Market has brought in expert butchers from Turkey to produce some of the best lamb and beef you can buy in Hungary. The young Hungarian guy working with them is probably one of the most skilled and knowledgeable professional meat cutters I have met in Hungary, full of accurate tips on the preperation of lamb liver and lamb meat balls. They actually have a farm here where they are producing top quality lamb (as in not imported from New Zealand.) And so… for my birthday… Fumie treated me to a leg of lamb. Garlic, rosemary, spuds… an hour and a half roasting in the oven… pink, juicy, delicate, lovely lamb. Troya Market: teşekkür ederim! 

  1. TROYA Török Élelmiszer Üzlet
  2. 1081 Budapest, Népszínház utca 40
  3. Open daily 6 am - 10 pm
  4. http://www.troyamarket.hu/

Sunday, January 05, 2014

BUÉK = Boldog új évet kívánok!

Time to stock up on necessary items!
For those of you still dependant on the Gregorian Calendar, I would like to wish you all a belated Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year, or as we say in Hungary, BUÉK! Hungarians love abbreviations, and BUÉK stands in for "Boldog új évet kívánok" a clattering shower of Uralic syllables meaning "I wish you a Happy New Year." The Holiday season in Hungary is a bit different that the one we are accustomed to in the English speaking world (or the Prime Fringe Universe, if you wish.)  For one thing, Santa Claus comes on Dec. 6, but it is the baby Jesus Himself who puts out the children's gifts on the morning of Dec. 25. The traditional Christmas roast turkey is replaced by the traditional Hungarian carp soup and slices of beigli, a dense poppy seed or nut roll cake that is related to a bagel on only the most distant verbal terms. Don't like carp soup? Too bad. You are going to eat carp soup. 

Fresh carp, $6.00 a kilo. 
Not only do Magyars love carp, they like it as fresh as possible, so they stand in line at outdoor markets waiting for the live carp trucks to deliver the swimming, living goods. You can buy it filleted, but why not take it home and let it swim around in the bathtub for a bit? As you can guess, at our house we are not big fans of carp. there are other fish available, such as these small sterlets (mini sturgeons) and farm raised trout swimming around in some murky tank. I am a trout fisherman. A fly fisherman at that. Tie my own flies and everything. Seeing a trout in a fish tank carousing with sterlets... is scandalous. I would rather eat a sardine. 

The love that dare not speak its name.
And you know all those public safety alerts that warn you to avoid Christmas tree fires during this season? Hungarians put real candles – burning candles - and firework sparklers in the branches of their very real fir trees. As far as I know, their trees never erupt into flame. And mind you, when they do this they are drunk. Either they are such skilled pryrotechnicians that they can avoid catastrophic fires while drunk or else our public safety officials have been lying to us about putting candles in trees. 

What Hungarians do really well is shopping. Christmas markets pop up all over the place, offering the usual low to mid end offerings of scarves, bags, CDs, crafts and folksy kitsch to make your holiday giving so much easier this year. And of course, there is always a lesson to be learned, although sometimes we are not sure what. The Budapest Police - always a bunch of fun loving, creative guys - had this tableau set up in the middle of the Moszkva tér (oopsie! Széll Kálmán tér!) Christmas market. 

Budapest Police Communication Strategy in action!

Apparently, the boys in blue (grey, actually) want you to avoid drunk driving, or perhaps they are hoping to get a wrecked car for Christmas, or else they just didn't have any place to park this. I'm sure they had something they wished to communicate. It seemed like such a good idea at the time. The important thing is that they were thinking. They were alive and cognizant, reason enough to celebrate, no? The Budapest Police have always had a bit of a communication problem. All around are more traditional gift ideas. 

Fishing socks! Why have I never owned a pair of these? Everywhere I turn there is some new discovery! The Moszkva tér book kiosk - once the main distribution center of democratic underground samizdat literature during the late communist era - now specializes in right wing crap. Don’t like the cards you were dealt by history? Choose from a broad spectrum of right wing and reactionary Hungarian literature! We’ll find convoluted explanations and name conspiracies and enemies you never even dreamed about! And it is an election year! Don't let a little lack of historical relativism ruin it for you!

I want to answer the question "Why did they hate Hitler?"

OK. that is Moszkva (er.., Széll Kálmán) square. Which is a huge metro station. Let's take the old red metro across to Pest and see what is happening in the downtown.Pest Christmas market at Deak ter!

