Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Hungarians in Istanbul

While I sit alone in Budapest, Fumie has taken her Dangerous Girlfriend Posse and invaded Istanbul for spring break. Without me. I'm devastated. But, given that this blog started as a diary of our long trip to Istanbul a few years back, I still have memories to share... for one thing, even in Istanbul you can never get away from the presence of Hungarians! Hungary used to be part of the OPttoman Empire for 150 years of its history... which is to say, while most of Europe was enjoying the Renaissance and conquering the New World and slaughtering heretics, Hungary had to suffer the indiginity of 150 years of relatively peaceful Ottoman rule. Of course, Hungary's involvement in the Golden Horn goes back beyond the Ottoman period. Take Saint Irene, for example... also known as Piroska of Hungary, who was married to Byzantine Emporer John Commenus II in 1104. She merits one of the largest surviving mosaic frescos in the Hagia Sofia church, and was also one of the founders of the Monastary of the Pantocrator, which today survives as the Fatih Mosque, and is the largest surviving example of Byzantine architecture in the world. No mention of Hungarians in Istanbul would be complete without a word about... Orban. No, not that back-stabbing, cynical turncoat Orban. The other one. During the final siege of Constantinople in the 15th century the Byzantines hired a Hungarian canon maker to prepare a giant weapon for use against the Turks. Having contracted for the gun, the Byzantines renegged on the financial side of the deal. Orban left the city and offered his services to the Sultan. The giant canon he made could only be shot seven times a day, but it was enough to breach the walls of Constantinople and allow entry to the Ottoman forces. In gratitude, the armory found south of Chihangir in Pera was dedicated in his honor - the Orban tophane.The first printing press in the Ottoman Empire was established by Ibrahim Mutaferrika, whose statue graces the central park in ther middle of the Bookseller's bazaar next to the Grand covered Bazaar in downtown Beyazit.Although his original name is unknown, Ibrahim was born a Hungarian in Cluj, Romania, then known as the Hungarian city of Kolozsvar. We found his grave marker in the Mehvlevi Dervish cemetery in the Dervish Tekke next to the Tunel station in Beyoglu. According to the inscription, he became a Muslim servant of the Ottoman Empire in 1692.The most recent Hungarian presence in Istanbul was centered in the Lalelei neighborhood near Aksaray. Back in the 1980s and 1990s this was where Hungarians went to buy cheap leather jackets and plastic shoes to resell in Hungary. Back then every shop owner could speak Hungarian (as well as Russian, Polish, and Romanian) but today all that is left is this one sad shop front to remind us of the days when the Magyar hordes descended en masse on their fearsome Volan buses.Hopefully, the Dangerous Budapest Girl Posse will remind the denizens of Istanbul that Hungarains are yet to be feared... at least when there is grilled meat at stake.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

The Lanzhou Restaurant in Budapest: China discovers the potato.

