Sunday, January 27, 2008

Mamaliga Cures Winter Blues.

Coming home to Budapest in the middle of a perfectly rotten January - howling winds, rain, grey days - has led to a drop in my blog posts, not to mention the horrible cold-turkey withdrawal symptoms that come with lack of access to cheap Fukien Chinese and Korean food. This week I had the pleasure of heading out to Obuda to do some studio editing on a track our band recorded for an upcoming CD compilation... Obuda used to be a picture perfect urban village, full of funky old shops and garden restaurants.Nowadays it looks like this.The largest single residential housing unit in the world, built by the East Germans in the early 1970s when the city of budapest decided that the Schvab garden resturants with their fish soups and shramli bands had to go to be replaced with cheap worker's housing.Of course, this being Budapest even the drabbest parts of town have their eye-popping surprise features. How about some Roman ruins, such as these at Florian ter, just across the way from the East German Mega-Residence.Winter shopping in Hungary means... cabbages and meat. I had to make some dinner this week and went into Moldavian Jew default mode: mamaliga with mushrooms. Mamaliga is the cornmeal porridge eaten by most of rural Romania at any given meal, usually served in a big iron cauldron accompanied by a bottle of tsuica, like this one in Maramures...There is no better winter food. Perhaps no better food in general, unless you are Asian (... japanese?...) and like rice. As for me, mamaliga is cheaper than mashed potatoes, faster to prepare, and goes better with cheese or mushrooms. My father was raised eating mamaliga mit kas un piter, (Yiddish: with cheese and butter) cooked by my Grandmother who was from Teleneshti in Bessarabia. When I am home I like to cook it up for him...As for myself, I peeked into the pantry and found the needed ingredieants. Cornmeal, fresh mushrooms, and some dried wild mushrooms I brought from the Hackensack Costco in the US. Usually I get my wild mushrooms from my Moldavian folk music buddies here in Budapest, who are all fanatic - and well trained - mushroom hunters. If they can eat them and live, then so can I. Otheriwse, Costoco sells these huge towering plastic conatiners of dried morels, pocinis, and chanterelles for peanuts comapered to their fair marlet price so I brought home a jar.Mamaliga is a lot coarser than Italian polenta. Polenta actually makes me gag. It's way too fine and baby-foodish. Go for the coarse ground corn meal, boil it up in some salted water with a bit of butter, and then after fifteen minutes pour it out into a concave soup plate greased with some butter and perhaps cheese - in this case Slovak sheep bryndza. After twenty minutes of cooling you can invert it onto a flat serving plate.We made ours with sauted mushrooms - sliced fresh champignon mushrooms, a bit of soaked wild mushrooms and their soaking juice. Made a flour and oil roux to what the Cajuns would call a "dark peanut butter roux" and added the shrooms, seasoned with black pepper and a slight hint of nutmeg. Heaven on a plate. In early February Fumie and I are taking advantage of a special sale she found on the Whizz Air website to fly to Milan to visit our friend Igor... for free. All we pay is airport taxes and we're in the fashion capital of Italy - during February sale month - where the local food tradition is the happy hour. Milanese bars and restaurants set out huge buffet tables at around five in the afternoon where for the mere price of a drink - usually a glass of wine or a beer - you can pig out. Apparently this used to mean a small snack, perhaps some pizza or cold cuts, but soon grew with typically Milanese extravagance to a situation where some places put out ten different pasta dishes and a salad and antipasto spread that would put Babbo's out of business. So, yes, polenta... pehaps. We will be documenting the places we hit, and we have been known to hit three or four in an evening. But until then, winter means mamaliga.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Four Tigers Chinese Market, Budapest