I love bustling around Budapest at this time of year: everybody is out with pretty much the same purpose: to buy cheap plastic crap. And to eat things. All outdoor markets offer a range of foods designed to warm you up. Hot spiced wine is everywhere. At this time of year a shot of strong palinka is nothing to turn down anytime after lunch! While you browse the stands try dome Transylvanian hot sweetbread kalacs! But honestly, the downtown market is priced to serve tourists. 

This should form the basis of a very healthy snack! Salami and hot brandy! Why, yes, I will!

Ten dollar hot dogs do not appeal much to hungry Magyars who just blew their Christmas gift budget on a boar skin throw rug or a retro Lenin coffee mug. What makes those folks happy is a simple market meal, such as the bistro in the back of Bosnyak ter market out in my district. The holidays were heralded with specials such as ... fish soup... made with carp! Bosnyak tér market is always there to take care of you, any time of the year.

Fish soup FT 950. And that is a langos on the shelf.

This market snack bar may well be one of the most distinctive restaurant experiences in Budapest. We eat there quite a lot - they recognize us by now and can anticipate our orders. First of all, they serve dishes that are all but forgotten on posh downtown menus. Things like stewed lung in cream sauce with bread dumplings. Beef heart stew with dumplings. Scrambled eggs over galushka dumplings. Breaded fried anything. These were the old peasant staples of the Communist era factory lunch meal. Every day - but especially on weekends - there are interesting specials that often involve ingredients you may never have considered as "food" or never expected to see outside of a zoo. And there is nothing "fusion" going on, unless you consider somebody named Mariskanéni to be a fusion pioneer in the kitchen. And prices? Almost everything is less than FT 1000 (about $6) You may be sharing a table with some old pensioners, but the food is top notch. Also: lángos!
El Bulli has closed, but we still have the Zuglo market!

Zuglo celebrates with its own Christmas market adjacent to the main one. Complete with Barvarian oom-pah music, the beat of the future in our very own Papcsakistan! Have a good new year!

Monday, December 16, 2013

2013: The Year in Ramen

While Budapest can boast a million wonders, ramen noodles are not one of them. The Queen of the Danube lacks ramen-ya, the classic Japanese ramen shops that specializes in ramen noodle soup and gyoza, the little meaty dumplings that accompany them. I can't understand why that should be the case: Hungarians love noodle soups, and they love dumplings. They are fascinated by anything Japanese. How could they let this get away from them? There are about a dozen sushi shops around town serving raw fish to avid Magyars - a people not known for stuffing raw fish into their mouths - not to mention at least a thousand ex-pat Japanese who, to be objective, would eat Japanese food all the time if given their druthers. Yes, the Japanese are as provincial about their tastes as any Hungarian. A Magyar wants a taste of paprika in everything they eat, a Japanese expects everything to taste of sloy, fermented fish and seaweed. The world is a big and wonderful place, is it not? So no ramen in Budapest for the foreseeable future. However, by a freakish stroke of luck, we spent much of the the summer in Teaneck New Jersey. Teaneck, which is affectionately referred to by many of its native sons as "Jewtown, USA" is conveniently located near the nuclear epicenter of the western hemisphere's ramen noodle production: Sun Noodle. Sun noodle is a Japanese-Hawaiian noodle manufacturer that makes a noodle that some say are among the world's best. A few years ago they set up shop in Teterboro, New Jersey to supply the demand for high quality fresh noodles among New York's booming ramen scene. Ever since Chef David Chang started the neo-ramen shop craze a decade ago with his Momofuku Ramen in New York's east village (named after the inventor of the instant ramen noodle, Momofuku Andoh, who founded Nissan Food Products) ramen shops have sprouted all over New York. You think those chewy, springy ramen noodles were carefully crafted by hand in the back of a tiny noodle shop in Greenwich Village? Think again. They were made in New Jersey. Everything is made in New Jersey. By now, most of the better Japanese ramen franchises have set up shop around the New York area as well. Pop out of a subway station or pull into a suburban strip mall and you can usually find a decent ramen-ya waiting for you.
A good ramen-ya is like a good deli: it serves a limited menu of a comfort food but it can take a fierce pride in doing that task as close to perfect as possible. Ramen is to Japan what pizza is to New York: a slightly foreign dish (Chinese vs. Italian) that has been taken to heart, improved on, and made a central pillar of the local identity. New Yorkers are adamant about pizza (as anybody who watched Jon Stewart's Daily show pizza rant knows) because in Italy pizza is just a food. In New York it is The Food. The Japanese feel that way about ramen. I like ramen. Maybe not as much as my Significant Tokyo-born Other, who would take a train to Vienna in search of a bowl of "real" noodles. Vienna, incidentally, no longer has its two classic ramen shops, meaning that the closest decent bowl of ramen would be in Berlin, or possibly in Cracow.