There is no use complaining that Budapest doesn't offer much in the way of Chinese restaurants. There are tons of Chinese places, but by and large they are not that good - almost every intersection offers a small, cheap "Kinai Bufe" offering steam table staples of gluey orange sweet and sour pork, stir fried meat on mediocre rice, and spaghetti adapted into a brown, soy flavored noodle dish. Cheap chow to fill up the Magyar working class (remember the working class? Karl.... we're still waiting for that revolution you promised!) Most of these places are franchises offering the same menu, cooked by people who are not chefs. If you want real Chinese food, you are better off at the food stands at the Four Tigers Market. If you want to eat decent Chinese in Budapest while sitting down at a table with chairs, you will eventually wind up at the Lanzhou, a small Chinese joint located just off of busy Rákosi utca between Blaha Lujza tér and Keleti Train station.The Lanzhou serves hard-core, authentic Northern Chinese cuisine, which is a far cry from the Cantonese and Fukien style southern Chinese food that we eat in the US and in Western Europe. The reason is simple: Budapest doesn't have the economy to attract emmigrants from the better off regions of South China. Most of the Chinese here are involved in the export of cheap commercial goods via rail from Beijing and North China, and their cooking reflects the heartier noodle and dumpling traditions of a colder region. In most Budapest Chinese restaurants you might find all those classic Chinese dishes, but they are being cooked by Northerners, which is like ordering Sicilian food in a Norwegian resturant. Not a good idea. The Lanzhou, however, is one of those special "the Chinese eat there" eateries, and the cooks actually are trained in food and come from northern China.Often you can see a table of a dozen or more Chinese folks chowing down at Lanzhou, and it pays to watch how they eat. The Lanzhou is essentially a budget banquet resturant, the kind of place you take your friends or business colleagues out to for beer and food. The menu reflects this - there are about five pages of cold and hot appetizers before you even get to any entrees. The northern Chinese drill goes like this: the table orders a slew of small plates to nibble with beer (no rice is offered during this phase) and after a couple of hours of this, the table orders a few hot entrees with rice or noodles to finish the meal. In the pic above we have spicy cabbage salad, gizzards, celery with garlic, and tripe dishes.My favorite, leaf tripe in spicy oil. When Fumie goes out to Lanzhou with her Terrifying Girlfriend Posse, they order by rote and I never get to eat any of the stuff I like, such as tripe. (Judit actually has the menu memorized by the menu numbers of the dishes!) Or duck hearts in hot oil. Gizzards... maybe... (pic below) because Fumie likes them since they are cooked Asian style - stewed only to the point of crunchy doneness. Don't expect soft, long cooked innards here... The guts sing at Lanzhou.Another favorite of mine is the soy sauce cooked pigs ears... seen here in front of a plate of chinese siu-jiao dumplings. Hmmmm... crunchy ears!And the pork just keeps on coming... sliced pig belly in sesame oil...As befits a northern Chinese resto, the Lanzhou also offers a selection of Hui (chinese muslim) style dishes, albeit mostly on the Chinese language-only specials menu. Hui dishes usually substitute mutton for pork. Lanzhou is also a region famous for its noodles, and the Lanzhou hand-pulls its own house noodles (the beef noodle soup is good) and also offers "shaved noodles" - a lump of noodle dough is sliced into primitive, longish strips and stir fried with mutton and veg. (These are listed back in the noodles section of the menu... ask the waiter) Another stand out dish is the Chinese "potato salad" (seen below.)This is something you don't find in Cantonese restauarants. Thin sliced potato is flash boiled in hot water and then immediately rinsed in cold water, then dressed with sesame oil. Easily one of the most distinctive items on the menu, one dish is enough for two people, but not more unless you want to order another plate. Members of the Terrifying Girl Posse studiously avoiding the plate of gizzards and going for dumplings. They look tough, but they really aren't. After a set of small dishes we usually order some spiced eggplant, hot and spicy lamb, and chinese fresh green vegtables, usually a plate of ku tsin tsai (water spinach) or cao tsai (bok choy) depending on what is in season - ask the very professional Hungarian waiters, who probably know more chinese kitchen vocabulary than anyone else in the Uralic world. Be aware, also, that if you order the whole fried fish you will get an authentically wok-fried whole... carp. Ok, maybe you like carp. Entirely authentic. Maybe that is what you wanted for dinner. Just sayin... One word of caution, however: by the end of the night there is the ...er... rice problem. A banquet style resturant doesn't usually give two hoots about the quality of its rice... rice is more of a ceremonial afterthought. Sometimes the rice here... has sucked after nine PM. Sorry, but true. So if you - like me - are dining with Rice Fascists, be warned. Or just fill up on noodles. Expect about FT 3500 per person.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Friday Music! Dennis McGee: Old Style Cajun Fiddle

