Thursday, April 09, 2015

The Saddest Festival on Earth: Budapest's Unfresh Fish Festival.

"Why so sad, beef? Because carp meat is back!"

There are certain foods that Hungary does very well. Bacon, for instance, or anything that comes off a pig, for that matter. Sour cabbage is a major food group. They do amazing things with poppy seeds -  Hungary is a paradise for anybody who desperately wants to fail a urine test. But there is one area that is, arguably,  not the Magyar culinary strong point. Fish. Hungarians are not big fish eaters. Hungary has never had a sea coast (OK... it controlled a bit of one once but that didn't make them fish eaters - it made the Istrians fish eaters.) Maybe Hungarians were big fish fans back in the old Uralic days when they spoke something close to Mansi and called three fish “holom hol” but then they discovered pig protein and became Invincible Masters of Pork and once they got their hands on paprika they have never looked back. 


Those lemon slices should help dissolve the bones.
Hungarians are big on fish enjoyment, true, but the main source of fish here is carp, usually eaten at home on Christmas Eve. Nothing wrong with that… if you eat carp. In fact, most Hungarians find the flavor of salt water fish strange and oddly dry and prefer the fresh water standards that they can get from the Danube and the lakes of Pannonia. 


But the downside is that most people don’t cook fish more than once a year, and that recipe consists of boiling a carp into oblivion in enough paprika to mask the fact that the sludge in your soup bowl is, in fact, a boiled carp. Now, I would not normally use this space to … ahem… carp about bad food, but we went to an event billed as the “Hungarian Fish Festival” in February at the Budapest city park. We went hungry, eager to see if the trout farms and EU supported aquaculture industry would be out there to tempt us with their best, freshest product. Not a chance. It was a nightmare of bad food, poorly prepared, showcasing the worst of a cuisine gasping for respectability in an area it has no experience with. Sure, you can argue "try it, you might like it" but some foods have traditions built into them, and you don't stray. New England clam chowder anybody? With "mussels and crab and smoked salmon"?

Boston clam chowder with mussels, crab and "extra salmon"?
Hungary has been going through a “foodie” craze of late, with TV shows aping all the latest western celebrity chef shows and a booming growth in “street food” yards, because, you know... street food. Ersatz burger, taco, and pho joints opening up offering unrecognizable gleet that would never inspire nostalgia in a Jersey burger craver, a Mexican on a pulque binge, or a Viet hungry for soup. Fine. If it will feed the tourists and drunks it can survive. 

Fish kolbasz! The flavor treat of the future! 
But the Fish festival was a promotional effort for a fish cuisine that just… isn’t. One trend in the Hungarian foodie circuit these days is to produce “traditional” foods that were often invented last week. There are the "Hungarian pizza" stands. There is the "lepeny" stands offering "Hungarian burritos. These are just sad. Hungary has a lot of old style foods that are or were sold at fairs and markets for on the go eating. Langos. Sausage. Fried fish. We know this because… ahem… some of us are not tourists and perhaps we actually like traditional Hungarian dishes. 

Balaton fish and sour cabbage... 
“Fish cabbage” is one such case: a paprika-laced sour cabbage dish – sort of a Frankenstein version of the original recipe made with pork as “Székely kaposzta” – but using carp in place of meat. I have lots of Hungarian cookbooks, including a cookbook of recipes from one of Hungary’s poorest regions, the Nyirség in the northeast, which includes recipes for survival foods like stewed minnows and crow stew. Not a single mention of “fish cabbage” in it. And it says "Balaton fish cabbage"... as if anybody living near lake Balaton would choose to make this into a winter cabbage dish instead of the usual dishes prepared in the main Transdanubian source of fresh fish. There is no heritage like fake heritage! Herman Ottó was a Hungarian naturalist – and one of my favorite writers in the Hungarian language – who wrote reams about fish and fishing in Hungarian folk culture in the last century… and he never mentions any fish dish using cabbage. But wait.. it gets worse… much worse. Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you the carp sausage. 

