Monday, December 16, 2013

2013: The Year in Ramen

While Budapest can boast a million wonders, ramen noodles are not one of them. The Queen of the Danube lacks ramen-ya, the classic Japanese ramen shops that specializes in ramen noodle soup and gyoza, the little meaty dumplings that accompany them. I can't understand why that should be the case: Hungarians love noodle soups, and they love dumplings. They are fascinated by anything Japanese. How could they let this get away from them? There are about a dozen sushi shops around town serving raw fish to avid Magyars - a people not known for stuffing raw fish into their mouths - not to mention at least a thousand ex-pat Japanese who, to be objective, would eat Japanese food all the time if given their druthers. Yes, the Japanese are as provincial about their tastes as any Hungarian. A Magyar wants a taste of paprika in everything they eat, a Japanese expects everything to taste of sloy, fermented fish and seaweed. The world is a big and wonderful place, is it not? So no ramen in Budapest for the foreseeable future. However, by a freakish stroke of luck, we spent much of the the summer in Teaneck New Jersey. Teaneck, which is affectionately referred to by many of its native sons as "Jewtown, USA" is conveniently located near the nuclear epicenter of the western hemisphere's ramen noodle production: Sun Noodle. Sun noodle is a Japanese-Hawaiian noodle manufacturer that makes a noodle that some say are among the world's best. A few years ago they set up shop in Teterboro, New Jersey to supply the demand for high quality fresh noodles among New York's booming ramen scene. Ever since Chef David Chang started the neo-ramen shop craze a decade ago with his Momofuku Ramen in New York's east village (named after the inventor of the instant ramen noodle, Momofuku Andoh, who founded Nissan Food Products) ramen shops have sprouted all over New York. You think those chewy, springy ramen noodles were carefully crafted by hand in the back of a tiny noodle shop in Greenwich Village? Think again. They were made in New Jersey. Everything is made in New Jersey. By now, most of the better Japanese ramen franchises have set up shop around the New York area as well. Pop out of a subway station or pull into a suburban strip mall and you can usually find a decent ramen-ya waiting for you.
A good ramen-ya is like a good deli: it serves a limited menu of a comfort food but it can take a fierce pride in doing that task as close to perfect as possible. Ramen is to Japan what pizza is to New York: a slightly foreign dish (Chinese vs. Italian) that has been taken to heart, improved on, and made a central pillar of the local identity. New Yorkers are adamant about pizza (as anybody who watched Jon Stewart's Daily show pizza rant knows) because in Italy pizza is just a food. In New York it is The Food. The Japanese feel that way about ramen. I like ramen. Maybe not as much as my Significant Tokyo-born Other, who would take a train to Vienna in search of a bowl of "real" noodles. Vienna, incidentally, no longer has its two classic ramen shops, meaning that the closest decent bowl of ramen would be in Berlin, or possibly in Cracow.

Handsome Guy Gourmet Tofu stand
But a summer in New York means we can get our fill of ramen. Now, I do not drive. I don't like cars. Cars do not like me. Automobiles want to kill me, and they have tried and failed many times, which makes living in a Jersey suburb pretty much impossible for me. In order to get into New York from Teaneck I have two choices: hike up to Route 4 and catch the cheap "Spanish Bus" mini vans that run into northern Manhattan, or else the NJ Transit local bus at the end of our street, which takes us to the Mitsuwa Mall

You can have Santoka Ramen or Information, but not both.
in Edgewater, NJ, from where we can catch the Mitsuwa shopping shuttle bus to the 42nd St. Bus terminal. Mitsuwa is a full size Japanese shopping mall - complete with a giant supermarket in which you can buy Japanese toothpaste as well as fermented squid guts - but it also means I am pretty well sure that my day starts with a bowl of ramen from Santoka, which is only one of about seven different restaurant window choices on offer. There is a place offering Japanese-Chinese rice plates (hamburger and gravy on rice! Gyoza dumplings! Omrice!.) Another does udon noodles, another does tonkatsu and fried food, yet another "Kaiseki" set menus. All around ten bucks, which makes the food court a major draw for Japanese families in the New York area on weekends. Not to mention the location: Mitsuwa's food court looks out over the Hudson onto the Manhattan skyline, which alone makes it one of the more stunning dining options in the metro area.
Best panorama view of NY City available for $7.00
Santoka is oneof the leading Ramen chains in Japan, and for Fumie perhaps the main draw is the side dish of a bowl of rice with a whopping helping of salmon roe dished on top - an extravagant luxury in Japan, but here in the USA it is treated like sprinkles on an ice cream cone.

