Monday, November 30, 2009

Mici du Jour: The Cluj Flea Market

Until a few years ago, Romania was one of the few European countries that put the seasoning in the term "seasoned traveller." Poor, shocked after decades of the rule of Nicolai Ceaucescu and a violent and confusing excuse for a revolution in 1989, Romania in the 1990s was not what one would call a tourist magnet. Hotels were nightmarish, the food was remarkably bad, transportation often non existent. It was never an easy trip. The contrast between the physical beauty of the country and its unique national culture juxtaposed against the crushing poverty of the post communist years made it a must-write story for the intrepid travel writer who wanted an easy sell to shock editors with tales of Romania's lack of amenities. And yes, I was guilty on all charges. (The latest victim to fall into this trap was the intrepid Tony Bourdain, who filmed his worst ever episode of No Reservations in Romania last year, triggering a small national scandal in the process. In defense of our boy from Leonia, I still don't think it was his fault.)The image of poor, isolated Romania being a traveller's nightmare is absolutely no longer the case. Romania has changed a lot, and although one can see still scenes of poverty that are rare in western Europe, the country has developed much farther than any other I know of in East Europe. (A friend working in the Republic of Moldova recently described Chisinau as "Think of Romania fifteen years ago.") If you want to get a sense of how thing were fifteen years ago, you actually have to travel a bit. Not too far. Like take a cab ride from the center of Cluj (Kolozsvar in Hungarian) to the saturday flea market, for example.
The flea market in Cluj used to be located a bit closer to town along the railroad tracks, but has now been pushed out even farther into a muddy field along the Somes River. I've been a fan of the Cluj flea market since I first came in 1990 - it's always been either muddy (winter) or dusty (summer) and although the city fathers wouldn't want to admit it, it may be one of the hottest tourist attractions in the city. This is where you can find peasants bringing in things to sell from the surrounding country, locals selling car parts, tools, tires, and plain, simple junk, often trucked in directly from flea markets in Germany or Belgium, for resale in a place where "Made in Germany" still resounds with the promise of freedom. Romanians are now citizens of the EU, with freedom of travel, and millions of them are busy making money working in France, Spain, Italy and Ireland these days, sending home money, or coming home and spending it. So why not stop at a few junk markets on your drive back from France and resell the stuff at home like you used to do?It is also the best place to pick up CDs of music (it hasn't been all that long since you came here to pick up casettes... and a long, long time ago there would be fiddlers playing at the beer tents, but that's something only us greybeards remember anymore...) The choice is between the slick, Gypsy oriented style of manele, with its lyrics of crime and gang violence (lyrics are either about "my enemies" or "things I can do with my dick" essentially) or the somewhat stilted version of Romanian folk music performed as musica populara, now playing the role of "Country and Eastern" (songs about pretty village girls, and "things I can do with my sheep.") Music lovers tend to be fans of one genre or the other, rarely both.
Somebody asked me "Doesn't Cluj have a Gypsy Market?" In a sense, no, but yes. The Flea Market (Oser de Haine in Romanian) attracts a lot of Roma, especially the Gaboresti clan, a tribe who specialize in retail sales of anything they can carry: kitchen wares, plastic shoes, chinese cutlery. They travel widely, to Istanbul, Milan, Berlin, Paris buying wholesale goods and running it back to the final point of sale... a muddy field in Romania. Recognizable by their costume - big hats and baggy suit pants for men, impeccably clean colored skirts for women - the Gaborii are just one of the groups that come to the market each saturday. A large proportion of the Gaborii are strict Seventh Day Adventists - if you can imagine Gypsies that do not drink, eat pork, and pray on Saturdays. The Gabor guys I have known have generally had strong moral misgivings about anything they had done the night before... my kind of Adventists...
It may look like a pajama party in a vast mud field, but it is all about business here, and where there is biznitsa you will find the Roma. All kinds of them. Kalderash, Rudari, musician familes, village gypsies, either hawking wares or buying staples like rugs with Elvis Presly imprinted on them. But I don't have any idea where the idea came from that this is a "Gypsy" market. 98 percent of the folks here are non Gypsy Gadjos...i.e. customers... And business is hungry work. For that, you need meat. And the meat you want is a few mici "little buggers" the short form of mititei, which can proudly present itself as the national meatwad of Romania.
Mici are the northernmost expression of the Turko-Balkan gastronomic phenomenom of hamburger... what does one do when beef is less than tender? Grind and grill! The Ottoman Turks introduced köfte, delicate small ground beef rolls, which led to the balkan cevapi, and finally to the much larger mici, sized to match Romanian appetites. Recipe: grind the cow up, form into sausage shapes, and grill it! Roma have a few basic laws governing eating - basically defining "clean" food as opposed to non clean "gadjo" food - you won't see them in restaurants for this reason - but grill meat in the open where everyone can see it, and no problem! It looks like meat: eat it!
Romanians have figured out the perfect combination of beef cuts to produce the most flavorful version of "tubesteak" using meat from the neck as well as lesser used meat cuts, and if you get really lucky your meat roll will be relatively free of bits of bone or hair. In towns you can find these at beer halls and many restaurants, but the old fashioned, hefty, greasy and char-grilled versions are best tasted at a flea market, fair, or roadhouse where they grill them outdoors and serve them hot to the waiting crowds, who wolf them down standing up with bread and bland mustard, all washed down with a cold beer. At about US .75 cents a piece, you won't find cheaper or tastier beef this side of Uzbekistan. In 1993 I was in Bacau, in Moldavia, eating mici that cost (at that time) about 10 cents a piece when I got a call that a band I was playing in at the time (shudder!) was suddenly invited to play in Israel. Two weeks later I was in a fancy "nouvelle Israeli cuisine" restaurant in Jerusalem with Michael Alpert. Being nearly penniless at the time, I simply opted for a beer (in Israel there is nothing worth eating besides the $1.00 street felafuls, believe me...) while Michael ordered the mici plate.. the cheapest thing on the menu at about USD $16 a plate. When he asked me how they stacked up against the mici of the Bacau market I simply said "Fifteen dollars and ninety cents different."
I have to admit, I have eaten some pretty dodgy mici in my time, often in situations far from medical assistance, but I have never fallen ill from mici. I got violently sick in Bulgaria some years back after eating a ground pork kebabche at the Koprivshtitsa festival, which sent me to the Sofia hospital, but that may be because it was pork (the mici meat in use in Bulgaria, where any meat recipe that was originally of Turkish origin is compulsively and contentiously re-imagined using the most non-halal meat possible) that had sat in the sun for a day or so. I haven't eaten any Bulgarian kebabche since.
So, now that we have seen the nostalgic side of Romania - muddy fields, second hand clothes sold out of vans, meat grilled a la Neanderthal... are we ready for the new Romania? I certainly hope so. It is definately worth the trip.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Ciorba de Burta: The Romanian Gift of Gut