Carp carp carp carp... and carp. 
This is the culinary equivalent of genocide, an act so unacceptable as to be an outrage against the idea of eating as a means of life. Basically, it is a carp – a soft fleshed, fatty fish with armor scales and a habit of eating the eggs of any other fish it finds and noted for its multiple rows of small floating Y-shaped bones that defy filleting – ground into a paste and mixed with paprika and stuffed into a natural sausage casing. So, yes, it looks like a sausage. But it is carp. Vendors were selling these everywhere. No, I did not try one. And I truly doubt that any of the vendors dared to either.  What is interesting is that until this year, I had never seen one of these sausage chimeras for sale anywhere. And my guess is that after this year I will never see one again. Carp in a tube. Think about that. This is one we saw abandoned at a picnic table after its purchaser suffered through one single agonizing bite. 


This is, perhaps, the saddest food picture I have ever taken. We were visiting on a Sunday afternoon, which meant that a lot of the fish was being sold at reduced prices… but that is to say it wasn't exactly the freshest of fish. I really wanted to try something, I actually skipped lunch to save my appetite for the festival… but I simply could not. I watched one “chef” prepare the catfish stew – which is a favorite of both my Mother and I - big chunks of giant wels catfish in a paprikás sauce served over cheesy noodles. If I see this in a restaurant I almost always order it. However... today it was an unattractive primordial mess.

Harcsapaprikás of my nightmarish dreams.
The Chef-like Guy working the Festival franchise booth dumped a tray of pre-cooked catfish chunks in a rustic looking pan, opened up a five gallon jug of orange-ish sauce and dumped that on top, stirred it around to take the chill out of it, and presto: instant culinary heritage! No, I simply could not make myself order a plate. This was food served on an industrial scale, with no love at all - food to milk the tourist forint. This is not food I would want to eat. The fried fish? Nope. Most of the fish looked so dull – eyed and dried out it could have been five or six days old. I'm a sport fisherman. I cook a lot of fish. I was raised next to the Atlantic ocean, and Fumie is from Tokyo: we know what fresh fish looks like.


Bullhead, horned pout... an invasive American species in Europe. Eat 'em!
It doesn't look like this. This was one food festival where I went home hungry. If you want to try Hungarian fish dishes, there are great restaurants that specialize in fish: try the Aranyhal in Zuglo or the Horgasztanya in Buda. If you are ever in the Hungarian countryside, say in Szeged or Paks do not miss a bowl of the fish soup – even declared enemies of the carp such as myself surrender to the paprika camouflage. But in Hungary if fish and tourists show up in the same space… wait until you can order a veal schnitzel. If it is a beef goulash or pork stew on offer, by all means - the ones  at festivals are great. Those are something that any Hungarian with the least experience in the kitchen can shine at. But stay away from the fish. For the love of God, stay away from the fish. 


And thus I again successfully manage to post something that does not reflect on the horrific levels of corruption, incompetence, and cynicism that permeated Hungarian politics this week!

50 comments:

Anonymous said...

Sorry to say that but Hungary!=Budapest. If u just visit Budapest to try Hungary u can't see any real thing only some shows for the foreign peeps. As u started by historycal/geo reasons Hungary is not a real fish eater nation. Yes this is true. fyi: If there is no too much fish very hard to eat them :-) Very easy logic... If u really want to taste real hungarian halászlé try to check for example the festival in Baja. But first of all need to decide which type of halászlé do u wanna try. (szegedi or bajai version etc...) And fyi there are such a region of Hungary where the peeps eat fish more than once in a year. For example if u ever try to find the company which delivers the most carp for the big markets in Hungary u found the area where u can start. In that region the peeps eating fish by every week... Wow. Just some minutes or do u believe what u can't find via google especially not in english that things is doesn't exist? :-P Try to check some halászcsárda outside of Budapest and don't be panic if u loose 4G on your handy ;-))) Sorry to say that this was a very narrow-minded description about a crap festival. But what do u expect from your chair? Especially if u can't speak the native language and don't spend time to find the right places this will be very poor like when somebody try to write a book about us pees after he watched the Friends series... ROTFLMAO

Anonymous said...