Handsome Guy Gourmet Tofu stand
But a summer in New York means we can get our fill of ramen. Now, I do not drive. I don't like cars. Cars do not like me. Automobiles want to kill me, and they have tried and failed many times, which makes living in a Jersey suburb pretty much impossible for me. In order to get into New York from Teaneck I have two choices: hike up to Route 4 and catch the cheap "Spanish Bus" mini vans that run into northern Manhattan, or else the NJ Transit local bus at the end of our street, which takes us to the Mitsuwa Mall

You can have Santoka Ramen or Information, but not both.
in Edgewater, NJ, from where we can catch the Mitsuwa shopping shuttle bus to the 42nd St. Bus terminal. Mitsuwa is a full size Japanese shopping mall - complete with a giant supermarket in which you can buy Japanese toothpaste as well as fermented squid guts - but it also means I am pretty well sure that my day starts with a bowl of ramen from Santoka, which is only one of about seven different restaurant window choices on offer. There is a place offering Japanese-Chinese rice plates (hamburger and gravy on rice! Gyoza dumplings! Omrice!.) Another does udon noodles, another does tonkatsu and fried food, yet another "Kaiseki" set menus. All around ten bucks, which makes the food court a major draw for Japanese families in the New York area on weekends. Not to mention the location: Mitsuwa's food court looks out over the Hudson onto the Manhattan skyline, which alone makes it one of the more stunning dining options in the metro area.
Best panorama view of NY City available for $7.00
Santoka is oneof the leading Ramen chains in Japan, and for Fumie perhaps the main draw is the side dish of a bowl of rice with a whopping helping of salmon roe dished on top - an extravagant luxury in Japan, but here in the USA it is treated like sprinkles on an ice cream cone.

Shio Ramen, spicy miso ramen, and salmon abortion on rice. 
After picking up a few (yes, there are quite a few) of the Japanese expat and local community newspapers at Mitsuwa Fumie decided to go for the trifecta: let's try all the high end ramen-ya in the area. Next stop: Setegaya Ramen in Fort Lee. Named after a Tokyo neighborhood, this is located across the street from our favorite Japanese coffee and pastry shop, a place where you can get green tea cake and cold spaghetti sandwiches. Setegaya is a tiny place that serves only ramen and gyoza, and for lunch everybody gets the combo of... ramen and gyoza.

Setegaya set lunch.
You can order the shio (salt broth) ramen, shoyu (soy) or miso broth ramen, as well as the tsukemen ramen - ramen where the broth and noodles are served separately and combined by the diner. A bit pricier than Santoka, but still cheaper than any New York ramen-ya. How do I know that? Because the next ramen-ya on the list was New York's upscale Ippudo Ramen. Ippudo has been wowing New York's yuppoisie with its ramen noodles specializing in... noodles that are not curley.

Mo' noods.
Basically, capellini in broth. And as a special added treat, you can get a second helping of noodles plopped into your bowl after you finish the first, if you wish. Go on, make your banker happy and order the extra noodles! It was good, but I don't do posh well. Here you had to take a number and wait for a seat and eventually we were taken upstairs to the semi-industrial extra dining bar above the main floor. Good noodles, but Fumie had to have the special steamed bun with pork belly "burger" ...

Present Holy grail of New York foodies.
And what's better, I get big boyfriend points for taking Fumie to a posh midtown eatery.The big news in ramen noodles this year is something that English speakers probably don't even know about. The new thing in Japan is... a new kind of ramen noodle that comes "fresh" but you can make it at home. The days of the old dried package of ramen, and the styrofoam cup'o'soup are numbered, and Fumie has been getting care packages of these new fangled ramen noodles sent from home. Not only that, but Japanese business visitors have taken to bringing packages of these along as gifts, knowing the delight that will light up the faces on their clients and tech help when they get these "nearly fresh" ramen noodles. And yes, they are pretty darn good.

Pork belly and spinach ramen. Home made. In Hungary.

