Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Secrets of Gypsy Cuisine.

June is the month when Budapest breaks out in in a spate of chronic festival events. Just about every weekend means some kind of crowded street fair featuring music, greasy street food, and in some cases, horsies. We had the National Horse Race in Hősök tere a few weeks ago, a celebration of Hungarian national symbolism without the Hungarian right wing nationalist embolism that usually accompanies such events.
It rained during the races, as it has for nearly every day this month, but at least the horses seemed to be having a good time. The Athe Sam Roma festival was going on at the Gödör Klub downtown. Each night there was a kicking lineup of great Roma bands, both amateur and pro, and for a few days the Gypsy community in Budapest could relax and enjoy themselves in the spring evening air downtown. Although this year has seen an upswing in anti-Roma sentiment fanned by Hungarian right wing extremists, the atmostphere at the Gödör was festive and open, with Roma, Hungarians, and the stray tourist all dancing the night away.
Last weekend my band had a gig at the castle in Tata, about an hour’s drive east of Budapest. This is one aspect of playing in Europe that I never get tired of: half of my gigs are in amazing spaces such as castles and villas. I once played in the villa belonging to Enrico Caruso in Florence, Italy and got to use his bathroom for our dressing room. A life of fiddling in dive bars around New England and now I play in twelfth century castles... can't argue with progress!Tata is actually about four small towns linked together without any real central downtown area, located on a lake. It's quite nice, if you have a car, and quite spread out if you don't. If anything in Hungary can be said to evoke Los Angeles freeway culture, it is Tata. The lake even has a fountain spouting in the middle of it, just in case too much unadulterated nature is not your cup of tea.The usual festival food was on offer… I am not actually a fan of this stuff, mainly because the local Mom and Pop food vendors have been edged out of the festival business by larger established catering firms, and the food is always the same and always rather mediocre and expensive. Why is it that eating at a festival in Hungary means hunks of the greasiest food possible? Ham knuckles, sausage, pork kebabs, bacon sautés…After we finished the gig the next band up was the amazing Django style Gypsy swing of Frankie Lató’s Jazz Band. Frankie Lató is one of the most creative young Gypsy violinists working in Hungary now, with a fluency in Jazz violin that puts him head and shoulders above the mob of great fiddlers this country produces. But like most musician Gypsies, Frankie loves greasy, old fashioned Hungarian kolbász.
If there is anything that can be called "Gypsy cuisine" it is a love of fat meat and paprika grease. Given that most Roma spent the last few centuries in dire poverty, meat was often uncommon, and the available cuts were often the cheapest. And the fattiest. I remember being served a pork roast by Gypsy cimbalom player Toni Árpád and his wife in Transylvania a few years ago. They offered me a platter and knowing the Romani aesthetic, I forked up the fattiest, greasiest piece on the plate, to which Mrs. Toni offered a gravy of a pint or so of lard drippings from the pan. "That's my boy" whooped Uncle Árpi "It makes you strong!" Maybe it is time to try the Atkins' Diet again? Or maybe just dance more.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Market Forces

Finding decent food is easy in Budapest as long as you follow the Hungarian system: eat Hungarian food. The big open markets are at their best at this time of year, but within certain bounds - if you want to make Hungarian food, you'll find everything you could ever wish for, providing that all you ever wish for is kohlrabi and carrots. If you want to make just about anything else, buy a plane ticket.
We do our shopping at open markets several times a week. It sure beats shopping at Costco - my meat is never prewrapped in plastic, my kraut is scooped out of a barrel, and there are bugs crawling on my radishes. I know my butchers and they know me, I have my favorite farmers' stands, the mushroom lady sees me and knows I'm the Weird Guy Who Puts Oyster Mushrooms in Soup. The best market people are performers on their own stage, ten hours a day, six days a week, masters of marketing in their unique way. The tomatos below were on thirty percent off sale for five minutes in each hour... the sign says "Please Don't Squeeze Them. They are not Bagpipes."