Anon #1, you need to perfect your English and/or basic comprehension skills: you managed to completely misunderstand this post. And no, I'm not going to explain; I see no point. Regards, Zokni

Anonymous said...

"Regards, Zokni"

U made my day!:D

Anonymous said...

totally true, and as a hungarian i must say that i've always been hated fresh water fish. btw, have you been there? http://www.thebigfish.hu/ (no im not the owner and i dont belong to the staff either)

dumneazu said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
dumneazu said...

We walked into the Bigfish once. They display their fish right out front, so look at the whole fish and ask yourself if they look fresh. We chose not to eat there. the Troya Turkish market on Nepszinhaz used to stock fresh fish on Thursday but seems to sell out within a day or two. . The Italian deli on Damjanich now gets reasonably priced fresh fish on Fridays:

olasz eredetű termékek boltja - Punto Italia
Budapest H-1071
Damjanich u. 45.
+36 1 321-5789

https://www.facebook.com/punto.italia.9

Anonymous said...

" I have lots of Hungarian cookbooks, including a cookbook of recipes from one of Hungary’s poorest regions, the Nyirség in the northeast, which includes recipes for survival foods like stewed minnows and crow stew. Not a single mention of “fish cabbage” in it." - the dish called káposztás csík or csík káposztával,this dish was cooked with european weatherfish (misgurnus fossilis).

Anonymous said...

That carp sausage looks like a belated April Fool's prank.

Anonymous said...

I live in the northeast... CROW STEW? Are you joking? It's disgusting. I have never heard about it.

Anonymous said...

I live in the northeast... CROW STEW? Are you joking? It's disgusting. I have never heard about it.

Anonymous said...

Well, it was interesting. Even for me most of this food is completely unknown/strange.
However I have to oppose with your opinion about the Hungrian fish tradition. That have been, but after the enviromental change of the Carpathian Basin from a swampy to dry and involved several invasions, the cuisne radically changed. E.g. the pork popularity has grown just because during the ottoman invasion the muslims ate up everything but pork. So there _was_ fish eating culture, just by regulating the rivers the fishermen have lost their job, thus forgot the skills.

dumneazu said...

Crow Soup? page 53: Varjuleves from Makay Béla: Szabadtűzön: Receptek a Felső-Tisza vidékéról Mezőgazdasági Kiadó 1984

András Luko said...

Keep it up mate! :)

What is smells like a dog food, looks like a dog food, tastes like a dog food, that's certanly dog food. Even if they call it: "Vörösboros, paprikás Pontykolbász vecsési káposztával"

Anonymous said...

I'm a Hungarian. All through my childhood I was continuously ridiculed because I hated fish, in particular our fish soup, but also our fatty "carp schnitzel".

Then I went to Japan and started eating saltwater fish, even prepared simply (I'm talking about complex recipes like "grill with salt" or "fry on a touch of butter"), and they were delicious. And I realized, "Wow, THIS is fish." And I love almost all seafood, really. OK, maybe not raw oysters.

But I still hate our own fish soup with a passion. (I have been in the army, I can eat anything, even boiled belts, I can force down the fish soup without giving it back but still don't like it at all. Maybe with enough paprika... :-))

Zoltan Jarmy said...

I am sorry to hear about your "adventure". You should avoid those food festivals next time and try something home made (not in a restaurant).
Honestly I seldom eat fish, because I don't like the muddy taste of the freshwater fish...so I am not an expert of the Hungarian fish dishes.
You should really try one of my favourite dish, the Bean Soup ala Jókai (if you haven't had it so far).

I suppose crow stew was an ethnic "survival" food as you said. I live in Zemplén, which is not too far from the Nyírség and I have never heard any food made from crow.

Lord M said...

It was fun to read - and nodded a few times :) Fish is not our strongest... Halászlé, harcsapaprikás túróscsuszával.... and fried fish... but that's it... of course there are some variations all around the country - but apart from the three above a very few can name another one.
But thanks for noting the good ones we can offer, székelykáposzta, gulyás, paprikások, pörköltek... (good luck pronouncing them :) ) - so yeah, if you want to visit Hungary try these one... and a good Halászlé... if you don't mind gaining a few pounds :)


about the crow soup : there are small areas and certain group of people who call them "black chicken" ...