We are back in Budapest during one of the greyest, most unphotogenic winters in memory. The nation is undergoing National Hangover Month. January in Hungary seems to be when everybody who has survived the holiday season is on a temporary teetotaling regime, at least until February arrives with the promise of farsang, or Carnival, which means a long weekend of midwinter revels. As for me, I am enduring a difficult period of withdrawal from good cheap chinese food. After a couple of months in New York gorging on low cost dim sum and korean treats, I am now going cold-turkey on my favorite cuisine. Now that I have established, beyond doubt, that I like cheap chinese food my options are basically to either make it myself or to hoof it over to the Four Tigers Chinese Market in Pest.The Four Tigers Market, alias the Jozsefvarosi Kinái Piac is a sprawling complex of shacks and warehouses located in Budapest's eighth district(tram 28 from Blaha Lujza ter, entrances at Kőbányai Út 31 or Kőbányai 21 stops.) where hundreds of Chinese family businesses busy themselves with the daily wholesale and retail grind of providing cheap underwear, plastic shoes, tacky bed sheets, and crap fishing tackle to the hungry consumers of east Europe. Snuggled up next to the railroad tracks behind Keleti Station, the market is a teeming city comprised of shipping containers and tin shacks populated by emigres from China, Viet Nam, and various dodgy Central Asian locations to boot. Most of the Chinese come from around Beijing or other northen regions, such as Lang Zhou. And they gotta eat.There are lunch stands located all through the market, but the best are the ones in the back of the market, directly behind the middle entrance off of Kobanyai ut. Just enter the gate and march beyond the "used" cell phone vendors and the chinese lunch stands near the entrance to the row of shipping containers in the back of the market. Yes, it looks dangerously unhygenic, and yes, you have to eat outside from grungy picnic tables, but it is good, cheap, and authentic. So what if they chop meat on carboard laid out on the ground? They do that in Sinkiang as well.There are a couple of Vietnamese stands here which serve pho, our favorite rice noodle soup, not to mention specialties such as summer roll (in season) and iced Vietnamese coffee. But the usual drill is to simply peruse the stands until you see something you like, and then order the rice plate. This means you get a load of rice, and then start pointing at all the offerings that you want piled on top of the rice, they charge the same Ft 600 per plate regardless of how much is piled on. There is no menu, there are no single dishes to order unless you want a soup, noodle dish or dumplings - in which case it helps to know the name of your desired dish in Chinese or Vietnamese. Oddly enough, many of the temporary Romanian and Hungarian laborers here do, in fact, know how to order in Chinese and Vietnamese. For the rest of us, point and nod.The basic rice plate: bit of spicy chicken, some pork ribs, some pork belly, stir fried vegetables, steamed cgreen vegetables, and in my case probably a bit of crunchy sliced pork ear hidden into the mix. Usually a fried hardboiled egg is in there, and maybe a bit of fried sardine.Pepper, vineagr, and garlic sauce to keep things happy. This is best in soup, but there is usually some straight hot pepper paste around as well, and always a squeeze bottle of Sriracha sauce.The Dumpling Lady. The northern Chinese like dumplings - shiu-jao - and this woman has had the dumpling market cornered for several years. At Ft 500 a plate of ten, they keep the market warm and fed in the cold season. Best eaten with a dipping sauce of black vinegar and hot sauce. There are also spicy noodles and cold noodles in the summer.Right next to the noodle lady is a stand selling Asian vegetables and basic Chinese groceries, but I couldn't take a photo because the nice noodle stand people warned me off of trying. Big nasty looking Hungarian paramilitary security guards are happy to confiscate your camera. There is a strict policy of no photography allowed in the Four Tigers Market, which possibly dates back to its rough reputation in the Wild East Years of the 1990s, when the operation of the market was wrested from a shady mafiod Hungarian security guard company by a former Hungarian Minister of the Interior using Hungarian Army commandos. Subsequently, said Minister retired to operate the market himself as a sort of profitable private fiefdom, free of annoyances such as federal tax and customs investigators and - happily for us - local restaurant inspectors. Today the operation of the market is somewhat more legit, but the rules remain, as seen in the picture below showing the entrance gate to the market. No dogs, no cameras, no guns, and no video. And they mean it.The photos I have here were all taken surreptitiously... I don't suggest that anybody visiting the market try to take photos in a manner that will get your camera confiscated. And, in any case, we usually get our chinese vegetables across the street at any of the grocery vans parked along Kőbányai ut or at the Rong rong market, directly across the street from the market's main entrance.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

International Food Warehouse and Liquidators, Lodi, New Jersey.