If anything can be classified as Romania's National Soup, it would be ciorba de burta... tripe soup (more literally "gut soup.") It is everywhere - at restaurants, at pizzerias, at railway station quick food bars, at fancy shopping mall food courts. You simply can't feed Romanian men if they have no chance to wolf down a bowl of cream o' stomach lining soup.Sure, this may be one of the posts where I gross out 40% of my North American readers (eewwww! They eat guts!) but I am firmly on the side of ciorba de burta. I not only can stomach eating stomach, I'm an active partisan, and when in Romania I make it a point of honor to eat ciorba de burta at least once a day, maybe even more if no one is watching. Ciorba de burta makes an excellent breakfast if you are staying in a less than five star hotel, and you know that it will be excellent in the morning when most of the staff order it for their breakfast. I wonder how many cows have to be slaughtered daily to produce this much tripe - I am sure more Romanians order tripe soup every day than order steak or anything else made of beef. Romanian ciorba most closely resembles the classic parent dish inherited from the Ottoman Turkish era: işkembe çorba, which I have rhapsodized about during our times in Istanbul. Macedonian and Greek tripe ciorbas that I have eaten came in clear soup broth, while the Romanian and Turkish versions are often stewed with milk and thickened with a flour roux. As always, you might add a bit of vinegar or lemon juice to sour it up a bit, and one almost always orders it with extra sour cream - preferably thick fresh water buffalo sour cream - and a fresh or pickled hot green pepper.
Tripe ciorba is considered to be something of a folk medicine, especially for hangovers, and in Greece and Turkey there are specialized eateries called "Patzas" that open only late at night until breakfast and serve only a selection of gut and extremeity soups (legs, heads, tail, or other "tails") and where you can go to meet all the victims of a town's nightlife at 7 in the morning before they have to crawl into their office jobs and pretend to work until the mid day siesta rolls around. Except in Romania there is no siesta. An odd fact is that beyond the borders of Romania in Moldova or Hungary, there is no tripe soup. None. Nimic. I asked a friend in Moldova about this and he answered "No, they only eat that across the border." Imagine: Romanians with no ciorba de burta. Unthinkable! Perhaps it is because of the complicated process of cooking beef tripe - washing and parboiling do little to remove the unique smell of cooking trip. Think of what tripe does: it digests. And having digested, it produces... yes... something smelly. Depending on your cultural orientation, that either makes you hungry or inspires a fart joke. Hungarians occasionally eat pacal pörkölt - tripe stewed with paprika, but some kind of chemical reaction bewteen cow stomache and paprika occurs and it becomes one of the only tripe foods I (pardon the pun) can't stomach.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Fall Wild Mushroom Madness

