Thursday, March 20, 2014

I like Small Fish and I Cannot Lie.

Barbunya: Not a political debate.
So much going on in our little corner of the world that I have been neglecting to comment on my blog. I had wanted to express an opinion on the Ukrainian situation. I wanted to write about the serious threats the Crimean Tatars are now facing. I wanted to examine the current Hungarian election campaigns and the controversies surrounding the Hungarian Jewish community's decision to boycott the FIDESZ led government's revisionist Holocaust Memorial Year plans. And maybe I will - but this blog has remained a politically conflict free zone as much as possible. In the meanwhile, I will address something much more positive, domestic and closer to home. Hamsi var!

Fresh anchovy and tiny fish who will never see adulthood. 
We have fish. Fresh fish. Anchovies! In Budapest! I like small fish and I cannot lie. Right after we got back to Budapest last summer I found a small video documentary on the web about Hungary's Muslims, and part of the story focused on the opening of a new Turkish market in Budapest. We had never heard about it. I pretty much know all of Budapest's limited ethnic food offerings. Budapest has a number of smaller Mid-Eastern grocers and a few halal butchers. Hungary has a population of Turks and other Muslims, mostly involved in business and transport industries, and so for the last two decades at least had some local butchers and markets to provide halal foods and a taste of home, but never anything as extensive as the Turkish markets in Germany or Austria. We tracked down the market and found it: The Troya Supermarket, in Budapest's 8th district up near the old Teleki ter market, is a full service modern Turkish supermarket that seems to have been airlifted from the suburbs of Istanbul and dropped into the eighth district. Our lives have changed.

Troya gets a fresh delivery of fish every week from Turkey - bright-eyed, red-gilled not smelly fresh fish. And even better, not expensive fish. (Hot tip: ask the butchers when the fish are being delivered and go early before the Middle Eastern Diplomats buy it all out.) Fish in landlocked countries is never cheap, but check them against other markets offering smellier, pre-frozen fish. Yes, it is entirely affordable. If you live in Hungary, you know how outlandish this sounds. Fresh ocean fish? Nawwww... can't happen. Hungarians eat lake fish: carp, catfish, perch. Most Hungarians find the taste of ocean fish strange and dry. Believe me: I have traveled all over Europe with regular, non-yuppie Hungarians in places like Portugal and had to learn to say things in Portuguese like "Excuse me, Chef. I see you have prepared a perfectly cooked fillet of sole for our dinner tonight, and I appreciate this sincerely, but my colleagues would like you to return their servings to the fryer and fry them until crisp and dry and stiff like the fish they are used to eating in Hungary? Thank you!" Yes. I can say that in Portuguese, because I had to say it every day. Twice a day for a month. So, after decades of following rumors of fresh fish in Budapest that always led to a freezer full of packaged hake, we were skeptical. But stepping into Troya was like stepping off the ferry in Kadikoy. All our favorites were there.

Istavrit (above) and bream 
Fresh çupra or gilthead bream (dorado) as well as istavrit,  (scad or horse mackeral) well known to anybody who has hung out with the fishermen on the Galata Bridge. There has been fresh palamut (bonito) and even barbunya, the small red mullet that are one of the Mediterranean's most elegant and pricey delicacies, although here they were priced the same as any other small fish - meaning we bought a half kilo without argument and were gobbling them down that night.

Fried red mullet and anchovies.
And how do they keep these babies fresh? Turks know something about this. For one thing, the fish is already gutted and mostly scaled. They also dowse the fish in fresh ice water regularly. There is not much you can teach a Turk about fresh fish. They already know. Winter is the season for the Black Sea anchovy: hamsi. When hamsi season arrives, its party time. Muslim Turks don't usually drink in public. Instead they eat anchovies in public. Hamsi isn't just a fishHamsi is news.

Hamsi is more than a food to Turks around the Black Sea - including Istanbul. It is a regional national symbol. Think wine and France. Wurst and Germany. Hungary and paprika. Sinop and hamsi. Trabzon and hamsi. Ordu and hamsi. Rize and hamsi. Ardeşen and hamsi. We traveled around the Turkish Black Sea coast some years ago, and yes,they do eat a lot of hamsi. A lot of restaurants in towns like Trabzon or Rize served only hamsi while we were there. When the hamsi arrive in late autumn there are hamsi festivals and hamsi eating contests and hamsi dances. I have CDs of local Black Sea pop bands playing the addictive fiddle music of the kemenche and singing endless verses about either hamsi or tea. Singing about tea? Really? But I can understand singing about hamsi. If you only know anchovy from the salty nubs packed in cans and tossed on pizzas you don't know anchovy at all. Fresh hamsi do not have that oily, fishy flavor that a lot of people recoil from. You can eat them whole or easily fillet them using only your fingernail before cooking, leaving little finger length boneless butterfly fillets. Turks eat them fried, boiled, baked, made into hamsi pilaf, baked into corn bread, pickled, or even dried.

Hamsi pie
We like them fried into a hamsi pita, or hamsi pie: boned fillets fried on a skillet, flipped like an omelet onto a plate and then slipped back into the skillet and fried crisp on the other side. We also made some pickled hamsi. Raw, boned hamsi is marinated in vinegar and salt, rinsed and them mixed to marinate with onions, (in this case, some wild ramps as well: Hungarian medve hagyma which are the first fresh wild veg of the season and available now) and diced hot pepper in olive oil.

Anchovy ceviche with wild ramps
The flavor of fresh anchovy was enough to transport me to the Mediterranean enough so that I hardly remembered that I was in the middle of East Central but Mostly East in Fact Awfully Close to the Balkans Europe in the middle of a mudslinging electoral campaign while Putin annexes the Crimea. So much to worry about. But here in our little reserve on the edge of Zuglo we were happy. But there is something that makes me even happier: meat. Lovely meat. Lamb

Sorry, but perfectly  roasted lamb is not an open source resource.
Hungarians don’t produce a lot of lamb anymore, and what we have bought here was pretty tough and tasteless. When Hungary lost 2/3 of its real estate after the First World War a lot of that territory was highland where the Magyar sheep raising tradition was strongest. If you want good Hungarian lamb or mutton stew or sheep cheese today you are best advised to head to Slovakia or Transylvania for it. Over the years the Hungarian taste for lamb and sheep cheese (in fact, the entire cheese making tradition) have shrunk to an afterthought, and butchers don;t really know how to treat mutton except as a fluffier, less bacony version of a pig. Search no more. 

Perhaps the best butcher in Hungary.
The Troya Market has brought in expert butchers from Turkey to produce some of the best lamb and beef you can buy in Hungary. The young Hungarian guy working with them is probably one of the most skilled and knowledgeable professional meat cutters I have met in Hungary, full of accurate tips on the preperation of lamb liver and lamb meat balls. They actually have a farm here where they are producing top quality lamb (as in not imported from New Zealand.) And so… for my birthday… Fumie treated me to a leg of lamb. Garlic, rosemary, spuds… an hour and a half roasting in the oven… pink, juicy, delicate, lovely lamb. Troya Market: teşekkür ederim! 

  1. TROYA Török Élelmiszer Üzlet
  2. 1081 Budapest, Népszínház utca 40
  3. Open daily 6 am - 10 pm