Well, I am now back in Budapest, but in order to transport my cargo of chipotle peppers, salted codfish, wakame seaweed, and industrial amounts of El Yucateco Kutbil-Ik Mayan Hot Sauce back to my flat in Zuglo, I needed an extra duffle bag. No problem, when you need something cheap in Jersey, you head to Lodi. On Route 17 is the International Liquidators and Food Warehouse, a megashop like no other. Basically, when some retail giant someplace on the planet goes belly up, the orphaned merchandise winds up here. It's worth a visit if you are ever cruising Route 17 - just across the road is the charmingly sleazy Satin Dolls topless bar, which was rented out to the producers of the Sopranos TV series for several years as the site of the Bada Bing Club.The International food section is constantly changing - you will always find something odd or special here, like an entire aisle of Macedonian pepper sauces and pickles. As far as Hungarian products were concerned, there were only these few, sad jars of garlic paste. Due to the unstable nature of the middle east, there always seems to be knock-down sales on halal products. How about a can of cow?But the real reson to go bargain hunting in Lodi is the Indian Chef buffet located inside the market itself. Since the Warehouse seems to be owned and operated by folks from India and their relatives, the lunch options are limited to some of the finest, cheap Indian food available in the New York Area. The dining area may be a bit improvised, but the food is not.The curry station offers versions of chicken, lamb, and vegetable curries alongside old standards such as cauliflower and potato aloo gobi. The chicken and rice biryani here was one of the most pricey items, at $7.95, but the server kept packing our take out order into a container as if trying to see just how much biryani he could fit into one aluminium take-out plate. It actually served three of us, for dinner.But the best surprise is the dosa man. Somehow they have scoured the subcontinent to find the most serious and dedicated maker of fermented rice and lentil pancakes and bring him to an industrial sector of Lodi, New Jersey. some of North America's crispiest and most authentic south indian meals are served about 100 meters away from the Bada Bing Club.I ordered the classic masala dosa, filled with curried potato. These dosas are slow food. An order takes about twenty minutes to fix up, and the wait is worth it. They also serve other rice based specialties from Karnataka cuisne of southern India, such as idlis, smaller thick rice panckes.Finished dosa, hot and crispy, served with two types of mild chutney sauce and a spicy bowl of sambar for dipping. I have never been able to finish off one of these, and at $5.95, it's a bargain indeed. Tamil cuisine has traditionally been overwhelmingly vegetarian, but honestly, it may be the only vegetarian cuisine that I can imagine eating for any length of time.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Last Minute Shopping in Either Seoul or New Jersey, We Are Not Sure Which.

Today was last minute shopping before we head back to Budapest. Fumie is leaving tomorrow, I go on Thursday - we booked our trips at different times when I was planning to be on tour with Yale's Band, and so we fly separately. But first, a trip back to the Soft Tofu Korean restaurant in Ft. Lee. Seafood tofu soup was in fine form, and we ordered the kalbi grilled marinated short ribs, based on the rave reviews Fumie had seen in a local Japanese language blog about the place. These were the best kalbi we have met with so far.After coffee at the Parisienne Japanese bakery and cafe in Ft. Lee, we headed down to Palisades Park. Fumie loved being in New York's Chinatown because the vibe made her feel she was traveling in Asia again. Here we felt we were visiting Korea. Palisades Park is about as close as you can get to the suburbs of Seoul. It was a beautiful day to be outside - 18 degrees (that's 65 Farenheit for you Yanks) and I was warm just wearing a sweatshirt. That neither-here-nor-there globalistic feeling definately strikes you when you enter the Han Ah Reum shopping mall. This is one of my favorite places in New Jersey, because Jersey has always attracted immigrant cultures, and there have always been some Jersey ethnic version of the giant market like we have at home, whether it was Polish, German, Chinese or - as now - Korean. Fumie picking up a few last minute items before heading home - a lot of Japanese food is identical to Korean food, so for konyaku and seaweed, we were set... The Japanese actually have a secret craving for Korean food, since so many Koreans were brought to Japan as labor when Japan occupied Korea. They love the bold flavors, they secretly yearn for the hot pepper and garlic in rude doses, and kimchee has taken hold in Japan in the way that Indian curries have supplanted most of traditional English food in Great Britain. I am going to miss kimchee and banchan back in Central Europe, so I guess the only thing left to do is learn to make my own. There is Mr. Park's Korean specialty store, but it relocated to the far off and exclusive Rozsadomb section of Buda so we almost never get there. It takes time to get used to Korean food, but when you cross the border line, there is no going back. It is one of the most addictive cuisines in the world.We may not have thousands of Korean markets in Hungary, but we have hot peppers and we have chinese cabbages, not to mention air-born bacteria so it is only a matter of time before I learn to rot them all together and call it dinner. Still... this may look like a lot of kimchee but after careful experiementation I can attest that one bag of this would only last about three days in our kitchen. Fumie was surprised at her own kimchee consuption rate, about one half kimchee cabbage a day. Of course, we are living in the center of North America's kimchee zone, so it is never a problem replenishing the stock....Some things you can't fake at home. Walking around a Korean megamarket makes me think back to the days of my childhood when I would never dream that people would eat fermented squid or fish guts with a straight face. Now I find myself wondering how I will be able to go without the stuff.
Maybe I can smuggle in some manila clams and seed the danube with them and produce igazi magyar clams... or perhaps not. Clams are not something that would amuse Hungarians, especially when they learn that we eat them still living on the half shell. Oh well, more for me!