Thursday, December 05, 2013

2013: The Year in Chinese Noodles

Fa La Shin
As we plow head-on into the last month of the year, it is time to take "stock" of the year in terms of Chinese noodle soups. Living in Budapest, we are often annoyed that we can not find a hot bowl of mein on every street corner, but that does not deter us. Budapest has Chinese noodle soup, in fact. And if you keep reading you will learn where. But first, the best of the bowls, the Annual Index of Chinese Noodle Soup. The Chinese noodle soup index is based on several factors, including but not limited to a) How many Chinese noodle soups did I eat this year. b) How many Chinese noodle soups were available in my general vicinity at any given point in the vast time/space continuum, which includes both New Jersey and Zugló, and c) Whether the noodle soup was prepared by a Chinese person skilled in the preparation of noodle soup. This last requirement addresses the need to differentiate between my beloved Chinese noodles in soup and other Asian noodles in soup, such as Vietnamese pho, Japanese ramen, and Uzbek laghman, all of which have graced the interior of my digestive system in 2013, and all of of which deserve their own separate posts. Now, it should be added that when I am traveling with my delightful and beloved better half, who is from Japan, we tend to eat a lot of noodle soup. I am going out on a limb right now and stating the obvious: I like Chinese noodles in soup best. She likes ramen. My soup rarely costs more than US$ 5.00, hers rarely cost less that US$ 10.00, mine will have chunks of meaty tendon and pig butt in it and hers has Japanese pink processed fish baloney floating in it. We are constantly constantly bickering over whether our next meal with be Chinese or Japanese, but we are both pretty sure it will be noodle soup of some Asian kind. The classic form is simple wonton noodle soup, as prepared at Wing Shook Chinese Seafood Restaurant (194 East Broadway in New York's Chinatown) the quasi dim sum place on the corner of Seward Park. Four bucks. 

Wing Shook at Seward Park
Like most Manhattan Chinatown noodle joints, this features the slightly crunchy Hong Kong style noodle with several hefty meat wontons floating in a very chicken-y broth (that I can never reproduce at home because I can't get the Chinese "blue-legged" chicken that is used for the stock) and some bok choy cabbage floating around in it to remind you to eat some vegetables. This kind of casual bowl o' noods is what keeps me going around New York City: a full blown meal for under five bucks. My favorite noodle joints had closed in the two years since I had last been to East Chinatown, but strolling around West (touristic) Chinatown I bumped into into Bo Ky on Bayard Street. Bo Ky is known as one of the cheapest places to eat in New York, and is something of an ethnographic answer to the charge that Cantonese people will eat anything that moves. They do, and it is on the menu at Bo Ky for under ten bucks. The last time we ate at Bo Ky, the waiter answered each of our menu choices with shakes of his head and  "Maybe you no like dat" which is almost a guarantee that I will like that. Today: pork bung soup.

Poop Soup
I love a restaurant that is not afraid to mince words, much less internal organs. It's hard enough to find any place outside of France brave enough to serve andouillette, an odorous but delicious poop shoot sausage, and the gentile French are never willing to expose the pig anus in all its glory in a bowl of clear broth and noodles, but there it is. Poop soup. Thick, chewy rounds of the business end of  a pig's large intestine. And yes, the entire table immediately took notice of the soup's strong aroma. A drummer buddy of mine used to tour in the road band of T-Bone Walker, the blues musician, across the southern "chiltlin circuit" of R&B bars during the 1980s. T-Bone would always go to the BBQ and steam table stands to order dinner. Pointing to the intestinal chitlins hanging above the BBQ smoke rack, he would select the biggest, fattest section and shout "Gimme that one there. The big one. Cause that's where da poo is made!" I should add that this was definitely one of the best bowl of noodles I had during 2013.

Bo Ky: $11 well spent. With soy braised pig foot.
Today, New York's largest and most interesting Chinese neighborhood is no longer in Manhatten, but out in Flushing, Queens. Its a forty minute ride on the subway, or you can find dozens of Chinese-run mini shuttle buses circling around the Manhattan Bridge on East Broadway. They usually have a sign in English saying "Flushing" but the bigger sign, in Chinese characters, reads as "Fa La Shin" So it was off to Fa La Shin we went. Flushing is going to get its own blog post sometimes in the winter. Its best to arrive early in the day and pace yourself as you eat your way through it. There are snack shops along the street and food malls serving amazing, cheap regional Chinese eats all over the place. A word of advice: if you do succumb to the noodle soup urge, you are finished. The noodles soups of flushing are not to be taken lightly.

Red Bowl
I found the Red Bowl offering Taiwanese beef noodle soup and made the mistake of ordering it: a huge bowl of steak and hand pulled noodles effectively ended my day of roaming and snacking. Closer to home, Budapest has a growing and successful community of Chinese immigrants, mostly engaged in the retail trade providing affordable shoes and underwear to virtually everybody in East Europe via the huge Four Tigers Chinese Market complex out in District VIII along Kőbányai ut. We have dealt with the food scene out here in previous posts, but this year we did discover a small Chinese lunch place in the new wholesale complex offering "Xian Specialties."