Shio Ramen, spicy miso ramen, and salmon abortion on rice. 
After picking up a few (yes, there are quite a few) of the Japanese expat and local community newspapers at Mitsuwa Fumie decided to go for the trifecta: let's try all the high end ramen-ya in the area. Next stop: Setegaya Ramen in Fort Lee. Named after a Tokyo neighborhood, this is located across the street from our favorite Japanese coffee and pastry shop, a place where you can get green tea cake and cold spaghetti sandwiches. Setegaya is a tiny place that serves only ramen and gyoza, and for lunch everybody gets the combo of... ramen and gyoza.

Setegaya set lunch.
You can order the shio (salt broth) ramen, shoyu (soy) or miso broth ramen, as well as the tsukemen ramen - ramen where the broth and noodles are served separately and combined by the diner. A bit pricier than Santoka, but still cheaper than any New York ramen-ya. How do I know that? Because the next ramen-ya on the list was New York's upscale Ippudo Ramen. Ippudo has been wowing New York's yuppoisie with its ramen noodles specializing in... noodles that are not curley.

Mo' noods.
Basically, capellini in broth. And as a special added treat, you can get a second helping of noodles plopped into your bowl after you finish the first, if you wish. Go on, make your banker happy and order the extra noodles! It was good, but I don't do posh well. Here you had to take a number and wait for a seat and eventually we were taken upstairs to the semi-industrial extra dining bar above the main floor. Good noodles, but Fumie had to have the special steamed bun with pork belly "burger" ...

Present Holy grail of New York foodies.
And what's better, I get big boyfriend points for taking Fumie to a posh midtown eatery.The big news in ramen noodles this year is something that English speakers probably don't even know about. The new thing in Japan is... a new kind of ramen noodle that comes "fresh" but you can make it at home. The days of the old dried package of ramen, and the styrofoam cup'o'soup are numbered, and Fumie has been getting care packages of these new fangled ramen noodles sent from home. Not only that, but Japanese business visitors have taken to bringing packages of these along as gifts, knowing the delight that will light up the faces on their clients and tech help when they get these "nearly fresh" ramen noodles. And yes, they are pretty darn good.

Pork belly and spinach ramen. Home made. In Hungary.

Thursday, December 05, 2013

2013: The Year in Chinese Noodles

Fa La Shin
As we plow head-on into the last month of the year, it is time to take "stock" of the year in terms of Chinese noodle soups. Living in Budapest, we are often annoyed that we can not find a hot bowl of mein on every street corner, but that does not deter us. Budapest has Chinese noodle soup, in fact. And if you keep reading you will learn where. But first, the best of the bowls, the Annual Index of Chinese Noodle Soup. The Chinese noodle soup index is based on several factors, including but not limited to a) How many Chinese noodle soups did I eat this year. b) How many Chinese noodle soups were available in my general vicinity at any given point in the vast time/space continuum, which includes both New Jersey and Zugló, and c) Whether the noodle soup was prepared by a Chinese person skilled in the preparation of noodle soup. This last requirement addresses the need to differentiate between my beloved Chinese noodles in soup and other Asian noodles in soup, such as Vietnamese pho, Japanese ramen, and Uzbek laghman, all of which have graced the interior of my digestive system in 2013, and all of of which deserve their own separate posts. Now, it should be added that when I am traveling with my delightful and beloved better half, who is from Japan, we tend to eat a lot of noodle soup. I am going out on a limb right now and stating the obvious: I like Chinese noodles in soup best. She likes ramen. My soup rarely costs more than US$ 5.00, hers rarely cost less that US$ 10.00, mine will have chunks of meaty tendon and pig butt in it and hers has Japanese pink processed fish baloney floating in it. We are constantly constantly bickering over whether our next meal with be Chinese or Japanese, but we are both pretty sure it will be noodle soup of some Asian kind. The classic form is simple wonton noodle soup, as prepared at Wing Shook Chinese Seafood Restaurant (194 East Broadway in New York's Chinatown) the quasi dim sum place on the corner of Seward Park. Four bucks. 

