Monday, June 30, 2008

Istrian Croatia: Italy without the Vowels.

We just got home from a jaunt over to Croatia. I'd been to Zagreb earlier this year, so I asked Captain Squid, my Croatian expert, for a suggestion on where else to travel. He popped the idea of a trip to Istria. At first it sounded convenient - on the map it seems a lot closer than Dalmatia. But close is not close enough - between the train trip and the buses to get to our destination it was a grueling 18 hour trip. We took the overnight train to Rijeka, arriving at dawn, and then headed down the coast towards Pula, the regional capital of Istria.Rijeka used to be the Austro-Hungarian city of Fiume, and Opatjia, located just north of Rijeka, was where the the rich and benobled spent their summers. Yes, it is cute, in a Hapsburg way, but farther down the coast Istria reveals its Roman and Venetian history, and I have had enough of yellow Hapsburg houses for one year already. I was ready for something a bit older and more grand. Bring on the Roman colliseums!Pula used to be the Roman town of Polla, and was later held by Venice, then by the Hapsburgs, the Italy, and finally Yugoslavia. People would wake up in the morning and look out the window to see what flag was flying that day to figure out what nationality they were that day. Istria was a part of Italy until after WWII. Between 1946 and 1953 thousands of Istrians left for Italy - not only Italians, but a lot of Slovenes and Croats to boot - and elsewhere when the peninsula became part of Yugoslavia. Istrians still maintain a very strong regional identity as Istriani - whether they speak Italian (almost all Istrians do whether they are of Italian ethnicity or not, and most can manage English and German as well) or Croatian at home. It ticks off the Croatian nationalists - Istria consistently doesn't vote for them, even though there is an 80% Croatian majority population - but Istria is kind of like Italy's version of Transylvania. While most of the Italians left - taking their vowels with them - there is still a strong sense of Italian culture. Especially in the cuisine.
Istrian cuisine is based on geography and the seasons - near the coast there is seafood, inland pasta and some of the world's richest truffle hunting grounds. Truffle season is in the fall, though, so we made do with squid. Finned fish will cost you a pretty high price in Croatia, unless you buy smaller fish at the market and cook at home. No matter, since on a hot day some squids - always available and cheap - roasted with the classic Adriatic garnish of roast potato and swish chard blitva is just fine with me.The fish market at Pula was tempting, but we have experienced cooking fish inside the small kitchens of rented tourist apartments. It reeks. It stinks up your clothes. It condemns the next innocant renters to fish aromas. Renting apartments is the way to go when traveling in Istria - we got very lucky and had great accomodations, but then you feel bad about leaving fish stench behind for the hosts to clean up. Of all the places we found, the unpretentiously named "Bulldog Fast Food" joint near our apartment offered the best squid plate and pljeskavica in Pula for well below tourist prices - and had a huge TV so we could watch the Euro Cup semi-finals outdoors in their garden (located between the Bus Station and Coliseum.)Lidia Bastianich, the celebrated Italian chef and cookbook author, was born in Pula and left with the Istrian Italian diaspora as a young girl, settling in New York city and marrying fellow Istriani Felix Bastianich. Her main contibution to the American approach to Italian cooking was to tell Americans to stop opening cans of Chef Boy-ar-di and to look out for fresh seasonal produce at the market. Which, in America, is not actually possible, because almost nothing is really seasonal in the States, although everything is always available in cloned plastic facsimile with natural organic flavor added. The Pula vegetable market, however, is definately seasonal - we are past blitva season and too early for truffles - and is housed next to a huge indoor fish and meat market. The top floors of the market (Trg - oh, how we miss vowels!) are all cafes and restaurants, which are heartily recommended if you can speak enough bad Croatian to impress the chefs at 10:30 pm with your Euro Football cup knowledge. Remembering that we are still, techinically ,in the Balkans, I ordered cevapcici. When in Rome, act like a Yugo...The chef/owner ran over to demonstrate the proper method of attacking his humoungous cevapcici plate (rip up the bread, which merely serves to keep cevap warm, dip in red pepper ajvar sauce, and eat cevap with fingers,) expressed surprise in our ability to speak a bastard hybrid of Macedonian and Croatian (with far too many accidental vowel sounds) and tried out his gastarbeiter German on us. Astonished that we could actually communicate in some detail - "The Turkish goalie. Very Good! Most Beloved! Yes! He father his from Tetovo!" - he ended up offering us several rounds of free slivovitz. Perhaps more than several. Actually, quite a lot. Ahh, the Balkans. Paradise with landmines.The classic Istrian pasta dish is fuzi, which is the local Venetian dialect for fusilli, and is essentialy a tube pasta rolled on a stick. Served with Istrian gulash (veal and light paprika sauce) it is a lot like what I tend to cook at home two days a week in the winter. Stew with mac. Just as in Dalmatia, there is always something non-fishy to serve the fishing boat crews who come back to port and don't want to see another damned fish on the plate for dinner. Luckily it wasn't too hot while we were in Pula... the old town buildings reminded you that you were, essentially, in a suburb of medeival Venice...