It is a warm late autumn in Hungary: foggy nights, wet days with no real rain. Depressing weather. But oddly, the market at Bosnyak ter is full with fresh wild mushrooms. This kind of weather in late November actually is a wild mushoroom boom season, and we lucked out at Saturday's market on a bumper crop of Lila Pereszke mushrooms...
These are known in English as Blewits. They are one of the few naturally occuring purple foods in the animal/vegetable kingdom. Blewits are a mushroom that are actually slightly toxic - you can't eat them raw, and some people have an allergic reation to them even when well prepared. Just my kind of fungus!! But these 'shrooms had the stamp of approval from the official mushroom inspector who is parked in his official camper van outside the market,and after an official inspection he gives an offical approval paper to all mushroom sellers, and so when the seller told us these were FT 1000 a kilo (twice the price of regular factory champignon mushrooms but less than the price of any meat.. about USD 4.50) we caved in an bought a half kilo...
and oh my gawd... delicious, they were jaw-dropping amazing. Fumie smelled them and immediatly thought of Matsutake mushrooms, the Japanese specialty that brings in about fifty dollars per mushroom in Japan... they had a deep, musty smell that said "eat me please!" And so we did. Three times over the weekend. Our first attempt was a simple pasta with mushroom sauce: butter, mushrooms, parsley, black pepper. Heavenly.
Then we had breakfast of loosely scrambled eggs with wild mushrooms. There was some other species of wld mushroom involved in this dish, but by now we have forgotten its name....Later we made simple schnitzel (pork!) with mamaliga corn meal mush and a mushroom gravy. Absolute heaven.
This is what I love about this place: even though you can pretend to love the malls and supermarkets, the smells and flavors of the season and the countryside are still available to us city dwellers at our district markets. How could I ever live without my local market? Impossible! Bosnyak ter is one of the last of the funky old style open markets -"EU conform" be damned - but who knows how long this is going to last.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

The Angry Donuts of Transylvania. Again.