Wing Shook at Seward Park
Like most Manhattan Chinatown noodle joints, this features the slightly crunchy Hong Kong style noodle with several hefty meat wontons floating in a very chicken-y broth (that I can never reproduce at home because I can't get the Chinese "blue-legged" chicken that is used for the stock) and some bok choy cabbage floating around in it to remind you to eat some vegetables. This kind of casual bowl o' noods is what keeps me going around New York City: a full blown meal for under five bucks. My favorite noodle joints had closed in the two years since I had last been to East Chinatown, but strolling around West (touristic) Chinatown I bumped into into Bo Ky on Bayard Street. Bo Ky is known as one of the cheapest places to eat in New York, and is something of an ethnographic answer to the charge that Cantonese people will eat anything that moves. They do, and it is on the menu at Bo Ky for under ten bucks. The last time we ate at Bo Ky, the waiter answered each of our menu choices with shakes of his head and  "Maybe you no like dat" which is almost a guarantee that I will like that. Today: pork bung soup.

Poop Soup
I love a restaurant that is not afraid to mince words, much less internal organs. It's hard enough to find any place outside of France brave enough to serve andouillette, an odorous but delicious poop shoot sausage, and the gentile French are never willing to expose the pig anus in all its glory in a bowl of clear broth and noodles, but there it is. Poop soup. Thick, chewy rounds of the business end of  a pig's large intestine. And yes, the entire table immediately took notice of the soup's strong aroma. A drummer buddy of mine used to tour in the road band of T-Bone Walker, the blues musician, across the southern "chiltlin circuit" of R&B bars during the 1980s. T-Bone would always go to the BBQ and steam table stands to order dinner. Pointing to the intestinal chitlins hanging above the BBQ smoke rack, he would select the biggest, fattest section and shout "Gimme that one there. The big one. Cause that's where da poo is made!" I should add that this was definitely one of the best bowl of noodles I had during 2013.

Bo Ky: $11 well spent. With soy braised pig foot.
Today, New York's largest and most interesting Chinese neighborhood is no longer in Manhatten, but out in Flushing, Queens. Its a forty minute ride on the subway, or you can find dozens of Chinese-run mini shuttle buses circling around the Manhattan Bridge on East Broadway. They usually have a sign in English saying "Flushing" but the bigger sign, in Chinese characters, reads as "Fa La Shin" So it was off to Fa La Shin we went. Flushing is going to get its own blog post sometimes in the winter. Its best to arrive early in the day and pace yourself as you eat your way through it. There are snack shops along the street and food malls serving amazing, cheap regional Chinese eats all over the place. A word of advice: if you do succumb to the noodle soup urge, you are finished. The noodles soups of flushing are not to be taken lightly.

Red Bowl
I found the Red Bowl offering Taiwanese beef noodle soup and made the mistake of ordering it: a huge bowl of steak and hand pulled noodles effectively ended my day of roaming and snacking. Closer to home, Budapest has a growing and successful community of Chinese immigrants, mostly engaged in the retail trade providing affordable shoes and underwear to virtually everybody in East Europe via the huge Four Tigers Chinese Market complex out in District VIII along Kőbányai ut. We have dealt with the food scene out here in previous posts, but this year we did discover a small Chinese lunch place in the new wholesale complex offering "Xian Specialties."

Tiny Place in Budapest Chinese Market
For a while, this led the pack for local Chinese noodle soups. And the Chinese Market is in danger of being shut down by the mayor of the Eighth District, Mate Kocsis, the mean spirited little simian who was behind the plan that made being homeless a criminal act in Budapest. For the time being the market stays, but for more convenient noodles we have the Eat Sense Chinese restaurant on the corner of Dózsa Győrgy and Damjanich utca next to the city park. Eat Sense (which probably inherited the name on the front sign board from one of its previous failed restaurant incarnations) is a multi function yet nondescript Chinese food place. It offers the usual steam table fare (syrupy sweet and sour pork, brownish fried spaghetti noodles) but does its main business as a hot pot restaurant, which is actually quite good. They also offer noodle soups. At FT 1000 a pop, these are a cheap way to get stuffed in relative proximity to downtown Budapest. The beef or seafood soup is nothing to crow about, but they are Chinese, and they are noodle soups.