I've been writing too much about food and Nazis, and not enough about music. Ok, time to take a listen at the upside of things. From now on Friday will be Music Post Day, and I'll try and post something musically oriented to perk up all those jaded ears out there. I'm a fiddler, and although most folks know me for playing old style klezmer and east European fiddle styles, I got my start playing old style American folk fiddle. Although I got my first fiddle as a gift from my Uncle Jozsi here in Hungary (a $16 Czech violin set bought at the Trial Zene Bolt at Blaha, which is still there. And I still have that fiddle, which isn't that shabby, either.) I learned my fiddling during the folk revival going on in the US during the 1970s, when a lot of the old timers were still alive and playing music and teaching a younger generation. One day I picked up a copy of the US folk music publication Sing Out! and there was one of those floppy vinyl insert recordings included which feature the music of Dennis McGee and S. D. Courville playing an old Louisiana Cajun fiddle tune called Mon Chere Bebe Creole (a few seconds of which can be heard here at track 22.) In an instant, my musical world changed, and hasn't quite been the same since. The magic of one scratchy violin erased my yearning for searing rock guitar solos, long Grateful Dead jams, fusion drum solos, just about everything that my teenage social scene defined as cool music. This recording, made in 1929 of two fiddles and with one vocal soaring above the driving melody was all I needed to put me into the O(ther)-Zone, a sound I have been reaching for in the decades since. The musician was a Lousiana Cajun fiddler named Dennis McGee who was already considered to be an quaintly archaic holdout of old-style French Cajun fiddle when he was recorded playing burning duet fiddle with S.D. "Sade" Courville in the late 1920s.A lot of the music recorded on 78rpm gramphone records back in the 1920s proved to be the last of their its kind. Although commercial recording was still a novelty, low-tech down home music makers would soon give way to a slicker style that could compete in record sales. Dennis and Sade were considered living museum pieces when they began recording in 1928. Dennis was born in 1893, to a Cajun-Irish father and a half French, half Seminole Indian mother. Most of the tunes Dennis played he had learned from his grandfather, who had been born in the 1830s, and whose repetoire consisted of the older French parlor dances that morphed into the full voiced, melodic rythymic Cajun fiddle style over the 19th century befpre the adoption of the single row button accordion in south Lousiana around the turn of the 20th century. Dennis recorded dozens of 78 rpm discs into the early 1930s, and then disappeared from public view, working as a sharecropper and barber and playing for weekend dances and family events. What sets Dennis apart from so many of those musicians whose sound emerges ghostlike from those old shellac records is that Dennis (and Sade, as well) didn't just disappear and die leaving no legacy. No, Dennis lived to be 97 years old, playing nearly to the day he died, touring, teaching and recording his old tunes for prosperity, before passing away in 1989 having taught three generations of musicians the old style fiddle of his younger days. As Michael Doucet once said "Western Civilization has the Rosetta Stone. CajunMusic has Dennis McGee.That's Dennis and Sade on the cover of a CD reissue of their older recordings. Amazingly, they continued playing into the 1980s together (Sade passed in 1988, a year before Dennis) and recrorded again in the 1970s. that session can be oredered from the Field Recorder's Collective in the US, and outtakes from that session can be found at the "Hadacol It Something: Cajun MP3" Web site (scroll down about two thirds of the way down the page.) Dennis also played with the legendary Creole accordion player Amedee Ardoin, and several recordings exist of the two of them, such as this version of the Blues du Basile. At that time, there was little stylistic difference between old style Cajun and black/creole french music, and although Amedee met a sad end later in the 1930s, his music went on to influence both the early Zydeco styles as well as being pivotal to the rebirth of the accordion in the 1950s when musicians such as Iry Lejeune resurrected Amedee's old records as Cajun hit material.Amedee even has a Myspace page with tunes played by him and Dennis. If you are wondering how to make your fiddle sound like this, look at how Dennis holds his fiddle bow - he stuck his pinky finger in between the hair and the wood at the frog, and draped his rather humoungous fingers over the bow, probably an old habit dating to the days when home-made fiddle bows were tensioned by hand. Watch this video from the 1982 documentary "Cajun Visits" ... and marvel at Dennis re-enacting the bustle of an old time cajun house dance, complete with shouted commands to the dancers.