Thanks for the post, stay away from weird fish dish... and enjoy the rest :)

lumix lomo said...

We live 80-100km far from budapest, Szolnok area, Tisza and zagyva rivers nerby.
We eat almost twice a week fish, mostly jászkeszeg (Leuciscus idus) it has a little yellowed (mustard yellow) meat, over 40cm,
dévérkeszeg (Abramis brama) - very whitened clear meat - and I prefer size over 50cm - I drop smaller ones back
and of course carps, over 40cm size
And kárász (Carassius carassius) over 30-40cm

Of course we eat Csuka (Esox lucius) and Süllő (Sander lucioperca) if we catch some, but mostly the above listed ones.

We fry them on very slow fire/heat and _only_ in pig fat. (we use flour with some paprika, or schnitzel)

And yes, we have one main type fish soup (as above somebody said it has some sub types, but the main seasoning is the same)

Of course we would prefer to have seas, and rab out all the fishes from there, especially the ones what have no small bones in their bodies.
We have no luck with fish thieves, who shockes the rivers with electricity, and leaving us nothing.

Hungary has 3 seas long time ago, and before trianon, much more than slovenia now

Anonymous said...

Just for the records: you can eat choucroute aux poissons (sour cabbage with fish) as a dish of Alsace (they also prepare it at the French Carribbean). I ve never heard of anything similar as a Hungarian Dish though I dont consider myself completely ignorant in the field of gastronomy.

Also, there used to be an extremely rich culture of eating sweet water fishes (and crabs) in Hungary that disappeared during the socialist era (dissappearance of waters rich in fishes, socialist fishery etc.).

Gazz said...

"Bullhead, horned pout"... well... I think those are not dwarf catfish which is an american invasive species in deed but "African catfish" which is actually a kind of mullet and comes from Turkey and lives only in temperated water.

Anonymous said...

I love fish and seafood in general but I came to like it not in my native Hungary but in the US when I realized that you can enjoy things like tuna or shrimp without worrying about the fish bones all the time... I try to avoid carp as much as possible, because it is simply not tasty and full of fishbones. But if you want to taste something that is both delicious and traditionally Hungarian, go to Szilvásvárad in the northeast of Hungary (north of Eger in the Bükk region) where they both farm and roast a local variety of trout. That is simply brilliant!

Anonymous said...

"Why so sad, beef? Because carp meat is back!"

I think the original idea was that the cattle should be happy because people can eat carp. Instead of them... right?

Anonymous said...

Well, Aranyhal in Zugló... kind of tragedy, not a big fish restaurant.

The other mistake is the part on goulash and stew - in festivals as well they are between terrible and just edible, very far from good.
(The best ones were cooked in the Hungarian army, in every barracks, I don't know how they did and what recipe they used.)
And cooking it is not at all so simple to have a good result.

However, congratulations to the style and knowing Hungarian food so well - for a minute I thought you are just a Hungarian who speaks English very well.

Anonymous said...

Anon#1.:
First try to learn English at least at elementary level before trying to go in slang. This way you are pretty ridiculous.

Anon#4:
"i've always been hated fresh water fish" - huh, that terrible parfect tenses and passive voice... tell us, why those fish hated you?

crow stew - heard you or not, it is a traditional food there, and it is tasty (I tried); made from young ones, just as pigeon dishes

lumix lomo:
"Hungary has 3 seas long time ago" - wellllll... not. Legend.

Anonymous said...

I wonder why does an Englishman/American living in and writing about Hungary uses a Rumanian nick (dumneazu = my lord = uram).

Please not to misunderstand me, I have no problem with the Rumanians, all I met were good guys/chicks, just as Russians I met (maybe I am lucky) - but most of Hungarians have adverse feelings to Rumanians (and not only extreme right wings).

So no offense, just wondering.

Anonymous said...