Eat Sense Spicy Pork Noodles
I tried the spicy pork noodles, which arrived as a bowl of noodles and ground pork swimming in hot chile oil. I finished it, but maybe this was one dish where I really should have had a waiter come and tell me "Maybe you no like..." Still, biking home at night to Zugló it is nice to have a place for a nice, big, cheap bowl of beef noodle soup right on the edge of the city park. Other Chinese choices in Budapest are limited. The best Chinese place in Budapest is, of course, the nearby Mester Wang, but they did a renovation this summer and now their prices are rising, which is never a good sign in a Chinese restaurant. And the Lanzhou, which has not gone down the tubes as much as has been purported, still has good food although they never serve decent rice. And then there are the hot pot joints like Mimosa and Eat Sense.  "Kinai Büfé" which is popular among Hungarians mainly for being cheap: a mediocre plate of rice and meat for FT 500 will attract the universally cash strapped Magyars at every city corner.All the menus are the same, and the Chinese serving them usually have no background in cooking - the büfé networks are a stepping stone on the way to an EU resident permit. Most are so small they don't even cook in house - the pre-made slop is delivered from some central steam kitchen by truck.  Every time I go to one of the many "Kinai Büfé" in Budapest I always find myself asking "When will some enterprising Chinese guy with some sense of taste start to fiddle with the menu." This week, my prayers were met. Fumie saw an ad in one of the Chinese language newspapers you can pick up in the Chinese market for a new restaurant someplace out beyond the market on Kőbányai ut. We decided to go noodle hunting.
Dare to be Great, Orient Etterem!
Sure enough... at 43 Kőbányai ut, right across the street from the Északi Járműjavító stop on the Number 28 tram that rolls out of Blaha Lujza ter, we found it. The Orient Etterem, formerly a pizza place, seems to have entered a design competition for the most nondescript building in Budapest. It had all the marks of a classic "real" Chinese foodie find: small, absolutely empty, nobody who spoke anything but Chinese except one waitress who was Hungarian and could sort of communicate with the owner-chefs in a pidgin combination of both, and illustrated menus in Chinese only. This place showed promise!

I'll have that!
There was the usual steam table offering generic "Kinai Büfé" food, but`also huge scallion pancakes as well. But Fumie can read basic Chinese and the menu was illustrated, and almost nothing seemed familiar to either of us. Vaguely edible products seemed to have been sliced and arrayed on plates next to prices. This lack of anything familiar is what sets my appetite on edge. Remember: I once ate both raw sea squirts and live sea cucumber in a single sitting at a Korean restaurant...  so... beef noodles for her, and lamb noodles for me. 
Lamb: beware the bones
And yes, we were impressed. For one thing, the two soups came with hand pulled noodles, a bit bland and soft, but authentic and it showed the owners had some skill in the kitchen. The stocks were different as well... a lot of places only use one master stock for all their soups. And a small plate of Chinese salads was also home made and showed some sense of distinctiveness that may have come from somebody's Grandma's kitchen. Their specialty is noodles and dumplings: we bought a serving of 25 pork dumplings to go which were excellent in a "hey, I'm a dumpling" kind of way. 

The menu seems to offer more than just noodles and dumps, too. We'll go back someday with friends when we can point our way through more of the menu and maybe crank up the karaoke machine. All in all, 2013 has been a fine year in Chinese noodles. 

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

St. Martin Day: What's Good for the Goose...