The foremost student of Dennis McGee was Michael Doucet, fiddler and leader of the Cajun band Beausoleil. Here Doucet tells some stories about touring with Dennis - slightly toned down from some of the tales I have heard. On the guitar is Dennis' son, Gerry McGee, better known as the guitarist for the legendary surf rock band The Ventures.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Geoff Berner Goes Nazi Hunting in Budapest

Geoff Berner is a Canadian singer and songwriter based in Vancouver, BC, who is known in certain parts of the world (Canada, Europe, not too much in the USA) for his sharp, witty songs accompanied by his trusty low-tech accordion. Geoff and I met a few years back when he asked me to drag his ass around Romania in search of the last generation of Jewish and Gypsy musicians who had first hand knowledge of the music that gets labeled "Klezmer" in the modern world. At first I was wary - I have had too many off experiences traveling the backwoods of Romania with eager greenass folk music tourists in tow, but finally agreed when Geoff offered to rent a car and haul me and Fumie around for two weeks. It turned out to be one of the best road trips I ever had in my life, madly cruising the pot-holed roads of Maramures along with Geoff's drummer Wayne Adams and his fiddler Diona Davies, collecting music, drinking way too much, and giving impromptu concerts in peasant yards and Gypsy bars. Last Friday, Geoff showed up in Budapest to play a supporting set for Norwegian rockers Kaizer's Orchestra.The set was impressive - Geoff's thing is to take Jewish and Klezmer folk themes and regurgitate them through the semitic processor of his Canadian-Hebe brain and see what comes out on the other end. He managed a song about Odessa gangster life, an English translation of Mikhl Gordin's "Di Mashkes" (The Whiskey... a recurring theme in Geoff's songwriting career as the Whiskey Rabbi) and the "Official Theme Song for the 2010 Vancouver / Whistler Olympic Games (The Dead Children Were Worth It!)" (a merry little march tune in referrence to a Britich Columbia medical program for investigating inexplained children's deaths that was defunded in order to make more money available for the Olympic developement in Whistler, BC.) If you took Steve Earle, Moshe Dayan, Clifton Chenier, a squirrel monkey and put them all in a molecular transporter in Winnepeg with a faulty circuit and flicked the "on" switch, you'd get Geoff Berner. Geoff arrived early on Friday, and so we took the man out for some real Jewish Budapest experiences. What kind of Real Jewish Budapest experiences? Oh, just the normal ones. Star with lunch at Kadar's in Klauzal ter. Coffee at the Siraly. And of course, no visit to Budapest would be complete without a trip to a Nazi rally in the heart of Budapest's second largest Jewish neighborhood, Ujlipotvaros!Yes, it is a sad but already prosaic fact, but Hungary has a very vocal radical right wing of skinheads, neo-nazis, and guys who like to dress up as either Huns or WWII Arrow Cross guards and burn Israeli flags, desecrate Jewish graveyards, and mass march through Gypsy and Jewish neighborhoods intimidating old people. Over the last few weeks Hungary's Socialist-liberal government coalition has been weakening, there have been speculation that "center-right" wing part FIDESZ may soon be back in the ruling majority, reinstating Viktor "Baltar" Orban as Prime Minister. This has led Orban to behave in an unusually restrained and quiet manner - usually he has his "citizen's circles" engage in disruptive mass demonstrations against the government, but when the government seems about to hand itself to Orban on a silver platter, it pays to be prudent. Nevertheless, a few weeks ago one of Orban's old Bibo Kollegium era FIDESZ classmates, the writer Zsolt Bayer, published an essay in the now rightist newspaper Magyar Hirlap outwardly accusing Jews of being disloyal to Hungary and claiming "they hate us more then we could ever hate them." This led to the usual Battle of the Angry Op-Ed pieces in the Hungarian press, but once the smell of blood was in the water, the bottom feeders got the scent and rose to the occaision.Now that Jews were once again on the editorial chopping block, the performance artist/rightist