I have many favorite European cities, often ones not on the semi-official list of cute and wonderful places to visit. I live in Budapest, but think Veszprém, my Mother's birthplace, is the most beautiful town in Hungary. I love Paris but find the warmth of Nantes more to my liking. My favorite urban centers are probably Istanbul (incredible history, even more incredible köfte meatballs), Milan (uniquely ugly neighborhoods but free food during the aperitivi "happy hour") Sarajevo (for beauty and heroism, not to mention the cevapi) and - in Romania - Cluj. Yes, Cluj-Napoca, also known in Hungarian as Kolozsvár, is probably the place that feels most like my second home town in Europe, although I haven't spent all that much time there in the last few years.The new town town center by Unirii Square is getting a face lift next to the Hungarian Church and the statue of King Mátyás after years of contentious debate that was started when the "Mad Mayor" Gheorghe Funar started digging up spurious archeological sites around the chursh. Today, the park around the church has been stoned over (for "modern purposes like skateboarding" says the new Mayor, only slightly less mad) and statue of King Mátyás is getting his first restoration in many years. Filled with historic architecture, a lively university culture, and a funky ethnic mix, Cluj remains my choice for visiting in Romania, not the least because it has the best donuts on the surface of the planet earth. Angry donuts.I have written about the Angry Donuts (Gogoasa Infuriata) on this blog before, but how can one ever keep quiet about fried dough filled with sour cherries or vanilla cream. The dough is warm when you get it and the frying has given a bit of crunchy bite to the skin... yes, these are donuts you can write home about, which is exactly what I am doing now... (photos may be NSFW) Gogoasa Infuriata seems to have originally been a Cluj donut stand that existed years ago, and over the last few years it has started to franchise out with branches in Craiova and even Bucharest itself. I found a Bucharest branch of Gogoasa Infuriata at the crowded and monstrous Piaţa Unirii next to the 104 Bus stop...As soon as I called out to my band members to wait they started laughing at me. "What is it with Americans and donuts?" I think it is because everybody watches the Simpsons (dubbed in Hungarian) that Americans are stereotyped as donut eaters, but I could not for the life of me do anything to dispel the notion . Donuts... donuts...I had to try them. Unfortunately, these were sold under the Gogoasa Infuriata label, but were just not the same... basically, these were just normal jelly donuts, exactly the same as you would find in any American diner or supermarket. Actually, they were frigging great, but they were just not a real Gogoasa Infuriata! After Bucharest, I sent the boys home and took the train from Arad to Cluj, where I met Fumie. I promised her a weekend in Cluj with all the donuts for free on me! And so we began... on our donut eating quest... eating... eating... donuts... I have posted on Gogoasa Infuriate on this blog before, and I can't really improve on what I said in 2007: "Regardless of what Romania may have or have not contributed to the developement of Western Civilization, any lack is more than made up for by their Angry Donuts. This is quite possibly the best fast food franchise located on the planet earth. I'm not prone to hyperbole, but this modest Romanian donut franchise puts Dunkin Donuts or Krispy Kreme to shame.... The idea is so simple these could easily be a hit anywhere in the world - keeping the batches small means every donut is fresh and warm, and the menu is short: donuts filled with apples, sour cherry jam, vanilla or chocoalte cream, or salty cheese."The coffee is of a type rare in Europe: regular good old filter coffee served in a take away paper cup. You know it has to be good because there is always a line out in front." Angry Donuts are easy to find - one is on str. Memorandului on the main square at Piata Unirii, while the other is tucked on a side street next to the main outdoor market at Mihai Viteazu Square.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Back From Romania: Concert in Bucharest