November 11 is Saint Martin's Day, which is traditionally celebrated in Slovakia, Croatia, Austria, Poland, and... well, most of the countries that surround Hungary. Oh, and they celebrate it in Hungary as well. Well... they have started to celebrate it. Hungary has loads of traditionally marked folksy holidays to keep itself busy, but  in contrast to Saint Martin Day most were not actually cooked up by the Marketing department. I am not saying that Saint Martin isn't legit or doesn't rank alongside December's St. Lucy day (Where... are... my... eyes!... MY EYES?) or Saint Nicholas Day (bananas!) for early winter fun, but it is much more celebrated by our neighbors and by Hungary's German speaking Schwab minority.
Actually, Saint Martin of Tours was born in Hungary - in Savaria, presently kown as Szombathély on the Austrian border, but this was long before any Hungarian speaking Magyars were to be found any place near Hungary and he spent a lot of his time as a Roman soldier in Gaul where he wound up as Bishop of Tours and Patron Saint of Roast Goose. But... Saint Martin Day celebrates the arrival of the new wine harvest, and in Austria and among our local Schwabs he is also is celebrated by eating goose.
Restaurants love it. Wine associations love it. Producers of pricey goose liver pate love it. So if the Austrian Tourist board can make a hefty Euro penny out of it, why can't we? I should add that now - the weeks after Saint Martin Day - is the time to eat goose in Hungary. The markets are full of it at rock bottom prices. A fresh whole goose liver is a pricey treat, but you can get it for about FT 4000 a kilo - about half the normal price - if you buy now (at Bosnyak or Vamház tér markets) if you are lucky. And remember: in the Land of Lard goose fat is the kosher alternative!
With this in mind, and a paying gig tied into the deal... we were off to Szentendre to visit the Outdoor Folk Museum, also known as the Skanzen, for Saint Marty Day! Now, the Skanzen is a must see if you are hankering to get outside of Budapest, reachable by taking the HÉV commuter train north a half hour to Szentendre. It was designed during the Communist era of the early 1950s to house folk architecture from around Hungary so ethnography students could do their "research" without having to make a trip out to the villages, where actual villagers live, which is a really dumb way to approach ethnography that only the Communists could have come up with. They were good at that kind of thing.
Over the last two decades the Skanzen (the name comes from the Skansen Swedish folk architecture museum in Stockholm)  has developed into a comfortable and extensive folk museum that provides a venue for festival events such as the Saint Martin's Day festival. I always experience a bittersweet reaction to strolling around amid these beautiful thatched roof peasant houses. When I was a kid visiting my Mom's family in Hungary you could still find a lot of these regionally distinctive old peasant homes in use in most Hungarian villages.
No longer. During the 1970s the Hungarian state made low-interest loans available for people to build "modern" houses in place of their old thatched ones. Virtually everybody who could rebuilt their homes. Centralized planning made only a few designs available, basically one design was a square house with windows, the other was a slightly more rectangular house with windows. That is it. That is the design of the houses you will see in 95% of the villages in Hungary today. A stroll through the rich diversity on view at the Szentendre Skanzen makes that point so much more painfully obvious. Not so long ago, our villages were truly amazing and beautiful.
Of course, not every modern person wants to live under a thatched roof. They tend to house mice, magpies, and whatever else creeps and crawls and likes to keep warm in the winter times. And as a friend of mine who did live in an old thatched house in Veszprém in the 1990s learned, it can be demanding to keep the wattle and mud walls upright. There are still a few thatched houses around but very few people still know how to repair the thatch, which has become expensive as well and tends to be used only for thatching folkloric restaurants and tourist houses. Back in the early 1990s I remember riding around Zuglo (presently known as Papcsakistan) here in Budapest and there were still a few old reed roofed houses on some of the back streets. But wouldn't you want a thatched peasant house if you were going to keep a herd of long horned Racka sheep?
These babies are an old breed native to the Hungarian plain. As with a lot of Hungarian native breeds, they seem to have been bred not only for wool and meat, but  - like the long horned Hungarian cattle - also for poking each other's eyes out if kept in close proximity, and so you don't often get to see them casually unless you are out on a vast empty plain somewhere where it isn't easy to poke your eyes out. These are the sheep that lend their hides to make the woolly shepherd's cloaks that are still worn by Romanian sheep professionals in the Apuseni mountains in Romania. With the decline in open range shepherding in Hungary, Hungarians tend to raise them for their insufferable cuteness.
Cute, however, does not describe the mangalica pig. Mangalicas are "hairy pigs" which retain a  lot of their wild boar forebear traits. They are native to Central Europe, deriving from a cross between the Bakony pig and wild boars in the early 19th century. Hairy pigs like to be raised with access to the outdoors, ranging over open ground, and as you can see, they will tend to turn any ground they - a cabbage field or maybe the horse pasture -  find into a nice thick acre of mud.
Naturally, peasant farmers chose less destructive breeds that could flourish in the constrictive quarters of pig pens and sties, and the breed eventually nearly died out. The modern Mangalica been bred from a few scattered survivors into a major new direction in Hungarian cuisine. Hungarians love bacon, which is something that Hungarians are very, very good at making, and Mangalicas are very, very good at producing fat. I have tried eating mangalica pork chops a few times, but they never impressed me as something worth paying more for, but mangalica bacon and lard - and any salami or cold cut produced from it - are one of the major culinary giant steps taken by Hungarian cooking in the last decade.
And of course, you could find some very good salamis for sale... and tempting tastes of old regional peasant dishes being prepared in many of the museum's reconstructed peasant houses. And this being Saint Martin's day, a large tent housed a wine festival offering a selection of the year''s newest vintages, some of which were coming from some of the very good small producers who have been raising the level of Hungarian wine over the last two decades to become some of Europe's best affordable wines.
Not to mention producers of the other stuff Hungarians love to drink: pálinka, high octane home brew fruit brandy. The last few years have seen a boom in small, high quality pálinka makers who have taken the humble home brew tradition (made using a kitchen pressure cooker, a kitchen sink cooling coil, and a cola bottle) and made it into some very carefully refined white lightning. But unlike most Hungarians I simply can't drink the stuff during the daylight hours. At least not any more. It knocks me for a loop - especially the home made stuff you get in Transylvania that clocks in at 125 proof. On the upside, I never get hangovers from drinking pálinka, at least not the pure drop. I wouldn't touch the stuff you buy in supermarkets and stores, though. If I want my head to throb I have something else that does the trick... bagpipes.