Usually we hit Bosnyák ter Market in our nabe in Zugló, which is one of the cheapest markets in town and still one of the most traditional, which is to say beat up, dusty, and low priced. Some days, however, we head to the tonier Lehel tér market, where good Csopak wine comes in two liter plastic bottles for FT 880 (four US $.) To get to the Lehel tér market, we use a secret route that begins behind a hidden "village" located next to the MAV railway tracks behind Mexikói ut.
There seems to be a lost village of retired MAV workers back here, complete with houses that seem to have been plucked out of some dusty country village, along a dirt road complete with flower beds. There isn't any evidence of the expected hobo settlement, and although the crossing for traffic is almost always down, most pedestrians and bikers simply look both ways and walk across the rail crossing.If the station master starts yelling at you you know there may be a train coming.
This leads to the Rákosrendező train station, where there is an old fashioned bar and snack stand for the railyard workers, before crossing over to northern Pest and a ten minute bike ride to Lehel tér. Although still in use for local trains, the main purpose of this station seems to be to provide shooting locations for bad avante garde films.
Lehel tér has one of the last remaining old fashioned self service cafeterias left in Budapest, a relict of the old communist era chowhouses that used to be found on every main square and which have now pretty well all replaced with McDonald's. You grab a tray and choose from an array of food sauced in parika and sour cream. Old time budget meals that have almost disappeared from restaurant menus such as spaghetti covered in poppy seeds and sugar are always available here, but the smart choices are good old fashioned Hungarian stews: pörkölt. This is a classic circa 1982 worker's lunch.
This is probably what most foreigners think of as Hungarian "goulash", but in fact it is what we call marha pörkölt - beef stew. Essenially, beef stewed in paprika sauce over the tiny peal pasta called tarhonya. Tarhonya is an old way of dealing with dried pasta: the term comes from Old Turkish - tarhana - and today you can find a similar pasta in any Istanbul supermarket, and tarhana soup is considered the national dish of the Volga Tatars. Hungarians pan fry the tarhonya first and then add the cooking water, which makes the tiny pasta come out in varying shades of yellow and brown with a nice nutty flavor .
In Hungarian cooking each meat stew is considered to have its own side dish: beef stew gets tarhonya, while pork stew is served with the little egg and flour dumplings called galushka. I've actually been lectured by waiters when trying to get a beef stew served with galushka. It just don't work that way in Hungary. Sourkraut stuffed yellow peppers make this a complete summer meal. After a nice, light summer meal of a plate of stew and tarhonya - yes, this would be considered a light summer meal here - what better could you wish for than some nice cakes. And voila! - the pastry stand is located just outside the cafeteria, close enough that you can grab a dessert and bring it back inside to finish off your meal.

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Burek: Bosnia's Gift to Breakfast.

Let's bring our Bosnian extravaganza to a close with some musings on burek, one of my favorite street foods. Back when this blog was beginning we were spending a couple of months in Istanbul, and our breakfasts often meant heading down to the local börek baker and ordering tea and a slice of the flakey pastry filled with meat known throughout the former Turkoid world as börek. In the Balkans, the word morphs with various spellings into burek. And Sarajevo has some very good burek.
The winner of the burek competition was a tiny place on a side street in Bascarsija simply advertising "Sac Burek." Sac is turkish for a charcoal grilling process in which a large metal pan is filled with coals and hung above the burek to bake it from above - kind of a dutch oven idea but adapted from the older Anatolian tradition of baking layered flatbreads without a real oven.
The burek pastry is called yufka, just as in Turkey, and is made by preparing a simple dough of flour and water and then soaking balls of the dough in oil for a few hours. The resulting dough is shiney with shortening and, beaten out, becomes elastic. Rolled and tossed until it is a thin and translucent parachute, the yufka is filled with meat (classic burek) cheese, potato, or spinach and cheese and rolled into a coil and baked. At the Sac burekdzinica it was served with a side of thick clotted cream. Breakfast doesn't get better than this for one Euro.