My grandparents lived in Tiszaeszlár. One day when I was little I went for a walk with my father. We found young crows sitting in their nest. They had probably a few days before they could have flown out. They did not have such luck: my father climbed the tree, scared them out and I caught them on the ground. My grandma then cooked them. Best food ever. :)

Tomas said...

Dear writer! The basics at your article was right, mostly hungarians eat fish at christmas (except those whose hobby is fishing), i reccomend you my 2 favourite fish restaurant at the country, i hope one day you can visit them when you are at the neighbourhood: If you want to eat (or want to catch) fishes from lakes: http://www.halascsarda.hu/en and if you want to eat troat from stream (you can cook it your own at the forest from spring-autumn in here: http://pisztrangtelep.hu/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=27 or you can eat at the restaurant not far from that place in Alsóhámor Vadas Jenő street 6 at Molnar Csárda... But your view is right, we it lesser fish than people who lives near the sea. In old times we ate more, not becouse of that we had sea extrance but becouse we got more fish than now (before the river regulations: Beluga for example: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Beluga_(sturgeon)

Anonymous said...

Tökre kár, hogy itt élve nem tudtál semmit meg a magyar ételekről, Ha olyan akarnék lenni mint te, akkor csak a hot-dog és a hamburger jelenne meg, mert rátok meg az jellemező. Hogy a mákkal mi a bajod azt nem tudjuk, azt hogy ti csak elszívni meg szippantani akartok mindent, az tényleg beteges, de jó lenne tisztába tenni azt is, hogy a mák másik fajtáját használja a gyógyszeripar és mást étkezési célra a magyar ember. A mák egy kitűnő ételalapanyag, de ti inkább csak az állandó drogozáson járatjátok az eszeteket, mert hát ilyen nép vagytok. ha nem ilyenek lennétek, akkor nem is finanszíroznátok a kis állami üzleteiteket az afgán és pakisztáni máktermésekből. Ha nem lenne annyi nemzetiség amerikában, akkor valószínűleg nem is lennél képes arról írni, hogy milyen sok különböző étel van, ami csak szerintetek egészséges, mert nem is ismertek mást. ha csak rajtad múlna, akkor maradna a müzli, popcorn, hot-dog, hamburger csapat és dagadnál mint a texas-i haverjaid a zsírtól.
Érdemes lenne a csak szar dolgokat a saját hazád háza tájáról is kiposztolni, mert ott sokkal több van.

Anonymous said...

Komám! Van egy amerikai egyetem a PIUC (Pallaus International University and College) , ott magyarul is tanítanak vendéglátást. Javaslom iratkozz be és tanuld meg a konyhaművészeteket és attól bölcsebb leszel. Vicces amiket írtál, de hidd el, ennél sokkal szélesebb a magyar konyha...

Anonymous said...

I live in Szeged (I originated from the region of South Danube, and I like both versions of fish soup). Whenever we invited foreigner guests, it was no question: they always wanted to eat fish soup, and at the next visits again and again. So, I am sure they like it. But, there is an important rule: never eat fish soup in other regions of Hungary (in Baja-Mohács and in Szeged only)! Because in this cities the restaurants competes for reputation of the "best fish food"...

Anonymous said...

in the same book you can find some "fish cabbage" recipe

Anonymous said...

A mákkal nincs baja, csak neked sincs fogalmad arról miről beszélsz. Egyrészt a közép-európaiakon és indiaiakon kívül nagy mennyiségben tényleg senki nem fogyasztja (maximum péksütemények tetején díszítésként), másrészt valóban lebuksz egy vizeletteszten ópiátszármazékokkal egy tál mákos tészta vagy pár szelet bejgli után. A világ igen jelentős részén törvényileg tiltva van a mákfogyasztás ( az egész arab világban).

Nem tudom honnan szedted ezt a hülyeséget, hogy a gyógyszeripar más mák alfajt használ, mert ez nincs így. Nem a mákszemekből, hanem az éretlen növények tejnedvéből vonják ki az alkaloidákat, de ettől persze a szemekbe is jut még bőven.