Friday, September 27, 2013

Longhorns and Buffalo: Home on the Range!

It is good to be back in Budapest. As we say in Hungarian "Itt az élet, ott a pénz": Life is here, money is there. Its impossible to compare Hungary and the USA, or Budapest and New York. One has the world's best pizza, the other has the world's best poppy seed buns, if you like that kind of thing. New York has a world class opera. Budapest has an Opera as well, the best of its class to be found in the sixth district. Housed in a beautiful building, did I mention that? New York has a vibrant nightlife. So does Budapest, if you like going to the seventh district "partyzone" to watch crowds of Belgian and Australian twenty-somethings engaged in spontaneous mass barf-o-thons on the pavement of Király utca. I prefer our life just out of the city center. As long as the weather holds I'll drop by for a frőccs at Kertem, the ramshackle garden bar in the City park. And every few weeks some festival sets up on our doorstep. Last weekend it was the "National Gallop." Yes, that's what they call it. The honchos at Peter Geszti's ad agency decided that this was perfectly good English, since it works in Hungarian, right? "Yo, dude, wanna head off to the Gallop?" I have covered this Horse-Hun-Hussar Hayfest before so I'll give it a pass this year. This year, we visited the Grey Cattle Festival.
Grey cattle are a traditional Hungarian longhorn cattle variety that is usually associated with the wider open spaces out on the Great Plains, especially around Hortobágy. The problem with longhorn cattle is, well, long horns. Settle them down in nice protected barns and they require lots of space and are quite likely to stick eat other in the eye with their cutaneous protrusions. Hungarian cowboys lived out on the reedy puszta for months herding the fattened cattle before driving them across Hungary to market in Vienna. It must have been an impressive sight. Small wonder he blue shirted cowboys in their distinctive hats became a national symbolic image of Hungary long before LOL cats and " mai nápi cukiság." Incidentally.. most of these guys are not actually cowboys.
My guess is High School teachers and civil servants in small towns. I hate to use the term "Goulash LARPers" but essentially, it is what it is. Traditional cosplay is big business in Hungary. It can lead to interesting juxtapositions: the traditional colorful cape worn by Hungarian herdsmen is called a szür and very few craftsmen still produce them - making them rather expensive indeed. However, across the border there are still some szür makers operating in Romania, where - even in this digital age - shepherding is still a viable career option. So you can still get a szür there but... in classically striking Romanian folk design.
Notice the black and white embroidery, which is the style for Romanian ethnic decoration in the Bihar area, as opposed to the colorful, tulip shaped embroideries of the Hungarian style. Hmmm... perhaps nobody will notice. Oops. I just did. Another pressing question: the hats. The brim sweeps upwards. Which is really impressive and unique - when you see somebody wearing one of these you can be pretty sure they are Hungarian. But what do you do when it rains? It is like wearing a water collection trough on your head. Pour out the rain every five minutes? I know its not really an issue, but... it raise one's curiosity. Grey cattle are one of the local products known as "Hungaricum"... which means... something uniquely Hungarian. (I will not parse the spelling of the term any further. I promise.) Another is the mangalica wooley-haired pig, which gets its own festival in January. But horny cows does not a real MooFest make, so there were also a herd of my personal favorites, the water buffalo.
Yes, they look a bit out of place here, but in fact water buffalo have had a verse of Old Macdonald Had a Hungarian Farm for centuries. Today they are increasingly hard to find in Hungary itself: Hortobágy has a herd of them, as does some areas around the Balaton, but if you go to Transylvania you can see a lot more of them, often blocking traffic in villages as they slow dance their way home from a day soaking in the mud of the river. They produce the best cream and sour cream in the world. Was that hyperbole? No, just stating a simple fact - if you have dumped sour cream into your tripe soup in Transylvania you probably recognize the creamy richness of buffalo juice. I have never eaten a water buffalo, however, before this festival. And there it was on the free sample tray: water buffalo.
Why, yes, that was tasty! Why, yes, I'll take one of those... and one of those... All around the Vajdahunyád Castle square were small local purveyors of Grey Cattle products, which in Hungary means salami and cured dried kolbász in various forms: more paprika, less paprika, spicy paprika, more spicy paprika, and even more paprika. Beef, Buffalo, even pork, sheep, donkey and venison!
I still have a full stick of this spicy deer sausage in the fridge: a little goes a long way. The surprise was that even though we were in a tourist infested Goulash LARP encampment, the artisanal goodies on sale were priced pretty much the same as any kolbász on sale at my local market. Looking back, it is a pity I didn't buy more. You don't often find small producer products like these in Budapest. And now for an apology: Sorry for the sparse postings of late: I have some paying work on my plate at the moment, and as many know, writing for money is much more attractive than writing for no money. As soon as I have time I have much to catch up on from my summer travels to the states...