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Kazim Koyuncu and Black Sea Ethnorock

Kazim Koyuncu was once described to me as the "Kurt Cobain of Black Sea music." The comparison is a bit strained: apart from the stringy hair and ratty old sweaters, the thing the two share is that they both died young. I feel the loss of Koyuncu far deeper: his was a music of hope and positivity, and it runs on my CD player regularly. He is sorely missed.Kazim passed away in 2005 from cancer, which he believed he developed due to his being born at the time of the Chernobyl nuclear reactor accident - a lot of young Turkish and Black Sea residents are noticing high rates of leukemia and cancers in people turning 30. But Kazim Koyuncu will be rememebered as one of the most talented creators of a modern rock style of Black Sea folk music. Koyuncu was a Laz, a small ethnic group living along the eastern turkish Black Sea coast, speaking a language - Lazuri - related to Georgian. Laz, however, is not written, and thus has never run afoul of Turkey's nationalist language laws. Such laws usually kick in when a national minority begins to publish poetry and other writings in an attempt to assert a written literature, percieved as a step on the road towards national identity and eventual national assertion. The Kurds have gone this route already. The Laz, however, are truly a "pre-nationalist" ethnicity. Laz literature, in fact, seems to have skipped the "written literature" phase altogether and gone straight to the "hit CD" level.Kazim wasn't the first to update the local folk traditions, but he definately made it appeal to a lot of younger people. Black sea music - based on the ancient three stringed kemence fiddle and the droneless tulum bagpipe and played in frenetic tempos using extremely restricted scales is not a music for everybody's tastes. Had Kazim lived, he may have emerged as a World Music sensation. We'll never know. Singing in Lazuri, Kazim stood clear of politics but advanced an ecological localism dedicated to preserving the Black Sea's natural beauty from overdevelopement. Another hit karadenizli singer is Ismail Turut, whose politics run towards the right: the man gets big money from political parties to compose nationalistic anthems. Still, this video was a hit when we were in Trabazon five years ago, and still holds up as an example of the genre:The fiddle used here is the kemence, an instrument whose use dates back to Byzantium and it is also used by the descendants to the Pontic Greeks who lived along the Black Sea until they were deported en masse to Greece in the population transfer following the treaty of Lausanne in 1923.There are still villages around Trabazon speaking Greek, which is called Rumca in Turkish ("Roman") although the speakers are all conservative Sunni muslims. One of the joys of youtube is the ability to find incredible ethnomusicological treasures, especially in genres like Black Sea music where there is no huge media outlet serving the far flung Karadeniz diasporas.Youtube lets you peek in on private after dinner parties where a bunch of greek speaking turkish muslims drink raki/ouzo and just let it all hang out.I was actually turned on to this music as a teenager hanging around Greek bars and dances in New York. If anything is my secret vice, it is kemence music - I play kemence, and I can rest fully assured that nobody closer than the northern suburbs of Istanbul would ever want to hear me play it. Mentioning that I play karadenizli kemence has, howver, gotten me fare-free taxi rides in Istanbul from homesick Black sea turkish taxi drivers. I'll be in Istria next week, looking foreward to great Croatian/Italian food and truly unbearable droneless bagpipe and button accordion music.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Dragan Ristic and Kal / Saban Bajramovic R.I.P