Monday, January 07, 2008

Pork-Eating Jew Meets Chicken-Eating Jew. Jews Win. Vietnamese Win. An American Story.

It's our last days in the US, so we had to go through our list of "last wishes before leaving the USA" tour. It started yesterday at Katz's Deli... and since Katz's is almost next to my buddy Frank London's pad, we teamed up for a stab at their pastrami. I am Jew as He is Jew as We is Jew and We all eat Pastrami... Katz's has been extensively documented here, so we will move on... Today, Fumie had to do a few photo shoots, one of which was the banh-mi Vietnamese sandwich place at 150 2nd street in the east Village. Again - Frank lives nearby, so we needed to have a photo model to stuff food into mouth. Frank deftly locks up his bike. He may be World Music's #1 Jewish music producer, but the man gets around NYC on a bike. And a cell phone. .Bánh mì . Vietnam used to be a French colony, and so they learned how to deal with things like crusty french baguettes and pates. But they were still Vietnamese, and damn good cooks. The genesis of the bánh mì sandwich stems from the French countryside "salad sandwich" which consists of lettuces, tomatos and sometimes vegetables as well as dressing served on a baguette. The sandwich is a product of French colonialism in Indochina, combining the French ingredients of baguettes, pate and mayonnaise with native Vietnamese ingredients like coriander, hot peppers, fish sauce and pickled carrots. Ho Chi Minh used to be a pastry chef at Escoffier's in Paris. Uncle Ho worked as a chef in England and the US as well during his student days, and his politics may have been influenced by Marcus Garvey while living in Brooklyn... but this only tells us about why the Vietnamese were so successful at national liberation movements. What is important here is the fusion of the French breakfast tradition with Vietnamese cuisine. The French may have been imperialists, but they left behind pate and crusty baguettes. This is good. You take a crusty, fresh french-style baguette, spread fine french-style pate - nobody really knows where these banh-mi pates really come from, and nobody really cares - and then you add some roast pork, ham, or maybe chicken or sardines... and carrots, cilantro, sriracha sauce... the Vietnamese not only defeated the United States in open warfare, they also re-invented the concept of the "sandwich" Bravo, Vietnamese! Bravo!Frank, to his credit as a Klezmer musician, doesn't go "whole hog" about eating pork. He chose a chicken banh-mi. I went for the classic pate and ham version. Frank has an amazing ability to maintain non-porkedness in the face of immense treyf-ness.This ability to maintain a four thousand year tradition of kosher eating is important in a city like New York, which attracts immigrants who have come from places that have perfected non-kosher eating into a seductive art. Walking downtown from the East Village towards our next Vietnamese rendezvous, we pass markets offering loads of non-kosher goodies.Mmmm... frogs. Well, damn... frogs are tasty! And who eats frogs? Why, the Cantonese and Vietnamese! Browsing among the Chinatown offerings we ended up at the New Bo Ky. (80 Bayard St.) I was there on my last days in NY last year. I always seem to leave NY by eating here. Why? Because it is so gutsy, no bullshit, authentic and cheap. That's why.This is an extremely good, extremely cheap, very North Vietnamese place. There are a lot of things on the menu that originate in the southern provinces of China where there is a significant Vietnamese minority, and if the menu is any indication, they don't like to pay a lot for their food. The New Bo Ky is famous as one of the cheapest restaurants in the entire City of New York, definately in Chinatown. Twenty bucks will stuff you with some excellent, absolutly authentic Viet cuisine.Do not miss the special pho. It is a beef soup with rice noodles, but at New Bo Ky there are some kind of inexplciable innards added. I have no idea what these things may be. They are white, transluscent, and a bit crunchy, and they definately come from inside a cow. Who the fuck cares what part of the cow it came from... They are good to eat, though. Probably not kosher. I don't care. Oh well. Hell, here I come!Now, if you are in Hungary, you should understand that we could not finish this meal, and it cost us Ft 3,400 for the two of us. This was a fásza nagy lakomás for the price of two Big Mac Happy meals in Budapest. We win. You lose. And in three days, we will lose too!Fumie in front of $20 worth of food. The best spring rolls we have had in the US. The best greens to have come out of any Asian kitchen. And then, the $3.50 plate of "Mixed Country Meat." When I ordered this, the waiter patiently explained, without much command of English, that this consisted of ears, toungue, and other stuff - he did this by pointing at ears, tongue, and other stuff on himself. It isn't like we asked him "please show us where the bad man touched you... using this anatomically correct doll...This is the ultimate in "You No Like That" Asian dishes. But guess what? It was fantastic! But soon it will come down to that last Nathan's Hot dog at Newark Airport, and then... burek on Tereza Korut!