Az amerikaizásod is kb. ennyire vehető komolyan, a szerző pont azt demonstrálta, hogy nem a fejedben létező sztereotipizált, hotdog és burgerzabáló két lábon járó képregény.

Andrew G Fahy said...

Worthless writing, inaccurate content. Any Hungarians can raise dozen of counterexamples. Only to mislead non-Hungarians.

Anonymous said...

You're still sounds like ridiculous, no worries.

Anonymous said...

By the way, you're quite right, hungarians are not a big fish eaters. Thanks god, i hate fish anyway.
But, to see that an american blaming us about traditional food, that's just simply hilarious. :D What the f...? An american? Really?
God bless us

Anonymous said...

Funny thing about the "blame" thing - the author doesn't do any of it. Also, who's "us"? I didn't feel "targeted" at all.

Might want to check out the rest of the blog. This guy seems to have lived here for over 20 years.

Anonymous said...

Well Hungary is not known worldwide for its delicious cuisine... I love Hungary, but the food still needs a huge improvement to even consider ever using the word gastronomy... (come on, they boil Easter ham for crying out loud!)

Anonymous said...

Dilettant

Anonymous said...

WTF you talking about? Hungary is well know for its cuisine, you must be a Romanian...

Anonymous said...

Well, quite true. As a Hungarian, I do like fish, just it hardly comes to me before Christmas that fish is an option. When our Finnish brothers and we parted, they took the know-how of preparing fish, while we kept the cauldron. Anyway, fish in Hungary was fasting food in the old days, and mostly is fast food today, so bad taste may even be obligatory… :-) More seriously, to eat good fish dishes you need to go to the southern parts of the country, and not to festivals in the capital. A few centuries ago, before large-scale flood-protection, big chunks of the Great Plain were marshlands, and fish was abundant. Some related traditions survived, but not many. Today most fish on the market comes from industrial fishponds and tastes like puddle water. And carp sausage… oh my good Lord Jesus, the very idea! However, I encourage everybody to try a genuine fish soup along the Tisza, made of a _mixture_ of freshwater fishes and not of ditch-water carp. Some paprika is essential, but beware, a too spicy soup probably hides poor ingredients. A good fish soup should entertain your taste buds, not solder them on the spoon.

Anonymous said...

Epic! I grew up near the lake Balaton, nevertheless I've never heard about this nightmarish "Balaton-style fisch cabbage".

Anonymous said...

"Nem tudsz te semmit," (G. R. R. Martin)

Anonymous said...

Wow live by the duna or tisza you could always have fresh fish. Just have to do the fishing.

Anonymous said...

Ja, Nepálban nem kértünk tengeri kagylót az étteremben... Persze a Red Lobster éttermi hálózatról jobbakat lehetne írni...

Anonymous said...

Man I feel your pain, it took me years living away from Hungary to realize that carp is as far from proper saltwater fish as should I say Mako from Jerusalem...

Attilajukkaja said...

My favorite place for Hungarian fish soup: https://www.facebook.com/revcsarda.ersekcsanaddunapart
It's a must if you happen to be nearby Baja!

Anonymous said...

You just made my day with this post. Awesome.
I knew that I have some serious issues with the habit of eating Halászlé once a year at Christmass Eve but I couldn't express it so accurately.

Attilajukkaja said...

And I almost forgot about the delicious smoked or grilled trout at Szilvasvarad, Szalajka Valley:
http://www.tripadvisor.com/Restaurant_Review-g1586908-d2352612-Reviews-Csobogo_Etterem-Szilvasvarad_Heves_County_Northern_Hungary.html

Anonymous said...

Hey! Foods like Balaton-style fisch cabbage or Carp sausage just dont exist, dont let them fool you :D
My grandma lives in Borsod, Bodrogköz (betweent the rivers Tisza and Bodrog) and peaple do eat a lot of fish there. She has her favourite fisherman whose fishes are always fresh and her sült hal with fresh dill is just heavenly - and i dont think she has ever touched carp. Grandpa often made his beautiful halászlé in bogrács, in the garden - miss it. Please, take your time and move out from the bigcity :)

Black Lau said...
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Black Lau said...
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