Last week saw a week long free Roma festival - at the Gödör Klub at Deak ter. I have been pretty well submerged in old style transylvanian Gypsy band music this spring, so it was time to get out and listen to some of the newer sounds. I heard that the Serbian Gypsy/World Music band Kal was going to be headlining, so I had to go.Kal is headed by Dragan Ristic, who, with his brother Dushan, lived in Budapest for a couple of years during the Kosovo war years. As Roma, they didn't feel comfortable with the war in Kosovo, and opted to work for the European Roma rights Center in Budapest alongside our friend Claude Cahn. On thursdays the Ristic Brothers used to play typical Serbian/Voivodina kafana music at the now defunct Tutu Tango Bar near the Opera house, and we became good friends. After returning to Serbia, Dragan reformed Kal and today the band is riding the crests of fame on the World music circuit.The new sound of Kal is a long way from the boozy bar songs and Roma standards they used to play. But then, Serbian Roma singer Saban Bajramovic died last week, and that pretty much marks the end of a classic and unique era of Serbian Gypsy pop music. Saban pioneered the fusion of kafana songs in Romani with a mix of modern sounds. He also is the source of most of the tunes Goran Bregovic retooled for use in Emir Kusturica's films. Of course, Bregovic called them "folk songs" and never paid Saban a dinar for the rights. Claude and Dragan visited Saban ten years ago and interviewed him about this, and the article can be found on the site of the Amala Roma Culture Summer camp, a project run by the Ristic brothers and worth noting if you want to spend a few weeks learning music and Roma culture in Serbia during the summer.Claude nailed Saban's influence and Bregovic's conceit: The only problem is that many non-Roma -- especially non-Romani Yugoslavs -- cannot stomach listening to him. In the first place, he sings ballads in a language they can't understand. More importantly, his whole atmosphere is drenched in Gypsiness, and anti-Romani sentiment is presently at high tide in Central and Eastern Europe. With his gold tooth and his Muslim name, he is the epitome of Romani strangeness all over the former Yugoslavia -- a kind of too-familiar false Turkish exoticism. Hence the role for a cultural translator. A talented composer like Bregovic can take Bajramovic's genius for pop melody and render it suitable for non-Romani audiences. And make a lot of money in process. (Note to Dushan: the Amala website is a bit of a mess. Clicking on Claude's article sends you back to the Amala opening page. Readers shoud navigate to the menu and click on Romani Bands, then on Saban Bajramovic, and then choose Claude's article at the top of the page. Exhausting, I know.)Contemporary Roma music is not too hard to find in Budapest - it is a happening scene for a downtown urban culture right now - and I am talking about the newer permutations based on a fusion of traditional and modern Gypsy styles. EtnoRom played at the Siraly a couple of weeks ago. Two of the members were originally with the seminal Hungarian Roma folkore group Kali Yag. Today they have added elements of Romanian manele, Catalan Gypsy rumba, and still manage to stick to firm Vlach Roma roots material from Hungary. A week earlier, Nadara from Romania played the Gödör Klub - this band is a fusion of traditional Transylvanian fiddle music led by French cultural activist Alexandra Beaujard (who also appeared in the Tony Gatlif film Transylvania) and some of the musicians from Szaszcsavas who are well known for their trad material, but can really rip on the modern styles as well.But, fusion is for those that want fusion. I'll stick with the old style stuff. This summer I'll be working at the Other Europeans Project at the Yiddish Summer Weimar Jewish music festival addressing the role of Roma and Jews as historical outsiders in the European musical scene. During the seminar's dance workshop sessions we will be having Florin Kordoban from the Palatka Band as a guest with DNK to teach Transylvanian tsiganesti dance styles and music.The Gödör Klub on a hopping night. The name means "the Ditch" because the club was built in the ditch that would have become the site for the National theater until the FIDESZ party came into power and stopped construction in 1998. The place remained a hole in the ground until years later, when a park was built on the site. The city is constantly threatening to shut the club down. It's a sad fact that nearly every live music venue in Budapest is under constant threat of closure. You would think that a European capital city would be a bit less provincial about public cultural space, but this is Hungary, and every overblown city official wants his palm nicely greased or... we shut you down.
Parting shot: Dragan Ristic in the video to Serbian comedy singer Rambo Amadeus' "Dikh tu Kava" - Romani rap at its best.