Tiny Place in Budapest Chinese Market
For a while, this led the pack for local Chinese noodle soups. And the Chinese Market is in danger of being shut down by the mayor of the Eighth District, Mate Kocsis, the mean spirited little simian who was behind the plan that made being homeless a criminal act in Budapest. For the time being the market stays, but for more convenient noodles we have the Eat Sense Chinese restaurant on the corner of Dózsa Győrgy and Damjanich utca next to the city park. Eat Sense (which probably inherited the name on the front sign board from one of its previous failed restaurant incarnations) is a multi function yet nondescript Chinese food place. It offers the usual steam table fare (syrupy sweet and sour pork, brownish fried spaghetti noodles) but does its main business as a hot pot restaurant, which is actually quite good. They also offer noodle soups. At FT 1000 a pop, these are a cheap way to get stuffed in relative proximity to downtown Budapest. The beef or seafood soup is nothing to crow about, but they are Chinese, and they are noodle soups.

Eat Sense Spicy Pork Noodles
I tried the spicy pork noodles, which arrived as a bowl of noodles and ground pork swimming in hot chile oil. I finished it, but maybe this was one dish where I really should have had a waiter come and tell me "Maybe you no like..." Still, biking home at night to Zugló it is nice to have a place for a nice, big, cheap bowl of beef noodle soup right on the edge of the city park. Other Chinese choices in Budapest are limited. The best Chinese place in Budapest is, of course, the nearby Mester Wang, but they did a renovation this summer and now their prices are rising, which is never a good sign in a Chinese restaurant. And the Lanzhou, which has not gone down the tubes as much as has been purported, still has good food although they never serve decent rice. And then there are the hot pot joints like Mimosa and Eat Sense.  "Kinai Büfé" which is popular among Hungarians mainly for being cheap: a mediocre plate of rice and meat for FT 500 will attract the universally cash strapped Magyars at every city corner.All the menus are the same, and the Chinese serving them usually have no background in cooking - the büfé networks are a stepping stone on the way to an EU resident permit. Most are so small they don't even cook in house - the pre-made slop is delivered from some central steam kitchen by truck.  Every time I go to one of the many "Kinai Büfé" in Budapest I always find myself asking "When will some enterprising Chinese guy with some sense of taste start to fiddle with the menu." This week, my prayers were met. Fumie saw an ad in one of the Chinese language newspapers you can pick up in the Chinese market for a new restaurant someplace out beyond the market on Kőbányai ut. We decided to go noodle hunting.
Dare to be Great, Orient Etterem!
Sure enough... at 43 Kőbányai ut, right across the street from the Északi Járműjavító stop on the Number 28 tram that rolls out of Blaha Lujza ter, we found it. The Orient Etterem, formerly a pizza place, seems to have entered a design competition for the most nondescript building in Budapest. It had all the marks of a classic "real" Chinese foodie find: small, absolutely empty, nobody who spoke anything but Chinese except one waitress who was Hungarian and could sort of communicate with the owner-chefs in a pidgin combination of both, and illustrated menus in Chinese only. This place showed promise!

I'll have that!
There was the usual steam table offering generic "Kinai Büfé" food, but`also huge scallion pancakes as well. But Fumie can read basic Chinese and the menu was illustrated, and almost nothing seemed familiar to either of us. Vaguely edible products seemed to have been sliced and arrayed on plates next to prices. This lack of anything familiar is what sets my appetite on edge. Remember: I once ate both raw sea squirts and live sea cucumber in a single sitting at a Korean restaurant...  so... beef noodles for her, and lamb noodles for me. 
Lamb: beware the bones
And yes, we were impressed. For one thing, the two soups came with hand pulled noodles, a bit bland and soft, but authentic and it showed the owners had some skill in the kitchen. The stocks were different as well... a lot of places only use one master stock for all their soups. And a small plate of Chinese salads was also home made and showed some sense of distinctiveness that may have come from somebody's Grandma's kitchen. Their specialty is noodles and dumplings: we bought a serving of 25 pork dumplings to go which were excellent in a "hey, I'm a dumpling" kind of way. 

The menu seems to offer more than just noodles and dumps, too. We'll go back someday with friends when we can point our way through more of the menu and maybe crank up the karaoke machine. All in all, 2013 has been a fine year in Chinese noodles.