Monday, September 02, 2013

Hot Dogs: New Jersey, Home of the Brave

Hot dogs get no respect. That is sad. While many people think of hamburgers as the ultimate stereotype of American food, the truth is that this is far from true. For one thing, take out Chinese food far outsells any other fast food in the USA, including MacDonald's and all the other crap meatwads masquerading as hamburgers.
In days gone by, the humble hot dog was the ruler of the roost in the American fast food pantheon, and unlike hamburgers, hot dogs still come in an astonishing variety of local variations each with its own baggage of cultural identities. Hot dog stands and shops take on the role of local shrines, attracting pilgrims and foodies alike, along with local celebrities and their attendant Food Network video crews. No hot dog joint exemplifies this more than Washington DC's Ben's Chili Bowl.
Located just outside of the posh downtown of DC in the U street neighborhood that is quickly gentrifying and becoming swamped with excellent Ethiopian restaurants, Ben's specialty is the Washington Half Smoke. Offered by dozens of overpriced vendor trucks around Washington's federal district, Ben's is universally held to be the best. A half smoke is a fat smoked frank of mixed beef and pork, usually served topped by a mixture of chili sauce, mustard and chopped onions. Ben's has the reputation of being something of a tourist draw, although it always seemed to be full of locals, but Fumie insisted we try the chili dogs. Obama likes them. Bill Cosby likes them. And her friend Lisa liked them. So to Ben's we did go. Opened in 1958 by Ben Ali, a Trinidadian Muslim immigrant who proudly claimed to have never tasted his own creation (pork being forbidden to Muslims.) As fat franks go, it was excellent.
The chili used is classic diner sauce chili, not the stuff you eat in south Texas or in bowls ordered at diners and truck stops around the American Midwest. Yes, you can order a bowl of it, but it is just a ground meat and tomato sauce with some spices, not a real Texas chile. I believe the original hot dog chili sauces were invented by Greek diner owners in the distant past and they have rather thin relationship to anything ever made by Texas speakers of Spanish. Back in New Jersey the hot dog has a long tradition. Where New York has the beef "dirty water dog" sold from carts or the crispy skinned rotary grilled dog sold at delis and at Grey's Papaya stands, Jersey is home of the deep fried hot dog known as the ripper. Clifton New Jersey seems to be the epicenter of the deep fried hot dog, as it is home to Rutt's Hutt. We never got to Rutt's Hutt. We wound up at Hot Grill. We were driving around the back end of Paterson and Clifton with our buddy Bob Godfried, musician, accordion repairman, and tireless explorer of the less documented ethnic neighborhoods of the New York area. After cruising "Little Lima" - the Peruvian section of downtown Paterson... how completely awesome that they even have a Peruvian section of town! - we wound up visiting the water falls on the Passaic River, which oddly, I have never seen up close.
Actually, I hadn't seen a lot of Paterson up close, which is odd considering I used to live a ten minute drive away from here, and, in fact, used to work a mere five minutes away (in my defense, being a garbage collector for the city of Hackensack doesn't provide much access to the splendors of Paterson. Most of our away time was spent at the magnificent garbage dump further south in Lyndhurst.) The falls themselves were impressive to someone who, like myself, lives in a very flat land bereft of waterfalls. Also impressive was the fact that the park area surrounding the falls was home to a huge population of woodchucks.
They were everywhere. In broad daylight. Also impressive to someone who lives in a country where wildlife seems to be restricted to the occasional hedgehog crossing the road at night. In Jersey we were constantly surprising herds of deer in back yards, there was a flock of wild turkeys roosting in my parent's neighborhood, and one evening, all of four miles outside of Manhattan, we heard a coyote howling in the nearby swamp. Waylaid by our impromptu encounters with nature in downtown Paterson, we got hopelessly lost getting out of Paterson, and were hungry by the time we cruised across the town line into Clifton... and there it was.