I'm home in Budapest after spending a week in Romania enjoying the shitty weather and the excellent tripe soup. Di Nayes were invited to play a concert at the Museum of the Romanian Peasant in Bucharest, sponsored by the Austrian Cultural Institute as a series of Klezmer and Jazz concerts. I invited the formidable young fiddler Jake Shulmen-Ment along - he's been living in Paris this fall. After all, if you are playing Klezmer in Bucharest, why not do it right? And since Jake works off the same sources for his music as I do it made for an extremely fun, very Romanian concert.Since we traveled to Bucharest on the overnight train, we had to bring the small portable cimbalom, and I borrowed a cobza from Beatrice Iordan of the band Trei Parale, whose husband and band mate, Florin, actually works at the museum as a folklorist. The Museum Club was a great venue - Romanian folk furniture, tables, very cozy, a great bar. There doesn't seem to be a huge traditional folk music scene in Bucharest - apart from Trei Parale, who focus on flute and historical ballad traditions, and often present their music at early music festivals and rennaisance fairs. When we played within the Moldavian and Transylvanian styles of Jewish music it was pure joy to watch the faces in the audience. They don't often get much Transylvanian string band music down in Oltenia, it seems.
Bucharest is being reconstructed from whole cloth these days, with a lot of major road work disrupting any attempt to get from point A to point B. Bucharestians can be seen carefully dancing their way around all manner of obstructions as they attempt to navigate the streets and sidewalks. if you have to get anywhere, take the Metro. Bucharest traffic at evening rush hour is horrendous. But Bucharest itself has come a long way from the urban hell hole we remembered from the early 1990s. The shops are smart, lots of trendy bars and cafes, good restaurants, definately not the Bucharest I remember from fifteen years ago when all was grey and dreary. Believe me, in the 1990s Bucharest was one of the least attractive cities in the world. That's changing, but it takes an awful big heart to love Bucharest. The dreariest building of all is the former Palace of Nicolae Ceauşescu , now the Palace of the Parliament.
Started by order of the increasingly unstable Nicolae Ceauşescu in 1984, the construction of the Palace required demolishing much of Bucharest's historic district, including 19 Orthodox Christian churches, six Jewish synagogues, three Protestant churches (plus eight relocated churches), and 30,000 residences. According to the Guinness Book of World Records, the Palace is the world's largest civilian administrative building most expensive administrative building, and heaviest building. But the newer Bucharest is a series of surprises, especially if you knew the old one. On the up side, I found Europe's best hamburger in a small "French" bistro on Piata Romana, a place that advertised itself simply as "Soups and Meats."The bun was a bit tough but the meat was perfect... good beef, medium rare. Hungary doesn't have a single eatery that can produce a burger anything like this... none of us know why... it is so sad... but Bucharest definately takes the blue ribbon for east European burgers. There were non-burger items to try while I was in romania, but more on them later... I never rush a post when discussing tripe soup and ground spiced meatwad products like mici.

Sunday, November 01, 2009

Halloween in Hungary

We don't do Halloween in Hungary. We have "All Saints Day" - known as "mindszentnap". Hungary is a Christian nation, give or take a few hundred thousand Jews (like me) Muslims (like them) and Buddhists (like the band Belga) but by and large Hungarians are not a very practicing religious lot. Most religious holidays are taken as days off, shoppping holidays, a time for family meals, and Hungarians are not generally attracted to hard core fundamentalism or religious revivalism. Christmas and Easter are celebrated but generally are occasions for family get-togethers. The biggest religious holiday, however, may be November 1 - All Saint's day - when everybody heads out to the cemetery to lay wreaths and light candles for the Dead. Everybody. The crowds were insane. Essentially, it is the celebration of the Hungarian Ancestor Cult. Which is actually the most genuine form of family worship you can find. There are traffic jams at all the cemeteries and flower sellers gang up at the intersections. Everybody gears up to tend the family grave sites. No cost is spared. If you die Hungarian, you can at least expect a day each year where your family tosses some serious cash for you. Grave tending is hard work. And you don't attend to it every day. We stopped into a local grocery for some water and we saw a special on gravestone cleaning fluid. This is not something you would find in an American Walmart.... "Gravestone Cleaner"We rode our bikes yesterday a few miles west out to Rakospalota and just happened to be by one of the main cemeteries, which is on the way to the Polus Center, a spectacularly sad shopping mall that has one of the only Army Surplus stores left in Budapest (cheap army cargo pants are hard to pass up.) People crowded the streets, flower and candle sellers did a huge business, and we had to check out the action inside the boneyard... Candle lighting is very important on All Saint's Day - if you travel past a cemetery at night it is like a pre-industrial light show. The interesting discovery were the specialized glass grave houses that Gypsy families erect to protect their graves from the elements.The names on these graves are from the Lovari Gypsy family groups - some of the most traditional of the Roma tribes in east Europe. They maintain very specific traditions about keeping things "Roma" separate from things not Roma. Such as grave space. And so they erect these huge glass houses over their graves. Some of the graves had Roma-specific symbolism like horses carved ointo the stones: this person,with the very Lovari name of "Raffael" was nicknamed "Benga" - "devil". Lest we forget...I dont really miss Halloween - the trick or treating thing has never caught on in Europe and I don't really miss it, but the costume party aspect of the holiday has been growing. Hey - who doesn't want another excuse for an office party? But I really respect the Hungarians' strong hold on the tradition of All Saints Day. You may be gone, but you ain't forgotten.