The best part of staying in the Bascasija district was the convenient access one had to amazing, high quality cheap eats. Wake up, drag self down to street, start drinking coffees and fresh orange juices and grab a slice of the world's best burek for next to nothing. Practice speaking a barbaric mixture of agrammatical South Slav mixed with Turkish with the owner, usually on the topic of Turkish football. "Turkiye? Dobro. Besiktas? Mnogo dobro. Moje team. Cok iyi! Super!" Continue throughout the day.
We can get burek now in Budapest - although it can't hold a candle to burek in the Balkans. there used to be a Kosovo Serb refugee in town who made burek for a select string of late night bars, but he's resettled himself in Serbia now. There is a Voivodina Croatian Bunyevac family that runs a couple of bakeries (on Kiraly utca and another on the Korut) that makes a decent northern style burek, and there is also a Serb bakery in Ujlipotvaros that is making burek. They, however, microwave their burek before serving it, which pretty much destoys them as it destroys any bread or baked product. Burek is best enjoyed fresh... and perhaps it is even better enjoyed by the seaside in Istanbul... Karakoy... mmmm...We managed to get some shopping in for the twelve hour trip home from Sarajevo at the central market, the Markhale, located in the center of the downtown. I picked up strings of dried okra for making stews, Fumie stocked up on fruits and greens to take back to Budapest, and I lucked out at one stand selling home brewed rakia for 5 Bosnian Marks a bottle (US$ 3)
The Markale was the site of one of the final atrocities of the Siege of Sarajevo.The first happened on February 5, 1994 when 68 people were killed and 144 more were wounded when a Serb mortar was shot into the Market from the hills above Sarajevo. The second occurred on August 28, 1995 when a mortar shell killed 37 people and wounded another 90. This latter attack was the stated reason for NATO air strikes against the Bosnian Serb forces that would eventually lead to the Dayton Peace Accords and the end of the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Today the market is thriving, and a wall in the rear of the market honors those killed during the bombings. The bombs were indiscriminate: Muslim Bosniak names rest beside names of obvious Serb and Croat origin as well. The monument was one of the more moving that we sawe in Sarajevo - life goes on, yet no one forgets the victims. On our way out the next morning, we passed destroyed villages in the northern part of Bosnia where the present day invisible dividing line separates the Muslim Croat Federation of Bosnia from the still isolated Republika Srpska.
The Bosnian Serb Republic may well be one of the most diplomatically and economically isolated parts of Europe, somewhat more legitimate than the Transdnistran Republic, but destined to remain in a legal limbo as long as war criminals such as Ratko Mladic continue to take refuge there. It is also a center for the local style of roots music, the almost amazingly unmarketable sounds of Izvorno Zvuci music. This is the local style of fiddle-and-scream music based on the narrow harmonies of the Bosnian mountain singing instead of the smooth urban music of Sarajevo sevdah. You see the crude hand carved sargija lutes - essentially primitive two course diatonic saz - for sale in a lot of Bascarsija shops.
As far as the Izvorno sound goes, check out Youtube. My buddy Ben Mandelson tried to promote an Izvorno band on Globestyle records back in the grand blossoming of the World Music movement during the late 1980s: Kalesijski Zvuci: Breakdown: The Unpronounceable Beat of Sarajevo. The album set records for least popular World Music Recording of all time. As anybody knows, I am a sucker for wild, scratchy fiddle-and-scream music of all types, but Bosnian Zvuci is just about the limit for me. I mean, no way could I actually listen to this for an entire CD. Anlother issue is that there is an awful lot of strongly nationalist Izvorno music around, and when you get to where you can understand the lyrics it can be downright uncomfortable to listen to. But that's why we have youtube!And if you need more, just surf youtube, the lazy ethnomusicologist's best friend!