Monday, June 09, 2008

Lángos: Frybread of the Magyars

If you visited Hungary before 1990 one of the fondest memories you will have is munching on lángos, fresh fried bread eaten as a snack. Lángos are yet another one of the Hungarian flavors that are fast receding into memory as Hungarians discover both healthier ways of eating and more ways to tax frybread shacks into non-existence. Lángos is not food for modern people. Lángos is not good for you. Lángos will never become a fad in Manhattan bistros. But if you eat a lángos at the age of ten, you will crave them for the rest of your life.
Lángos is simple, fried dough. Fried dough is eaten all over the world in some form or other. The same artery-clogging recipe is the basis of North American Indian reservation cuisine, known as frybread. Placed on reservations, Native Americans had to make do with the survival rations supplied them by the US government, which meant a monthly sack of flour and some lard. The result was frybread, eaten on almost every reservation west of the Mississippi, as well as a lot of very fat, unhealthy Indians, because frybread became a daily staple to people who had been hunters with a very low tolerance for carbohydrate fried in fat. In Hungary fried dough never became a household staple - it was something you ate on the run, usually at markets and bus stops. It is the original Hungarian fast food.Above is our favorite lángos shack, located in the back corner of the Bosznyák ter produce market in Zugló (at the end of the 7 bus line if you are coming from downtown Pest.) Now, I don't advocate eating lángos every day, or every week, even, but then it has been almost two months since I have eaten anything with any carbohydrates at all, so at least I can dream, can't I? These are lángos as they are meant to be: fried on order. The dough is a flour and yeast dough with the addition of mashed potato - yes, spuds. At this stand, you can even find little bits of potato defiantly unmashed in your lángos. The classic lángos is plain with salt and garlic water - which you splash on from a jar at the counter. More modern variants include the sour cream lángos, the sour cream and cheese lángos - made with a grated topping of the indestructable and unmeltable factory produced trappista cheese that rules the cheesy roost in Hungary - and the truly distressing "pizza" version in which you squirt sweet Hungarian ketchup all over the last version, making the messiest snack in the world. Don't try this at home!I tend towards the sweeter version: lángos with home made lekvár jam, usually either plum or apricot. The lekvár is usually more tart than sweet, and when I wake up to find the home bereft of breakfast goodies I hop on my bike and zip on over to Bosznyák ter and go straight to the lángos stand for a jam lángos and coffee - the whole breakfast special for only about FT 200 (US$ 1.30) complete, making this one of the last cheap meals available in newly inflated East Europe.This stand is what you see as soon as you get off the #7 bus at Bosznyak ter. It serves a somewhat inferior product to the stand in the back of the square, so fight your impulses, and head into the market itself. Besides, they also serve something called "Argentine Palacsinta" which is too scarey to investigate. Stands like this used to be found almost everywhere in Budapest, but no longer. I was happy to see that frybread stands are still common in Miskolc and other towns in the countryside.It doesn't take much to make lángos. A portable oil fryer, a dish rack to let them drain, and a bath basin full of rising tater dough and you are in business. Lángos shacks were a part of the city landscape in Budapest until about 1992. You would find them set up at bus stations on the main intersections, at Metro stations, and always at markets. The city set about "cleaning up Budapest" and the first things to go were the dismal-but-delicious snack shacks selling lángos, strudels, and fried sausages. Then came stringent tax laws which tended to edge out those vendors whose products were based on incredibly small profit margins. Frying dough does not make you as rich as selling pizza by the slice does. Goodbye dough. It is now hard to find a lángos seller in Budapest outside of the outdoor produce markets. There are bad lángos: these are from the fancy market at Szena ter, near the Mammut shopping Center off of Moszkva ter. Dry, greasy, no trace of the yeasty spudsy discs of heaven that we come to expect. Lángos for tourists. Sad, really. If you aren't near Zugló, try making it at home someday... just joking.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