blogger who goes by the name of "Tomcat" entered the fray, claiming that a Jewish-owned ticket office in the traditionally Jewish residential district of Ujlipotvaros (the area of Pest just north of Jaszai Mari square by the Margit Bridge) had refused to sell tickets for one of Hungary's right-wing nationalist rock bands. (Won't mention the name here - publicity is a priveledge, not a right.) Naturally, this charge was complete and total bullshit, but it was enough to lead a couple of self-styled skinhead/nationalist activists claiming to be from the "Hungarian Arrow Party" to toss a molotov cocktail at the ticket office one night.Hungarian public life offers a unique feature known as 'provocation' which works like this: some retard tosses a molotov cocktail at a Jewish shop, and claims that any reaction to this is a provovation, in this case against all Hungarians. Nazi skinheads then rally in a "flashmob" style to intimidate the neighborhood, which they call "Uj Zseland" (New Jewland.) About forty show up to be met by about 400 counter demonstrators. The shocker was that the counter demo attracted a wide spectrum of Hungarians, not only the usual crowd of liberals or Jews, but center party representatives including the FIDESZ mayor of the XIII district, Szabó György, who is in fact an Israeli double citizen and an observant Jew himself. (Uhhh.. I should mention that Szabó and his family have since gone into hiding and are under police protection....) The skinheads, nationalists and Neo-Nazis retreated, but only for a few days during which they could organize a larger intimidation including members of a wider spectrum of Hungarian right wing groups, including the uniformed paramilitary Hungarian Guards, who are essentially a group that likes to participate in 1944 Arrow Cross cosplay.So naturally there was an even larger counter demonstration on friday. Thousands of normal folks gathered peacfully, separated from the nationalists and neo-Nazis by police barricades.The right wing presence was a virtual Who's Who of Hungarian radical hate groups. Both sides faced off armed with... digital cameras and video recorders. The bigger the better. Hungarians hate to be photographed. During communist times, and since, when there was a demonstration or rally the police roamed the crowds snapping pictures, and so Magyars tend to think that photos will be used aginst them in a kangaroo court. Which, of course, they will be. And so during street demos and such civilians tend to use digital cameras as weapons of intended virtual agression. Below is a pic of the skinhead organizers, easily identifiable by their neo-Nazi T-shirts. Did I mention that the theme of the rally was "They call us Nazis but we're not Nazis - only those who look at our Hitler T-shirts and call us Nazis are Nazis!" I could not make this stuff up if I wanted to, folks. Really. This present round of right wing circus acts will probably continue through the summer - these things go in cycles, and once they begin they tend to take on a life of their own. Lucky thing we had Geoff with us, whose huge teeth and threatening claws would protect us from any danger.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Spring in Zagreb: Dolac Market

Its been a dreary and lingering winter in Budapest, which is up in the top reaches of the Carpathian basin, so when spring won't come to us, we have to go to spring. That means down south, and that means Da Balkans. It was Aron's 15th birthday this week, and so to celebrate we headed down south. Zagreb, capital city of Croatia, doesn't care what the temeperature is. If the calendar says it is spring, than the whole city can be found outside sitting in outdoor cafes. (Or sitting in the hostel with pizza and Battlestar Galactica reruns on Dad's laptop.)One drawback to visiting Zagreb has always been the lack of inexpensive lodgings. The old Communist era Youth Hotel is undergoing reconstruction, so we chose one of the newer Youth hostels, the Mali Mrak. The last year has seen a bunch of hostels opening, and the Mali Mrak offered a spartan double room and a cosy living room. Since we were arriving after 11 pm, they even ordered a pizza, which was waiting for us on arival. That's the kind of service you expect at a five star