Sunday, January 06, 2008


It's flu season in the US, and some of us have had to deal with a touch of the grippe. Still, that doesn't put a dent in our eating/hunting habits. There is always congee to provide warm, bland, stomach soothing comfort.Congee is rice gruel. Basically, boil rice in a lot of water for hours and hours, add flavoring and what have you, and slurp. It is usually eaten for breakfast, and just about every Asian cuisine tradition has a version.I had never really given congee much attention until this year. Fumie started going on a congee crusade when she arrived, mainly because so much of the American diet was so different that she usually needed something bland - and Asian - to settle her stomach. And since we seemed to spend a lot of time in the Lower East side and east Chinatown, congee seemed the answer.Congee Village (100 Allen Street) is an upscale Cantonese restaurant set up for those who are looking for expensive specialties like shark fin soup or abalone. Unless you want congee, which is about $3.50 a bowl. On one menu page everything is between $18 and $45 and seems to be made from bird's nests. On the other page, congees under $5.They also make excellent noodle dishes, like this classic cantonese beef chow fun. Sticking with the rice theme, these are thick rice noodles. My discovery of chow fun dates from 1982, and it became the lunch of my years in Boston. I used to bicycle down to Chinatown from my job at BU at least twice weekely during lunch hour for take out chow fun.Also in the rice noodle family, Singapore style mei fun, thin rice noodles fried with shrimp in a light curry sauce. I am very sure I will not have anything this good in Budapest for a long, long time, unless that thing is made from pork and paprika... We are leaving for Hungary later this week... no more dim sum...Another memorable congee was found at the Hsin Wong Restaurant on Baxter st. in central ("tourist") Chinatown.The presence of roast ducks in a Chinese Restaurant window is a pretty good indicator that I want to eat whatever they have inside. I mean, you can at least see the food. It may look like pig intestines, but then, I want to eat pig intestines.At Hsin wong I took the easy road and went for an order of pork spare ribs. these were not the dry, stringy spare ribs that come with the usual take-out bag of chinese food. These were amazing, meaty, moist, and would have to rate a 9.8 on a scale of 10 in the Best Chinese Spare Ribs in the World list.The congee.One feature of chopped roast duck places is that they usually are cheap and they serve noodle soup. Hsin Wong was one of the better noodle soups I have had in New York. Beef with shrmp wonton and vegetables...The proper side dish to a chinese soup meal is a plate of green vegetables with oyster sauce.