Hot Grill... Home of the World's Tastiest Texas Wieners. Apparently, Paterson calls them Texas wieners... and this was some kind of aggressive incursion into the homeland of the Clifton rippers. The Hot Grill was all you could wish for in a Jersey hot dog joint: cheap, cheap, and surprisingly, cheap. And the counter staff  - all surly teens with greasy disco haircuts - seemed to be speaking Albanian, always a plus when ordering hot dogs slathered with that south Balkan "chili" sauce. Albanian speaking counter staff are just one of the charms that can be discovered driving around central jersey on a sunday afternoon.
Now, look carefully at that photo. Is that not, I ask you, the most unappetizing food presentation in the entire culinary universe? The chili dog is never going to win any beauty contests. Except for the color of the bun, it will look exactly the same regardless of its state in the digestion process. They are also very messy to eat. Did I mention they taste good? The place also has a string of local TV advertisements that are classics of the genre. These fairly scream "New Jersey!" Our final destination was in nearby Fort Lee, New Jersey, a town that is known for dozens of excellent Korean and Japanese eateries. Fort Lee was also once home to Palisades Amusement park, a classic roller coaster and freak show empire that was located atop the Palisades cliffs and attracted New Yorkers who would take the ferries across the river to be bused up the cliffs to a paradise of rides and attractions.
The park closed in 1971 to be replaced by a series of river view high rise luxury apartments. Two legendary hot dog stands used to flank the entrance to the park: Hiram's and Callahan's. Customers were hotly partisan: you were for one, and against the other. Due to the fact that both served beer on tap and were located across the street from each other, fights actually used to break out. Callahan's served dogs with sauerkraut... therefore Hiram's would not. Eventually attrition accomplished what shouts and lobbed hot dog buns could not when Callahan's finally closed in 2006, leaving Hiram's alone to wave the flag of the Jersey deep fried dog closest to Manhattan.
Hiram's remains to serve the deep fried hot dogs of Jersey's mysterious past. In High school, my crowd were fans of Callahan's to the extent that we never, ever ate at Hirams. In fact, we didn't really eat there... not in the sense of fine dining, anyway... we drove out in our used cars to drink draught beer. The hot dogs were merely an excuse, an afterthought. Now all we have left is Hiram's.
The dog is still there, the beers are all still on tap and local. One thing you immediately notice, though, are the American flags. They are everywhere. In fact, they are omnipresent at every hot dog stand in New Jersey. The New Jersey Cult of the Giant Waving American Flag grew in the months after the 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and, unlike a lot of other areas in the USA, it never waned. It ended up representing the world of the assimilated New Jersey Dutch and German and Italian emigrants in the once run down Jersey towns that are now booming in a world newly populated by Koreans and Mexicans and people from places in south India with too many engineering degrees and a taste for fresh green chilis.
It is like some kind of reactionary announcement that these places are serving authentic, non-ethnic, absolutely 100% retro white trash American food. You will find no cumin here, no red pepper tapanades, no fancy soup noodles, no stir fries, no rolling 'r's, no rice pancakes, nosiree, buddy, we are red blooded Americans here and we eat hot dogs with mustard and relish and cheese and bland balkanized chili sauce and Bud light. If you want award winning sushi or authentic Oaxacan food you just keep driving down the road, Mister. We're all Americans here. You want that dog to go?