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Further Adventures in Bosnian Ground Meat

Sarajevo’s distinctive little rolled cevapi are world famous - at least among former Yugos – but they are not the end of the line for cevap in Bosnia. Not by a long shot. The cevap made in Banja Luka, in the west of Bosnia, are a whole other universe of cevapoid pleasure, one that can divide cevap fans into partisan camps between two cevapdzinicas on the same street. Banja Luka is a city west of Sarajevo that wound up in the Republika Srbska after the Dayton Agreement ended armed hostilities in 1996. Today it is the de facto capitol of the Rpka. Srpska zone, and the once large muslim Bosniak population of the town was resettled into the Federation territories, many of them in Sarajevo. With them came the Banja Lucki cevap, a tight square of cevaps divided into four connected cevap and usually served with… gasp!... a hot pepper.
The square shape, which peels off into four tender mini cevapi when cut with a fork, are ever so slightly different than the Sarajevo rolled method. You usually get three (a middle sized portion) or four( super size me to veliki, baby!) squares, loaded into a somun loaf that has been dipped into a greasy broth and then toasted on the grill, which keeps the whole serving warm and juicy while you eat it. The sides – onions and kaymak cream – are topped with a couple of small hot peppers.The end result is that the cevapi stay juicier when connected into one firm meat cake than they would if already divided into little turdy taste bombs, as in Sarajevo style. The meat mix may also include some lamb, or at least younger veal. The discovery of the Banja Luka style cevapi made my life choices much harder in Sarajevo.
Will it be Zeljo’s? Or Kastel? Or the Banja Lucki place that mixes hot pepper into the meat? How can I ever decide? Luckily, I didn’t decide. I ate them all. Banja Luka cevaps were usually a little bit cheaper in price than the cevap from the better known places, and one afternoon while hanging in Mirella's cafe the bartender ran down the street, bought a big take out bag of Banja Luka cevap, and then shared them out with the whole of the bar clientele - me, Fumie, and the accordion player.When I got back to Budapest I ran into cevap grillmaster Sinise from the Jelen Bar one night hanging with some other Serbian expat friends. One mention of Sarajevo sent them into swoons of nostalgia and competing cevap nostalgia for the two styles. Even cooks from Belgrade and the Voivodina go into rapture at the mention of Bosnian cevapi.It mostly has to do with the quality of meat. Bosnia is mountainous and produces great beef and lamb. Most cevap is pure beef - slightly older than veal - and some is a mixture of lamb and beef. Serbian cevap from Leskovac uses pork in the mix, and as you get into Bulgaria you wind up with pure pork kebabche. I personally consider Bulgarian kebabche to be just beyond the pale of enjoyable cevap… perhaps because I once got food poisoning from eating a bad one in Koprivshtitsa in 2001. Which is strange since just across the border from Bulgaria you enter Turkey and suddenly the ground meat universe blossoms into the wonderful world of kofte… made of beef and lamb again. Balkan cooking is essentially a subset of Turkish cuisine, and often you will find an Ottoman era recipe tweaked into a pork dish that it isn’t possible to identify with the Turkish cuisine of the past. Greeks make souvlaki with pork, Bulgarians make kebab with pork, and guess what? It’s a political statement, not an improvement. Furthermore, pork falls apart when made into a meat patty, so you have to add binders like egg or breadcrumbs. Sticking with the beef and lamb traditions of Balkan Muslim cooking, Bosnian cevapi are some of the best of the best ground meatwads available in the universe. They are copied all over the Balkans wherever Bosnian refugees have settled, such as in Slovenia.I’m not even goung to attempt to discuss the hamburgeroid South Slav pleskavica here (which is one of the most searched items that directs readers to this blog.) Pleskavica is essentially a cevap patty that you can eat like a burger. If I am in Serbia or Croatia, yes, I will eat pleskavica. It is what I get at the Jelen and other Serb grills in Budapest. Budapest - lacking anything vaguely resembling decent beef - is a barren desert when you want a simple hamburger. In those cases you get yourself to a Serbian bar and order a pleskavica. But give me a good Balkan grill south of the border and I go for the cevap. Bosnia – keep my seat waiting. I’m pretty sure I’ll be back within the year.