hotel, not a hostel. Ahhhh... Croatia!Aron is always up for something new, so it was off top the Dolac Market for lunch. There is a row of cheap good food stands just below the market that offer burek, fried fish, squid, cevapi, and whatever a Croat could possibly want for lunch. Aron went with ribice, small sardines coated in corn meal and fried. He was not yet up to the Japanese method of eating them whole, bones and all, but did pretty well for a 15 year old. These babies were probably swimming in the Adriatic seven hours earlier and tasted fresh and clean. It helps that the Fish market is only 50 meters away.One of Croatia's big economic draws is tourism, especially to the Adriatic coast, and that means fish. Whole fish, however, are not cheap. The popular skarpina, or scorpionfish, below are 199 Kuna a kilo, whole. That is around USD $42 a pound. Double that if you are having them baked and served on a plate in a restaurant.Next to the skarpina are brancin (sea bass) for 100 Kuna a kilo, and giltheaded bream for 129 KN a kilo. The sad truth is that the Adriatic is getting fished out, and demand far exceeds supply for finned fish. The majority are sold to hotels and pricier restaurants. Most Croats settle for smaller fish such as sardines, or squid or octopus, which go for about $10 a kilo.Interestingly, Croatia has some of the best trout waters in Europe, especially in the mountainous zones near Bosnia. These farmed trout are from the Gacka river, one of Europe's best wild trout waters. The Gacka is one of the many Croatian and Bosnian rivers that actually benefited from the war era in the 1990s. Since so many rivers were mined to prevent troop movements in the valleys, they were neither stocked nor fished for over a decade, and wild trout bred unimpeded. Today you can fly fish on the Gacka and other streams, but there are still a lot of areas which still need to be cleared of mines.The Dolac Market is the main central marletplace for Zagreb's downtown. The upper level is a farmer's market, while below is a butcher and grocery market indoors. Just behind the market is the Zagreb Cathedral.The big difference between Croatian markets and what you can get in Hungary or anywhere's north of here is the preponderance of green vegtables. We simply cannot get greens in Hungary. Croats - particularly Dalmatians - eat a lot of swiss chard (blitva) and rucola.Croatian cuisine is deliciously schizoprenic. There is the Pannonian and Slavonian style of cooking, which is close to Hungarian and Central European cuisine with its use of lard, paprika, and beans. Then there is the Dalmatian diet, which is about as Mediterranean as it comes. Greens, fish, and olive oil. Croatian olive oil is some of the thickest and most distinctive I have tasted - these plastic bottles of oil come from small Dalmatian producers, and you can actually taste the salt sea flavor from olive groves located out on the Adriatic islands.Another Dalmatian creation is prsut, ham dried in the dry air of the mountains above the Adriatic. Like its Italian namesake, procisutto, it is slice in almost transluscent slices and eaten as an appetizer.Of course.... if you like something a bit more prosaic and down to earth, there are always sheep balls.We left the sheep balls for others and had a field day with the burek. If you think of Greek spinach pie, then cross it with lasagna, remove the spinach, and serve it fresh and hot you have burek. We can now get burek in Budapest, but the Burek stand at the Dolac market is a busy place, and all the burek comes hot from the oven. You have a choice of cheese burek or meat (lamb) burek. Burek is pretty much the same all over the Balkans - it is directly taken from Turkish culture and doesn't need much improvement. Bulgarain banitsa, perhaps, is the one burek style that I never took a great liking to - usually dry and miserly, and while Turkish burek will always be the apex of Ottoman phyllo-pastrydom in my heart, the Croats do damn good job on it as well.Aron agrees. He sat down to his plate of cheese burek and went into the kind of trance only a 15 year old can have on discovering something halfway between lasagna and pizza... crusty, noodle-y, meaty, cheesey, all at once. We had to order two servings. Best birthday cake ever.