The Nemzeti Vagta: Huszárs, Horses and Gulyás

Hungarians are an equestrian folk at heart. Sure, the preferred Magyar mode of transport these days is either a Opel or a Mercedes, but for most of the last two thousand years Magyars were defined by their love of horses, in the way that the French can be defined by their love of stinky cheeses or the Italians by their love of strange RAI-TV game shows in which a bald fifty year old guy is surrounded by adoring young babes in bikinis. Hungarians came thundering across the steppes from Asia on horses, and they basically kept the tradition going until the rise of the electric trolley bus in the 1950s. This last weekend saw the cement vastness of Budapest's Hero's Square returfed in dirt and horse poop for the first running of the "National Gallop" - a huge outdoor horse race and all around national horse-a-thon.As for the races, the square was so crowded you couldn't really get near the stands or the track, which was all for the good, since you could watch the event on giant TV screens set up on the perimeter. Watching several riders go flying and at least one panicked horse break through the barrier and into the crowd, I felt fine keeping my distance. The best show was around the back - by the ice skating rink where the riders got warmed up and prepped for their shows. Unless you go on a goulash tour of Debrecen, a visitor - or even a resident - in Hungary is highly unlikely to ever see anybody dressed in the tradtional costume of a csikós, or Hungarian cowboy. When the Communists collectivised the Hortobágy and Bugac plains in the 1950s their way of life - herding livestock for smaller private holders - went the way of the dodo, and their costumes went with it.Most of the participants at the race were from various "Tradition" clubs, folks who get together on their own coin to keep things like Huszár troops alive. And yes, they are frighteningly good horsemen, although why anyone needs to ride a horse while standing up in the saddle is completely beyond me. Hungary is full of horse clubs. One of the cheapest investments a private citizen could make in the early 1990s when private land ownership returned to Hungary was to take a marginal piece of land and set up a horse farm and riding stable. The result is affordable and available horsey fun all over the country. And part of Hungarian horseman tradition is the food that sustanined our boys in blue: gulyás leves, the soup of the gulyások, which is the name of the cowherders of the plains.
I wrote earlier of the despair that overwhelms me when a visitor to Budapest asks to find a good honest bowl of gulyás soup. Wait until the weekend, and then try and go to some big outdoor event and hope that there is folksy catering. Hungarians haven't really discovered that the world is full of tasty foreign festival snacks. No falafels, no Venezuelan arepas, no taco trucks, no vegetarian stand. At all Hungarian festivals, the chow is Magyar, and luckily, it is usually very good Magyar. The gulyás at these events is outstanding and, of course, usually sells out in the early afternoon.
A popular pastime in hungary is historical re-creation societies: people like to dress up as Ancient Hungarians and spend a weekend Hunning about in yurts on the dusty plains. In the USA we have folks who dress up in historically accurate Revolutionary war gear and spend weekends marching around in formation while eating moldy hardtack. In Hungary we have weekend barbarians.Horseback archery is a big, legitimate, and rather difficult sport in Hungary. Historical leatherwork and sewing ancient Magyar outfits is a booming business. I was amused, therefore, by the big kettle of guylás that seemed to be at the center of the yurt village. These folks don't cut corners on accuracy, believe me. But paprika didn't really come to Europe until 500 years after the Hungarians had hung up their furry hats. Gulyás soup with paprika is actually a dish that developed in the late 18th century, after the Turks introduced it. But no matter: one doesn't get between a Hungarian and his gulyás. Ever. Especially if he is carrying a battle axe.I'll delve into the revival of Ancient Hungarianism in a later post, but the atmosphere at the National Gallop was surprisingly positive and refreshing. Suddenly it hit me: it has been years since there has been any public event involving Hungarian history and traditions that has not been co-opted by the loonier fringes (including the center right) of Hungary's polarized right wing political groups. This was a day that normal Hungarians could take their families out and be proud of their Huszárs and cowboys and old Magyar forebears without the droning, raging aggressive whine of nationalist loudpeakers. Calling the event the "National" Race was like waving a red cape at the nationalist bulls. The right wing groups denounced participation in the race since it was serving "Mammon" - in this case in the private sponosorship of banks and the directorship of Wonder Boy Peter "Hey! I can get Rich off of Damn Near Anything I Do" Geszti. If this is the case, go Mammon!Mammonites get hungry too. The proper side dish to gulyás is a big plate of pickles - you can choose between sour cukes, peppers, and the ever popular csálamadé, a sweet-and-hot take on sour kraut that transforms a hunk of sausage into a hunk of sausage with csálamadé.Áron digging into a microscopically small serving of kolbász. Usually I don't suggest the kolbász at outdoor festivals - it tends to be dry, burnt, and overpriced. Not here.Everybody loves pizza, right? So what if Hungary has no tradition of pizza? Make one up! These mud ovens pop up everywhere there is a festival, offering "traditional" Hungarian "flat bread" with remarkably pizza-like toppings, served by enthusiastic folks dressed in folk costumes. But I have never seen, heard , or eaten this pizzoid object except at festivals since 1995. I grew up eating Hungarian food. All the men in my Hungarian family are either chefs or butchers. Years of studying Hungarian ethnography and visiting in villages have never revealed this "tradition" to me or any other folkorists, but heck, pizza is pizza, right? Bring it on!I have to admit, Erdélyi kürtos kalács, or transylvanian horned cake is gooood. Of course, paying Ft 1000 for one is not gooood. These were merely priced 300% more than they cost at the subway station in Kőbanya. Mammon indeed. Alas.